Riverkeep - Martin Stewart


The Keep

To keepe the Danék.

To presserve lyfe and to retreeve those claymed by its watters.

To reckord the happnings in the river’s oan voyce.

To ackt with dignittie.

—Riverkeep Ledgers, Vol. 1, p. 1

“Yer hands are shakin’, Wulliam.”

Wull shrugged and shifted his hands on the mug.

“It’s cold.”

Pappa laughed, releasing a stinging breeze of lakoris tobacco.

“That’s no’ cold. Cold is when yer eyeballs scratch when ye blink, when it hurts to breathe. Ye’ll be Riverkeep soon. Ye’ll get used to that quick enough.”

“I’m no’ Riverkeep yet,” said Wull. Never, he thought.

Pappa secured a knot and sat back on his haunches. “But a week’ll no’ be long passin’, my boy,” he said. “Time feels long for the young, but don’t worry—ye’ll no’ be young for long.”

He grinned and went to get the boat ready, ruffling Wull’s hair as he passed. The deep creak of his rubber boots faded into the gloom beyond the lamp.

Wull put down the mug and looked at his hands, already thickly scarred with the burns of rope and snow. Over the voice of the river—sucking knocks and shifting wood—he felt the needles of sound as the new ice along the banks of the Danék cracked.

Ice meant winter and darkness, and for waterfolk a new kind of danger. Pappa saw it as a great enemy to be feared and defeated with flames and rods. But it brought Wull respite from the river’s black void, its thick scum and little puddles of treacherous clarity, and the huge sharp rocks fringed with weed that swirled like a corpse’s hair.

In the heat of summer, perfumed wildflowers grew along the banks, insects skittered on the leaf-padded surface, and silvery clouds of fish burst through the water—chased by the seulas whose wet little heads dotted the surface like stepping stones, their golden summer eyes glowing in the sunlight.

But Wull could never think of the river as something living. He had seen what happened on the rocks: the floating bodies, arms raised and mouths howling against the surface as though restrained by thick glass.

It was the Riverkeep’s job to push his arms through that barrier to embrace the dead, to lower his face close to theirs and taste the bilge-stink of their breath before lifting them from the water. Pappa did so with a martyr’s grace, blind to gangland markings and forgiving of sinners who took their own lives. Wull had watched them since he could remember: propped in a grotesque parody of sleep, as though they were snatching a nap in the back of the little bäta.

Now he sat with them. Sometimes the bodies were old, and the flesh slid from their shining bones like the skin of a poached fish.

Wull did not want this wilderness life. With Pappa’s help he had read the ledgers in their entirety, right through the ninth volume in Pappa’s own careful hand. The ledgers didn’t just list the dates; they told the stories, detailed bodies’ decomposition, and kept the words of the rescued and their reasons for jumping: sweethearts, fear, sicknesses of the mind, and often, so often, “coin.” At first Wull had taken this literally, as though they were jumping into a wishing fountain to fish for pennies. Then he had realized and felt like a foolish child.

Every entry was the same. To Pappa this was priceless—a means of creating something that would stand forever as a monument of pride and respectability. To Wull it was a prison of words—repetitive, rotting words.

He reached over and touched the ledger that sat open on the desk. Their last discovery had been just over a week ago: 3,101, a widow, faceup and floating, her