I carry corpses. They drift on my surface, usually in boats, sturdy enough to last a few days against my grasping fingers. This is the first and only time their passengers will touch me.
The boats are alight with memories of life: feeds scrolling endless well-wishes, funeral goods piled high in jewel colors, holograms of the faces the dead showed to the world, which floats and spins above the boats. In death, look at me.
And people look. They come to my banks on their dinner breaks. They watch the parade and take videos, dreaming of the day they’ll get to float out of the city in such a spectacular array. The funeral boats are the most beautiful things in a place of practical gray, and even the children dream these dreams.
This boy, for example. He stands rooted to my bank and asks, “When will I get one of those?” His chaperone, enthralled by the beacons of the funeral lights, doesn’t answer.
My attention flows away from him. He’s just like all the others, who dream but never, never touch.
He looks at me with eyes like newborn stars. At me, not at the celebratory boats. He’s not like the others, after all.
His fascination does not yet appear transgressive. The chaperone doesn’t notice it. But I do. Maybe he is what I’ve been waiting for.
I carry offerings. They’re as ostentatious as the funeral boats, but they rest lightly on my skin. Folded paper houses and hovercraft, computers and clothing, paper money that buys only an ease of conscience — none of it more than a ripple on my surface. People’s eyes trail after the symbolic riches, but they always turn away before I catch the folded tokens. My fingers of silt push up, snagging, my waves lapping over to soak the featherweight gifts. Paper turns to a mass of pulp, bleeding ink into my depths. It’s empty nourishment, but I can’t stop myself from swallowing.
A young man with eyes like newborn stars lays down an offering. He knows not to touch me, in the same way, he knows he must make this offering every year. Both knowings drilled into him by his old chaperone. Her funeral boat is marooned far down my length, on a remote pebbly embankment. I’m creeping inside inch by inch, not forcing, not impatient. It’s only respectful.
She offers me nothing in return, though, just like all the corpses that come to me enshrined in their boats. I take them, and still, I’m left to search for one who stands apart, one who can give me the warmth I’ve missed among the endless parade of respect and tradition.
One. Just one. That’s all I hope for.
And the young man teeters on my bank.
He reached too far when he placed the offering. For an instant, I reflect his face back to him, and I imagine he could just —
But a hand drags him back.
He thanks the person.
“Be more careful.”
He still thinks he’s one of them.
An accident it may have been, but I’m watching him. An undercurrent of feeling pushes toward my surface. I’m cold to my bed, but soon, maybe that will change. I press at my banks, and I watch him, and I watch him.
I carry waste. The living city is made of grayness and practicality, and its waste is gray and practical too. Efficient. Bodies and industry, food and recreation, creation and consumption, their leftovers are all blended together and deposited lovingly at my shores. I reach for it, even though it’s not what I’m looking for.
Like the funeral boats and their cargo, the waste of the living city dissolves into my body. Empty. No warmth left over for me.
Still, people gather and place the waste with worshipful care because nothing given to me may be given lightly.
With those people is a man, and now, finally, I think perhaps the time has come. My current eddies, frolics, and only this man notices.
He stands at my verge and really looks at me, not just at the chemical slicks and funeral floats. Despite everything, his eyes are still like newborn stars. Others clap, chant, the ritual offering of their waste not so different from the offering of their dead. It’s his turn to sing now, but he doesn’t. He crouches.
I lap up to meet him, a swell rising deep inside. Is it time now?
His chaperone is no longer here to pull him back. She’s tucked safely away under one of my arms. His hand descends, almost touches —
And a chanter breaks off and hauls him away. “What were you thinking? You know you can’t touch the water.” He’s pushed to the back of the crowd, where others turn their shoulders or eye the bruising along his cheekbone, the mark of a man who stands apart. Currents roil in my depths. They don’t deserve him.
I watch him. He watches me back.
I carry corpses. In the end, everything comes back to this. Most wear gaudy shrouds, but one day, I receive a body that’s just that. No boat, no funeral clothes.
The old man with eyes of newborn stars has been lingering at my bank every day. He’s stopped giving me waste, stopped giving me offerings, stopped watching the funeral boats pass by. He’s contemplating what else he can give to me. It’s time.
I can hardly contain myself within my banks. I surge up, encouraging, dipping in and away again.
He doesn’t bother testing how I feel against his fingertips or slipping his body gradually into mine. He closes his eyes and falls. I roar up and embrace him, and for one moment, I’m warm.
In that moment, I realize that someone saw him fall.
He’s sinking now. Air flees his lungs.
The someone was a young girl.
He’s no longer struggling, his warmth already spent.
The new girl’s chaperone is too entranced by the funeral boats to notice the man-sized splash.
And the splash is long gone. The last bubbles of his air relinquish their life into my body. I swallow them immediately. Even though there aren’t anymore, I can’t help grasping, pushing fingers through all the man’s orifices, not disrespectfully, just desperately. What else can I do?
Now the man is merely another offering. Not what I was looking for after all.
The girl hasn’t stopped watching the place where the new corpse sank. She’s too young for the others to wonder, yet, whether she’s unlike them. But I wonder.
It’s a wonder I’ve had before.
Many times, many people.
One of them had eyes like newborn stars.
In the end, they’re all the same, and I start my search afresh. I’m always searching for the one who stands apart. Maybe this girl is what I’ve been waiting for.
She’s still young. But standing apart is dangerous at any age, as the old man discovered.
Apart, alone, you are easily swallowed.