Widow of the River—Nick Petrou

Despite the humidity clinging to the timbers of the port, my bones were numb and my hairs stood as stiff as ship masts. We lay in Isabella’s bed, and I rested my head on her breast, certain she held in her all the warmth that was left in the world. Our shadows shuddered in the candlelight, which flashed silver before returning to the colour of mead. My ring finger was starting to go dead.

“John, my love, you will never leave me, no?”

“Leave you?” I said, my words exiting my mouth in whorls of steam. “Isabella, you know I must go home. But I will return, as always. Why are such thoughts on your mind?”

“Tonight, the moon is full,” she said. “Always I think of the Widow of the River when the moon is full. You know this story?”

“Yes,” I said, pulling the blanket up to my chest. “But will you tell it to me anyway?”

She paused. The city was quiet. Sailors did not stagger past the house jesting about fish and the red-light district. Nor did ponies rap their shoes on the cobblestone. Even the bedrooms above and beside us were without their regular commotion. There was only a faint, rhythmic splashing I could not place. I felt uneasy, as if I were on the sea after a year on land. Above my wedding ring, my finger was completely dead. I twisted the ring until it came off, then I reached over Isabella and put it on her nightstand.

After what seemed an eternal silence, she said, “There is a castle on the river and a lady in its tallest tower. She sings out from her window when the moon is mirrored and full. She sings for her husband, who left her for the other family he had made at port. Her voice is a lighthouse. Everywhere else is cold and dark. Can you hear her, my love?”

Isabella started humming a beautiful melody, vibrating my skull like a church bell. Through her rose perfume, I could smell the canals — slightly putrid, as if choked with algae.

“I think this is a different story,” I said. “Was her husband not claimed by the sea?”

Isabella’s humming somehow continued as she said, “This is the story as it was. You must listen, my love.” She rested her arms around my neck. “Her husband has yet to come home. Maybe he never will — who knows? But the lady does not surrender to death, even though she is just hair and bones in a dress. Her desire is strong, and men like her husband must be stronger to escape it.”

Isabella’s arms shut like a pillory around my neck, but I feared to fight her, lest I forfeit her warmth.

“They row to her island on nights as tonight. Their eyes are open, but they see only a dream. Their bodies are… What is this word? Puppet? Yes, something like this. The boats of the men who rowed before them clutter her shores, stinking of bilge water. There are hundreds of them, and as many wives back home, singing for their own loves lost.”

The candle stuttered. The rhythmic splashing grew louder, more determined. I looked out the window and did not see the cobblestone streets nor the ruby brothel glow but a round stone tower with the full moon socketed in its battlement like an imperfect gem.

The candle went out. Moonlight poured into the room, washing away the ceiling and walls. When all that remained was the bed, which somehow hovered over the river, I could see the castle in full, down to the boats and muddy shore. I fell against the headboard. Isabella was gone, her warmth absorbed by the warmth which poured from the tower. A woman’s silhouette stood in the tower window, hair swimming in a dark aura around her shoulder bones. Just below the surface of the river, the mud snaked out towards me, clasping my boat and dragging me to shore. I dropped my oars into the rowlocks and floated gaping-mouthed into the gravity of her voice.

“John, my love, you will never leave me, no?”

“Leave you? I could not.”

Nick Petrou works as a freelance writer out of Perth, Western Australia, where he likes to read unsettling fiction and complain about the sun. His short fiction has been (or will soon be) published by PseudoPod, The Arcanist, Ghost Orchid Press, and others. You can find out lots more about him at nspetrou.com and reach out to him on Twitter @nspetrou.

photo by Pine Watt (via unsplash)