This poem was written in mid-July of 2011, partially inspired by prompts from morrigans_eve, angela_n_hunt, and the_vulture. It has been sponsored by whuffle for morrigans_eve as part of the 2011 Holiday Poetry Sale, posted here after the surprise Yule presentation. This poem belongs to the Path of the Paladins series; you can read more about the series on the Serial Poetry page.
So Like a River
Ari was crying.
She had been crying for hours,
her nose alternately clogged or running,
her face raw and red.
Sometimes she sat silent
but for the faint splash of tears.
Sometimes she sobbed or howled
or swore at the lowering sky.
Shahana sat beside her,
when Ari would let her,
and held the younger woman
through the shuddering storm of emotion.
Large wet stains marked both shoulders,
the front of her blouse wrinkled with tears and snot.
It was just one of those times
when the past rolled over you
and swept you away, and you felt
like there was nothing to hold on to
in the whole world, no hope
of getting up to face the day.
Shahana knew what that was like.
Oh yes. She knew.
"And it's like a river, you know?"
Ari said out of nowhere,
as if continuing a conversation
they'd been having all along,
although she hadn't said anything
in quite some time.
"So like a river in flood, in the spring,
all brown water and white foam
with dead branches snarling in it,
and it sucks you in and pulls you under
until you can't even breathe,
then it batters you against the rocks
until you're dead."
Ari's voice broke then,
and she coughed to clear it,
but it sounded just as rough
when she went on.
"I feel like I'm drowning, Shahana,"
said Ari. "I don't know how to swim,
and I don't know what to do."
"Hold on to me, as best you can,"
the paladin offered.
Strong farmgirl arms
nearly squeezed the breath out of her,
but Shahana only hugged back.
"Now, what's like a river?
You left that part out."
"Grief. Rage. Knowledge."
Ari rasped and wheezed,
her breath tangling
around words and emotions alike.
Shahana suppressed a shiver
as a chill suspicion crept through her.
Ari had been restless and moody for days
as she struggled with her memories
of the event that had flung her onto this path.
Eventually their goddess was bound to respond,
regardless of the cost.
"Gailah sent you a dream,"
Shahana guessed. "She showed you
what happened to Her."
Ari nodded soggily
against Shahana's chest.
"Why would She do that?
I already knew. You told me."
"Hearing isn't the same as seeing,"
Shahana said with a sigh.
"Ari, She is a goddess.
She knows what happened to you."
"She was watching?"
"Not exactly," the paladin said.
"The Divine Ones don't see our lives
the same way we do, one moment
pressed into place after another
like footprints along a trail.
When They look at a mortal person,
it's like ... looking at a painting.
They see everything at once.
They can't not see it all.
That's part of what makes Them deities."
"That still doesn't make much sense,"
Ari said, scrubbing a damp sleeve
across her face.
"Gailah can't look away
from the strokes of your life,
even the harsh ones,"
"but She can show you some of Hers
to balance that awareness."
"Oh," said Ari.
"So it's less like spying,
and more like sharing."
"It must be so much worse for Her,"
Ari said in a sudden switchback turn
of topic. "I mean, what happened to me
was bad enough -- it was horrible --
but at least it was just me
at the end of it all.
How much harder would it be
to go through a rape like that,
and be a goddess,
with all these people looking up to you
and expecting you to help them somehow,
no matter how awful you felt?"
Ari sniffed, then went on.
"It doesn't matter so much if I fail.
I'm just a peasant girl.
I don't even have a village anymore,"
she said. "If I wear down
until I die in my sleep,
you're the only one who will notice."
"Your brother Larn would notice,"
Shahana said firmly,
and when Ari's mouth opened to protest,
the paladin added,
"because I would tell him."
"Oh," Ari said faintly.
"I just don't know how She does it.
How can She keep going, day after day?"
Ari thumped a fist against the rough wool
of the blanket that lay beneath them.
"Some days I can't even find the strength
to drag myself out of my own stupid bedroll!"
"Some days, neither can I,"
"but the next day always comes.
Hold on to that thought, too."
Ari leaned against her, clinging,
giving as much comfort as she received.
"I'm glad you're here, Shahana,"
the younger woman said.
"I don't know what I'd do without you.
At least you make the going on
seem a little less impossible."
"So there's your answer,"
the paladin said,
giving her a little squeeze.
"We lean on each other,
you and me and Gailah,
like wounded warriors
walking each other off a battlefield."
Ari gave her a watery smile,
then her face fell back
into lines of sorrow.
"I still don't feel like I can get up,"
she said softly.
"It's almost time for nuncheon anyway,"
Shahana said. "You sit here and rest.
I'll heat some food. There will be time enough
to think about travel later,
after we've eaten."
Ari lay back on her blanket,
staring through a break in the clouds.
The flood had come and gone,
leaving her heart battered
from its trip through the rapids.
But neither flood nor storm
could last forever, and now
the beach lay high and damp
above the sinking river,