Child of the Waters — Part One

The Land Baby by John Collier

[Author’s Note: this is the second story to feature Peigi NicCath, a priestess in an alternate polytheistic western hemisphere; a land we would call Ohio, but she does not. The first Peigi NicCath story, “Priestess of the Waters,” can be read in Volume III of All Worlds Wayfarer. It is not necessary to have read the first story to follow along here.]

“You’re still thinking about that letter, aren’t you?”

“Hm?” I turned and forced myself to focus on Gran. She stood nearly eye level with me, a full two inches taller than normal thanks to her fancy party shoes. The pile of silver-streaked red curls on top of her head added another two inches.

She had insisted that we take proper measurements before we left the house.

I had a whole quarter of an inch on her.

She had huffed at the pencil marks on the wall and declared, “I’ll catch up to you one of these days, my girl.”

(Never mind that both of us had stopped growing quite a while ago.)

Now, she waited not-so-patiently for me to answer, her eyes narrowed.

“Yes, all right,” I admitted. “I’m thinking about the letter.” I shifted my fur stole higher onto my shoulders, curling against the late spring chill that rolled off the Ohi:yo River. I took another three steps forward, the line crawling along the dock towards the ramp that led up to the Beauty of Psyche. Banners hung along the railings of the old timey paddleboat declared, in barely-legible script, Support the Troops! and Dance Party! A third was probably supposed to say Victory Is Only a War Bond Away! but the wind had twisted it all around so that Only War was visible.

I shivered, tugging at my gloves, and pressed my purse against my belly. 

“In what way?”


Gran rolled her eyes. She leaned towards me, lowering her voice. “Peigí, this is the first you’ve heard from your parents in almost two years. I can only imagine how many — and what sort of — thoughts you are having.”

I bobbed my head, conceding the point. “Many thoughts, most of which I am ashamed to admit out loud.” Scattered musical notes bounced through the air as the Psyche’s band went through its warm up routine. I studied the long line that stretched ahead of and behind us, and the people already crowded onto the boat. Every single one of them had someone — spouse, sibling, child, friend, co-worker, neighbor — fighting on the far side of the Sea of Atlas, somewhere in Europa or Mesopotamia or even Aphrika. Thanks to the fascist blockade and the priority given to military correspondence, little in the way of personal letters made it back home.

And who knows how many of the letters penned by worried mothers or husbands or wives made it across the Sea to the soldiers on the front lines.

I had gone only two years without hearing from my parents. Others had gone much longer.

And the letter had come to me, not Gran. I had no right to complain.

And yet ….

“It was so short!” I complained. “Only thirteen sentences. Thirteen! And they said nothing useful! Just … blather. Telling me not to worry, and they were safe, and they were doing important work, and … just ….” I blew out a harsh sigh.

Gran patted my arm, her voice still low and comforting. “The letter will still be there when we get home. For now, forget about it. You work hard. You deserve some fun.” Her expression turned mischievous. “Will Sallali be here tonight?”

“What? You know we’re not — I have no idea —  uff!”  

I stumbled as a solid body slammed into my back. Gran grabbed for my arm, slowing my face-first plummet towards the dock. I scrambled, shifting my feet, and crashed into the railing post. Wood tore through my glove, scraping my palm and fingers. There were exclamations of alarm, and gasps from the crowd.

“Oh! My apo — I am so sorry!” Strong hands closed gently around my shoulders, helping me stand upright. Gran loosened her grip on my arm, allowing me to turn.

Conversation around us quieted, people craning their necks for a good view. The sergeant who had run into me was flushed a deep red in embarrassment. His pale blond hair was buzzed military short. His dark green Army uniform was neatly pressed, but his hat had fallen off. He released my shoulders to take my wrist and turn over my hand. “Let me see that. Are you hurt anywhere else?”

“No. And I’m sure it’s fine.” I shook my head and tugged my arm until he released his hold. I stepped back, leaning closer to the railing and tilting my hand to get a better look at it in the light cast from the Psyche

The glove was ruined. It must have snagged on a nail. The skin beneath was torn deep enough to bleed. Even as I watched, blood welled up, dribbled down the lines in my palm, and dropped into the Ohi:yo below.

Gran hrmphed. “Let him help, Peigí! I’m sure that Sergeant … uh ….”

“I beg your pardon. Sergeant Birgisson. Fifth Stationary Medical.”

I rolled my fingers and a sharp sting radiated through my palm. Gritting my teeth, I reluctantly held out my hand. As gently as before, Sergeant Birgisson held my arm steady while he examined the wound. From the corner of my eye, I saw Gran rescue his hat from the edge of the dock. 

The crowd, losing interest, returned to their own conversations. The line continued forward without us.

“Yeah, this is pretty deep. With your consent, I can do a healing invocation, and get it cleaned and wrapped up.” He looked up at me, his blue-grey eyes serious.

“I really don’t th —”

“She absolutely consents. Say yes, Peigí.”

It was my turn to roll my eyes. “Yes, very well. And thank you.”

Sergeant Birgisson grinned, some of the seriousness leaving his eyes. “This way. I’m sure they have medical supplies on the boat.” Saying that, he curled a hand around my elbow and steered me towards the ramp. 

Gran threw herself in front of us, one hand raised to hold her curls in place, the other waving the Sergeant’s hat. “Make way, make way! Injured priestess coming through! Move!”

There were grumbles and shouts of annoyance, and a few of concern, as Gran plowed forward. The clerk who stood at the bottom of the ramp looked up from her clipboard, eyebrows drawn in confusion.

“Priestess?” Sergeant Birgisson asked.

“Um, yes. I’m technically attached to the Temple of Oceanos and Tethys, but I’m usually only there a few times a year. The high holy days and such.”

“Me, too.” We stopped for a moment as Gran offered a few words of explanation to the clerk, then pushed her way through. The Sergeant tapped the small mortar and pestle pin above his name badge. “I was at the Hof of Eir in Manaháhtaan before the war.”

The ramp jangled beneath our feet, and the music got louder as the band launched into a fast dance number. Light and warmth and laughter spilled out of the windows and open doors.

“You’re a long way from home.”

He shook his head, leading me down the side of the ship. “I serve at the Asclepeion in town.” He bopped his head back towards Gallipolis. “We’ve been … busy. Too many wounded for the Asclepieia on the coast to take care of, so many of them are being shipped out here. The high priest ordered me to take a night off.” He shrugged, his smile small and self-deprecating. “A night of music and dancing sounded like fun.” 

Gran knocked on a door with the Staff of Asclepius emblazoned on it. She shoved the door open, and I found myself in a small infirmary. “And yet here you are, playing doctor anyway.”

“Entirely my own fault.” He lowered me into a chair and set to work, while Gran hovered protectively. Within a matter of minutes, my ruined glove was in the trash, the wound was clean, and my hand was swaddled in thick gauze. He finished with a short invocation to Eir, my palm clasped gently between his hands. I felt a warm tingle, a wash of calm strength, as the Goddess answered her gothi’s prayer.

I waggled my fingers, carefully stretching my palm. It still hurt, but at least now I knew that it would heal properly. 

I looked up at Birgisson and smiled. “Thank you.” Music rumbled through the wall. “I hate to think that I ruined your night off. Care to dance?”

His wide smile was the only answer I needed.


The Beauty of Psyche chugged away from the dock and out into the river, riding the current away from Gallipolis, southwest towards the Misi-zibi. The lights of human civilization gave way to dark shores, trees growing thick right up to the edge of the water. It was cool out on the deck, but the dance hall was hot and crowded. The band was enthusiastic, the dancers even more so, and Sergeant Birgisson (“Call me Finn!”) turned out to be quite the dance partner. Taking care to hold my wrist rather than my hand, we whirled around the room, keeping time with the fast beat. 

Gran, for her part, opted to talk and drink, instead. She greeted old friends, introduced herself to new arrivals to Gallipolis, and offered blessings upon anyone who asked. Every time we passed her, I could smell the afterglow of fire as Brighid answered her prayer.

When the band finally stopped for a break, I was shocked to discover that it was nearly midnight. I was hot, sweaty, and laughing. I was happy. For a little while, at least, I had forgotten about the war and my parents.

We made our way out onto the port deck, Finn still holding my wrist. I waved down a waiter and snagged two tall glasses of iced tea from his platter. Still laughing, we found a small table and two chairs along the inside wall and collapsed. I guzzled my iced tea, almost choking, and slammed the glass onto the table with a satisfied sigh.

Finn followed suit and grinned at me. “I guess the old man was right.”


“Hasanoanda. The high priest at the Asclepeion. A night of dancing with a beautiful woman is exactly what I needed.”

“Did he really say beautiful woman or did you just ad lib that part?”

“Ad libbed. I’m quick like that.”

I smiled at him. He smiled back. I leaned forward, elbows braced on the table. He leaned forward —

The engines whined, thrumming loud. The ship lurched, slowing suddenly. Finn tipped towards me in his chair, even as I slid back.

The entire boat slammed to a sudden, hard stop. Furniture rolled and tumbled across the deck. People screamed, stumbling and sliding. I heard glass breaking. Wood and metal creaked. The engines sputtered and choked, straining.

And then the boat tipped. The port side lifted into the air. I crashed into the inner wall, furniture tumbling around me. A chair narrowly missed my head. I heard the dissonant clang of musical instruments inside the dance hall. Finn grabbed my arm hard enough to leave a bruise. I think I was screaming. There was lots of screaming. Wood splintered, metal shredded.

And then the ship dropped back into the water. Finn and I plunged to the floor, other passengers rolling around us, crying, bloody and bruised. I heard more glass breaking and the ship groaned.

Panting, I pushed myself up onto my elbows. Finn lay next to me, one arm tight around my waist. We stared at each other, wide-eyed.

“Gran —”


The voice was more than a voice: it was the ancient thunder of glaciers carving into the stone of the earth, of millennia of floods tearing away at dirt and rock, of water whittling away the land to create a place for itself.

It was the voice of the river.

There was a grinding and the Psyche cracked loudly. The engines gave one last futile whine and then wheezed to a stop. The lights flickered, plunging most of the ship into darkness.


“Let go!” I struggled against Finn’s arm.


“Let go!” I yelled and lunged to my feet. Grabbing the railing, I stumbled towards the bow of the ship.

The boat may have been mostly dark, but the moon was full and the potamid was huge.

She was easily twice the size of the Psyche. Her skin was lustrous, shimmering, shifting between the sharp gold of the noon sun upon the water and the cool silver of the midnight moon. Her hair was every shade of green and brown, reflecting the grasses that grew along her shores. Great horns spiraled from the top of her head, corkscrewing down her back to end in sharp points. Her eyes were dark and too large for her face and, though her upper body may have been that of a woman, her lower body was serpentine. Her tale undulated and curled behind her, disappearing into and becoming one with the river. 

I froze near the bow as her eyes fixed on me.

I licked my lips and called out, “Ancient One! I am here!” My voice cracked and I tried again. “I am here!”

The potamid slid towards me, shrinking ever so slightly in size. Her form changed, too. Her breasts disappeared and a thick beard sprouted, though the horns and tail remained. The potamid, now male in form, glared down at me.

“My child, priestess! My child has been taken from me! You will bring him to me! You will return her by the zenith of the sun tomorrow or my sisters will welcome these mortals across the rivers of the underworld!”

I heard whimpering and crying behind me, and the sounds of hopeless, frantic running.

To where?

I wrenched my thoughts back around, focusing on the potamid’s demand. “Your — your child, Ancient One?”

“Stolen! Lured away in the brightness of day while he played along my shores with the turtles and frogs. She is far from me now, so far, where the waters no longer sing.” The potamid’s voice dropped low in mourning and his shape changed again. The beard vanished and his human features became those of a serpent, fins flaring out from the side of its head. A long watery tongue flicked towards me.

“Tell me where this place is, Ancient One, and I will find your child!”

“Far. So far.” The potamid raised its tail high in the air and then slammed it down into the Ohi:yo. Waves as tall as the ship rose and roared towards either shore. I heard the cracking of trees and the high-pitched wailing of wounded dryads.

The water churned as the potamid swung its tail around, wrapping the Psyche in liquid scales. The wooden hull shuddered and groaned. The serpent head changed again, became that of a fierce bull, then a horse, then a woman again, the curl of her horns catching the moon’s light. She leaned towards me, her face filling my vision. “Until the sun walks at his zenith, no longer.” 

The ship groaned again, rocking slightly. The passengers whimpered; a few screamed and prayed.

I swallowed hard, feeling the potamid pull at the water in my body. The liquid in my blood and organs and brain reached for her, straining, grasping for her ancient link to the primordial ocean; the first ocean, the waters from which all life arose, and which still sang deep inside all of us.

My voice was a whisper. “Yes, Ancient One.”

The pull lessened and I realized that I had fallen to my knees. I grasped the railing, barely feeling the pain in my hand, and struggled to my feet. I heard a tentative sound behind me and turned.

Gran stood in the doorway to the dance hall. Half of her curls had fallen around her face, there was a bloody gash in her forehead, and her fancy party shoes were gone. 

She smiled. “Go.”

“No! Absolutely not!” 

I turned further and spotted Finn. He had one hand braced against the wall and his face was pale and tight. 

“I’m sorry. I have to go.” I climbed up onto the railing and swung a leg over.

“You can’t! It’s too dangerous! Peigí —”

“I am a Priestess of the Waters, Finn! Please. You are a Gothi of Eir. Help these people. Treat their wounds and keep them calm. I’ll be back in a few hours.” I swung the rest of my body over, steadied myself, and then dropped.

The hull of the ship flashed past my eyes and then I was in the river. I kicked, straightened out, and felt a tentacle of water coil around my body. It picked me up, lifting me above the surface. A wave formed under my body, lifting me higher still, and carried me towards the dark northern shore. Wind whistled around my head, tugging at my hair and clothes. I started to shiver.

The wave suddenly dropped away and I landed with an ungainly splat in the shallows. Coughing, my skirts heavy with water, I climbed awkwardly to my feet.

The potamid stood in front of me, the top half male again, the size of an ordinary mortal. His serpentine tail curled beneath his body. He held a frog in one hand and his head was down, gaze fixed on the muddy shore. Faint footprints were visible; one adult, or two, maybe? And another track, strange, long and slithery at first, but it quickly morphed into tiny human footprints. 

The potamid turned, leaned forward, and pressed his lips to mine. I felt something cool and opened my mouth.

A bead of water. It settled on my tongue, round and solid as a pearl.

The potamid pulled back and looked at me for a long moment. “My beloved is lost to me beyond the shores of the underworld. I do not wish to lose my child, as well.” And then he sank slowly into the river and was gone.


The dryads guided me through the woods. I’m not sure how long I walked, but the moon had shifted noticeably west by the time the trees gave way to a paved road. An oaken dryad, her hair budding with the young leaves of spring, silently pointed towards the right. Very distantly, I could make out a faint light.

Arms crossed over my chest in a futile attempt to keep warm, I turned to her and dipped my head. “My thanks, Numinous One. Please extend my thanks to your sisters.”

The dryad tilted her head at me, quiet for a long moment. “The river’s grief and wrath are great. We do not wish for more of our trees to die. Do not fail.” Then she turned on her heel and slipped back into the woods.

Steps uneven, I made my way down the road. Step after step after step. Anxiety knotted my guts. The potamid’s words tumbled through my head, and the dryad’s plea, and Gran’s single command to “Go.” 

Noon. That’s plenty of time. It has to be.

When I started to shiver, I forced myself to walk faster, and then jog. My clothes were still heavy and wet, and my hair was a rat’s nest trailing down the sides of my face and my back. The gauze around my hand was soggy and uncomfortable.

By the time I reached the gas station — the light positioned high on a pole above the pumps — I was panting, my chest tight and straining. I stumbled towards the phone booth that stood against one wall of the garage, shoving the door out of the way.


I scrambled, sliding my hands around my waist. Then remembered that I had no pockets and that my purse was still somewhere on the Psyche.

Growling in frustration, I shoved my way back out of the booth and peered at the gas station. Mostly one level, but with part of a second floor above the main section of the shop. The windows were dark, but one was braced open with what looked to be a piece of tail pipe. 

I pushed the pearl of water deep into my cheek and started yelling. “Hey! Hey! Wake up! Anyone home?” I jumped up and down. I found some pebbles and hurled them at the windows.

A light popped on. I kept yelling. A moment later, a disgruntled face appeared in the window.

“What are you doing down there in the middle of the night?”

“Please, I need your help! Do you have a car? A phone? Money for the pay phone?”

A hand reached up to lift the window higher. The man frowned down at me, his hair poking in every direction. “I got all those. Why? Hey, did you fall in the river?”

“Please, my name is Peigí NicCath and I’m a priestess with the Temple of Oceanos and Tethys in Gallipolis. This is an emergency! Will you please let me in to use your phone?”

The man frowned harder, then shrugged. “Yeah, okay. Just give me a minute. My knees aren’t what they used to be.”

The window fell shut with a dull thud. I ran over to the front door of the station, bouncing impatiently on my feet. A light came on towards the back, and I could make out stairs and a few rows of snacks and drinks and automobile parts. The man appeared at the bottom of the stairs, flicking on another light, and made his slow way towards the door. He flinched, pressing a hand against his right thigh.

He unlatched two bolts and swung the door wide. “Welcome to MacGregor’s Corner Station, Priestess NicCath. Phone’s right over there on the counter. You really did fall in the river, didn’t you?”

I trotted past him and snatched up the phone. He said something else, but I wasn’t paying attention. I banged on the hook switch until the operator finally picked up.

My voice cracked. “G-gallipolis 9-9889.”

“Pardon? Could you repeat that, please?”

I tightened my jaw. “Gallipolis nine eight eight nine. Please.”

“One moment.”

The phone rang, and rang, and rang some more.

Mr. MacGregor appeared at my side, holding up a blanket. I smiled at him gratefully and tugged it around my body, holding the phone between my shoulder and ear. 

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but that party is not picking up.”

“He’ll answer. Try again.” I tugged at the soggy gauze, grimacing as it pulled free, and tossed it into a trash can behind the counter.

“… Yes, ma’am.” 

Ring. Ring. Ring.

Silence, a click, and then a very sleepy “H’lo?”

I drew in a sharp breath. “Sallali, I need your help.”

And then I started to cry.

[End Part One. Part Two will appear in the December 2021 issue of ev0ke.]

[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *