Downstream



As they lay tangled together in bed, in the dark, Paul ran his hand across Tamara’s belly. She tensed as he traced the ridged ring of scars there, reading them like Braille. He had ignored them until now, looking away when she undressed, pretending her skin was smooth and unmarked. It was too much to hope it would last.

“When will you tell me how?” he asked, still lazily stroking her.

She flinched away, pulling the sheets around herself.

“Come on,” Paul said. “You have to answer me sometime. With a scar like that there has to be a story.”

Tamara sat up and switched on the bedside lamp. She kept her back to Paul, hunching her shoulders against him. Numbers on the old clock flickered, counting time.

“My sister. They took her from me,” she said, her voice heavy.

Paul rolled toward her, curling himself around her hips.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

Tamara rubbed at her eyes with the heel of her hand. The gate was open. What would come through would come. “I had a vestigial, a twin.”

He reached for her again, fingers seeking the rough edges.

“How…how was she, I guess, attached?” Paul said. There was a note of hunger in his voice.

She looked at him blankly.

“By the head,” she said. “Essie’s head and face were fused to my stomach.”

“Essie?”

“Esther. They named her Esther.”

Paul rolled onto his back and stared up at the ceiling.

“Wow,” he said.

“We were six. They said she had finally died. But she was still alive. I knew it. How could I not? She was living off me.”

Tamara’s voice hitched in her throat.

“They cut her off and threw her away. But I got her out of the garbage and washed her off. Then I fed her. I let her bite me and use my blood again, like she used to. When she was strong enough, I hid her in the basement. In the slop sink.”

Tamara closed her eyes against her memory. “She escaped from there.”

Paul turned his head silently, to watch her.

“She dissolved, my parents said. Melted. Down the drain.”

Paul held his breath.

“But I think she just got very soft in the water, so she was able to slide down the drain into the plumbing and out into the municipal system.”

Tamara turned to look at Paul. Her eyes were wet, her makeup smeared.

“So she grew up in the sewers. She’s not my twin anymore, she couldn’t be after all this time in the dark.”


Paul left early. He said he had to work. Tamara knew she had said too much, and she knew how it made her sound. Her therapist would suggest meds again if he knew she was talking about Essie again. She wondered if Paul would come back.

She lay in the warm bed until grey daylight filtered through the curtains. The day stretched ahead of her, empty. She got up when her bladder was too full to ignore. The bare apartment loomed around her, its silence a distraction. Paul had broken open the quiet she had built around her loss, and filled the space with questions. She wished she hadn’t told Paul anything of Essie. She wished he had just left.

She could not stop her mind from wandering, picturing her lost sister. In Tamara’s imagination Essie twined like a vine in the storm drains, her skin scaled with a graphite sheen. It was dark there, close and warm in the guts of the city. Pipes intersected and angled off, their slope pulling the water down their long bellies. Essie grew in there, in a long wet womb. When Tamara closed her eyes she could see her sister down there, coated in a slick grey caul.

She always thought of Essie. She kept her close, but she also kept her blurred. She had learned how to leave her beneath the surface, let lost Essie drift there so Tamara could live her own life. She missed her. She wondered if Essie missed her in return, or if too much time had passed, too many changes survived to have anything left of what they had been.

She opened the curtains to let in the filtered light of an overcast sky. She wished she hadn’t answered Paul, had just let the mystery of her scars loom between them. Pressure squatted behind her eyes. The air was heavy with needed rain. Tamara wanted to be out there, to escape the cloister of her apartment. She dressed in yesterday’s clothes and headed for the river.


The park was empty this time of day, this time of year. Trees had begun to take on the rusty green of early fall. Tamara was glad for the solitude. She walked along the littered asphalt path by the river. The water lay in its bed, flat and low from lack of rain, slicked with a pale green film of algae. The air above the sluggish river was boggy and acrid.

The river bent here, and for a short stretch the curve of it created privacy. This was her place. She stepped off the path into the dusty weeds of the bank, as close to the water as she could be. She held onto a leaning tree trunk to balance herself, and looked over the green expanse at the other shore.

At her feet, a whisper. Language, intentional, familiar. Tamara looked past her braced feet to the water, searching for her sister. A glint of iridescence through the algae scrim drew her eye. She held to the tree and peered at the knotted grey roots dug into the undercut bank.

Essie hid there, in the tangle of roots and weeds at the edge of the river, her opal eyes gazing sightless at the sky. Tamara leaned closer to her sister, her feet slipping in the fine dust on the bank. Tears welled in her eyes. She had summoned her, drawn her out into the light where she didn’t belong.

Essie’s face was hollow around the bloodless, gaping wound of her mouth. Tiny sharp teeth spiraled all the way down her throat. Algae clung in patches like face paint. The weeds that wrapped her curled in the weak current, twisted and slowly writhed. When they lifted toward her Tamara leapt back. The tendrils reached for her, slipping around her ankle. No weeds. This was Essie, her body grown into a mass of filaments, her rooting limbs threaded like cancer through the water.

Tamara bit down on a scream as she backpedalled from the riverbank. As she fell backwards onto the asphalt path the clouds broke and cold rain splashed hard on the thirsty ground. Essie’s whisper was lost in the hush of the rain. Tamara clambered to her feet, peering through the downpour to see if Essie had followed her.

The bank was empty, its silt turning back to mud.

Tamara fled back to the streets, alone in the shrouding rain.

She stopped at an intersection to catch her breath, the light against her, traffic buzzing past in a heavy spray. Tamara could hear the sound of the sudden runoff gurgling below her feet as she stood over the storm grate near the corner. She knew Essie was down there, drinking in the runoff, her small gills pulsing, pulsing. Essie would follow her, now.

The water running into the drain was already brown with the grime of the streets and burdened with scraps and flotsam. Nothing flowing from the streets was clean. She thought the storm drains must connect with the sewers somewhere in their tangle. A random fact floated up in her mind, that the old Roman word for the sewer is cloaca, and the word is still used for a bird’s universal opening. Everything passes through there, excrement, urine, eggs. Their young must pass through a sewer to be born.

So it was with Essie, Tamara thought. No escaping the filth.

Tamara stood at the curb and leaned forward over the grate. Her hair hung in wet ropes around her face, a curtain from the cars on the street.

“Essie,” she called down into the darkness. “Sis?”

The trickle of water passed beneath her in an echoing whisper. It was Essie’s voice, pinging off slimed bricks and dripping its way to the sea.

Essie’s eyes floated there in the darkness, green as opals.

Essie would stay close to her, Tamara thought. She must be curious to hear her name again after so long a silence. Tamara stepped into the gutter, bent, and let her arm dangle down, not reaching, but allowing what might happen. Her fingers brushed the wet grate.

The green eyes blinked out.


Paul rang her bell as dusk slid into darkness, the night coming down fast with the weight of the rain. She let him in, relieved and wary, uncertain that she actually wanted him here. She looked over his shoulder toward the turn in the hall as he passed her in the doorway. The shadows were empty. She wouldn’t be there.

He touched her arm, bringing her back. She blinked.

“I wondered if you would come back,” she said.

“Why wouldn’t I?” he asked, guileless.

Tamara gestured over her belly, waved her hands pointlessly through the air.

“Yes,” he said. “That.”

“I never talk about Essie,” Tamara said. “It’s too much, too much.”

Paul took her hands to hold them still. He drew her to him.

“Have you seen anyone about this? About what your parents did to you and her?”

Tamara shook her head, quickly, hard, lying. Her hair flicked into her eyes and stung them to tears. She pulled her hand free to wipe the tears away. His breath came fast and shallow, then.

“Come on,” he said, tugging her toward the bedroom.

She looked up at him. His eyes were bright. It was easier to let him lead. It didn’t really matter.


 She rolled away from him when they were done.

“What do you remember of her?” Paul said, smoothing his hands over her tight back, quietly demanding her attention.

Now she had begun to speak about Essie, it was hard to send her away again. Tamara still mourned the long days of her sister’s absence. She could not live as though Essie was a phantom anymore. Paul prompted her, making sure the wound stayed open. He was hungry to hear it. The old loss still stung. But Tamara kept Essie’s appearance in the river close to her heart. That, she would not speak of.

“I should never have let them take her,” Tamara said, releasing her own pressure, giving him a crumb. She ran her hands through her hair.

“It wasn’t your call,” he said. “You had no control over it. Over any of it.”

“She held on,” Tamara said. Words spilled out of her, but they were all of the past, and while painful they were meaningless now. “They started to cut her loose and she bit me to stay connected. It was right, it was right of her to hold on the only way she could. We should never have been apart.”

He turned her toward him in the messy sheets. She looked into his eager face, trying to find the concern that filled his voice. Her words faded. She let her eyes drift past him to the shadows in the high corners of the room.

Paul shifted his weight, leaned quickly forward and put his mouth over her scar, latching on like a suckling infant. His tongue flicked at the knots and ridges. Tamara gagged and shoved him away. She abandoned the bed and locked herself in the bathroom.

“Come on,” Paul said, his words muffled through the door. “I was only—”

Tamara ignored him. She wiped his spittle off her skin with toilet paper. Paul still talked, pressed against the door. She did not listen.
Tamara touched the scar where Essie had been cut away from her, where her remora mouth had latched to Tamara’s flesh, where the rings of tiny teeth had burrowed in and scraped up blood.

Essie had her own scars, but Tamara knew Essie’s had twisted into a new curve as she grew, her eyes bulging and moving in her narrow skull, gills opening on her slender neck, her legs fused and her body stretched to fill the new space. Essie had adapted where Tamara had been trapped. She had moved from the sewers to the storm drains. Where water flowed, she stretched, she travelled. She followed.

Over Paul’s droning, Tamara heard Essie’s voice deep in the pipes, a hollow susurrus, a tapping. She leaned over the wide, stained sink, peering into the dark hole where the stopper used to be.

The old galvanized pipes screeched and pinged as they stretched. Essie knew Tamara wanted her. She heard her. She was coming. Welds popped with a dull metal sound. How could she fit through such narrow spaces? Tamara thought. How thin could she stretch? The water had made her soft, melted her bones, let her skin bloom like the tendrils of an anemone.

Deep in the drain a green light glowed, an eye, Essie’s eye. She would be here, reborn from the waters, from the filth. Something new.
Tamara heard Paul moving around in the bedroom. She unlocked the bathroom door and swung it open.

It was time he met Essie in the flesh.