A Flower like Blue Flame
~for Carra and Brian
Niko loved spending afternoons fishing at the Shadow River. He’d cast his line, recline on the bank’s soft grass, and fight off sleep as he waited for the pole to snap downward as soon as he’d hooked a fish. The people in his village were forbidden to go to this river, but Niko loved sneaking through Fogwood Forest and being somewhere he knew he shouldn’t. He didn’t believe, as everyone else did, the river was cursed.
One afternoon, however, Niko discovered that the Shadow River was, in fact, enchanted. As he lay on the bank dozing off, a sound like a great thunderclap rang out. Niko sprang to his feet, dropping his pole into the river. A woman appeared, hovering over the river. She wore a dress of flowing blue cloth that glistened like the water’s surface, and her long hair, as dark as the silt on the river’s bottom, flowed in the air around her.
Niko tried but couldn’t speak.
“Hello, Niko,” said the woman, her voice both soothing and powerful like the rushing of the river.
“How do you know my name?” he said.
“I am the spirit of the Shadow River, and I know much about you. I’ve watched for years as you’ve fished from my bank.”
“Why haven’t you appeared to me before?”
“People used to visit me every day to rest on my banks or to fish and swim in my water. Then the river became cursed, a curse I am unable to break, and they stopped coming. Until you. I do not make myself known to humans often, but you, Niko… Without knowing, you have been a dear friend to me since you were a child. So, I have for you a gift.”
“What is it?”
“You have been seeking love, have you not?” said the spirit. “You may not have realized, but you often speak to yourself here. Funny the things humans say to themselves when they think they are alone.”
Niko’s face reddened.
The spirit smiled. “My gift is this: build a raft from the branches of that suma tree and use it to cross the river. On the far bank, you will find your true love.”
“My true love?” Niko glanced behind him at the suma tree with its blue bark. Then he gazed across the wide river at the other bank that seemed so far away. “My father has a small boat. I can use it to cross.”
“No. My river is bound by a powerful spell. Only a raft made from the suma wood can cross. Any other vessel will sink the moment it touches the water.”
“I could swim,” he said.
“You would sink the same as any boat. Surely you have heard stories of all the villagers who have drowned here.”
He had. That was why the Shadow River was forbidden.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll build the raft. I just need to return home for my tools.”
“Very well,” said the river spirit.
Niko hurried through Fogwood Forest to his village. He was so focused on retrieving his tools that he passed by his friend Aniya without noticing her. He had grown up with her, but she wasn’t like other girls. She always played in the woods with the boys, ran races, and got into fights. When they were children, she once picked a fight with Niko. She’d struck him on the nose, sending him bleeding and wailing all the way home to his mother.
“Hey, Niko!” Aniya called, running after him. “Wait!”
He ignored her until she caught up with him and punched him in the back.
“Ow!” He paused to scowl at her, then continued home.
“I saw you come out of Fogwood,” she said, following him. “You were at the Shadow River again, weren’t you?”
“I don’t know,” he muttered.
“You don’t know?”
He huffed. “Yes, I was fishing.”
“You promised you’d take me, remember?”
“Sorry,” he said.
“You won’t take me because you’re scared I’ll catch more fish than you.”
“I’m in a hurry,” he said.
“I can’t tell you.”
“I just can’t.” He sped up, trying to leave Aniya behind.
She’d always beaten him in footraces, so she had no trouble keeping up. “You better tell me, Niko, or I’ll tell everyone you’ve been going to the Shadow River.”
Niko stopped abruptly and glared at her. “You wouldn’t.”
“I will… Unless…”
“All right.” He leaned close to her and whispered, “I’m going to build a raft to cross the river.”
He waited for her to gasp. Instead, a mischievous grin spread on her face.
“I’m coming, too,” she said. “I’ll help.”
“No,” said Niko. “I’m sorry, but—”
An old woman shuffled past them on the street. Aniya tapped her on the shoulder. “Excuse me, Miss,” Aniya said. “Did you know that Niko’s been—”
Niko grabbed Aniya’s arm and pulled her away from the woman, who cocked her eyebrows at them before continuing on her way.
“All right,” said Niko, “you can help build the raft, but I’m the only one crossing the river.”
“Fine,” said Aniya.
After gathering the tools and lugging them through the forest, Niko and Aniya arrived at the Shadow River. Niko was afraid the spirit would appear again in a mighty clamor and yell at him for bringing a companion. The spirit did not show herself, yet Niko knew that she was still there, watching. He approached the suma tree and swung his ax at some of the branches, but they were too high and the tree seemed to be made of stone.
“Let me see that,” Aniya said, stepping over and plucking the ax from his hands. She shimmied up the tree, still holding the ax in one hand, and began chopping at the sapphire tree. One after another, branches thudded to the ground, their dry leaves rattling.
Once Aniya had pruned enough branches, she came down from the tree and stripped the branches of their leaves and cut them all to the same length. Niko lined them up side by side and tied them together with rope he’d brought. His knots kept coming loose, though.
“You’re doing it wrong,” said Aniya. “Who taught you to tie a knot?”
She nudged him aside and proceeded to fasten the branches together securely with the rope, tying much stronger knots than Niko could, and she did it much faster.
“There,” she said after tightening the last knot. “Let’s put it in the water.”
The wood felt hard as a rock. “Will it float?” Niko asked.
“Of course it’ll float.”
They dragged it down the bank and pushed it onto the river, careful not to let it drift away. As Aniya had said, the raft did indeed float.
“Ready?” she asked.
Niko eyed the raft with hesitation. “Are you coming with me?”
“You said you were going alone. Have you never been on a raft before?”
“I’ve been in my father’s boat. But not here. This is the Shadow River.”
“Oh, come on,” Aniya said. She stepped onto the raft, pulled him on with her, and shoved off from the bank with her foot.
As the raft swayed, Niko and Aniya held one another for balance, then quickly dropped their arms to their sides. When the raft rocked again, the two found themselves back in each other’s arms. Some of the dark water seeped up between the branches, but the raft stayed afloat. The current should have carried them downstream, but instead the raft glided straight across the river as if towed by an invisible rope.
Soon the raft came to rest on the opposite bank, and the two of them stepped off. Niko looked around, expecting the river spirit to reappear or a beautiful maiden to wander from the forest, but he and Aniya were alone. Had he fallen asleep on the riverbank earlier that morning and dreamed the entire encounter with the spirit?
Niko turned to the river. Aniya sat on the bank with her back against a tree. He joined her, and they sat in silence, watching the orange light of the setting sun glinting on the dark water’s surface.
Finally, Aniya said, “Niko, why did you want to cross the river?”
As he wondered how to answer, he noticed a flower growing from a patch of dark soil next to him. Its stalk was pale yellow, and its petals were deep blue and looked as soft as Aniya’s cheek.
He picked the flower and held it out to her. “I came for this. Here.”
She rolled its stem between her fingers, making the flower spin. It looked like a blue flame flickering on the end of a candle.
“I guess we should go back,” Aniya said.
“Not yet,” said Niko, watching her smile as she watched the spinning flower. “Not yet.”
Scott Hughes’ fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in Crazyhorse, One Sentence Poems, Entropy, Deep Magic, Carbon Culture Review, Redivider, Redheaded Stepchild, PopMatters, Strange Horizons, Chantwood Magazine, Odd Tales of Wonder, The Haunted Traveler, Exquisite Corpse, Pure Slush, Word Riot, and Compaso: Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology. His fiction chapbook, The Last Book You’ll Ever Read, is forthcoming from Weasel Press. For more information, visit writescott.com.