Derin was taken by the water as though he were a leaf. He fought to the surface for air against the long tendrils of river wrapping themselves around his legs, pulling him under. The tendrils snaked after him, never let him go. He tumbled in the though, a shell, a tiny pebble.
His body no longer felt the water's coldness. He felt no pain at all. As he relaxed, he felt a deep peace envelop him. He ceased fighting, let himself be taken by the current, and he drifted, weightless, just conscious enough to see the strange rock swim toward him. The water blurred his vision, but he made out the rock's elongated shape, tapering away at the end, covered with white weeds at the other. As it approached, the boy saw it wasn't a rock at all. Her hair streamed in the water, fanning out behind her, over her shoulders, and he followed the sleek curve of her body until, at the hips, she became a fish, covered with grey scales, honing down to the final finned flare as she dissolved into water.
Vera darted under him, her long arms stroking in front of her, and he tightened his legs around her as she swam between them. He felt her scales under his thighs. He reached down, held her shoulders with both hands, and she surged toward the surface.
The dark skin of water grew closer and broke around his head in a crown of spray. Together, they left the surface of river and rose into the air. Vera arched her back, and using her hands to scatter the surface, dove again into the river. Derin caught a glimpse of spray, of the shore toward which they headed, and he gasped, coughing deeply, before the silver-grey water closed around him. Again Vera broke the surface, allowing Derin time to breathe, and together they swam toward land.
The rush of wind and water on his face drew him awake. Under him, the nymph rolled and twisted around snags, rocks, dangerous stretches of current. He tightened his thighs, locked his ankles as she bucked beneath him. The water flashed from his back as though it could no longer harm him.
In the air, into the water they rocked. Tall firs loomed from the muddy banks, the sky hung low over the river. When they reached water shallow enough for Derin to stand in, Vera rolled, throwing the boy on his side. For a moment, Derin floundered, but then his foot hit bottom. Splashing, coughing, he staggered the few remaining feet to shore and fell on his knees in the mud. Behind him, he heard a rasp coarse as rock ground against sand, and when he turned he saw the fox drag herself from the water, gasping. She came and lay beside him, looked at him once with her large grey eyes before she closed them, and the boy reached out and ran his hand the length of her soiled sodden fur, in wonder, in disappointment. When Matthew found him, Derin was alone. The fox, after resting, had left him on the bank, but Derin was not thinking of the solid ground beneath him. He stared at the river's roiling surface, remembering the leaps from the water, the wild bucking of the nymph under him, the touch of her smooth scales against his skin. He was in an undiscovered country, trying to follow the course of a map which has not yet been drawn.
* * *
Vera battled her way upriver in search of fish. The water pulled at her, surging over her body as if she were a stone or a log blocking its natural course. She was exhausted. Her arms ached with the strain of swimming and her hips were bruised from carrying Derin to land. Her hair swirled in the currents, now hazing her sight, now swept backwards off her shoulders so she felt the rush of water fresh on her face. At times her struggle seemed useless, as though she were being inexorably swept downstream against all her best efforts. But she kept swimming, flexing her sinuous tail, flicking the great caudal fin in the icy water.
It was a crazy idea, but it just might work. They would take some convincing, for fish were stubborn and proud, inclined to silence, but they would not be frightened by the owl. Vera doubted they even knew of him. In the Deadwood Forest there was no water, and fish were the only animals who had no place in the owl's plans.
Ahead of her, in the shallows of a spot where the river bent and left in its wake a small pool of less turbulent water, she saw the torpedolike shapes of fish. They hung in the pool as if suspended by strings, barely moving their fins. Under them, on the sand of the river's bottomm were hundreds of shellfish, lobsters in their mottled green armor, the fluted shells of scallops, a colony of mussels, shiny and blue-black, studded with limpets and barnacles, attached to one another by golden byssus threads. They were silent under the dark canopy of swordfish and blues, sea bass, halibut, the square slatelike tail-whipped forms of skate.
Vera hurried toward them, wanting the quiet of their undisturbed water. If I can rest for a minute, she thought, I'll be fine again. But the sight of this strange half-fish swimming toward them threw the fish into confusion. They panicked. Swordfish swept to the water's surface and leapt, arching, flinging spray toward the clouds, slapping the water with their tails as they fell. Other fish swam upstream, fighting the current. The shellfish scattered across the bottom, mussels and scallops clattering like waterlogged castanets. The calm Vera had expected turned into a turbulent series of cross-currents, a slap in the face.
She called to them, worried she'd lost them all. She gasped for breath; her words were bubbles of sound only she could hear, for the fish were too far away, frantically trying to escape her.
She darted upstream but she couldn't catch them. This river was their home, and they were built for swimming, their sleek long forms adapted perfectly to the water. Vera let her arms drop, and felt the water take her. She twisted until she was headed downstream, then floated in the current, resting. When she was close to the shallows where the fish had been, she came alive again and swam there, letting herself sink almost to the bottom. She couldn't remember ever having been so tired.
Vera crossed her eyes and opened them only after she felt the water push against her, crowding her. On the sand below, the shellfish had gathered, the lobsters' claws waving up at her like ominous underwater plants. She could see the scallops' twin rows of tiny blue eyes watching as they barely opened their shells. Above her, the bluefish and swordfish, halibut and skate had returned, and for a minute she was the one who was frightened, surrounded. They stared at her, their cold round eyes unnervingly lidless. What were they thinking? The lobsters peered up from under their horned ridge of chiton, antennae quivering in the slightly moving water.
"I didn't mean to frighten you before," Vera said. "I'm sorry."
The fish said nothing. Streams of bubbles filtered from their mouths as they waited for her to speak again.
"I'm a sea nymph," Vera explained, and suddenly felt ridiculous, riding this water, trapped between skate and lobster. "Listen," she said. "I've come to help. I know why the river's so wild, why the current is stronger and the water colder."
She remembered seeing great schools of fish lying on the bottom of a pond, irradiated by the full moon's glow upon the water's skin, their scales shining like silver. She had seen fish surge to the surface and break through, throwing themselves toward the moon, splashing the silver drops of water into the air in homage, desperate longing. "The moon's been wrenched from the sky," she said. "Stolen. She's held captive on land, miles to the west."
A bluefish with cold ded eyes interrupted her. "In this ruver there are no directions but upstream and down."
"There are creatures whose lives are not so simple," she said. "A great horned owl who lives in a place called the Deadwood Forest had kidnapped the moon. Without her, the world's gone crazy. There aren't any tides. The river's running wild."
"You can say that again," a swordfish said. "It's worth your life to get caught in the current these days."
"I need your help," Vera said. "Or you'll never again have the moon's gold shadow cast upon this water. I have no idea what will happen to the river if she isn't rescued."
She was sure of it. A startled, frightened look shone from the fishes' eyes. They eddied in the water, looking at one another. Their tails twitched. Under them, all the scallops and mussels snapped open and shut. Vera saw a school of shrimp, translucent, almost impossible to find in the dimness, their pairs of legs jerking spastically.
The water around her began to churn and Vera was afraid they would all burst loose again, flying in different directions, upstream and down, the only life they knew.
"Please," she said. "Come with me. Help me."
The water calmed again, and Vera felt the force of all those eyes upon her, but now they were not so indifferent or cold. They pleaded with her in return, as she had pleaded with them.
"What would you have us do?" a swordfish asked.
"I have two friends who do not swim," Vera began.
"We have no friends who do not swim," the swordfish said, his eyes wild with confusion and distrust.
"Listen to me," Vera said, losing patience. "We're going to rescue the moon. There isn't tom for quibbling."
"Why don't you swim them across?" a skate asked.
"Because teh water's too cold," Vera said. "They'd freeze. They're warm-blooded creatures."
"And why don't you find someone else?"
"There is no one else," she said firmly.
* * *
Here are some lines to take out of context:
—"he tightened his thighs, locked his ankles as she bucked beneath him"
—"she came and laid down beside him"
Just because I could.