Helina Li | Art by Diya Mirji

The water licks my toes,

hungry, cold, luring me forward,

a dying serpent leading into

the choked ocean so crowded with

little dots, little human figures that

I know some of them

will never rise



The water licks my toes

again I step back, cautious.

I don’t want to join

them drowning.


The sky crackles and the water levels

rise, expand, the snake shifting

a heavy up, a thunderous down,

carrying with it humanoid figures

laughing, shouting, diving

forward, forward, forward—


the river carries them forward.


A head upstream swings

over bare shoulder,

a million dead stars

in her eyes, the water around her

an opaque, alluring dress:

for a second, perhaps she is

a water spirit, a goddess.


But her mouth opens,

her lips stretching, straining

around an empty cavern

wind rushes in, forcing

its way down her throat

her shortened tongue thrashing

forming words learned long ago—

words still



I step forward

to hear those words but

wind keeps rushing

in my ears, her mouth—


wind takes everything.


The water around her rises again;

she sinks beneath her dress,

eyes wide open, lips still moving—


not even bubbles rise.


My body lurches forward:

Don’t go! Please don’t—

Words tear out, die

on the sandy shore;

too weak, too clumsy


too far away.


I almost fall to my knees

when she appears again:

features even smoother,

dress darker, tighter,

twining around her torso,

a harness.


She gives me one more wave

a speck against gray sky;

her mouth forms one more word.



I take one more step:

the sand slides out

underneath me—

The current shoves me

forward with a roar


so cold that it steals my breath,

so strong that my eyes shut

my limbs start struggling,

go up, go forward, move

don’t stay or I’ll drown,

breathe, swim, breathe,

kick, kick, kick—


My head breaks the surface,

a small mop of hair

in the middle of the river,

another piece of debris

it has picked up.


My wet clothes drag me down;

I shrug them off, letting waves

curl around me, give me

the same dress—skin—body—face

as the girl.


My legs become a tail

and I don’t hesitate;

I start kicking forward.