Slow River - Nicola Griffith


At the heart of the city was a river. At four in the morning its cold, deep scent seeped through deserted streets and settled in the shadows between warehouses. I walked carefully, unwilling to disturb the quiet. The smell of the river thickened as I headed deeper into the warehouse district, the Old Town, where the street names changed: Dagger Lane, Silver Street, The Land of Green Ginger; the fifteenth century still echoing through the beginnings of the twenty-first.

Then there were no more buildings, no more alleys, only the river, sliding slow and wide under a bare sky. I stepped cautiously into the open, like a small mammal leaving the shelter of the trees for the exposed bank.

Rivers were the source of civilization, the scenes of all beginnings and endings in ancient times. Babies were carried to the banks to be washed, bodies were laid on biers and floated away. Births and deaths were usually communal affairs, but I was here alone.

I sat on the massive wharf timbers—black with age and slick with algae—and let my fingers trail in the water.

In the last two or three months I had come here often, usually after twilight, when the tourists no longer posed by ancient bale chains and the striped awnings of lunchtime bistros were furled for the night. At dusk the river was sleek and implacable, a black so deep it was almost purple. I watched it in silence. It had seen Romans, Vikings, and medieval kings. When I sat beside it, it didn’t matter that I was alone. We sat companionably, the river and I, and watched the stars turn overhead.

I could see the stars because I had got into the habit of lifting the grating set discreetly in the pavement and cracking open the dark blue box that controlled the street lighting. It pleased me to turn off the deliberately old-fashioned wrought-iron lamps whose rich, orangy light pooled on the cobbles and turned six centuries of brutal history into a cozy fireside tale. So few people strolled this way at night that it was usually a couple of days, sometimes as many as ten, before the malfunction was reported, and another week or so before it was fixed. Then I left the lights on for some random length of time before killing them again. The High Street, the city workers had begun to whisper, was haunted.

And perhaps it was. Perhaps I was a ghost. There were those who thought I was dead, and my identity, when I had one, was constructed of that most modern of ectoplasms: electrons and photons that flitted silently across the data nets of the world.

The hand I had dipped in the river was drying. It itched. I rubbed the web between my thumb and forefinger, the scar there. Tomorrow, if all went well, if Ruth would help me one last time, a tadpole-sized implant would be placed under the scar. And I would become someone else. Again. Only this time I hoped it would be permanent. Next time I dipped my hand in the river it would be as someone legitimate, reborn three years after arriving naked and nameless in the city.

The first thing she thought when she woke naked on the cobbles was: Don’t roll onto your back. She lay very still and tried to concentrate on the cold stones under hip and cheek, on the strange taste in her mouth. Drugs, they had given her drugs to make her stop struggling, after she had . . .

Don’t think about it.

She could not afford to remember now. She would think about it later, when she was safe. The memory of what had happened shrank safely back into a tight bubble.

She raised her head, felt the great, open slash across her trapezoid muscles pull and stretch. Nausea forced her to breathe shallowly for a moment, but then she lifted her head again and looked about: night, in some strange city. And it was cold.

She was curled in a fetal position around some rubbish on a silent, cobbled street. More like an alley. Somewhere at the edge of her peripheral vision the colors of a newstank flashed silently. She closed her eyes again, trying to think. Lore. My name is Lore. A wind was blowing now, and paper, a news printout, flapped in her face. She pushed it away, then changed her mind and pulled it to her. Paper, she had read, had insulating qualities.

The odd, metallic taste in her mouth was fading, and her head