WHEN the river brought me home, the villa called me their lucky carp. They said I flashed silver like the fish of a time long gone. Of the three girls brought home that day, it was my silver that they saw first. Each generation born of the river brings a new omen, and they hoped I would bring them good fortune. Silver like the river.
Silver like the fish.
Silver like the rich.
But as lucky as a carp is, she still makes her migration. So really, they should have known from the start.
CLARA comes at eight every morning. She sits on the wooden stool one of the carpenters carved the day I came home, the legs specially positioned so you can see the constellation of my birthday engraved on them from the front. In her hands is a wooden rod carved into a spiral. Most mornings I am quick to sit on the pillow before the stool, but today I’ve slept too long and my limbs feel too heavy. As the week crawls forward, I’m certain it will be harder to wake.
“You’re the one who insists on getting your curls done,” Clara says as she ushers me to the pillow.
“And who says that ‘Presentation is everything’?” I retort, dragging out the last syllables of each word. The other girls start their workday at nine. Mine begins with Clara just before dawn. Village singers don’t need light to train their apprentices.
Clara moves the top layer of my hair out of the way and takes one of the bottom coils, stretching it out and then re-coiling it around the wooden rod. The coils get flattened as I sleep at night, and each morning they must be redone to look like a curl and not a tortilla. Clara took it as an opportunity to get extra training in.
“Wear the coils straight if you hate waking up so early,” she says.
“I’d look like a rake.”
Clara scoffs. “As long as you don’t look like a rake on Friday. Have you picked a song?”
I sleep to avoid picking a song. “I was planning on something simple.”
“Wise. History is complicated, so better to be simple. What history?”
Every morning she tells me a new one, and every week I hear another sung in the heart core. I enjoy the histories, yet I have yet to hear one that tells me what I need to know. “Something people know, but also something they love.”
“Tell me more.” She puts the first lock down in its proper place then moves to the next.
“Something classic.” Something no one has ever been told.
“You haven’t a clue.”
“I have a clue. What better place to start than the beginning?” When something is more myth than history, it is easy to rely on it.
Clara must know I’m stalling, but she says, “Then begin.”
And so I do.
WHEN the river would not submit to the fathers, the fathers built their own. The women said they could never tame the waters, that they needed the waters to survive. The fathers could not bear to be wrong. They took their insatiable tongues and drank the river dry. They took their metal teeth and bit into the earth, ripping a gash through her body that would run for miles. They clotted their wound with metal, creating a silver scar that was ever moving, ever breathing, a machine they believed they could control. For years, the river was the fathers’ pride. They couldn’t see that the world had been divided, and that the women’s rage festered. The women could not bear to be invisible.
BECAUSE the river was made, the banks are not sand. They are the dirt and stones which existed undisturbed before the great scarring. They carry the memories of a time before. When Clara finishes my curls, I have a half hour before my next chore and the river provides a place for meditation. As I near the river, I can hear the groan of moving metal, its song a theme for the entire villa in its moments of quiet. In the rain we hear its drumming and in the wind we hear its whistling. The mother is always calling to her children. And I am always drawn to her side.
As a child, when the maudras were trying to instill the villa’s rules in us, they told us that we could not cross the river. I thought they meant you could not upset the river, and that provoking the river’s wrath would be the cause of your exile. I wondered how one could upset metal. I know better now. The river breathes, dances, and sings like anything else. You can absolutely enrage it.
Down the bank, I can see a collection of bodies moving in unison. The hunters at their morning drills. A path runs down alongside the bank, marking the botanists’ walk to the gardens. I have fifteen minutes of solace alone before my sister ambles down the path and breaks the peace. We used to throw stones at the river to add our own beat to the song, now she is more worried about time and rules. When I hear the crunch of her footsteps, I speak before she can urge us to leave.
“How many babies do you think we’ll have this year?”
Scilla stops behind me. “We can’t predict that.”
“The cooks have a running bet,” I say. “I hear them murmur under their breath when we’re around. Jina says six and Kinoko says one.”
“We had one last year.” Sometimes I think the generations born alone are lucky. That they are not born a unit and instead as an individual. That girl is not one of ten or six or three. She does not need to pretend she belongs seamlessly with her sisters.
I finally turn to look at her. “Come on, play with me a little.”
“You’ll make us late.”
“What if I said Serenity bet on four.”
“The miracle there would be the fact that you were able to talk to Serenity.”
Our third sister had been locked in her studio for days trying to finish her project before the birthday. She was a dutiful apprentice, a dutiful member of the community. If I am their carp, she is their star.
“Just a number.”
We stare at each other for a long while, her silver eyes hard and determined, but her urge to leave is stronger. “Five.”
I smile and get up. “One day, I’ll pick a different spot for my break and you’ll lose your mind over whether or not I’ll be on time.”
“You have nowhere else to go,” Scilla says.
And she’s right, of course. The distance we’re allowed to be within only stretches so far. She’d find me no matter what if I stay on the bank, and she knows I’ll never go too far from the river.
“Don’t you want to know what I think?”
She walks away. In an utterly uninterested tone, she says, “Do tell, Sen. What do you think?”
“Three. Just like us.”
THE fathers had a god; a man who could walk on water. The women say they made the river metal so they too could walk across a river, maybe one day a sea. And some of them did try. They did not think they would be swallowed up by the very thing they created, that their tameable body would rebel so terribly. And when the women, one by one, left their city, the fathers thought they too had been swallowed. They could not fathom that the women had left for something better.
IN the villa, numbers are important. Numbers designate your jobs. Clara once spoke of a world where a father determined whether or not your labor would get paid, but in the villa no one gets paid. At eighteen, we assist the cooks with the morning meal, mostly just by prepping whatever ingredients they need by washing and trimming. For the past few days, Serenity had her mentor excuse her from her labor so she could finish her project in time. This left Scilla and me to do the prep work in our corner of the kitchen. Every now and then a cook would come by and ask if we were excited for Friday. Scilla would do most of the talking and I would just nod, saying that it would truly be something.
We turn nineteen on Friday, assuming the roles of our careers along with additional jobs. I would be a singer, Scilla an official botanist, and Serenity a carpenter. On Friday, I would give my first history, Scilla would share her first chosen crop for harvest, and Serenity would present her first creation. But I don’t care about the ascension. No. I care about the babies.
NERIA was the first woman. Neria left the city with a backpack of her life, nothing her husband would notice missing. She was so good, her husband did not notice for days that she was missing, her labor replaceable by a maid’s. She was so good, they assumed she died and hosted a funeral. At the back of the reception, a caterer slipped a note in Neria’s sister’s hand. The sister’s funeral happened the next month.
DURING the jobs, we met many people. We’d seen these people before—the villa wasn’t very big—but growing up with so many miscellaneous “helping” jobs meant that we were introduced to many people. I asked many questions. I asked about their work and their lives and “is this right?” They thought me curious and eager to learn. But I also asked about the before. And about the river.
“Where are the fathers now?”
“How does the river keep working if no one is watching it?”
“Will the river ever stop?”
“Why can’t I go on top of it?”
“Where do the babies come from?”
They told me to be a singer. The singers had answers.
THEY called them suicides, the mass funerals that appeared. As the women disappeared, the men only panicked once they realized the birth rate plummeted. The men grew more desperate, the women became bolder. They started leaving notes. “The river is freedom. It is better to be free than to damn my daughters to this hell.”
To be continued…