Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 39
Stories
Foreign Bodies
by Melinda Brasher
Salt and Sand
by Kate O'Connor
Memory of Magic
by Jacob A. Boyd
Rapture Nation
by Jennifer Noelle Welch
The Other Bank of the River
by Camila Fernandes
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
At the Picture Show: Extended Cut
All's fair in adaptation
by Chris Bellamy
Vintage Fiction
A Passage in Earth
by Damien Broderick

The Other Bank of the River
    by Camila Fernandes


  Listen to the audio version


To David, the true author of this story

East and West were separated by a torrential river. That which the river separated, a single bridge united. There had been others, but time had taken it upon itself to knock them down, and no one had taken it upon himself to reconstruct them and, thus, only one remained. It was curved and built from stone, very old, unsecure. No one worried about this, since few had motive to cross from one bank to the other.

It isn't that East was enemy of the West. Neither were they great friends. There wasn't much that the eastern people wanted to do with the western. In the East, they planted much and sowed much; long stretches of generous land were covered with gardens and orchards. On the West bank, the woods were dominated by skilled hunters and the mountain herds bred vigorously in the hills. One side bought what the other produced. But, for this purpose, everyone agreed that a large ferry boat going back and forth in the river delta, there where the capitols stood, was sufficient. For the rest, the little stone bridge was enough.

It was this bridge that Haric needed to cross to marry a woman called Merissa, one he had never seen.

His friends ridiculed his fate.

"What's wrong with the women here that you must arrange a wife on the other side of the river?" mocked one.

"He is certainly bewitched," scoffed another, "because everyone says that they're all witches there, bearded like goats and stubborn as mules!"

He smiled and did not reply. He knew that every fool repeated every stupidity he heard, always twice as big as when he heard it the first time. But it was true that he had never seen the women of the West. The Levantine girls were suave and quiet, of rosy skin and clear eyes, raised with modesty and clothed with refinement. They were admired by people of all lands. There they had families of good lineage, bearing adequate brides for the son of a rich builder like himself.

But the planned wedding had nothing to do with maintaining bloodlines. It had to do with alliance. For a long time, his father had done business with the men of the other side. He intended to take his people and raise in the West the solid houses whose technique his stonemasons and artisans dominated and, in that way, prosper more each day. But those people, like his own, were proud and reserved. In order to do good business, it was necessary to offer the utmost proof of trust and good faith. He needed partners who were no less than brothers. Marrying his own son with the daughter of his partner was the most guaranteed alliance.

"Don't pay attention to everything you hear, my son. I wouldn't allow them to arrange a bad marriage. Your bride is a good lady and should make you happy. Just don't be alarmed by the customs of those on the other side. They are very different from us. They are obstinate and a little rude, but honest.

And so it was. It is said that the two peoples had arrived in that region together, in a very distant time. But it cannot be said that they were the same people. For many years there was rivalry, pride and, it is said, even war. The Occidentals were a strange people, of smaller stature, black hair, and golden skin. The women, like the men, were boisterous and unruly, but lovers of truth.

For that reason, the son trusted his father and said nothing of his fears. He worried he would never learn to love a lady whom he had not chosen. Would she be beautiful? Sweet? Wise? Perhaps he would need other women to live contentedly. Only time could turn maybes into certainties.

Riding horses and leading two mules loaded with presents, father and son left on a morning, toward the bridge.

At the same time they crossed it, a wagon came from the other side. It was crammed with all sorts of untanned animal skins. The driver was a one-eyed man; he traveled alone.

In the middle of the bridge, they blocked each other's path.

"Halt!" the man said unceremoniously. "You're in my way. You'd best give me passage."

"Good day to you, sir," responded the lad. "May the gods bless your journey. Tell me, however, why we should retreat when you might also do so."

"I'm in a hurry!" responded the man.

"Let us return," counseled the father, prudent. "Our load is easier to handle.

But the son ignored him, resolute in taming that "obstinate and a little rude" people right from the start.

"We also have an appointment on the other side," returned the man, "and, as you can see, we arrived at the middle of the bridge first. It's only fair that you go back and let us pass."

"You're an irritating brat," growled the one-eyed man.

"And you are rude and foolish. If you had asked us nicely, we would have gladly made way. But now, we won't leave here. Retreat or face us, and remember that we are two."

He said this and looked at his father, sure of his approval. The old builder gave him back a look of distress.

The young man took some seconds to realize what happened next. The driver whipped his own horse, making it advance blindly through the mounts of the two Levantines, pulling the wagon forward with an abrupt burst.

"Son of a witch!" exclaimed the driver when the lad seized his whip in the air, before he could snap it again. But it was too late. The white gelding which carried his father became frightened in the confusion and reared up. Pushed by the wagon, it tumbled over, whinnying. The father yelled, feeling his leg compressed between the horse's stout body and the bridge's railing. But that bridge, as we know, was very old. Tired of the fight and the weight it supported, it crumbled at the point where it was pressured. The old builder and his horse fell into the river.

"Father!"

Haric's protest could do nothing against what had already happened. He looked at the skin trader, then paralyzed, but said nothing. His eyes said everything: I'll make you pay. At that moment, it was more important to look for his father, who struggled downriver. The lad jumped into the water.

While still a child, he had learned to treat water as a friend, swimming in the pools that the brooks filled by descending from great heights and depositing themselves into the shallows. But he had never dived into that furious river that ran along a slope to the delta, where the great cities sparkled. The water was strong; he needed to be stronger.

Looking for his father, he dipped his head several times, until he saw him emerge further ahead, senseless. The young man grasped the old one; the current gripped them both. With his unconscious father in his arms and the implacable water around him, the lad believed that death was at hand. After much dragging, however, he managed to gain a foothold on the bottom and approach the shore. He pulled his father from the water and allowed himself to fall to his knees, panting, exhausted. On the West bank.

He got back to helping his father, stretched out by his side. His eyes widened upon finding a trace of blood that spread out from the man's gray hairs. The sight was terrible. He feared touching him, hurting him. He gathered his courage to lift the head between his hands.

"Father?" he called. "Father! Wake up. Please, wake up."

The head showed scratches. The blood was abundant. The skin whitened, the fingers purpled at the nails. The torso no longer seemed to inflate and empty with the breath of life. The lad dared to place his head against the old man's chest. He perceived that the heart no longer beat.

Bitter, he cried. Hate, fear, and loneliness disfigured his face.

Near the bank, a figure regarded his torment. Emerging from the field, she approached him. The young man heard her steps and turned around. He saw a woman who would have the same age as her mother, were she still alive. She wore an unadorned robe, had hair still black, a face the color of bronze, but with the coldness of steel. She approached the scene with interest. Without compassion.

"Betrayed by the river, weren't you, young man?" she said, smoothly. "The waters fertilize our land, wash away our filthiness and alleviate our thirst, but sometimes they charge a high price for it. Is he your father?"

Haric told the woman what had happened on the bridge, digesting the events for the first time. He talked like a madman, trembling and staring at everything and nothing.

"Calm down, boy," said the woman. "Not all is lost. Your father may yet live."

"Madam! Look at the color of his blood, look at the color of his face! He is gone. It was I who killed him. From pride, from ignorance . . ."

"For certain ills there is a cure. I can return life to your father. Do you not know who I am?"

Haric thought, considering the stranger. Then, he responded with a resigned voice:

"You are a witch."

"Yes, dear. The river took your father's life, but the river and I are old friends. I can give him back what he lost. But, like the river, I do good for a price. And my price is always fair."

"We have fabrics, spices, jewels . . . We just have to return to the bridge and I can . . ."

"You have something more valuable than that. Returning life to the dead is an expensive service, my boy, but, since you are desperate, I believe that your eyes would be a good payment."

The lad drew back when the witch grabbed his chin with her hand, one too wrinkled to belong to the owner of that face.

"My eyes?" he mumbled.

"Yes, dear. Blue eyes are worth much in certain parts of the world. I want the pair. One eye is little for a trade like this. Understand, it would be hard to find a buyer for a single eye, and it would be a lucky accident to find another which matched one of yours. So blue . . . so terrible . . . they are rare."

His eyes grew in terror while hers, greedy, fixed on them.

"For two eyes I can even offer the favor of revenge upon your aggressor, the one-eyed man. I can turn him into a pig. A donkey. A toad. Whatever seems worst to you, dear."

"My eyes . . ."

"Make up your mind, before your father's soul settles somewhere else and I can no longer bring him back. It must be done while the body is still fresh. What do you prefer: your vision or your father's life?"

"You won't feel any pain, lad," the witch had said before he passed out, dominated by the intensely sweet fumes that she had made him inhale. "Neither now nor after."

She had spoken the truth. When he awoke in the woman's cabin, he felt nothing. He simply no longer saw. His lids were strangely closed, insensitive to his will, which ordered: open!

He stood up, stretched his arms, felt around in the dark. He hazarded calling out:

"Father?"

After some instants in which he didn't breathe, he heard the response:

"Haric? Are you all right?"

His hands found those of his father, who rose from a bed beside his. They embraced. Tears escaped through the young man's eyelids, which even so did not rise. The builder looked at those folds of withered skin which sullied Haric's handsome face. They looked as though they had never been occupied by a pair of eyes.

"Son, son," he murmured, the youth's face in his hands. "What have you done?"

"I did what was necessary," he replied.

Attracted by the voices, the witch appeared in the cabin's doorway. In her hands she held a glass jar filled with a milky, translucent liquid. In it floated two eyes the color of the sea.

No sign could be found of the horse which had tumbled into the river. It could have been carried away by the current or even saved itself, following alone the path it knew well, back to home. But the lad's mount and the two pack mules had returned to the West bank of the river where, indifferent, they grazed. The skin trader, perhaps gripped by panic, had disappeared without daring to pillage the cargo. Thus, father and son recovered the presents they had brought for the bride's family and, mounted together on the horse, took to the road. The old man sighed deeply before gathering the courage to speak.

"You understand that . . ."

"I understand, yes, and I'm sorry." Haric preferred sparing his father the burden of such terrible words. "My bride agreed to marry a healthy man. No one can oblige her to accept a blind one. But we have an obligation to her family and the duty to present our apologies before all."

The old man, sad and proud, spurred the charger.

There were accommodations for them in the city. The untouched banquet also awaited them. The young man couldn't see the astonished faces which received him. He perceived only the initial silence and the warm welcomes which followed. With dignity, the people of the West maintained the party for the now impossible engagement.

The women were small and cheerful, of black hair and plain garments. The lad could confirm nothing of it, however, having to trust in the words of his father, who, in turn, engaged in sad conversation with the one who would have been his son's father-in-law, while the people drank and celebrated nothing.

"My friend, we came because we had a deal with your family and wished to honor it. But everything changed on our way here. Perhaps I would have better luck if, instead of houses, I built bridges . . . I don't expect you to deliver your daughter to a blind man; that cannot be the son-in-law you desired. Therefore, I ask your forgiveness and release you from our pact."

"All is forgiven, my friend," responded the westerner from under the stiff moustache which adorned his face, the same used by all mature men in that place. "I only lament that your path here has been so painful and that you fell under the enticement of a roadside witch. Those cursed witches have been out there promising everything and tricking travelers. I'd like . . ."

"Why, father! No one was tricked!"

The three men turned toward the feminine voice which had just interrupted them. Haric understood that his no-longer bride was among them. A chill seized his insides. The lady continued:

"The witch did nothing wrong, father. She proposed a pact that was accepted, and kept her end. It was a legitimate deal, although repugnant, and you know that."

"Merissa . . ." started the father with a reproachful tone.

"My father-in-law and my groom," continued the lady, indifferent to her genitor, "it is lamentable what happened to you and I'm ashamed that your loss occurred in our lands. But what is done, is done. I don't wish to cancel our deal because of this occurrence without at least trying to reverse it. What we can do now is get back my future husband's eyes. I hear they were beautiful."

"My lady . . ."

"Listen, don't be ashamed. This night everyone can rest, but tomorrow we'll seek out this witch and bargain with her for his eyes. You should never take anything from a witch without giving something in return. That will certainly bring down a curse, as you know. I have a fine wedding dowry and I'll offer it to the witch in exchange for what we want."

"Merissa!"

"My lord, she's right," the young man rushed to say. If he had a gaze, it would have been sparkling with hope. "Please, I want to do this. If you don't mind."

The two old men looked at Merissa and then at Haric. He looked nowhere, but remained alert for that voice, his mind trying to see what his eyes no longer could.

In the morning, a house servant conducted the lad to his bride. He met her on the outside patio of the property.

"It's a good morning to hunt," she said, placing in his hands, carefully, a bow and arrow.

"I'm not the best hunter today," he responded, in jest.

"Nonsense," retorted the lady. "You just need to know where to aim your arrow. I'll guide you." Saying that, she stepped behind the young man. She stood on tiptoe and used her tiny, firm hands to adjust Haric's posture and aim.

"That's good," she decided.

"Where am I pointing?"

"Do you trust me?"

"I do."

"Then, shoot."

The string vibrated, the bow gave way, and the arrow flew forward.

"What did I hit?" he asked.

"A toad on a rock, my dear. A one-eyed toad."

Haric smiled. He couldn't see that Merissa was smiling too.

After much inquiring along the roads, the bride, groom, and fathers-in-law arrived at the cabin. They came mounted on chargers, decorated and supplied with diverse offerings: brocades, rugs, silk dresses, ermine hides, silverware, gold coins.

The witch was seated on a bench by the door. A pipe hung from her fingers, the fine stem lightly kissing her lips, the fat bowl emanating a strange, sweet smoke. She stared at nothing in particular on the horizon. She neither showed surprise nor turned when they dismounted. The bride's father greeted her and got straight to the point:

"Do you recognize the boy? We wish to buy back that which, in a moment of desperation, he sold to you. We bring good merchandise."

"Madam, please, give me back my eyes," the boy asked without hesitation.

"Gentlemen and lady . . ." responded the woman, finally facing them. "You think I still have them? They are already far away from here. And well paid for."

"But how?" asked Merissa. "To whom did you sell them?"

"I see that the lady isn't acquainted with the world's vanity. Princesses from distant lands pay fortunes for a beautiful pair of blue eyes to call their own."

"You don't look like someone who just received a fortune," growled the girl, looking at the poor cabin and the woman's humble garments."

"You also don't look like the chick of a crow which fell from its nest," rebutted the witch, "but I can change that in an instant. Just offend me one more time."

Seeing his daughter insulted, the father raised a hand to the dagger he carried in his saddlebag. But Merissa stopped him before he bared the blade completely.

"Forget it, father," she said. "There is nothing we can do."

The four of them turned to leave, but, before they got very far, the witch called out:

"Boy, don't be sad. Man or toad, at least that one-eyed trader won't cause you any more problems, isn't that right?"

She laughed a decrepit laugh, too old for her face, but not for her dry, knotty hands.

That night, because Merissa insisted stubbornly, the wedding between East and West was celebrated with pork shanks roasted in a hurry and the beer left over from the engagement party. There was music and dance around the fire and, while the banqueters reveled among the banquet's leftovers, the newlyweds withdrew early to a private revelry, as had to be.

In the wedding chamber, Haric asked his wife, "Why such haste to marry a blind man?"

"A bride's wish is only a dream, but the word of a spouse is law."

"I don't understand."

"This morning, you said you trusted me. At night, the clergyman asked us the most important question of all and we responded: yes. You paid for the words you said on the bridge's summit. Later, your words gave back life to a man and sealed the death of another. Words have power, husband. But they must be said by the right person, at the right moment."

"So, now I believe they told me the truth. All women of the West are witches."

"All men would be too, if they weren't so busy with being . . . well, men. Now, busy yourself with your wife. You're a married man."

"I only feel half a man without eyes to see you."

"You may see me much better with your hands."

Saying that, she nestled in her husband's arms, provoking in him desires which blindness could not deprive him. And she satisfied them, and satisfied her own. They dove into a dark world where sight was the least of the senses; sound was her guide and touch, her pleasure. A dream which both had experienced alone, but which, now, they dreamed together. Wide awake.

Haric awoke near midday. He felt the sun warm his naked skin. Comforted, he stretched out and saw the golden clarity of the room like a field of wheat.

Only then did he perceive what had happened. He was seeing the room. He saw as clearly as he had a few days before, when he still possessed the two eyes he was born with. He looked at his own hands, at his body between the sheets.

"Merissa?" he called.

"I'm here," she responded.

He found his wife behind the bed's dossal, standing, already dressed, by her chest of clothes. She had a mirror in her hand and stared at herself.

"Merissa, I can see you!" exclaimed the young man, content.

"Yes," she confirmed, "but do you like what you see?"

His wife approached him, showing her face. It was well-made, pleasant, but not of an impressive beauty. What did impress him was the absence of the left eye.

Haric fell silent.

Merissa came even closer and, sitting on the bed, held before her husband the tiny mirror. The man from the East examined his own face reflected there. The eyelids which had once held his right eye remained closed, while from those on the left

a new eye stared at him. Not blue and clear, but black and intense. Exactly like that which remained in his wife's countenance.

"What have you done?" he asked. "How?"

"What I did was give you a new perspective. How, you will learn, if you want. With this eye you don't just see your world again, but mine as well. Of course, if you prefer blindness to having a one-eyed wife, I can unsay what was said and undo what was done until we find someone crazy enough to sell you a pair of eyes.

Haric decided that, at that moment, it was best to say nothing. He embraced Merissa, grateful at knowing her affection was greater than her vanity. He had just discovered that he didn't need other women after all.

In another part of the world, far from there, a princess had just discovered that a nice pair of blue eyes could guarantee beauty, but not happiness.


Translated by Christopher Kastensmidt


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