The Rhine Maiden: Student Found Dead in the River Leesum.
The Rhine Maiden: Chapter III
At around 2:13am, she awoke, still tipsy, and staggered out of bed. It was still stiflingly hot, and in hindsight she saw that leaving the blind up, and even the window open during the night, had been a Major Miscalculation. Having found the fridge and been temporarily blinded by the light which escaped like a fugitive out of its opened door, she took a few gulps of blissfully cool orange juice before grimacing at the now empty carton. “Water!” she moaned. “Water a better idea anyway.” Yet as she stood by the sink, sipping the substance, she felt her intoxicated mouth revolt against an experience which in a more sober moment she might have compared to eating lukewarm gelatine. “Ice then!” But there was none: the only thing the tiny freezer contained was an almost empty bag of frozen peas. She moved across to the window, her head feeling a little foggy, and as she looked out at the silent, empty road lying between her and the graveyard, an idea even more appealing than iced water occurred to her.
Soon she was walking uneasily down the road, wearing only the shorts, top and trainers she had worn on her walk the previous day. The air was now – a fact she struggled to believe – even warmer than it had been then. She headed in the opposite direction to the now-locked cemetery, following the road parallel to it for a minute before turning off away from it down a side-street, and remembered previous occasions on which she had done what she was about to do. Technically, the first time had been a group dare with a few friends on a holiday a few years ago, when they all ended up running naked along a Spanish beach into the deliciously cold Mediterranean. For years afterwards, she had considered that act a one-off, a drunken escapade which she later blushed to recall. Or at least that was until another hot night had hit her during the summer just gone, when the torrid air went far beyond her tolerance. It had taken her a while to find a decent spot on the nearby river which was sufficiently secluded and had especially clean flowing water, but it had been an ecstatic experience to just lie there in the ripples for half an hour, until her blood cooled down enough to enable her to peacefully walk home (in the process gradually drying off), and then get some actual sleep.
She recalled these experiences, smiling to herself with a mixture of shame and pride, as she turned off the side-street down a lane which led into the woods flanking the river. Everything was unusually still. As risky as it might have been for a girl to wander around at this early hour alone and dressed so lightly, Tessa didn’t normally care. Her feminism was one of empowerment rather than victimhood, a conviction assisted by her unusual height, and the strength she had gained through years of being a keen amateur boxer. The pandemic, furthermore, had made nights quieter, and it was less likely that you would encounter anyone in the street, let alone in a place so out-of-the-way as this. Yet tonight, from the moment her footsteps hit the dirt path through those trees, it felt as though she was walking in a vacuum, emptied of the sounds even of birds and small beasts. Despite being a little unnerved, she continued to head towards the river.
On the way, the realisation came, and with the suddenness of a revelation, that she had to relieve herself. She would have admitted that the unmoving silence, like a held breath, had been making her uneasy, but still she swore at her folly for having spent the preceding evening drinking so much, and for forgetting to go before she’d left the flat just now. But ultimately it was no big deal. The biggest worry would be finding something to wipe with, but given that she was about to bathe, and that after she’d gotten dressed again any residual river water on her body would make it look as though she’d not only wet herself but also sweated out every drop of moisture she had within her, she didn’t think that would matter. And who was going to see her on the way home?
Out of innate modesty rather than any belief in the likelihood of being seen, she went a few paces off the path and into the undergrowth between two trees. As she steadied herself and tried to carefully move a few nettles out of the way, she gasped and drew her hand sharply up from the ground. Through a gap in the forest canopy above her fell a slender beam of moonlight. By its powdery glow, she saw that two of her fingers were bleeding. Without quite knowing why (and almost as an instinctive reaction), she immediately looked behind her. Had there been a voice, even a thin, almost silent one? Or was she just hearing, for the first time that night, a sound made by something other than herself? The scraping of the bark beneath her trainer-clad toes, maybe? She felt that she was sweating, with the heat and an unidentifiable anxiety. It was probably just the faint murmur of the river. It was behind her, after all, past a few more trees, and she wasn’t far away from it. Holding onto the trunk of a nearby tree with her injured hand, she brushed the other across her face and thought of the river. She looked ahead of her, into the small clearing on the edge of which she now squatted. It was framed by the tree she was leaning on and four others, spaced apart with disturbing regularity. She felt her gaze drawn up each of the trunks, and thought she saw something glinting, like metallic spangles adorning one specific point – just above the height of her head, she would have guessed – on each of the three trunks which she could see most clearly in the dull moonlight.
Examining the drenched earth with a fallen, lichen-encrusted branch afterwards, Tessa found that the perpetrator of her injuries was a viciously jagged, arrow-shaped piece of metal. She frowned as she examined it. It had a circular hole in the end opposite the main point, and looked like the tip of some weapon. She was no military historian, and no archaeologist either, but she recalled the first users and deceased inhabitants of the land which became the cemetery outside her window, and for the first time she realised that it must have encompassed the land on which she now stood. As if to banish the possibility, she let the fragment fall, re-joined the path, soon reached the river, and sucked the blood from her fingers (which had only sustained minor wounds) so that it wouldn’t stain her clothes as she undressed.
The water between her toes was bracingly cold, and she caught her breath as she took a few steps into the narrow river in order to acclimatise herself. The water came up to just below her knee: the perfect depth to lie and bathe in. How sweet it would feel to let the current wash all the heat of the day and the night from her skin, to close her eyes and stay there just for a few minutes! She slowly sat down on the smooth pebbles of the riverbed, and began to recline, tentatively placing her injured fingers into the ripples to stop their bleeding.
The Rhine Maiden: Chapter IV
Immediately a spectral mist rose from the surface of the water, and Tessa had chills such as she had never experienced before. It wasn’t the water, and yet it was absolutely, potently, the water, which felt as though it was imbued with the power of some titanic matron who cradled her with an intention not entirely loving. Tessa was too terrified to breathe, let alone to scream. In the same instant, she heard a voice echo in her head, accompanied by the image of a young woman not unlike herself in form, but with a kind of knowing beauty which bespoke untold age. The river, Tessa saw through her open eyes, was unchanged, and yet she experienced the vision of the woman superimposed upon it, seeming to constantly surge out of and recede into the current, a figure standing and laughing majestically, like some personification of the river itself.
“Your ancestors offer forth one of their own once more, after so many ages!” the Vision announced.
“I… What?” was all that Tessa, furious at her feeble articulation, incomprehension and terror, could respond.
“Those children tried to offer me the same, the other week – ah, it must be years to you, mortal girl! – but they worshipped false gods, and believed that those deities permitted souls to walk abroad on the final night of our present lunar cycle rather than this one. Alas, they were mistaken. And they only attempted to give me a local slip, not one of the warriors’ kin such as yourself. Fearless girl, you even offer yourself to me freely, do you not, in spite of the shock which just shuddered you?”
“NO! Release me, please, whatever you are! I don’t understand! Warriors? Who do you think I am? And those children? Those who killed that little girl? That was here?”
“Oh yes, right where you were just now, between those five trees. One trunk for each infantile limb, and one for the head, all nailed securely to the living wood, with the child’s teeth biting the bolt. All done for me, yet I can’t take them that way; no, the sacrifices must touch the water. The ancients made that mistake when they first planted the saplings in that formation, but they soon learned when their crops failed and only more trees and nettles and scrub grew there. Water is essential. Your people, those I nurture, lived by the water, on top of it, and through it. They were voyagers of the vast whale-road even as they were also heroes heaving flesh-biters, hewing foe-men with thin fists forged from the fiery growths of the ground.”
“I am not She, Child, though you might see her sometime! I am the Waters, from the time when the Mighty River joined the Great Land and this island was not sundered from its mother continent by the narrow sea.”
“Why do you take them? What do you want from me?”
“Love you your folk, your countrymen, your friends? For I feed this land and allow crops to grow, farmers to flourish and families to feed. And in old times they saw it, your forefathers great, and offered me sacrifice. I still bear fish in my course, but nothing of profit has grown from this land for years and years, because of the neglect of my rites and observances. Just once a year, is all that I asked.”
“But this was a burial site for those people, not farmland. Wasn’t it?”
“The trees and vines you see here have grown through the bones of untold generations. Why shouldn’t they have grown crops through them rather than left the land to weeds? Had my rites been received, I would have gifted this ground, as I did of old, with a glut of grain so golden it would have outshone the smiths’ finest and most precious pieces!”
“Why do you return, if no-one now worships you?”
“I return, and return each year, because I must if the earth is to bear aught at all. Nature goes on, and I am part of it, a worker of it whether I will it or no, and humankind is part of it, too. We all flow through it. But I must have a connection to something living, mammalian, in order to bring fruitfulness to the earth, which is a different kind of matter from myself. I have survived for so long on small deer of the waters, voles and mice and rats which sip or slip into my waves. But humans are akin to the gods, and we have had strong bonds over the aeons, even if those bonds are now forgotten. Hence, I can do more wonders through a supremely sentient being such as a human than through any other offspring of the earth. And a girl of the warrior kin was always the very finest conduit for my powers!”
A look akin to lust came into the Vision’s eyes.
“In the old days, riotous festivals would be held for this act, mighty celebrations with drinking and laughter and song, all ending in a frenzy as I possessed the sacrificed daughters, felt, through them, the beating earth, filled it with the power of fruition, and then flowed on before the time for funeral came. I have many lands to nourish, and many miles to travel in my swift course.”
Tessa understood by now that escape was impossible, but did not even think of tears. She no longer felt either the heat of the air, or the coolness of the water, the fear she had before felt, or any shame or awe before the goddess.
“How do you know I’m a warrior? You might not get much more from me than you would from a water vole.”
At this, the Vision’s eyes seemed to laugh, and sparkled like sunshine through a shower. “It is not all about bloodlines, though your pierced fingers confirmed what I thought I felt in the air. No: it is something far beyond that. Deities can see it plainly, but I did not need my divinity to see it in you. Remember: I have seen many beings face both life and death, and they each meet those states in their own ways. The quality I see in you cannot be demonstrated by any science known to mortals, but if you really reflect, you might realise you have indeed seen some signs of it in yourself. And soon you might get more answers to many kinds of questions…”
The Rhine Maiden: Chapter V
By springtime the following year, the trees beside the river and across the road in the modern cemetery bore blossoms more profuse, vivid and fragrant than ever before. Tree stumps were hosts to spectacular displays of fungi, which reared their heads from beds of emerald moss. From the rich, black earth, green shoots appeared, which by late September would have grown into fat, golden ears of corn.
Illustration by Sanni Pyhänniska