A Tale of The River Goddess

Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there was a young girl. She was the apple of her parents’ eyes. She was hardworking, free, and full of life; she was beautiful and innocent. One day, a terrible sickness plagued the land, and the young girl’s parents fell very ill.

It was only because she took care of them so much that, sadly, the girl fell sick too. Soon after that, her mother and her father were both taken by death. And the girl knew that she was going to follow them in the afterlife.

Before she would lose her strength, she decided to leave her home and go to the Great River of the Dead. Once she reached the river, she burned her parents’ bodies with old ritual, as it was the way of the land, and then she spread their ashes in the river’s cloudy waters. Once the night came, she knew her own end was near. She had no strength to return home. She was exhausted and barely breathing.

And so she poured oil onto her head and then kneeled on the shore, next to the embers that were still burning in the sand. She wishfully prayed and cried to the goddess to protect her on the journey, and then she lay in the embers, as in a bed. She no longer felt pain, and the fires began to bite at her flesh. The only thing she felt was the cold breath of death. And then a voice came from the skies. The goddess surely heard the girl’s prayers.

Arise, sweet girl!’ the voice said. ‘I heard you, and I will grant you new life. And offerings you will bring me. And you will spend your life honouring me.

The girl was overwhelmed with unspeakable happiness when she woke up the next morning, the sun shining upon her face, and found that not only was she alive, but she felt healthy and strong once again. She promised herself to spend her life honoring her parents and always showing her gratitude to the merciful goddess through prayer and offerings.

***

And she kept her promise. She lived a long and restful life. She has found a good man that she loved and who loved her more in return than anything in the world. She blessed him with three beautiful sons. And the children grew up healthy, and they married and had children of their own.

Sadly, one day her beloved man died of old age. She was old too, and she knew her journey would come to an end soon. She has never forgotten the promise she made to the goddess that day, long ago. Day after day, late at night, she always said a great prayer and burned a candle to honour her protector.

When the woman’s husband died, she brought his body to the river. And as she laid her parents in the fire, she burned her man too, spreading his ashes into the waters. Then a cold dagger ran through her heart. The thought that soon she would have to leave this world ran through her veins like icy water. She lived a long and fulfilling life. But she felt it wasn’t enough. She wanted to live longer.

She thought of asking the goddess for another chance, another youth. After all, the old woman kept her promise and brought her offerings all her life. Surely the goddess noticed she was a woman of her word. And so, as when she was young, she made her wish to the sky, poured oil onto her forehead, and laid down in her late husband’s warm bones.

Arise, sweet girl!

Arise!

At the sunrise, the woman woke up from the cold ashes. And she was young once more. In her unbounded happiness, she felt blessed and thought she was dreaming. She wanted to tell her family about her discovery. If only she knew it before her husband died! But regardless, she was now sure she and her family could live forever.

***

The girl returned to the village and to her home, and her family didn’t recognize or believe her at first. And how could they? She was younger than her granddaughters! Yet, after some time, she proved to her family, her children, and her grandchildren that she was indeed their mother and grandmother. She told them her secret—her story from her youth. She promised them that when the time was right, she would show them how to get back their lives and restore their youth. She cried for her man, but she was happy that she and her family were never going to go to the afterlife if they brought offerings and sacrifices to the goddess.

Years later, her first son, now old himself, was on his death bed. She prepared bulls and a cart to carry him to the river while he was still breathing. He was afraid, but she reassured him and told him to pray to the goddess for mercy. She then bathed his body in oil and torched him. She started crying and praying with her whole heart to the sky while her son was burning and screaming from the top of his lungs. The screaming soon vanished, and she fell asleep next to her son’s blazing remains.

When she woke up in the morning, her son was nothing but a clump of warm ashes and black bones. She fell to her knees, lost, and confused. She wanted to cry, but her crying was stuck in her chest. The pain wouldn’t let her.

She had no tears, as they dried out while her beloved son was crying out for help the night before. She turned to the sky and asked her goddess why she didn’t spare her child. Was it that her son didn’t respect his promises while alive? Was it that he didn’t pray enough? But the goddess remained silent.

After she threw his ashes in the river and as she returned to the village, she made her other two sons promise her they would strictly respect the goddess’s wishes, and then they mourned their brother.

***

Years later, her second son fell ill and was dying. The girl, now past her prime, took him to the river and repeated the ritual she now dreaded, unsure of her son’s vow. When the sun came out, her second son met the same fate as his brother. His ashes were now scattered in the wind, and his soul was long lost in the underworld. A few years later, the woman’s last son ended up the same way.

She spent her second youth full of sorrow, guilt, and disappointment. She first burned her three children, making them suffer as they were meeting their inevitable end. She spent her second old age burning her daughters-in-law, her grandsons, and her granddaughters, leaving behind only her grand grandchildren, who were begging her to stop the madness. They all ended up dying in purifying agony, swallowed by fire, and then taken away by wind and water. She cried and asked her goddess for clemency. She asked the goddess what she had done wrong. But the goddess never spoke to her again. In time, hopeless and tired of failing, the woman grew hateful, and her prayers turned to curses.

And one day, she suddenly gave up. And she was old. She ruined her second life and butchered her own family in a desperate attempt to save it. She wanted nothing else but to die. She went by herself to the river. She didn’t even do the old ritual, as she had done it so many times before. She built a great fire on the shore, and when ready, she damned the skies and stepped into the fire, hoping to end this wrath once and for all.

Arise, sweet girl!

And that was how, for the third time, the girl came out from the embers, young again, beautiful, with silky skin and wavy hair. The flame of youth was flickering in her chest like never before. She cried, and she kneeled in the sand.

‘Almighty Goddess?’ she asked in the wind, sobbing. ‘Why did you spare me, but you did not want to save my children?’

The wind started blowing stronger. She heard the trees rustling and the river murmuring.

And then she heard the goddess’s voice: ‘Your sons and daughters have never brought me offerings, sweet girl,’ she said. ‘But you have.

***

Daniel Alexandrescu

Romanian indie author currently based in Cyprus. Freelance content writer and ghostwriter. Co-founder of CVLTARTES Magazine.

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