She is the only thing he sees in that place that reminds the river god of home – though not instantly. That earliest glimpse of her, he sees only that she is looking at him, at him. They see each other, take in the differences and similarities in an instant. All he can sense of her are her shadowy face and small hands as his tank is wheeled away. An alert little face, otter-curious, concerned and alarmed, but nothing hostile within it. A hand that was defenseless – soft, no spines, but held palely open and vulnerable as a night-blooming flower. He reached for it instinctively, and was pulled away.
He wonders now, what she saw of him during that first, primordial moment.
But he sees the shape of his home in her immediately the next time they meet: that she moves like a graceful sinew of his river, flowing over obstacles and around bends. She picks her way around flotsam without looking at her feet; she eddies and swirls. Her eyes are bright, the way the leaves are after the afternoon fall of rain, lit from behind by sun.
He doesn’t want her to be here – he does not understand why she is here, with these monstrous other humans, so loud and painful and needlessly, causelessly cruel – but he thinks she might be as much a captive as he.
She does not look like the familiar humans he knows, his poor people, many of them now ill and desperate with drug and disease beyond what the river god can cure. The source of their suffering is far from his river, far beyond his ability to mend - here, perhaps, in this smoking, lifeless world, is where the suffering comes from. And at first glance, she is of this world - marked by the pallid vulnerable underbelly color of her skin, grey and dark beneath her eyes. Her torso is hidden by the same alien cloaks as everyone else he has seen in this place, and her scent is the same as theirs - harsh and alien with chemicals. He can tell nothing about her from it, except that he thinks she is in pain. How can she not be? Even with scales, the air here burns, and her throat and cheeks are bare to it.
But her feet are so many different colors – not just the brown-black-slick of dead leaves and loam, the sharp shine of obsidian that he sees on other humans. Hers are the bright throat of a bird, the erotic flush of petals, the sky washed clean after a storm. When her feet move, they make little clicks that almost sound like his speech - delicate, tapping rhythms he can’t help but respond to in helpless trills. He wonders, as he watches those feet move in little ripples to the sweet sounds she coaxes from the inert not-forest around them, if she dons the colors of her feet-wrappings for her pleasure alone, or if something there is for him, too. If she wants him to see.
He is in dire straits, he knows. He is desperate and alone and dying; maybe that is why he has never looked at another human this way until now. Or maybe he has been waiting, waiting for this one. His bright-shod human, who spins and dances for him, who uses the songs of others to sing to him. She slides him the strangest eggs he’s ever seen, solid through to the core and without any living thing kindled inside – they should be as dead as the surroundings he’s in, sterile and inert, but they are delicious. They taste rich, like hope. He wonders where they come from, and has no shared gestures to ask the question yet.
She makes him want to live; for her, his struggles stop becoming stubbornness alone, but earnest. She reminds him of a world that was younger, cleaner. She has the mischief of a river otter, playfully pulling her hand from his then pushing back towards him so quickly he must do little, awkward hops to avoid nicking her. When he laughs in sharp staccato, she jumps, then flutters her hands at him. Her vulnerable throat is the pale erotic bloom of an orchid, dangled over the water. Her exhaustion is his, soot and smoke thick in her throat and hair. He wants to take her from here; he wants to feed her fresh fish and fruit. He wants...
He thinks at last he understands the stories.
He had known of others of his folk, the long-lived ones of the trees and mountains and sky, who danced for the humans, who lay down with them, changed for them. Why they would was a mystery. What could draw one of his people from their world to theirs, or draw a human into the water or deep forest, change them in return? He felt doubt, that a human could ever have the patience, or one of his kind ever feel the will.
Humans were creative, cooperative, quick in a way none of his people were. But they were so short-lived. So flashy and shallow. We are too different, he remembers arguing in lazy splashes with one of the rock-dwellers, the slow-moving stone-speakers high above the sea, where his river left the earth and met the sky in white, frothing rapids. The humans had just appeared in the jungle deeps, chattering and taking things and remaking them and reshaping the world about them. Humans aren’t shaped, they aren’t patient enough to change. They change things instead, thoughtlessly, carelessly. They don’t have real colors of their own, so they take that of others. They can’t swim.
At this, the stone woman had, very slowly, raised a mountain-grey brow, obsidian eye glittering, and the river god had felt, for the first time in a long while indeed, a little abashed. He finds his patience.
Humans, he learned slowly, watching with eyes barely breaching the surface, were both good and bad - not so different from the rest of nature. Cruel and kind in turns, destined, perhaps, to beat themselves to pieces in their excited fury of new growth until they can find a stillness and peace. His kind cannot do it for them, can only wait it out and hope to make it through themselves not too changed by the humans’ storming, their froth and refuse and mess. Many of his kind are already gone, or will be changed when they return. But that is the nature of existence - they have all been through changes before, with the turning of the cosmos, the churning of the planet.
But for a time, the river god had found peace with his river humans, settled into an understanding of arrow and offering, of quiet symbiosis and growing sadness. He has never wanted to change one for himself, for his river, until now. Or to be changed, by one. As he watched the waters poison and the forests cleared, he had thought that he, too, would simply diminish and wait to return again.
But that was before his capture. Before her.
She swims through the air to him on clicking red feet, holds her hand above the pool until he breaches the surface to reach for her. Her hands shape her name, and his new one, the one that she has given him. Elisa. Charlie. He practices spelling them out when he is alone, with nothing to do but survive and wait again for her return. He is starving, and cannot breathe, and she is a flash of sweet cool water in a stagnant pond. He wants to taste her; he cannot reach her in his chains, and for whatever reason, she does not come fully to him.
Even as he feels himself fading, she grows bold and enchantingly confident over time in her movements, even when he sees her from beneath the surface of his hateful pool, trapped below by the presence of the other humans, the monstrous ones, while she with her sticks sweeps clear the tiled ground of debris. He thinks, wondering at himself, that he wants this new confidence to be because of him, for him. A dance to entice him, made all the more succulent for the breathless, starving pool of the human world they are both, in their own ways, trapped in.
The worst of the humans (Elisa’s opposite - everything horrible and alien about humanity distilled into one form) makes the river god think humanity will not be here long, that it will poison itself, and soon, in its own gloating, greedy overgrowth. The savage human lurches towards the river god’s chained form on the floor, and Elisa’s frightened eyes flash at him from her hiding place, barely covered by the inert sheeting.
The river god fantasizes about rescuing her even as he bleeds and bleats. He will die here, far from home, and his human will never know the touch of his headwaters, but still he pictures pulling her to deep swift water, giving her his breath, coating her in petals and scales and giving her his colors and – stupid, foolish. He cannot keep his own blood from spilling, he can barely breathe, he is going to die here. He cannot even save this one sweet thing.
Then he realizes with a throb in each pulsing chamber of his heart – she is saving him. She has been, this whole time, possibly, by giving him hope in this airless place. But now, literally, she is saving him from the pool, her tiny frame struggling beneath his weight, her small shoulder beneath his – she is saving him. Her breath comes in painful, great heaves that remind him of his own gills struggling with the fetid water, with this dry dead air, but she gets him from the captivity of the pool to something new, a damp little cave that smells as astringent as her coverings and her hands.
It burns his nose and skin and reminds him of her, and he relaxes in to the damp strangeness in spite of himself, aching. He is so tired; he is ashamed, that he is not helping more – she is tired, too, he can hear it in her breath and see it in her graceless, strained movements.
She had helpers – a human male, and a human woman. Not close, not kin, but they are hers, he can smell it despite the sharp fear-scents drenching them all, now. He is contributing his own anxious pheromones to the mix, but also, elation, elation, a joy so rich it thrums about him in the air. He is glowing with it now, in his basket like a fish caught by a trap, dumb and delighted still with frog poison. She is touching him. Not the glancing, timid, teasing touches of their fingers as eggs passed between them. No, she is pouring water over him – he doesn’t mind it is alarmingly tasteless, and empty of most life – she is running her soft, scaleless fingers over his dorsal fins.
She is humming quietly, and curled around his basket. He can feel her warm body against his. It feels like the river, curved and breathing and sunlit.