The week before the spring festival, when some of us village girls were sixteen, the age ripe for the river god, my mother crawled into my bed one night, wrapped her arms tightly around my chest, and whispered, “Ingrid, if the god should pick you above the others, imagine all the honey and fish the village will leave on our door stoop. Think of the banners that will fly in our name.” She combed my long hair with her fingers, and I fell asleep to the gentle tugging out of tangles, the promise that such combing would keep the tiny river demons, known to ache for lovely hair as much as the river god, from crawling up and attaching themselves to my scalp. The very idea was horrible, for the demons would cause our hair to fall out.
In the morning, my mother gone to the bakery for work, I kneeled at the bed and brushed my hair, a hundred strokes, as I recited the most repeated river god tale. I said it soft, like a prayer: “Each spring, one sixteen-year-old girl is selected to join all the ones who came before. To be that girl is to wear strings and strings of freshwater pearls, sleep on golden pebbles at the river bottom, and eat all the snails and mussels she desires. That girl will never go hungry like the villagers once did so long ago. Please let it also be me.”
All day I couldn’t concentrate on my chores. I daydreamed of Meg, the girl taken five years before, her sinewy torso in an empire waist dresses that I coveted so much. I thought of Leah, taken three years ago, who wore a dress so long that the edges grew dark from mud because she enjoyed wading through the river. I remembered Katie, from the previous year, and how she would race through the field behind the river. She would call for me to catch her, and, by the time I caught up, our breathing was in sync as we ran side-by-side. They were all there under the river, dancing and singing. I stopped gutting one of my father’s caught fish; I clasped my hands together and closed my eyes. Please, please, please.
I wondered how often my mother had prayed.
A month before, when I turned sixteen, she cut off her hair. I sat at the kitchen table with my father tying fishing lures. When she entered, he gasped at her baldness, at the blood drops decorating her head, but I understood her action as her giving the dream that was once her own over to me.
Her hair, at sixteen, had once been prized by the village. They all believed she would be picked. She scrubbed it in the river every day, and before wringing the water out, she would mix a combination of lavender and orange oil and beeswax to keep the locks shiny and sweet and the river demons from climbing up. Her hair, a village woman told me not long ago, could be smelled a good half of a mile away, brought by the breeze while my mother washed. Her special care and secret she would never utter. For the river god loved hair free of those demons and hair that especially reminded him of the flowing river. My mother washed it so often on that shore that she could not imagine the god claiming another.
But he did.
She remained diligent with her hair though, as if hoping, despite getting older, that her time would come.
It never did.
At the start of the spring festival, when the village outlined his image in river pebbles on the town square ground, my mother pointed out his hair and beard, thick with fish to give us food for the long winter; his chest, muscled and large, how strong to move the current down and around so that the village would not flood; his feet webbed, just as his wife’s would become so that she, too, could live under the river in the water city, where otters catered to every need and an abundance of fish kept the wives and the god well fed. “Some villagers,” my mother whispered, “believe that the long hair of all of the river god’s wives create the waves in the river.”
We knew a girl had been chosen when the storm came, blowing out the candles in our windows, and the river’s crashing waves flooded the town square, the pebbles, his image, vanishing along with the girl, and the river demons screeching, their teeth scratching against the rocks.
Like my mother, I wanted it to be me so that on the morning after the storm, the villagers would raise their coffee mugs in my name and paint my image on the banners that flew above the shops. They would whisper my name and wonder how I was learning to live with the fish and otters.
“Tell me your secret,” I asked my mother that night. “Take me to the river in the morning and help me wash my hair.”
“It didn’t help. The god didn’t pick me.”
“But I’ll have a much better chance than I do now.” My hair hung limply and smelled of fish.
All the other sixteen-year-old girls and their mothers had the same idea. We gathered in the square around the boulder that had been pulled from the river long ago. The ground there was soaked from the rain that came day after day before the river god arrived. Our boots sunk into the mud, but our mothers wouldn’t let us wipe them clean for fear we’d dirty our hands.
In our circle around the boulder, we held the thick, long braid of the girl next to us. The hair needed to shine as the sun on the river’s surface. Our voices rippled as we chanted our praises to the image on the boulder: the first girl taken by the river god. Her hair—yellow, long lines that never faded. Some villager always came before the annual spring festival to paint the hair anew. The other colors on the boulder remained vivid. Her skin painted sky blue. Eyes painted silvery-white to look like tiny pebbles. I squeezed shut my eyes and hoped for such beauty. When I opened them, the rest of the girl image caused my stomach to flip. Hands scratched out. Feet painted over with tiny fishes. That first girl seemed incomplete. Whatever wholeness she once had had vanished, along with the river god who had taken her. Only parts of her survived there on the rock.
With our chants finished, the villagers lined up to bow to the boulder and to kneel before the river god’s image. Then they returned to their shops, where they kept river pebbles on their window sills. “Bring forth fish, keep the harvest good,” they said. They blew on the pebbles before placing them neatly side-by-side. Minutes later, they opened their windows to let the spring breeze inside and stuck their heads out of their windows to watch the pale blue banners from the tops of their doors blow in that wind coming off the river. All of us girls watched the banners fly.
My arms tingled and my chest hurt when I thought of ruined crops, drought, and our villagers starving, but when the image of the river god on the banner seemed to dance, I sighed. We all hoped we would be the one to dance with him under the water on that spring festival day. Our beauty to grow the crops and call forth the rain for a full river. Our head adorned with a cypress crown. Our hands gifted a magnolia bouquet.
At the embankment, our mothers scrubbed our ankle-length hair with cider vinegar, sandalwood, and rosemary. “I’ll give you my secret when we’re alone at the house,” my mother said in my ear. Some of the other girls and their mothers, who remembered my mother’s lovely hair from when she was a girl, stared, perhaps hoping to spot her secret.
The river demons crawled up the embankment and scampered toward us. Their tiny legs carried their fist-sized bodies through the wet sand and left behind fingernail-sized imprints. The trail led straight to us girls. We jumped, ready to run. Our mothers, though, were fast. With prayers to the river god on their lips, they lifted rocks from the ground and chased the demons into the water.
“How such ugly things can live in the same water as the god I’ll never know,” my mother said.
At home, my mother unwrapped a bread loaf she had baked at her shop that morning. She fixed tea, and my father tore off chunks of the bread for us as she tipped a spoon soaked in honey in each of our cups.
“Will you tell her the secret now?” he asked.
“This,” she said, holding up a piece of bread, “is how my hair became so sweet and shiny.”
“Bread?” I asked.
Over the steaming chamomile, she told me of how she once fed the fish pieces of her bread. They loved the taste so much that they jumped from the water and the tiniest fish became caught in her long hair. She freed them by pitching more bread into the river. How different was the river god from the fish? His skin was scaly, his feet webbed. If they loved her bread, then surely the same ingredients could lure the god. That night, by the moonlight, she washed her hair in the river with honey and egg yolk.
She washed my hair there in the kitchen with some of the water she had collected at the river as my father sang a shanty and smoked his pipe.
“This’ll also attract the river demons.” She rubbed ash from the cooking stove into the locks as well because, she said, “The ash’ll remind them of fire, of burning, and death.”
I hated the ash smell in my hair.
I would not put the death scent in my hair, and I left my strings smothered only in yolk and honey, and the orange and lavender oil when I went to swim in the river with the other girls.
We crawled on the river bottom, and when we came up for air, our bellies flopping on the embankment, the sediment was stuck inside our toenails and fingernails. Dirt on our bodies never bothered us. It was the hair we worried over, but the river never dirtied our hair. Once our hair dried, we splashed back into the river and tried to swim as quickly as the fish that darted between our legs. We raced them and each other from one side of the river to the other. We believed the fish let us win because they knew how much the river god loved our hair strands that reminded him of the river’s ripples. The ripples, we were told by our mothers and all those in the village, would only continue to flow if we kept our hair long. Once we came out of the water, I had to pick emerald shiners from my hair. The charmed fish couldn’t help it. The fish, in touching me, could reach for a bit of grace from the river god. I placed my fingers on my wet lips and licked the river water from my fingers, my own bit of grace from the god.
One of the other girls shrieked, and then another and another. They pointed at my head. “Demon!”
I reached up, caught it, and flung it back to the river. The splash caused me to shiver. I thought of the demons burning, how their screams kept me awake throughout the night of the villagers’ cooking. Had I killed it? I wanted to know and so waded into the water.
“Where are you going, Ingrid?” one of the girls called.
I dove, the girls’ voices disappearing.
I swam deeper than I ever had before, twisting and turning, my eyes searching for the demon. Something tugged on my hair.
The demon wiggled in front of me, my hair in its teeth. It seemed to grin. The creature’s face, which I had always thought of as a mush of grey, scaly flesh, was silver and bright and the eyes were like Kate’s, when she would press her forehead against mine in celebration of winning one of our races. When I began to push myself up, my curiosity satisfied, the demon tugged harder. “Come, Ingrid,” it said in a sad girl’s voice.
I shook my head and kicked my feet, rushing to the surface. I breathed and swam in circles there with my long hair floating far from my body. They frightened me, the demons, but I kept hearing them: come, follow.
I dove again.
The demon caught my hair and pulled harder. Another demon appeared. Then another, until many were pulling me farther away and even deeper.
“See what you desire,” they hummed.
Within seconds, I saw what they wanted me to see: the god, asleep on the river bottom.
His hair, long as my own, was matted with mud and duckweed. A dead otter, its mouth twisted and open in frightened awe, decorated his neck and shoulders. Water moccasins slithered in and out of the river god’s beard. Although the beard was long enough to cover his entire body, I could see skin slivers between the hair; his scaly skin was like the trout my mother fried on Saturday afternoons, not shiny and silvery like on the banners that flew in the village, but nearly burned black. That skin, that skin slept on a hair bed, braided like a mat, but thick like a king’s mattress. Where were the girls whose hair he now slept on? As if he sensed my question, the river god opened his eyes and yawned.
Up, up, up I went, breaking the surface with a loud cough and cry.
The other girls giggled and splashed over at the embankment, ignorant of what lay beneath.
I swam to them, gasping as I crawled from the water. “Terrible,” I managed.
“What?” they all asked.
“The river god.”
“How do you know?” Martha asked.
“I saw him.”
“Why would he give you a glance? I have the shiniest hair,” Nan said.
On and on all the girls prattled, hoping for his gaze, while I slipped quietly from the water and rushed home in my smock, dress in hands, hoping the river god would return to sleep and never wake again.
That evening, as she did every night, my mother called for me so she could comb and wash my hair. When I remembered how our mothers spat on, shooed, and threatened the creatures with large rocks, I wished I could do the same to the river god, who had banished the demons to the section of the river where they hid deep in the water, under the muck and rocks.
“I can wash my own hair,” I said at the washtub, hiding myself behind the sheet used for privacy.
As my mother pulled at my hair, readying her brush, I could only think of my hair added to the god’s bed, all the strings fallen or yanked out.
“After the spring festival, you’ll be scrubbing your own hair. But it’s still my job,” my mother said. She smelled of cabbage and wheat honey bread, and of the smoke from the ovens at the shop where she baked. Water and bread. A pebble and a comb. They were the things that had told me I was loved. I came out from behind the sheet, but I would go no closer to the water. I could only think of that dead otter’s face and the water moccasins biting me.
My mother waved me over. “Hurry up.” She described the dead fish stench, the sulfur under the demons’ nails, rotting seagrass stuck inside their sharp teeth, the film of mud covering their skin. “You don’t want those demons nesting inside your hair.”
I wanted to tell her that I would rather the demons have me than that god, but how could I tell my mother?
I started to undress. Just for one more night, I would have her hands combing through my hair.
I refused to work a comb or brush through my hair. My mother made the silver comb, with peach champagne and lilac tanzanite flowers on the handle, to prepare me for the spring festival. It sat untouched on the vanity in my room. I missed one wash day after the next.
My mother chased me around the house with the comb in her hand while my father sat slumped at the kitchen table, ripping up pieces of bread that he dunked into his bitter coffee. “Leave her be,” he said. “She’ll learn when those things crawl inside the nests she’s made with all that hair.” He sat between us. I stood at the ready on one side of the kitchen table, and my mother stood at the other, her arm raised, as if the comb were a sword and she was prepared to strike. She wouldn’t strike me in the same way she tried to strike the river demons.
But her arm came quickly down.
In the end, I was faster, and I ran all the way to the river.
When the girls saw me, they all shouted.
“Why do you want those demons against your scalp?”
“To keep the river god from me.”
“Better for us, then.”
They brandished sticks at me, the same sticks they had been using to draw images of the creatures in the wet sand. They laughed about the creatures’ ugliness and my ugliness and talked of their luck.
I was happy to be considered so ugly.
I climbed up the embankment. I had swum from the other side, knowing the other girls and the mothers wouldn’t think to look for me so near the demons’ haunt. I made a small fire, hung my wet dress over an oak branch, and, then, I sat as close to the fire as I could to avoid a chill. I soon fell asleep.
Next to the oak, I woke to a thing crawling to claim me. I stumbled up and jumped from the tree and shook my hair, so knotted that my head felt weighed down and my neck ached. I used my hands to dig at the knots, but whatever it was, a slimy slickness darting up, secured itself to my neck. My strands were being pulled, yanked. The river demon—for I was sure that was what it was—began nestling inside my hair. The cool body stuck against me calmed me.
I kept my head still, afraid to blink, afraid any body movement would . . . What? I knew what the mothers and the other girls said, but I thought of that river demon tucked inside my hair and how like me it was. The day of my sixteenth birthday, I had jumped into my parents’ bed after my father had gone out to the fields, and I snuggled against my mother with the covers over our heads. I had wanted to stay in that calmness forever, but my mother would soon hope me gone, a sacrifice for wheat, corn, and clear water.
For the river demon, my hair was a comfort blanket, so I left it there.
After an hour, the river demon started whispering, like two wet rocks scratching against each other. The low sadness that came from my neck was the same noise I had heard for years, but this time, I could understand.
It was a story, the kind my mother told, of the river god and his desire for us girls with long hair. After the demon told the beginning of the story, though, details started to change. Instead, the girl danced with the river god that night to the coarse waltzes of bullfrogs and owls. They were alone; he took what he wanted. Then, not wanting to be saddled with a wife, but desiring the villagers to continue their worship, he didn’t send the girl back; instead, he turned the girl into what the villagers would hate most, what they would never expect. Before that, he yanked out her hair, her screams unheard above water.
As the river demon finished her narration, the others crawled out of the river to greet me. Instead of seeing a slimy, elongated stomach, I saw Meg. Instead of shivering at the way a long tail flicked over a slick rock, I thought of Leah. Instead of backing away at the sight of the scurrying feet, I remembered Katie and how we ran side-by-side.
I allowed as many of them as could fit to rest inside the nests of my hair. I would not allow the villagers to burn them or crush them.
I swam to the other side of the river. Then I walked to the market. The mothers needed to know.
“Gah!” the village mothers exclaimed. They rushed over, throwing their baskets to the ground, their eggs breaking and yolks spilling.
“Those nests are big enough for fifty demons!” one mother shouted. The river demons crawled under the nests and latched on to my skin. Their tiny, muscled bodies tensed in fear. My own muscles tightened in fear for them, for me, for all the other girls.
“The sweet scents have vanished from your hair,” my mother wailed.
The girls, the river demons, all rushed down my back, down the soaked dress, and danced around their mothers’ boots. The mothers jumped and tried to crush them, but the girls were too fast.
“Listen.” I shouted the word three or four times before they quieted. The river demons scurried up my dress again and remained there, waiting as I told the mothers the story.
Meg’s mother spat at me, at the girls hanging to my dress. “Liar,” she said.
All the mothers recoiled and turned. When they walked off, the girls crawled up my dress. Inside the nests, they whispered to me, “You tried, Ingrid.”
My own mother was crying. Her nose was crinkled like when she smelled a bad batch of dough.
I stepped forward. “Mother.”
She put up her hand. “Return home with your hair combed, with dry clothes, and no more of those things.”
“Take us back to the river,” they whispered. “You shouldn’t have to be without your mother, too.”
I missed the way my mother’s fingers massaged my scalp and how she gently pushed my head forward, saying, “Hold still, my love.” I didn’t really know how to comb my hair without listening to her stories about the village girls, famous for our thick and quick-growing tresses, and how the river god found our hair so soft and warm, not at all like the cold river bottom, where the demons he banished burrowed, hunting for food.
The tiny claws massaged my skin at my neck’s base. Like my mother kneading dough. Just as the mothers had turned their backs on us, I turned from my mother. “I will never comb my hair again,” I said to her.
The villagers now call me mud girl, tangled nest of hair. I live near an old oak on the other side of the river, where we eat day-old, crusty bread my mother leaves for me early in the morning, before the others venture near the river. I share it with the demon girls, and each year, when we gain a new girl, we all whisper curses to the river god and wait for thunder and the river waves to splash us. I laugh at the water. We all play in the mud, and, at night, when so many demon girls are sleeping in my hair nests, I praise the mud at the river bottom, where worms and all other ugly things live, and I am thankful for bad hair and this filthy embankment with the absence of river songs, banners, and a river god with a terrible, wiggling beard.
Brigitte McCray’s stories and poems have appeared in such publications as Smokelong Quarterly, Mythic Delirium, and Cease, Cows, among others, and she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Prick of the Spindle. She’s a graduate of the Odyssey Workshop for Writers of Fantastic Fiction, the MFA in creative writing program at Virginia Commonwealth University, and the PhD program in English at Louisiana State University. She currently teaches literature and writing at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, TN. She’s at work on a children’s novel. Find her on Twitter as @bnmccray.
This story was sponsored by Tara Thyen, through Patreon.