What Water Remembers

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Masha Shukovich’s short story, “What Water Remembers,” is featured in Michigan Quarterly Review’s Spring 2020 special issue on water.

Once, a long time ago, when the earth was old but Serbs were still young, men and women and everyone in between thought that water was God and they prayed to it fervently.

Once, in times long forgotten, a fair young woman, a child really, was honey and the sweetest of fruit, and was plunged into the Morava river, headfirst, to be drowned.

This, we remember: many deaf hands, slippery fingers amidst the clouds of awakened mud, eyes open as if in surprise at this destiny of gasping for air where none is to be found, ribbons flailing without the wind, river plants swishing like whips, rocks on the bottom too far to reach, sun just a distant eye, unconcerned.

And sky, once so easy, now no more.

We know how to remember; that’s what water does. But one thing that we are still learning, for even water has things to learn, is how to forget.

We wonder: what did it feel like to be that girl, in the river? What did it feel like to eat the walnuts drenched in honey, knowing they carried the design of your death in their ridges? What did it feel like to taste the mead sliding down your throat and know that soon there would be nothing but water where air once was?

We wonder: what did it feel like to be the mother dressing that still ticking body, braiding that hair, wiping that soft, expectant face clean for the last time?

Was the hair too soft to bear? Were the cheeks too warm to touch? Was the last kiss offered and received?

All we know is what it felt like to be that river, receiving the body as a gift into our whirlpools. We remember what it felt like to swirl those ribbons, red, like fall leaves. And to rock, rock, rock. Hush, hush, hush.

We wonder: what did it feel like to be the many-fingered hands pressing those lithe limbs down as they struggled and shivered and finally released their hold on life?

We wonder: what did it feel like after, to receive the rain, and harvest the blessed crops, and shear the sheep, and ruffle the rumps of dogs that all drank from the heart of the child that once was?

We wonder: what do bones feel when they become water?