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Beth and the River Spirit

The girl crosses the river every day to get to school.


She’s just about tall enough to peek over the walls of the stone bridge, standing on her tiptoes, to watch the shimmering grey water flicker with fish.


She likes to drop a leaf or a stick into the river on one side of the bridge and then race the current to the other side.


It makes her giggle when she wins.


Sometimes, when she has time on her way home from school, she walks along the bank and crouches in the sandy mud, peering at her wobbly reflection as the dark eyes peer back.


Then a fish swims through her reflection’s nose and she giggles and runs along the bank squealing before skipping home.


But that day, when the girl raced the leaf and then giggled at her wobbly reflection in the light grey water, it was green eyes that peered back. Not dark eyes.


She blinked and leaned closer.


The reflection leaned closer too.


She smiled, but the reflection didn’t. It looked at her curiously, and then in shock as the girl splashed her hand into the water and grabbed tight with a tiny fist.


The reflection tried to swim away, and the girl tumbled after it, landing on her belly in the water and squealing with the cold.


By the time she’d rubbed the water from her eyes and looked for the reflection, it was nowhere to be seen, and so she clambered out of the river and squelched home.


The next day, the girl skipped racing leaves and sticks in the river and went straight down to the river bank, crouching closely even though she knew she could fall in and get wet again, spending her day at school wet or in her PE kit.


But it didn’t matter.


What were those green eyes?


She’d grabbed something yesterday, and it had tried swimming off. She knew it.


And it hadn’t been a fish.


It had a face just like her, and sad, lonely eyes.


Like the eyes of the puppy her mum and her had rescued from the pet home one day, and now the puppy looked at her with love-filled happy eyes as it bounded around with her every day and rolled on the carpet.


Excitement grew in the little girl’s chest.


What was the creature she’d seen, and could she play with it like she played with her puppy?


She leaned over the water and peered inside.


Only dark eyes stared back.


At first.


Before the disappointment set in, the creature flashed below the water, and green eyes stared back. This time next to her reflection, not inside it.


The girl leaned closer, and so did the face in the water, until it came above the water and wet sandy-coloured hair floated about the face with green eyes, and a small girl peered back.


‘You’re a girl!’ the young girl squealed, a toothy grin spreading across her face as she looked at the girl in the water. And then her smile faded. ‘Are you okay? Are you stuck?’ She looked around for a grown up. ‘Do you want to come out?’


The green-eyed girl in the water shook her head.


‘Why not? Isn’t it cold.’


The girl in the water opened and closed her mouth a few times, as if deciding what to say. And then a small smile appeared on her face.


‘I live here.’


‘In the water? Why not a house?’


The green-eyed girl giggled and stood up, water dripping around a simple cloth dress and shorts. ‘This is my house.’ And when she saw the other girl scrunch her face up with confusion, she continued. ‘I’m a river spirit. So the river is my house.’


The dark eyed girl pouted as she thought, shifting from a crouch to plonking on her bottom on the river bank. Forget a muddy school uniform. Forget going to school on time at all. This was more interesting. ‘What’s a river spirit?’


‘A magical creature. I look after the river.’


‘Oooh,’ the other girl said, not really understanding. ‘Well, my name’s Beth. I’m a human. I look after my puppy.’ Then she added, ‘When I’m not at school.’


Beth frowned and looked around, seeing other people in school uniforms rushing over the bridge and towards the school building in the distance, where a bell was ringing in the playground.


‘Oh no! I need to go.’ She rushed to stand up and brushed the dirt from her uniform with her hands, and looked back at the river spirit. ‘Will you be here when I come home?’


The river spirit looked at Beth curiously, and then nodded. ‘I’m always here.’


Beth grinned, and raced up the banks and waved as she crossed the stony bridge, feeling her heart pounding at the thought of seeing her new friend again later.


True to her word, the river spirit was there every time Beth ran by. It didn’t matter where she went by the river—over the bridge, by the bank, by the bushes on the side of the river on the other side of the village—the river spirit always appeared with a small smile. Beth always answered with a toothy grin.


One day, Beth left early so she could spend more time with the river spirit, running up to her and sliding on her bum down the river bank as she slipped on the wet mud. She laughed as she skidded to a stop by the river spirit’s legs. ‘Hey! Whatcha looking for?’


‘How did you know I was looking for something?’


Beth tilted her head as she thought. ‘Every time I leave, you always turn back to the river and crouch down as if you’re hunting for something. And you swim as if you’re searching in the water. Have you lost something?’


The river spirit’s gentle smile faded, and instead her mouth quivered and her eyes watered. Beth panicked.


‘Oh no! Don’t cry!’


She grabbed the river spirit’s hand and smiled. ‘What did you lose? I can help you find it.’ She pointed to her chest with her thumb. ‘I’m great at finding things! And it’ll be quicker with two, right? That’s what my parents always say.’


The girl nodded and looked down at her feet as she responded, voice quiet as if she didn’t want to say it too loud in fear of punishment. ‘I lost my river crystal.’


She looked up when Beth said nothing, met with an exaggeratedly confused expression.


‘It’s like the heart of the river.’ She made her hands into a little circle. ‘It’s about this big, a light, clear grey like the river. Without it, I can’t go back to the spirit world where all the other spirits live. It’s how we move between the two places.’


‘So you do have a proper home?’


The river spirit tilted her head. ‘Well … it’s hard to say. The river is my home, but I’m also the river. And the spirit world is also my home.’


She saw it wasn’t helping Beth.


‘We don’t have homes like humans do.’


‘But if you have this crystal it’ll help you be happy?’


The river spirit nodded and let her small smile slip back across her face, and Beth grinned.


‘Okay!’ Her school bell tolled in the distance, and Beth ran up the bank, waving. ‘I’ve got to go now, but let’s hunt together from here on. I’ll see you after school!’


True to her word, Beth helped the river spirit hunt for the river’s crystal heart every day, before and after school, and even on the streets and in the shops as she walked with her parents. It took what felt like weeks, but when Beth eventually found it trapped under some netting and bottles in a drain by the edge of the river way down stream from where she usually met the river spirit, on a fishing trip with her grandpa, her heart soared.


She’d found it!


She begged her grandpa to help her get it free, and then she hugged it to her chest. It was cold. She didn’t know what else she’d expected it to be, as a stone stuck in the river.


But her hand’s always warm, she thought, thinking back to the river spirit’s hand. Will it warm up if I give it to her?


She kept it safe in her pocket, the grin on her face at the thought of her friend’s face when she gave it back.


Except the next day, when she eagerly ran down to the river to show the river spirit what she’d found, she paused on the top of the bank, staring down at the pale haired girl as she swam through the river and then stopped to look back up at Beth with her usual kind smile.


But if I give her this, will she leave?


The river spirit had only been here while she’d been searching for the crystal, hadn’t she? Beth didn’t remember seeing her before that.


It’ll help her go back to the spirit world. But then she won’t be here.


Stuck in her indecision, Beth froze, waved back at the river spirit with a stoney smile, and then made an excuse about having to school early, running as fast as she could with her hand on her pocket in the hopes the crystal wouldn’t fall out or the spirit wouldn’t realise.


Her heart scratched with an odd feeling.


The same feeling she’d had when she’d stolen the last of her mother’s special biscuits without asking.


The same feeling she’d had when she’d accidentally broken the window with a ball.


Her face burned, and her eyes burned, and she sniffed.


I don’t want her to go.


Days passed, and Beth kept feeling fearful of giving the crystal back. She met the river spirit. Played with her as usual. Helped her ‘hunt’ for the crystal. And that scratchy feeling in her heart got worse and the crystal in her pocket felt heavier each day.


Until she cried in front of her mother one night.


‘What if she goes away forever?’ Beth cried into her pillow, staring at the crystal on her bedside table.


‘Who?’


And when Beth realised she’d never told her family about the river spirit, she explained, hoping they’d believe her and not tell her she was making it all up. She told her mother about the girl, the hunt for the special stone, and how she’d found it on a fishing trip with her grandpa and how she was scared of giving it back in case the spirit disappeared forever and she never saw her again.


‘I know I should give it to her. I want to see her happy. But what if she leaves? Then I’ll be sad.’


She sniffed into the pillow and refused to look at her mother’s face in case her mother was angry. There was a long pause. Beth’s heart pounded.


‘What if it was the other way around?’ And when Beth’s mother saw she was looking confused, she continued. ‘Imagine you were lost. You found a friend and played, and it was fun, but at the end of the day you realised you still needed to come home. Back to us. If your friend knew the way home, would you want them to tell you so you could find us, even though they might not get to keep playing with you?’


‘Of course! I wouldn’t want to not see you again. This is home!’


Beth froze and then smushed her face in her pillow.


‘Okay. I get it.’


‘Even if it’ll make you sad, if it’s the right thing, you still have to do it. It’s not your life. And you don’t know. She might still come back to see you. You said she could travel between the two worlds, right?’


Beth nodded and turned to look at her mother. She smiled.


The next day, she left extra early. Early enough to give the crystal back and then run to school and cry in the toilets before class if the spirit got angry at her. But when she ran to meet the river spirit, and she explained her story, the river spirit didn’t get angry.


Her green eyes lit up and she gave Beth the biggest smile Beth had ever seen on her, and the scratchy guilty feeling in Beth’s heart faded, replaced with an excited, burning glow.


‘You’ll still come and play with me sometimes?’ Beth asked nervously.


‘Yes! And we can play even more. If I can go home, I can be even stronger, and I can play for hours!’


‘Like eating food makes you stronger?’


‘Like that.’ The river spirit grinned and attached the crystal back to a chain she had in her pocket, hooking it back over her neck. Then she looked up at Beth, tilted her head like she always did when she thought, and then she held a hand over the stone.


It’s glowing!


A piece of the stone broke off, but Beth couldn’t see a flaw in the stone where it had.


‘Magic?’ Her eyes widened.


‘Magic.’ The spirit smiled and held the small piece of crystal out to her. ‘It’s a promise. Let’s play again soon.’


The piece of crystal was light in her hands, and Beth stared at it in awe. When she looked up, the river spirit had gone, little glowing dots disappearing in her place. And while Beth’s eyes burned at the thought of her friend leaving, she told herself the crystal was real.


It was the promise.



 

I wrote this and published it on my AO3 back in October 2023 but realised I hadn't shared it here, so here we go, another fantasy short story!


Any guesses where the inspo for this one came from?



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