“Papa, tell us a story.”
Grandfather looked up from the book he was reading. My sister and I stood in front of him, flashing what we hoped were our most winning smiles. I was eight and Ama was six, and we were bored out of our minds.
Grandfather looked at us for a long time, and then he nodded. “Fine, children. I shall tell you a story.”
“Yaay!” Ama said, sitting down by Grandfather’s feet and looking up into his face. I sat down on the floor too, a little distance away from Ama.
“Will you tell us about Ananse and his family?” I asked.
“No,” said Grandfather.
“What about King Arthur?”
“No. I will tell you a new story, children. I will tell you a story that my grandmother told me, and her grandmother told her, and which one day you will tell your grandchildren in turn. I will tell you the story of the river that fell in love.”
“Don’t be silly, Papa,” Ama said. “Rivers can’t fall in love.”
In any other house she probably would have gotten into a lot of trouble for those first three words, but Grandfather simply smiled and said, “This one did.”
“How is that possible?” I asked.
“Was it a big river?”
“Yes, Ama, it was.”
Ama, who, being only six years old, had a hard time keeping quiet, said “A really really big river? This big?” She spread her arms as wide as they could go.
Grandfather threw his head back and laughed. “Quite a bit bigger than that, my child.
“Now will you let me tell the story?”
We both nodded, and he said:
“Once upon a time,” and stopped.
Grandfather cleared his ancient throat. “Once upon a time.”
“Time, time,” said my sister and me together, finally catching on.
“Once upon a time there was a river that ran by a large village.
“It was the first village in this land, for it was the village of our ancestors, the village of the first of our people.
“The people of the village worshipped the Spirit of the river. They prayed and gave offerings to him and in turn the river provided them with fish for food and water to drink, as well as the biggest swimming pool you ever saw.”
“Nobody could remember exactly when the river became their god, nor could they remember a time when it was not so. Years passed, generations passed. Kings came and went in the village, but the river stayed eternal, and all was well with the people.
“And occasionally the Spirit of the river would take the form of a man and walk among the people, unnoticed, and he would listen to their problems and commune with them, though they never knew it. He did not do this often, perhaps only once in a few decades. Gods do not lightly mingle in the affairs of men.
“One day the Spirit of the river took the form of a man and went walking in the forest. And he came upon a young woman bathing naked in a pool, and his heart was stolen away, for she was the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on, and from the moment he laid eyes on her the Spirit of the river was lost.
“She did not see him; he hid himself in the trees and watched until she was done and had gone back into the village. The Spirit made himself invisible – most gods can do that – and followed her. The woman came to the palace and went inside, and the Spirit knew who she was: daughter of the King and Queen of the village, Princess of the land.
“And the Spirit returned to his throne at the bottom of the river, and sorrow seized his heart. Because even though he loved the princess, she was human, and it is not given to the gods to love the daughters of men.”
“So what did he do?” I asked.
“What did he do, Papa?” asked Ama.
“I’m getting to that, children, I’m getting to that.
“So now the Spirit of the river walked in the village more often, always hoping to catch a glimpse of the princess. The more he saw her the more he loved her, and the more he despaired. Especially since she didn’t know who he was; to her he was just another man from the village. And the Spirit dared not reveal himself to her, or she might be afraid, and then she would truly be lost to him.
“A year passed like this. The princess was nearing the age where she would need to take a husband. The Spirit did not want this to happen.
“And so the Spirit of the river sought advice. He left his watery throne and went out into the world, chasing the wind. He chased for a long time, for the Spirit of the wind is hard to catch.
“When the Spirit of the river finally caught up with the wind, he went on his knees and bowed before it, because the wind god is one of the oldest and most powerful children of, Mother Earth.
“And the river god said: ‘Oh Mighty Wind, I have sought you for many moons with diligence, and now I humbly seek your counsel.’
“The Spirit of the wind, The Four Winds who is One, replied and said unto him: ‘Speak, young one.’
“And the river god spoke, and told his problems to the wind, saying: ‘You have travelled the world many times since the dawn of Time, and you know the ways of men better than I. Tell me how I might win the princess for my own.’
“And so the wind told him.”
“What did the wind say to him?”
“The Spirit of the river returned to the village. He took the form of a man for the last time, and crept up on the princess when she was bathing alone in the forest. And there he struck her down, and stole her life and hid it, and thus the princess died.”
“He killed her?”
“He killed her and left her body for the people of the village to find. And when they did there was great mourning in the village that went on for many days, because the princess was well loved by everyone.
“One day the King and Queen of the village came to the river, just as the Wind had foretold. They brought the body of their only daughter with them. They came alone, in the early hours of dawn.
“They knelt by the banks of the river and offered the Spirit everything they had in exchange for their daughter’s life. The Spirit of the river, ever generous, told them that he would bring their daughter back to life again, but only on one condition:
“That she be dedicated to him for the rest of her life.
“She would stay by the river, and she would serve him all the days of her life, and she would never marry another man.
“And the King and Queen agreed. Anything, they said, as long as their daughter would live again.
“And the Spirit of the river gave the princess her life, and she opened her eyes and drew breath, and became alive once more.
“The village rejoiced. The princess was eternally grateful to the river (for she did not know that he was the one who killed her in the first place). The villagers made a hut by the banks of the river, and there the princess stayed. And in the nights the Spirit would appear to her, though never in the form of a man, and talk to her, and over time the princess became quite fond of him.
“And time passed.
“But the princess was not happy.”
“But you just said…”
“I said she grew fond of the Spirit, and she did. She liked him, but she was not happy.”
“Why?” Ama asked.
“Well,” said Grandfather, “She missed the company of other people. She missed the chatter of the young women, and she longed for the warmth of a man. She would occasionally visit the village and watch the little children playing. Deep in her heart she wanted children of her own. A family. You cannot start a family with a river, you know.
“One day, when the Spirit of the river arose from the depths, the princess was gone.
“The river was furious, thinking that the villagers had snuck in the night and stolen her away. He overflowed his banks. He destroyed the crops the villagers had planted. He poisoned their wells and drowned their livestock. And the people of the village were afraid that he would kill them all.
“And he would have, too, but in the dead of night the princess came back to him.
“She begged his forgiveness, begged him to spare the village. She told him that she was run away of her own choosing.
“And the river was angry, but he loved her and was glad that she had returned. So glad, in fact, that when the princess knelt down and asked him to grant her a wish, he told her to ask him anything.
“And so the princess asked for permission to leave his side and start a family with another. With a man.
“Now upon hearing this, the Spirit of the river was deeply saddened. It broke his heart to look into her eyes and know that she was unhappy with him. It broke his heart that he couldn’t keep the one he loved happy. It broke his heart that he was not enough for her. It broke his heart that she desired another.
“But he had given her his word, and he could not take it back.”
Here Grandfather paused, and said quietly, “And perhaps even an immortal being like a river Spirit could come to learn that sometimes when you love someone the best thing to do is to let them go.”
My sister and I, for once, were quiet.
“So the girl went to the village. She met a young man, fell in love with him. They made plans to leave the village and the river and start a life on their own.”
“Where did they go?”
Grandfather smiled. “Far away. And every day that she was gone the Spirit of the river mourned.
“The princess settled in a faraway land with her husband. There she bore him many children. There they raised a family. There they grew old together. There she finally came to know happiness. But she missed the river, and thought of him often.
“And then one day she fell sick, and she knew she was going to die.”
“Death comes to everyone eventually, child. One day it will come for me too. We just have to accept that. Besides, she was very old.
“And when the hour was come and she was ready to go, she asked one final thing of her husband:
“She asked that, when she died, her body be returned to her home village and laid in the waters of the river, that she may know his embrace one final time. Her husband gave his word that he would do so.
“And so, closing her eyes peacefully, the princess died.
“The morning after her death, her husband wrapped her up in her favorite cloth, packed supplies, and set out on his journey.
“The journey took him many days and many nights, and he was no longer a young man. He was exhausted by the time he stumbled to the banks of the river, starved and near death himself. But it did not stop him. He waded in and gently lowered his wife’s body under the surface of the water.
“And the river water took her body from him, and she sank out of sight. Then the Spirit of the river came out of the depths and spoke to him, saying:
“‘In Life she was yours; in Death she belongs to me, and neither of us is any worse off for it.’
“When he heard these words the husband turned and left, and never returned to the village or the river.
“And the next time the villagers visited the river and gazed into its depths, they saw the spirit of the princess and the Spirit of the river dancing joyously within.
“And there they have remained, dancing, ever since.”
Here Grandfather stopped, and we knew the story was ended.
“Now off to bed with you, children. It is late.”
There is another version of this story.
That one is told among the gods and the spirits, the children of Father Time and Mother Earth, in the language that existed before the world was made and will exist long after the world has passed away. And in that version of the story perhaps things happened differently.
But then we may never know, for that is a tale of the gods, and it is not told to men.