The river nudged my log raft against its mooring post with a steady thud on the night I first saw Old Qiu’s woman. Sitting on her knees at the end of his boat, she offered his cormorants a few of the small fish they’d caught that day. Her young, round face echoed the full moon, its light glinting in her black eyes. A jade ring encircled her finger. Its sweeping lines reminded me of river’s currents.
“Jiang,” Qiu called, from where he squatted beside a cook-fire on the shore. “Come.”
When she obeyed, the cormorants croaked their gurgling call after her.
* * *
Jiang spent her days collecting reeds, the hard stalks biting her hands until they bled. “What is your woman doing?” I called to Qiu over the river between us, where our birds flew through the waters, catching throatfuls of silver-bright fish.
Qiu ignored me, but in the evenings I watched. Jiang sat beside the fire, weaving the reeds into the shape of a cage. She never smiled, but sometimes I thought her shining eyes sought me. I, to whom she’d never spoken a word.
* * *
A night came when the river hid beneath a shroud of mist so thick I couldn’t see the end of my raft. Sounds seemed to come from everywhere at once. Frogs chirping on the banks. The chop of an ax. A muted wail, then a splash that could have been a fish jumping, or something thrown into the river.
The smell of damp iron hung in the air, and my birds crept close, butting my legs and croaking. I smoothed their feathers, but while it seemed to soothe them, nothing relieved the chill raising gooseflesh over my skin.
* * *
The next morning, when the sun burned away the fog, Qiu’s boat was already far out onto the river, but now the cage Jiang had woven hung from a post at its prow, a single cormorant within. A smear of red slid down the reeds where one stunted wing struggled to spread.
One by one, the other cormorants returned to Qiu, coughing their catch into his baskets, calling as they went. The bird in the cage fluttered and kept silence.
* * *
In the days that followed, I kept watch over Qiu’s boat. His cormorants now brought new offerings. A silver bracelet. A teacup carved from horn. Treasures of far greater value than fish or even Qiu’s boat. And always, I felt the caged bird’s black-eyed gaze upon me, until one day, when the sun hung at its zenith, it opened its throat and called, hopping and flapping madly against the woven reeds. My cormorants swarmed to the cage and circled beneath it, a black-winged eddy.
Qiu shouted and dispersed them, but after he had moved on, I maneuvered my boat to where his had floated and plunged my spare pole into the riverbed to mark the place the caged bird had finally found its voice.
* * *
That night, under the watchful eye of a crescent moon, I slunk up the riverbank to Qiu’s moored boat. The old man snored near the dwindling remains of his fire and, though the river sloshed against the wood when my weight displaced it, his resting cormorants made no sound while I crept to the prow and untied the cage.
Its bottom was formed of mottled glass, and the cormorant’s feet slipped on the smooth surface, slick with streaks of blood. Careful not to jostle the cage, I returned to my own raft and slid it into the current. My abandoned pole stood out as a dark shadow in the moonlight.
The cormorant stared ahead, wings trembling.
* * *
We reached the marker, and I pulled the cormorant from its cage, tying a quick noose around its throat. The moment I let go, it vanished into the depths. My own birds crowded the edge of the raft, peering into the blackness and muttering among themselves.
In minutes the bird returned, its catch trapped in its constricted throat. I stroked its neck until it coughed up its prize–a severed finger, bloated flesh straining against a ring of jade.
I released the noose then, with a shudder, lifted the ghastly finger. The cormorant pressed its damp head against my hand and nipped at the ring. I pried the jade free.
A moan sounded beside me, and the raft sank low. Jiang knelt at my side, hair like river-weeds clinging to her naked skin. She cradled one hand to her breast, blood seeping from the torn stump of her finger. Beads of moisture snaking down her body caught the moonlight, turning them to pearls.
I swallowed in a throat gone dry. My fingers traced the jade’s carved lines, so cold against my skin. This woman could be mine. I knew it as surely as I knew my birds. All I needed to do was place the ring on her finger to claim her for my own as Qiu must have done before me.
Her black eyes gazed up at me, her body motionless, waiting.
Slowly, I became aware of the silence. My cormorants stood around me, their stares as heavy as the emptiness where their constant, familiar voices should have been. I licked my lip and tasted sweat, despite the cold. I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t make Jiang a slave, no matter that I would treat her with respect and care.
I held out the ring in a cupped palm. “It is yours. Do with it what you will.”
With a smile as bright as the river at dawn, Jiang plucked up the ring and threw it into the river in a broad arc, then touched her palm flat against my chest, over my quick-beating heart.
Without a word, she slipped into the river and vanished in a rush of tiny bubbles, leaving nothing behind but the ephemeral warmth of her hand against my skin.
I pulled my pole from the riverbed’s grasp and pushed toward the shore, holding tight to her memory.
© 2015 Rebecca Birch