What the River Took and What the Knife Gave Back / Kanika Lawton
CONTENT WARNING: references to body horror.
Forgiveness is a knife, blunt despite the whetstone.
I learned this the hard way, rough hands shaving at my spine, pulled taunt for the harp. A beautiful harp, strings made of long, golden hair—mine, cut from my head with softer fingers, caressing. Kind.
Too kind. My last breath was filled with rushing water, lungs filling with the river of my childhood. Ours, her laughter my favourite song, the one that lulled me to sleep, made me feel less small. How we laughed as we played our silly, girlish games, grabbing at each other’s arms, throwing mud from the riverbank, dodging each failed hit, screaming in delight and horror whenever we struck the other, falling over ourselves as we tried to get away, dirt-streaked and happy.
Happy. Tracing fingertips on each other’s palms, convinced we could read our futures. A handsome prince for her, his dashing brother for me. Maybe we’ll marry together, matching veils and all. Coordinating bouquets, her lilies of the valley and me roses. We’ll hold each other’s hands for comfort and squeeze too tightly for strength. We’ll figure out whose house we’ll visit for Sunday brunch, and what to do when our husbands annoy us. Our children will be like siblings, growing up by the same river, taking their first steps amongst its wind-swept reeds. Laughing, smiling, the sun lightening their hair.
The last sound I heard was her laughter: too sharp, too high-pitched, like a fox choking on a bone. I reached out for her in vain, convinced that this was an accident, that she didn’t mean to push me. Didn’t mean to watch me fall into the river, pulled under by the current. Reaching like I did when we came across the wolf in the forest, her grabbing my wrist and pushing me behind, lantern up, face frozen from bravery.
I reached farther and farther, even as my fingers curled in on themselves.
When the prince arrived, the end came with him.
He had no siblings; his advisor stressed this as we all gathered in the square. The search for a bride, the importance of an heir, the stake of the kingdom resting at the feet of a fair, beautiful maiden.
And I was fair; my skin glistening in the early winter snow, hair catching like fire during the midsummer festivals, flowers crowning my head like jewels. And I was beautiful; an agreeable baby, never crying for want. A perfect child, so polite and caring and ready to please. A girl who grew from oh-so-pretty to striking beauty, the boys in the market stopping to turn and stare and the mothers chastising their peeping sons. My mother beaming with bountiful pride, threatening to overflow. My father, softer-spoken but still, a flower freshly plucked each morning and placed behind my right ear, a shy way of telling everyone who cared that I was looking, but only had eyes for a prince.
I knew I was beautiful; I had no shame in the way I tossed my hair, or peered up at the baker’s son as he gifted me another loaf of bread. I played each boy for all he was worth; a silver coin here, a cross-bun there. And I laughed. Oh, how I laughed in their faces when they tried to sneak a kiss, or place a hand on my waist. I brushed them aside and laughed the kind of laugh my mother said sounds like wind-chimes, bright, yet far-away.
And I laughed the hardest at my sister, older yet plainer, her dark hair falling across her face like a sheet of night. I mocked her dull eyes and her crooked nose, knowing well that she broke it in a fall when she pushed me out of the path of an over-turning cart. The way boys ran away when she came near, how even the prince wouldn’t look her in the eye.
I didn’t care; my beauty, and how I could use it, was all that mattered to me.
So when the prince arrived, my mother pushed me forward as I curtsied, looking up the way I always did, knowing he would fall.
And fall he did. He took me by my hand and immediately fell to his knees, overcome and close to weeping. My mother brushed my hair that morning, each strand pulled through the comb with care. The prince will adore you, she said. Simply adore you, as all do.
And adoring he was. The walks through the gardens, the balls and the banquets. Me, half-drunk off of wine, falling over myself but still, I dazzled. Still, I charmed and spun and bowed my way into favours. His lips on mine, my fingers on his cheek. Everything I wanted, seized in my fists.
My sister in the corner of the hall, dancing with no one, nursing another glass of wine. My sister, who begged to come along, to be my companion, to perhaps fulfill at least part of our childhood dreams of the future. My sister, who saw the way the prince kissed me, nearly dropping her glass before getting two more. My sister, refusing to look at me when I crawled back into the carriage, hair all-disarray and blush melting, as we rode back home. My sister, cooing as she took me gently by the hand, saying she want to sit by the river and gossip about the evening, just like we did as children. We’ve changed so much since then, it’s like we never talk anymore. Like we forgot what it’s like to just be girls.
My sister, pushing me into the river, laughing as my body tossed and turned, laughing as I reached out for her hand, laughing as I gave up.
Laughing the way I laughed at her.
Envy is a bruise, pulsing with muffled hate.
I forgot about the lilies, the roses, lining the borders of our childish dreams. Her happiness intertwined with mine, woven into the very fabric of my being. The way her face glowed when I ran into her arms, the way it fell as we grew older. Her eyes brimming with light as a girl, blackened with hate as she tethered on the edge of womanhood, close to falling.
I forgot about this shared joy, this bliss, even as the man eased my body from shore and took me apart; shaped my spine into a harp as his wife threaded my hair through its teeth. A harp, golden-strung and ivory-white; a gift. A wedding gift for the prince and his new wife–already forgotten. That kiss–my first–just collateral, his hands on my waist a sunken wound.
I thought about singing the ballad of my death at the feast, exposing her as my murderer, holding him accountable for tearing two sisters apart, making one drunk with love and the other stricken with envy. Took myself out of the equation, shifted blame where it would not hurt. Told myself I am still beautiful, that my song will be beautiful, that he will fall on his knife from grief and guilt and join me because still, I longed. Even in death, I could not see. Even in death, I desired that which was never mine to have.
I was seething with rage, angry with the prince for moving on, angry with my sister for killing me. I was dizzy with wrath as the man—the one who took me, the one who formed me, the one who gave me new life—struggled to play me. My song was warbled, half-wailing and half-laughing.
And then, my voice disappeared.
Silenced, with still so much to say, my spine cracked open, my hair broke, and I transformed back into a girl barely on the cusp of womanhood, half-naked and strewn across the floor. Shivering, I looked at my hands, my hair matted and tangled, brown with dirt. My legs bloodied and bruised, my back aching, my beauty washed away in the river.
I thought about attacking the prince, pulling at his face and tearing at his skin, forcing him to look at what he helped bring upon me as his bride retches with sobs. I thought about killing him myself, cracking his neck open and playing him like a fiddle, calling that song retribution and my cries reclamation.
I wanted revenge—throw myself into its arms before I break them myself. I was so angry I clawed at my own, turned them bloody, made myself feral.
And yet, before anyone could speak, before I could even understand why, I ran. Through the palace doors, the gardens, down the cobbled road before any guard could dare reach me, even as my feet split from cast-away rocks, even as I bled, even as hair fell from my head, still I ran.
Through the market, the town square, the dirt path I took every time I went out to fetch water, back to the river, to my sister still perched over its edge, half-sobbing and half-retching into the water, bile piling around her.
And I ran until I hit her with the full weight of my body, until we both collapsed and burst into heaving sobs, my arms wrapped tight around her to the point of breaking.
And we sobbed. And we begged each other for forgiveness. And we grabbed at each other’s faces with the softest of hands and kissed foreheads and cheeks and noses and teased our fingers through broken hair and whispered I’m sorry into each other’s ears until they didn’t sound like real words anymore, until they blurred into our heaving, shuddering breaths.
And we stayed that way until dawn, curved into each other, heads touching and arms tangled together, cold despite the warm summer night, pulling tighter and tighter in a desperate plea to become one. When we woke, eyes red with crying, still tears fell, staining our muddy cheeks, as we finally smiled up at each other, tugging strands of hair behind the ear.
We should wash up, get out of these dirty clothes.
Not yet. Let’s stay here a little longer
The villagers whisper about the two sisters who never married, who still live in their parents’ home long after their passing, the garden brimming with lilies of the valley and roses. The oldest weaves and the youngest bakes, and they stroll through market hand-holding-hand. They do not play any music, yet they still take part in childhood games, making crowns of daisies to wear, throwing dust at one another and laughing with delight. Sometimes they sit by the river, one’s head in the other’s lap, and tell stories. About princesses slaying dragons and maidens leading men against troll armies. Winged beasts and the girls that ride them. Far-away lands with no kings, no princes—
Just women and girls fighting battles and coming back home to their sisters, despite it all.
When I say forgiveness is a knife, I mean the way you wield it. I mean the way it sticks in your side and never really comes out, how pulling at it makes you bleed further, how it still needs to be done.
It took our parents’ passing, years later, to finally begin the process of forgiving. Her for how envy made her hate, me for how pride made me cruel. How we hurt each other and what it left behind, how we bruised and scarred and came back from the dead and yet still called each other sister. It took even longer before I could wade back into the river, trust her enough that she won’t pull me under. Learned that when she did, the first and last time, she laughed and then threw up, again and again, poisoned by hate and consequence, wrecked with sudden sobs, pulling her own hair out until she was half-bald. When I ran back into her arms we looked like two beast-girls, and what is that if not the truth, the blood we share swimming into one? The first time we swam together, naked, free, we howled at the evening moon and screamed, letting our voices take up space, every tree bristling with our song.
The day we learned that the prince died from a broken heart, a week after his own wife died in childbirth along with the child, a—boy—a part of me flared up with cruel pleasure, and I tried to swallow my own tongue before retribution could erupt from within me. When she saw me struggle, she took my hand in hers and gently guided my head to her shoulder, her own head resting on top.
I was so desperate for the type of love I thought you had, she said, her voice wavering. I saw the way those boys and the prince looked at you and I wanted it too.
It meant nothing. It brought me nothing but pain.
I brought you pain.
So did I.
She kissed my forehead, nuzzling her face against my hair.
When I say I love you, I mean despite the pain.
I forgive you.
When I said those words, for the very first time, she pulled away, her eyes wide and wet with new tears.
I forgive you too.
And we smiled at one another, so widely our teeth hurt. And we cried until we could cry no more, drying each other’s tears with our fingers.
And we pulled at each other’s knives.
And we did not flinch.
Kanika Lawton is a writer, poet, editor, and film scholar living in Toronto, Ontario. She is an MA Candidate and Graduate Assistant at the University of Toronto's Cinema Studies Institute, where she teaches on horror films and sex in cinema, and volunteers for LGBTOUT, Canada's oldest LGBTQ+ student organization. She is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of L'Éphémère Review, Social Media Manager of Rambutan Literary, a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, and a 2018 Pink Door Fellow. Her work has appeared in Ricepaper Magazine, Vagabond City Literary Journal, Hypertrophic Literary, Longleaf Review, and Rust + Moth, and profiled in The Ellis Review, Horn & Ivory Zine, and wildness. She is the author of Wildfire Heart (The Poetry Annals, 2018) and Loneliness, and Other Ways to Split a Body (Ghost City Press, 2018).