River Bandit by Carl Napolitano
Fairytale. Myth. Magical realism. In “River Bandit,” Carl Napolitano draws on all three sources. This story first came to our attention in the 2018 CRAFT Elements Contest, for which it was a finalist for setting. We found this story to be inventive and original, fabulist and fun. The characters in this piece are as strong as the setting, and as you’ll see, place and character even overlap.
In Southern Gothic literature we often see setting or place as character: plantation houses, forests, bayous that have unique arcs and develop and change as the story progresses. Napolitano pays homage to the Gothic as well as the Greek, to Gabo as well as Grimm. You’ll learn more about inspiration and craft in the author’s note. Enjoy this tale of Maria Isabel and the missing rivers. —CRAFT
For my mother
In the past month, ten rivers had gone missing. Throughout the South, zigzagging up and eastward from the Gulf Coast, tributaries popped up dry. Their dryness could be seen from above in a helicopter, funny little brown lines drawn with a trembling hand. Those images played on the TV news in the diner where Maria Isabel Castro sat squeezed in the white booth, her belly distended, massive, and pressing into the table edge as she looked over the menu and up at the staticky screen. Sweat made her back stick to the seat. The scientists interviewed, their faces exasperated, failed to explain what caused these missing rivers. There was no drought, no diversion of the rivers’ sources, no emptying of the rivers elsewhere. The water had seemed to disappear, no one knowing where it had gone. But Maria Isabel knew. As she ordered an omelet and decaf coffee, she could feel the churning of the ten rivers inside of her. She had stolen each one.
She tried not to think about it, busying herself with her roadmap, but the blue lines of rivers were there too. Then the lone mid-afternoon waitress came with her food and asked if she was expecting a child very, very soon. Any day now, Maria Isabel answered, forcing a smile and running her hand over the hump that made up most of her now. The waitress seemed to notice that she was alone and hesitated before asking about the father. Maria Isabel told her that she was on her way to be with him, to move in and make a home with him and their babies—yes, multiple, triplets, to the waitress’s apparent surprise and delight—and they were going to be happy. These were the lies Maria Isabel had become accustomed to telling strangers she met while on the run. There was no father, no happy home, and certainly no babies. There was only the weight of water, its cold rushing, its wanting to be free and flood out, and her needing it to stay inside so that she could live.
The waitress, without anything else to do on a slow day, would not leave Maria Isabel alone. Her nametag read Charlotte and she complimented Maria Isabel’s long, blue-black hair, which she assumed was dyed, but was actually Maria Isabel’s natural color. She returned to give Maria Isabel refills even when her cup was full, told her about all the fun things to do in town, and asked her a bevy of questions. Maria Isabel hadn’t indulged in the company of strangers, their prying or their divulging—it was far too risky—but it had been so long since she had really talked to another person, so she let her guard down and got to know Charlotte.
Charlotte had lived in Mayfly all her life and had worked at the diner for five years now so she knew right away that Maria Isabel was not from around here, that she must be traveling through. That’s the way small towns are and Maria Isabel nodded in agreement. Charlotte asked Maria Isabel where she was from, and Maria Isabel picked at her omelet for a moment trying to invent another lie to wrap around herself, but she was too tired for that. She wanted to be known. She told Charlotte the truth, or as much of it she thought she could afford.
“I’m from Texas. Near the ocean.”
“Nice! No wonder you’re so tan. What did you do there?”
“I lived with my father, but he wouldn’t let me work. He wouldn’t let me do anything.”
“My dad was like that too. Overprotective. Didn’t want me to go to college. Didn’t like any of the boys I dated. Hated the clothes I’d wear. And now…” Charlotte’s voice dipped low, her smile wilted. “Well, he’s gone.”
Maria Isabel watched her become small on the other side of the booth. “I’m so sorry. You must miss him terribly. Was it…recent?”
Charlotte shook off the sadness like a wet dog emerging from a lake. “Not recent, but it was sudden. One day someone’s there, and then, well.” She stared at Maria Isabel’s belly and regained her smile. “And other days no one’s there, and then, boom. A baby. How’d you know you were ready?”
“I didn’t. I don’t.” The rivers inside Maria Isabel rushed cyclonic. Her fork shook in her hand. “I—I’m scared. I have no clue what I’m doing. I feel like at any moment everything will go wrong and explode. I—”
Charlotte reached across the table and steadied her hand. “Hey, don’t worry. Soon, you’ll be with your man and he’ll take great care of you and your darlings. He must be so excited to have you home. He must love you so much. It’ll be okay. It will, I just know it.”
Maria Isabel nodded, pulled her hand away, her gaze growing distant. She still had a long drive ahead of her until the next river.
“Missing home already?” Charlotte asked.
Maria Isabel shrugged and shuddered. “Yeah, sort of.”
When she asked to pay the bill, Charlotte told her not to worry, she had it covered. This was a relief to Maria Isabel since she didn’t have much left of the cash she had stolen from her father. Charlotte also insisted on sending her off with a bag full of dinner rolls, ham sandwiches, and a slice of apple pie for the road. Maria Isabel thanked her and was so surprised when Charlotte suddenly gave her a warm hug, she almost cried. She wanted to stay there in Charlotte’s warm embrace for a long while, but longing was an emotion that tended to linger and she was certain she was being followed. Charlotte’s flat belly pushed gently against hers and the water surged, causing Charlotte to jump a little.
“Oh! I think I felt one of them kick!”
Charlotte laughed and laughed and Maria Isabel couldn’t help but laugh too. How funny it was that someone thought she was fortunate, honest, and loved.
Maria Isabel drove an old Ford pickup truck—a car that her father would approve of because it was American-made, but that he would never have bought for her because it would have allowed her to escape the way she did. So she’d bought it herself from a junkyard. It only cost a lock of her blue-black hair and sleeping with the drunk junk man who owned the dump. (He had worn a ribbed condom from a package that said For Her Pleasure, which she found sad and funny as it made no difference to her.) She could tell the truck had once been a springtime, gumball blue, but now continents of orange rust expanded their borders on its metal frame. It lurched whenever she pressed on the gas and rattled down roads as if it were an old dog, no fat and all bones clacking against each other, waiting for a place to die, to fall apart. Maria Isabel hated the way it shook the rivers inside her, making them froth, their weight thrown about. But it was all she had to keep her moving, to keep her freedom.
Her father’s name was once Julio Castro and he had lived below the border. Where exactly, he would never tell. That life he kept hidden and erased except for Maria Isabel’s name, which had been his mother’s and his grandmother’s and his great-grandmother’s name and so on, perhaps all the way back when the Spanish had come and conquered. The most Maria Isabel knew about her father’s life before she was born was that on the first night he spent in America he realized—after he had dreamt of it for so long, finally fulfilling the fortune that the village prostitute read from the pattern of hair growing on his chest—that he missed his home with an unexpected intensity. He knew no one north of the border, had nowhere to go, no money to spend, no house to sleep in. The loneliness bruised his heart’s insides. So, he went to the only place he felt familiar, the ocean, and swam out into its dark water. There, the moonlight blurred the air while he and the Gulf of Mexico made love. The following morning, he emerged from the Gulf’s warm water holding their new daughter, Maria Isabel.
It was also that morning when he met Jackie Fitzpatrick, Maria Isabel’s stepmother. Julio saw her riding a muscled palomino on the beach, wearing all white, her blond hair stacked up and sprayed high into the air, and he fell in love. She saw him wading out of the ocean, holding an infant, scrawny, naked, dark-skinned, dark chest hair in the shape of eagle wings. She looked into his hungry, demanding, impassioned eyes, and she fell in love too. Jackie’s father was an oil tycoon, her mother a dog-breeder and housewife, and she an heiress who took up the family business and was as big, strong, and wealthy as America itself. In a little more than two weeks, they got married on the same beach and Julio Castro changed his name to Julius Fitzpatrick.
The Gulf of Mexico had told Maria Isabel all of this one day when she was young and asked, Where did I come from? For all of Maria Isabel’s life, she visited her mother every three days and asked her questions while she replenished herself. Because she was half-ocean, she couldn’t stay away from the water for too long or else her body would dry up and crumble. This was why, on the run so far away from her mother, she started stealing rivers. She didn’t mean to consume the whole river the first time she opened herself and took the water inside, but she hadn’t realized that freshwater was of another order than saltwater and before she could stop, the river was empty.
Now, as she drove away from Mayfly, the diner, and Charlotte, she had less than a day to get to the next river. What troubled Maria Isabel about the freshwater was how it was far less dense and refused to sink in and mix with the rest of her body the way her mother’s did. After replenishing herself with her mother, she would be slightly bloated as if she had eaten too much, but that bloating would last no more than an hour before it became a part of her. The rivers, however, seemed to refuse her and she knew she should have known better. She knew she should have stayed along the coast, driving through Louisiana to Florida, keeping close to her mother. But if she had, that would have made it easier for her father to find her.
The sun began to set and she turned on the Ford’s headlights, but only one beam shone out in front of her. The country highway was narrow and empty, but she still looked into her rearview mirror every so often to make sure no one was following. Though the speed limit was fifty-five, she could only go forty, forty-five tops. This was partly because the Ford couldn’t take greater speeds and partly because at greater speeds the shaking hurt Maria Isabel too much. Eventually she stopped at a dingy gas station in the middle of the night to check her map. The only person there was the cashier, a red-headed boy with unfortunate acne, and she flirted with him, trying to convince him to trade her some gas for the uneaten food Charlotte had given her. The little money she had would not be enough to fill the tank of such a gas-guzzler. He told her he couldn’t do that, but as he stared at her large belly, he blushed and offered to pay for it himself. Maria Isabel took the offer and drove off. With the car radio broken, she sang to herself in the dark of the night, drowned out by the rattle and drone of the truck.
Maria Isabel stood on the riverbank. The river was named the Blue Horse River and it flowed low and calm. The rocky river bed was visible beneath its clear water and the rocks were the color of bruises. Maria Isabel looked around; there was no one to be seen in the surrounding woods. She stripped off the navy maternity dress she had stolen from a thrift store, as well as the little other clothing she had on, and stepped out into the water. The water felt crisp and tiny fish darted around her ankles. She tried not to think about the fish or any other creatures that lived in the river. They were doomed. Doomed because of her. She could only take in the water. She tried to choose smaller rivers to steal, rivers off the beaten path, rivers less notable, visited, or depended upon. But she knew that all rivers harbored life, no matter how small, and what she was doing was without a doubt a crime and a selfish one at that.
She lowered herself into the water, goosebumps rising on her skin, until she was completely submerged, even her belly. Then, her mouth widened, as did all the warm openings of her body, even her pores, and the river seeped inside. Slowly at first, but then faster and meaner the water disappeared, pouring into her without yielding, twisting her body around like a whirlpool, numbing her nerves and her muscles, until all of the river’s water from its source to its end was bounding toward her, bent on converging in her one body, leaving fish flopping on dry stone and deer drinking from air and caddisfly larvae drying out in their carefully constructed cases of leaf debris, until nothing was left, except for all of it within her. Shocked by the impact, she had to lie there for an hour, waiting for her body to close up and her muscles to loosen.
With her mother, the process was never so rough. It calmed her, made her body feel stronger. Her mother was gentle and would hold her suspended in the shallows where the sunlight still reached. Maria Isabel would ask her mother how old she was, what strange creatures lived in her depths, how many other children she had, if she loved them all, if they loved her too. Maria Isabel cherished those times, floating free with the sharks, protected by her mother’s strength and immensity. Those times had been a reprieve from her time with her father and stepmother.
She had lived with them in the house Jackie built with her oil money, a plantation home looking out at the ocean. Jackie liked to joke that the ocean was her field and the oil was her crop, which made young Maria Isabel so angry that she’d rip down the curtains and throw them into the sea. Jackie would try to discipline her, but her heart was never in it when curtains could be bought and replaced so easily. Because she never knew who Maria Isabel’s mother was (she respected Julius’s secretive past and dared not pry), she never knew why Maria Isabel was so prone to these tantrums. Jackie loved Julius and she loved Maria Isabel too, helped raise her with genuine care, but it was a love that didn’t know how to listen to anger and frustration, a love the child could not feel and return. The house was so big that Maria Isabel spent most of her time as a child hiding in obscure closets, avoiding the tutors who were charged with teaching her everything: mathematics, geography, how to read, how to write.
Her father knew little English when he came to America, having picked up words and phrases from action flicks and mob films, but Jackie patiently taught him the language, and by the time he could use it proficiently enough, he refused to speak in Spanish. Once, Maria Isabel complained that he never taught her Spanish and he responded by chasing her around the house holding Webster’s Dictionary, thick and heavy, over his ears, before cornering her and slamming the book into her head one, two, three times. “We are Americans and this is the language we speak! You don’t know what I had to escape! Things are better this way!” But what this way was for Maria Isabel was feeling lonesome, being cooped up in a house too big, painted too white, trying to win her father’s affection when her father had never really wanted her in the first place. She was a product of his loneliness before he got what he wanted—Jackie’s love to cherish and her pale breasts to squeeze and her rosy cheeks to kiss. And Jackie got what she wanted—a man as ambitious and commanding as her father, a man whom she could mold into the perfect partner in love and in business. What could only make them both happier was if Jackie conceived a child of their own, but that never happened.
Maria Isabel breathed deep and heavy as she regained movement in her body and she stood up from the now-dry riverbed, her bones creaking. She put her clothes back on quickly. It wasn’t safe to stay still for too long during the day. Someone could see her, someone could find her. She knew. Her father had hired a clairvoyant named Miss Dominique Jackson on a number of occasions. Most notable was the time a Russian man had cursed their house with a plague of toads after an oil deal gone wrong. Toads covered the walls, crawled out of the drains, and kept everyone in the house from sleeping for weeks with their constant croaking. Jackie hired exterminator after exterminator but the toads never went away. Eventually, Julius paid Miss Dominique to find the man so that he could kill him and end the curse, which he did. Maria Isabel had no doubt that Miss Dominique was looking for her now, and Miss Dominique could find anyone in the world.
Maria Isabel only a had a vague idea of how Miss Dominique’s abilities worked. From conversations she’d overhead, she learned that a person leaves a psychic trail wherever they go and Miss Dominique could somehow pull and tug on these trails till she found their source. Maria Isabel hoped that by never settling down, constantly moving in an erratic zigzag, she could confuse the trail, draw it thin and sparse.
Maria Isabel regretted the time she’d spent talking to Charlotte in the diner and all the emotions she let spill out for Miss Dominique to find. She should’ve gotten drive-thru instead of dining in. But walking back from the diner towards the crusty Ford and seeing the emptiness of its truck bed and the emptiness of the miles to come, she knew why she had done it. Her father had kept her away from the world, not out of protection or love, but because he was happy with where they were and didn’t see how she couldn’t be. Because he was an American businessman with his American businesswoman wife and couldn’t parade around a child from the ocean who clearly didn’t belong to both of them. Her skin was too brown and her blue-black hair moved too mysteriously, like a current, for any of Jackie to be a part of her.
Maria Isabel was only allowed to go out in public if her father and Jackie or one of their servants went with her, and even then, her options were limited. The grocery store was fine, but the mall was too social. An art museum or the library was sophisticated, but the park was full of delinquents. The servants, who were mostly poor and superstitious, seldom spoke to her. They saw her from a distance disappearing into the Gulf for hours at a time and gave her suspicious, fearful looks when she returned. Her father, on the other hand, talked too much, telling her what to do, how to behave. If they ever ran into someone he knew, he would crowd her out of the conversation, never introducing her, treating her like she was one of the servants. Maria Isabel felt like an embarrassment or a dark secret. When she told Jackie this, Jackie started crying.
Maria Isabel argued with her father about this every now and then when being under constant watch and restriction made her feel helpless. Sometimes Jackie would try to reason with him that there was no harm in a night of line dancing or maybe even classes at the local university. But while Jackie and Maria Isabel’s father were always equals when making business decisions (he, of course, would be nothing without Jackie, her fortune, her connections, her gleaming, beautiful whiteness), when it came to Maria Isabel, her father was entirely possessive and wanted his control to be absolute. To any reasoned, reasonable requests Maria Isabel or Jackie would make, her father would always turn to stone and shake his head. He would say, “I know how men look at girls her age,” or, “What does she need out there that we can’t give her here?” or simply, “I know what’s best.” There was no convincing him.
Why, Maria Isabel often wondered, did he even keep her around? Or keep her to begin with? He could have tossed her into the ocean and her mother would have taken care of her. Or he could have given her away to some other, poorer family, which could have been better. There were some nights when she could not sleep that she wandered the shadowy halls of the plantation home and she could hear his low, gruff voice from the kitchen, speaking Spanish. It sounded as if he were talking to someone, pleading with them, pining for them, though no one responded. He was talking to an absence. It was on those nights that Maria Isabel tried to imagine his life before, the home and family he had abandoned. Perhaps it truly was as bad as he made it out to be, a place where he had suffered one too many tragedy, a place that turned so harsh it warranted erasure, but she had no way of knowing for certain and her imagination always hit a cold, hard wall that blockaded any compassion for him. If Maria Isabel’s father kept her because she was the last thing he had to remind him of the home he had left, then why would he give her a home she would also want to leave?
After crawling from the riverbed, Maria Isabel struggled to climb back into the Ford, her muscles still weak and the weight of her belly verging on oppressive. Her skin felt so stretched that it wanted to tear open. She started the ignition and the Ford clunked to life. She had tried to escape loneliness by leaving home only to find herself further trapped in it, lost in its bleak web of black roads.
The Ford broke down the next day, dying in a ghost town. Maria Isabel tried desperately to urge it back to life, turning the ignition over and over, tinkering under its hood without knowing which part was which, kicking its already dented and battered hull while screaming, all to no avail. The buildings in the town were few—a post office, a grocery store, houses, a small school—and they were empty, falling apart, gnawed at by storms, overtaken by vines and shadows. She walked around searching for people or at least an old payphone to call a tow truck but she found none. Soon it became clear to her that she was stuck here. The prospect of walking seemed torturous to her, and looking at her map, she could see there were no towns close by on the crumbling back road on which she had been driving and beside which this ghost town lay. Miss Dominique would certainly find her now, there was no escaping it. There was nothing she could do but wait.
The midday sun made all the shadows small but dark. Maria Isabel looked down at the ground beneath her, but she couldn’t see her feet past her belly. There was only a big black spot. Sweat stippled her skin. She needed to get out of the heat. She crept into a house where all the windows were broken and all the doors were busted down, allowing the air to freely move through it. Moss grew on the faded carpets and harvestmen crawled over the walls. She searched for a chair or maybe a table to sit on, but the house was unfurnished, cleared out except for piles of trash and dirt. In the last bedroom she visited, a colony of cats scattered. Some hid in the corner, some jumped onto the windowsill and out into the daylight. A few cats hissed at her while others circled round her ankles, curious. An orange cat perched on a plastic crate swatted at her from across the room but she shooed it off and sat on the crate herself. It creaked under her immense weight.
Maria Isabel sat there for hours watching the cats. The cats soon realized she was no danger to them so she became of no concern. They came in and out through the windows, slept together in huddles or all alone, and fought with each other in yowling bursts. Maria Isabel tried to ignore the stench that came from their matted coats and the pee-stained walls. She tried to watch them and not think about what would happen to her next or what had happened to her before, to no avail. What would she do when Miss Dominique arrived? She couldn’t just let Miss Dominique take her back to her father, not after all this, all these rivers she’d taken. She groaned and ached from their stress. She was not a violent person, but perhaps she could be. With Miss Dominique gone, there would be no one to find her, she could truly be free. But thinking this and doing this were two different things, and only thinking it already made her head spin. Eventually, a spry, young tabby came bounding in through the door carrying a limp sparrow in its mouth and then she couldn’t help but think about Nina.
The week before Maria Isabel left, her father and Jackie had hosted an extravagant dinner party that set the house aflutter with preparation. Maria Isabel was not invited. She could eat the food but had to stay in her room. This was nothing new. From the stairway, the party sounded boozy and boring but also buzzing and warm with bodies, with conversation, with company. Her father and Jackie agreed that it was a big success. It was the day after, though, when they returned to work and the servants were busy cleaning up, that the man with the birds came to their door. He walked right into the house without knocking. He had a thick mustache, deep-set eyes, and a wooden cage with many compartments strapped to his back. It held four squawking birds.
At first Maria Isabel was unsure if the man was real. He looked as she imagined her father had looked when he was young and the way he appeared out of nowhere and introduced himself by bowing to her like she was a princess made it seem as if he came from a fairytale. His name was José. Maria Isabel asked him what he was doing here. He said he was resting for a moment while on his travels. He asked if he could stay. She let him. He was the first stranger she had talked to in years. He sat on her bedroom floor drinking lemonade and told her all about the people he met on his travels up to and across the border. There was a witch with one eye who lived in the jungle eating snakes, a boy with a Chihuahua the size of a coyote, a woman in the desert whose lips were as red as fire and as hot, too. He talked about them as if they were there in the room, drinking from their own glasses, laughing along with him. Maria Isabel wished so badly that she could see them too, look through his memory and meet them, shake their hands, kiss their cheeks. When José rose to leave, she realized she would never see him again. She wished he would take her with him. He must have noticed that her face looked so sad, so distraught, because he unlatched the door to his cage and said, “Here, take Nina. She will be your friend.”
Nina was a bright green parrot with a patch of yellow on the back of her neck and round, orange eyes. Though Maria Isabel knew from a book that most parrots bonded with one human, Nina was kind to her, even playful. She ate berries from Maria Isabel’s hands and flew around her bedroom, swooping and chattering. Nina spoke and even sang to Maria Isabel in a high, squeaking voice but Maria Isabel didn’t know what she was saying. Nina only knew Spanish and, for some reason, this made her words and songs feel lighter, kinder, and warmer to Maria Isabel. Maria Isabel couldn’t help but think that if she were able to understand Nina then she would be able to understand the parts of herself she never knew were there, the parts that sidled and prowled through dark trees looking for a home long forgotten.
Maria Isabel was only able to keep Nina a secret for two days. The servants could easily hear the bird’s loud cries through the walls and told Maria Isabel’s father. She tried to hide Nina in her closet but her father burst into her room and set Nina aflutter. His arms flailed, failing to snatch Nina out of the air as she flapped above him, clawed at his arms, and eventually took refuge on the canopy above Maria Isabel’s bed. “Where did you get this goddam bird!” he demanded, shaking the canopy’s frame, his blood dripping onto the carpet. Before Maria Isabel could give him an answer or tell him to stop, Nina started singing. The song wasn’t taunting as it might have been but soothing and sweet, like a lullaby for a scared child. Maria Isabel watched her father’s stern face soften, his dark eyes widen, and his mouth open slightly as if he were about to sing along. But instead, he started to cry quiet tears, his body shaking. Maria Isabel had never seen him like this before, but it didn’t last long. When Nina’s singing ended and she flew to perch on Maria Isabel’s shoulder, his face grew red and he pounced viciously. He knocked her from Maria Isabel’s body, down to the floor. Her body twitched; her feathers shook; her voice quieted. Maria Isabel cried and then screamed. She beat her fists against her father’s chest. He was unmovable. Nina stopped moving. Maria Isabel knew then that she had to leave.
When it grew dark, Maria Isabel left the house and the cats and went back to the Ford. Tired, she grabbed the wool blanket she kept in the passenger seat and a small wrench from the glove compartment and crawled into the bed of the truck. She lay down on her back, wrapping the blanket around herself, clutching the wrench tight, and waited for the inevitable. The rivers in her belly pressed her spine and shoulder blades into the truck bed as they swirled violently and tried again and again to breach her from the inside. It was not hard for her to keep them in, but it was painful, a pain that had been growing more and more with each river. Soon, she fell asleep from exhaustion.
She awoke to a slap in the face. “What the hell do you think you’re doing here? Get up!” It was Miss Dominique, crouched over her, silhouetted by headlights behind her. Maria Isabel shot up and tried to run away, dropping the wrench, but she was too fatigued and Miss Dominique was a large, strong woman and held Maria Isabel there with her large, dark hands.
Maria Isabel started sobbing. “Please just leave me alone. Please. I don’t want to go back to my father, I don’t want to go back, I don’t want to—”
Dominique slapped her again, this time harder. “Shut up. I don’t give a damn about your father, except for the money he pays me. Look at you, honey,” she said looking at Maria Isabel’s belly. “What were you thinking?”
“I couldn’t stay there anymore and he would never let me go,” Maria Isabel said, trying not to cry anymore.
Miss Dominique shook her head and frowned. “So this is what you do? You have no business being here in this condition. Come on.”
She held her hand out to Maria Isabel, but instead of taking it, Maria Isabel summoned all her strength and pushed Miss Dominique over and out of the truck. She didn’t look to see if the woman was okay; she scrambled out of the truck bed and stumbled away as fast as she could, the pain building inside of her.
Maria Isabel could hear Miss Dominique chasing after her and knew she couldn’t outrun her, so she retreated into the small school. She pushed open the door to the farthest classroom, but Miss Dominique wasn’t far behind and there wasn’t anywhere else for Maria Isabel to go. She was trapped, as always. Miss Dominique burst into the room and grabbed Maria Isabel’s arm, tried to pull her back to the car but Maria Isabel kicked and squirmed. She loosened the grip Miss Dominique had on her but lost her balance and fell onto the carpeted floor of faded patchwork colors. A jagged, rough pain ripped through her and she cried out. She was stuck on the floor, her muscles twitching and tensing uncontrollably. Miss Dominique knelt down over her and tore open her dress, revealing her belly.
The rivers revolted inside Maria Isabel now with more fervor than ever, her belly swelling up and down, up and down, like a locked door someone was beating against with the intent of breaking through. Maria Isabel screamed again. She saw Miss Dominique pull out a long black hunting knife. Miss Dominique said something to her but she couldn’t hear anything over the pain. Miss Dominique pointed the knife at her belly. Maria Isabel shook her head, sobbing. She imagined the weight of water from eleven rivers exploding from her like a bomb, destroying the town, the animals, Miss Dominique, and flooding the surrounding area. She pictured herself as a ruptured balloon—shreds of a person. Miss Dominique held the knife ready. Maria Isabel closed her eyes and Miss Dominique plunged the knife deep inside her.
But instead of feeling the force of water breaking free and ripping her apart, Maria Isabel heard the sound of a baby crying.
Maria Isabel named him Julio Rivera after her father, Julio, and after his fathers, the rivers. He was a large, fat baby with brownish-green hair like algae. She couldn’t help but smile at him. After Miss Dominique had pulled him out of her, the wound in her belly closed back together like the Red Sea merging after Moses had parted it and the Jews had safely crossed over to the other side. Miss Dominique put the baby in Maria Isabel’s arms and covered her in a blanket. They went back to Miss Dominique’s car and drove off together.
“We’ve got to get you back home, darlin,’” Miss Dominique told her after an hour of silence speeding through the boondocks.
“I told you,” Maria Isabel said. “I don’t want to go back. I can’t stay with my father.”
“Your father is gonna pay me a good chunk of change for finding you. What will I say when I show up at his door without you? I doubt he’d ever hire me again and I can’t afford to lose a client like him. Besides, you almost died out here without me.”
“Well tell him I died! I don’t care!” Maria Isabel shouted, making Julio start to cry. Big, blubbery tears welled up in his eyes as he wailed.
Miss Dominique did not look amused. “Girl, don’t be so dramatic. You’ve got to get back to your mama anyways.”
Maria Isabel tried to rock Julio gently as the car rocked roughly on the bumpy road, but he kept crying. “I’ll pay you then,” she pleaded. “Anything. You name it.”
“You and I know you don’t have a cent to your name.”
“I didn’t say it had to be money. My mother, maybe she has something you want.”
“Don’t go putting this on your mother. You’re the one who got yourself into this mess. You gotta pay.” Miss Dominique eyed her and Julio quickly yet thoroughly. “If you want your freedom from your father, give me your baby.”
Maria Isabel felt her arms tighten around Julio, his warm, weepy face pressed to her breast. Fury and fear struck her like twin lightning bolts and she looked at Miss Dominique with more hatred than she ever had at anymore, even Jackie, even her father.
Miss Dominique cackled. “I’m only joking. What am I gonna do with a baby? Don’t worry, he’s all yours.”
Maria Isabel calmed down, realized her body was shaking. “Then what do you want?”
“Only your hand. Doesn’t matter which one, you pick.”
“Why do you want my hand?”
“A young sea maiden, half-ocean, demigoddess, or whatever you wanna call it like you? Oh, you don’t know how rare someone like you is or what your body is capable of. How much even just your hand is worth.”
It was discomforting for Maria Isabel to hear someone talk about her body that way, as an object to be priced but also as something she did not know best, something that held mysteries hidden from her. And as she looked down at Julio in her arms, at last starting to calm down, she could not deny her ignorance. She didn’t know that she would come to bear a child from taking all those rivers but clearly Miss Dominique did and she knew how to deliver the baby. In her line of work, she must have seen stranger things, learned a thing or two. Maria Isabel agreed to the deal. Her hand for her and her son’s freedom.
After stopping in a small town to eat McDonald’s and fill up on gas, Miss Dominique pulled off the highway onto a network of dirt roads flanked by cornfields. They left the car’s ignition on and Julio sleeping soundly in its air-conditioned coolness. Maria Isabel followed Miss Dominique into the fields. The corn swallowed her while the top of Miss Dominique’s head poked out over it. Maria Isabel had decided on her left hand, as she was right handed. Miss Dominique pulled out her black hunting knife. Maria Isabel could now see without complete terror blurring her vision that there were symbols carved into its hilt. Still, there was some terror.
“Don’t worry,” Miss Dominique said, “you won’t bleed.”
They crouched down low. Maria Isabel held her arm flat on the ground, her empty palm facing the sky. Miss Dominique gave her the belt she was wearing to bite down on so she wouldn’t scream. Miss Dominique raised the knife over her head and brought it down fast and hard, clean through Maria Isabel’s forearm, right before her wrist. It hurt, but Miss Dominique was right, she didn’t bleed. Instead, the knife parted her body as it had before, like how the spout of a pitcher separates the water it has just poured from the water it will pour later when you tilt it back upright. Maria Isabel lifted her arm to look at the wound; her insides were glassy and blue-green. Then, within seconds, the wound closed back up into a stub of flesh. Her hand on the ground did not look dead and limp but like the hand of someone who was asleep. Miss Dominique picked it up and put it in a velvet bag.
They drove back down to the Gulf. Miss Dominique, having been paid, became much more generous. She bought new clothes for Maria Isabel and Julio, loaned her a thick wad of cash, and gave her advice on how to start a new life from scratch. Maria Isabel thanked her constantly, not sure how she could take so many gifts. Miss Dominique brushed it all off and said, “You really must not know how much you’re worth. This is nothing compared to your hand. Don’t worry, though, you’ll pay me back eventually. I’ll know where to find you.” The thought was troubling yet comforting at the same time.
When Maria Isabel asked what she would tell her father, Miss Dominique said, “Don’t worry about that either. But you should know, when he called me, I could hear it—he was breaking. That’s not a kind of pain that just disappears. He’ll come looking for you again one day.”
Maria Isabel looked at Julio in her arms and imagined the immense love she felt for him growing into something monstrous. Was it possible? No, she wouldn’t let it. She held him a little less tight and kissed his head gently. In his big, dark eyes she saw herself reflected small, not the hard face of her father. What would she do when she saw him again? What would she say? She didn’t know and hoped that day would not be for a long while. When Maria Isabel and Miss Dominique reached a town they agreed would be good for Maria Isabel to live in, Miss Dominique left her there. The last thing she gave Maria Isabel was her business card.
Eventually, Maria Isabel found a small house on the shore that she painted a dark, rich blue. She found a job doing manual labor restoring coastal habitats as a way to try to atone for her crimes against the rivers and to take care of her mother’s creatures. It was grueling work, especially with only one hand and a hook, work that tired her every muscle, but in doing this work, she found herself in the company of kind, loving people who cared for the ocean, whom she could call friends. Every day she took her son into the ocean and watched him sink and float freely in his grandmother’s water, giggling and wide-eyed, growing bigger every day. She asked her mother, “Were you this happy when you had me?” Her mother answered yes, the day of Maria Isabel’s birth was one of the happiest days of her long life. But her mother also told her that she should be prepared for when Julio would no longer be hers.
Maria Isabel nodded. She knew that rivers ran where they wanted, that they flowed wild and forceful and peaceful and free.
CARL NAPOLITANO is a writer, ceramicist, and drag performer from Little Rock, Arkansas. He recently received his MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and his work has appeared in Assaracus, CRAFT, and The Rumpus. He is an associate editor for Sibling Rivalry Press.