Counting Stones on the River Styx [Short Story]

This is a short story by Emma Johnson-Rivard.

“Tell me a story,” the prisoner hissed. “Tell me a story before I die.”

The boy looked out at the river and its churning waves to the place where the nets were cast at dawn, and then to the cup he had set beneath the roof of the hut. Salt was heavy in the air, thick on his skin and heavy over his eyes. If he blinked too often, he found himself weeping along with the rain. It gathered (tlink-tlink-tlink) down into the little clay cup. The boy listened as it fell, wondering when it would be full enough to drink.

“You’re not dying,” the boy told her, though this was not true. “Don’t be dramatic.”

The prisoner rolled onto her side with a snarled laugh, pus weeping from the wounds on her legs. In the beginning she had been chained and the key thrown to the river, but the boy had waded out into the water on the second day and returned with her freedom, scrubbed raw by the salt. By then she had been too ill to move, her legs rotten and green, and the boy had sat himself down under the thatched roof to begin the dying vigil. That had been three days ago and the prisoner had yet tried to run. She laid on the straw mat and stunk with her wounds, sneering at the boy and demanding he break the silence and then laughing when he did. The boy thought about offering the bowl of rainwater to her, but didn’t.

He said, “You ought to eat something.”

“Do you have anything to eat?”

The boy hesitated.

“Then shut the hell up,” she growled, hair flopping over her eyes like a shroud.

“I’m mending the nets,” the boy told her. “I’ll be done when the rain breaks and then we’ll eat.”

The prisoner laughed. It sounded like she was choking on sand. “You’ll starve over those knots. What idiot weaves rocks into a net?”

The boy looked down at the tangle of ropes. Every morning he crawled from his straw mat to the edge of the hut and found the rain sighing down, and in seeing the rain, he would return to the net his father had left him with. The boy had been told to mend the net until the rain broke or his father returned. Neither had.

It had been assumed the prisoner would die before then as well, but the boy had woken five days in a row to the rain and the wet, groaning wheeze of the prisoner’s cough. On the second night, after he had dragged himself to the black bottom of the river to retrieve the key, the boy had thought – nervously, hopefully – that she might try to kill him, possibly with the one of the stones he’d collected for the net, and then he would fight her and at last he would have a scar worth keeping. She had not.

The boy picked up the stone – flat and pocked, rough to the touch – and carefully began weaving the ropes into a cradle around it, holding it gently, with knots that sighed as he made them.

“Are you dumb?” the prisoner asked. It was not the first time.

The boy did not look up.

“They left you behind,” she wheezed. “With me.”

“Are you a murderer?” the boy asked. He’d been told she was a traitor, though not of what.  

“I haven’t killed you,” she told him. It seemed important that he know this. “I haven’t done anything to you.”

“No one does anything to me,” the boy said. “Ever.”

The prisoner kicked sand at him. “Going to drown yourself with those stones, hmm? How many have you got there?”

The boy had not counted and did not wish to start. “You were supposed to die in your sleep.”

“I bet that would have made it easy for you,” the prisoner said. “Are they your secrets? Do they mean more than what they seem?”

“No.”

“Dreams?”

“Maybe,” said the boy. He tied another knot around the stone, holding it fast.

“Ah,” the prisoner murmured. “I see. You’ll knot them in and let them drown. Then when you pull everything back up, they’ll be gasping or dead like the fish.”

“No.” The boy shook his head. “It’s not like that.”

The prisoner smiled as if she knew the truth of him. “Tell me a story.”

“No.”

“Tell me a story,” the prisoner said again, “or I’ll say what I did to get here. And I assure you, little boy, that you would not enjoy the telling.”

The boy finished the last knot holding the stone in place and looked out to the river again. The rain broke upon the surface of the water, leaving salt-spray and dark, twisting waves in its wake. He hadn’t seen any of the fish for a long time, not even the little ones that would come darting into the shallows for bugs, and feared they might all be gone and, like his father, unlikely to return. The boy had never feared being alone before, or wondered what lay at the bottom of the river beyond barnacled keys and the bones – partially dissolved – of his mother. The skull was long gone but the boy had tucked three joints of the spine and a femur into a hollowed rock at the bottom. Salt had caked heavily on the bones and warped them into strange, unearthly shapes. At night he dreamt of the spine and where its missing pieces might have wandered. Sometimes he swam to the bottom and brought the femur up, where he would tuck it against his breast while his father snored. The boy always did this carefully, for the bones of murdered women were insidious relics and known to bring bad luck.

Now he looked to the river and wondered what else lived with his mother’s bones, in that deep, dark water.

The rain continued sighing off the roof and into the cup he had left outside. The boy stood without a word and retrieved it. He tipped his head back and drank deeply. Thunder rumbled across the sky. The boy could feel the power of it in his hands, in his throat when he drank, and the back of his head where the prisoner stared, teeth bared, at his unruly curls.

“Drink,” the boy said when he returned, and pressed the cup into the prisoner’s hands.

Her mouth cracked as she drank. Blood fell, shiny and red, against the cup. When she was done, the prisoner smiled and dashed the cup against the ground. It broke with a reluctant crack.

The prisoner lay back down. “Now,” she said, “that story, if you please.”

The boy stared at the broken cup – one that his father had made, painstakingly, with his hands – and sighed. He returned to the net and its world of stones knotted against each other. In a little while he would have to go back down to the riverbank and collect more. Perhaps, the boy thought, he’d give each stone a name. Perhaps the prisoner would finally die and he’d tie her bones into the net, to live next to all the river stones that were not – he was certain – representative of his dreams.

Now,” the prisoner growled. “Don’t stall.”

The boy watched as she wiped blood off her cracked mouth.

“You won’t remember it,” he said. “You’re going to die soon and then it won’t matter what I said or I didn’t say.”

The prisoner snapped her teeth at him. “Have you died, boy?”

“No,” he said.

“Then you don’t know anything. Stall any longer and I’ll tell you my own little story, child, things so awful you would not be the same at the end.” She grinned, chest heaving and shuddering with the weight of her laughter. It should have been terrible, the sound of her laughter, but it came out softly instead, like a whisper. “That’s how you know it’s a good story. It catches you, little boy, and it never lets you go. Years from now you’ll be dreaming about what I said.”

“Fine,” the boy murmured, not looking at her. “I’ll tell you a story.”

“A good one.”

“A good one,” he agreed.

“And with a decent ending. Not one of those things were it’s all perfect.”

The boy frowned. “What kind of an ending is that?”

“The kind that matters,” the prisoner informed him. “Now get on with it.”

“I will,” the boy said, “if you stop interrupting.”

The prisoner smiled up at the roof. Rain dripped through a hole in the thatch and gathered in the hollows of her cheeks. “I won’t. I’ll listen real well.”

The boy nodded. “Well, in the beginning−”

But,” the prisoner said, smiling, blood on her mouth and rain stuck to her skin like tears, “if you take too long, I might die before you get to that good ending. I’ll be like that net of yours. I’d sink right to the bottom and then what will you do? So you’d best be careful, little boy, and finish before it’s too late to tie everything together.”

“All that, and a good ending too,” the boy murmured.

The prisoner laughed. “If you do all that, if you tell me a proper story and end it just in time, I’ll leave you something in return. I’ll give you my treasure.”

“What is your treasure? A story?” the boy wondered, though he didn’t want to know any of hers, let alone to keep them close.

“No, no,” the prisoner said, letting her eyes close with a sigh. “I’ll give you my magic sword. It’s buried away and your father might be looking with all his nasty friends, but they’ll never find it before you. Not if I tell you where it’s hid.”

The boy stared at the shards of the broken cup by the prisoner’s side, and the shuddering ride and fall of her ribs, sharp as knives jutting from her skin. He thought about the knobs of his mother’s spine hiding beneath the river and the net he’d made, weighed down with all the things he knew. He thought about the plan he’d made along with the net, to throw it ’round his father and let the stones drag him gently to the bottom for a reunion with the chunks of spine and femur, much loved, of his late wife.

“Is it really magic?” the boy asked. “Your sword.”

The prisoner didn’t laugh. “It’s really a sword, and sharp enough besides. Magic enough for you, I think.”

The boy looked out to the river and the falling rain as it broke on the water. He hadn’t finished the net and his father would be home soon.

“All right,” said the boy. “I’ll tell you a story.”


Emma Johnson-Rivard is a Masters student at Hamline University. She received her undergraduate degree in Film Studies at Smith College in Massachusetts and currently lives in Minnesota with her dogs and far too many books. In her free time she paints and fences competitively. Along with her studies, she runs the blog FinalGirlFight which looks at narrative trends and feminism in horror films.

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