The Princess and the River Queen by Phedra Deonarine

There was no road to Savatri’s house, only a dirt track lined with marigolds. The house was small and made of teak because it was good in the rain and termites disliked it, and also because the trees were everywhere in the forest in the centre of the tropical island. Savatri was her parents’ only child. They never received visitors because her mother hated strangers, and because her mother kept Savatri’s father in the basement.

Ever since her mother put Savatri’s father in the basement, her mother started planting flowers in the kitchen garden. Now lilies sprouted among the eddoes and cassava, oleander grew among the peas, and morning glories curled up the walls of the house alongside passion fruit vines. Her mother loved the vines most of all. She didn’t care how they choked the house, or how they wrapped around the foundation beams with their fine but plentiful climbers. The vines made the house pretty and smell delicate like a proper lady’s handkerchief, even though they were a family of bush coolies.

Savatri’s mother didn’t look like a bush coolie. She reminded Savatri of that every supper. She showed Savatri how she’d kept the slim hips and slender thighs of her youth, as well as her pelvic bones, which were strangely prominent for a grownup woman, and her long pointed nose. No amount of soaking in milk would soften her mother’s hands or lighten her dark circles, but those, along with long-faded thumbprints on her inner thighs, she blamed on Savatri’s father.

Her mother was beautiful. Her hair was soft, even when she missed her weekly oil scalp massage. Savatri loved to watch the gentle sway of her mother’s hips while she cooked or walked down the track to the marketplace miles and miles away, bringing back coffee and sugar for cakes and ice-cream, and cloth to make dresses for herself.

Savatri had to feed her father. Her mother always made her father his favorites, like sancoach soup made with succulent beef, curried pumpkin and soft roti, and pitchers and pitchers of cool sweetened tea, everything garlanded in dry oleander blooms. He never ate until Savatri had a bite, but once she did he’d sink back into the plush cushions on the basement floor and eat his fill among the falling morning glory vines which grew in the basement.

Many times he’d complain to Savatri. “Tell your mother to pull out these vines from here. They attracting too many insects.” Or he’d tell Savatri stories of catching fish in the river near the house, and planting crops on the hillside, and selling produce in the marketplace. The stories were dull, but they seemed to soothe him, so Savatri pretended to listen while tracing patterns in the vines with her eyes.

It didn’t matter that her father didn’t like the flowers, because Savatri never told her mother to pull out the morning glories from the basement. The vines covered the walls and hung from the ceiling, and unlike the purple buds outside, the flowers inside the house were a pale pink. The kind of color princesses would wear. Savatri’s mother loved the flowers, and Savatri loved her mother. She couldn’t bear to tell her mother to tear out the beautiful vines and risk losing her love.

Once, her mother ripped Savatri’s father’s soft cotton shirt to strips. Savatri cried because she loved that shirt. She’d washed it the day after they locked her father downstairs and now it smelled of sunshine. She wondered if her mother bothered to smell the fabric, or if she only felt how stiff the shirt had become after it’d dried outside. It was the first time that Savatri ever complained about her mother to her father.

He tried to adjust his covers over his legs because the vines made the basement extra damp, but the shackles stopped him. Savatri arranged the coverlet. He leaned forward, speaking with his mouth full of crab and dumplings. “Throw the strips into the wind and tell it that I’m still here. Don’t use a loud voice. It’ll fix the shirt for you.”

Savatri didn’t believe him at first, but then remembered how quickly the flowers had blossomed in the basement, and how bloodied her mother’s mouth had been that night, and thought that her father must know some magic for those changes to work so quickly. She gathered all the strips of the ripped shirt and tossed them out of the kitchen window. “My father is still here. We keep him in the basement. The room is very pretty but his shackles are getting rusty.”

When she went to draw a jug of water from the well near the river she saw her father’s shirt draped across the well’s opening. She wore the shirt while she drew the water, splashing her worn rubber boots on her way up the narrow path to home. The shirt wasn’t as handsome as when her father wore it. It was patched up like a hastily drawn map with large stitches everywhere, and it smelled of dirt. Still, it was as soft and as large as she remembered.

She wore the shirt throughout supper. She wanted her mother to look at her brightly and say, “How handsome you look! Just like a man!” But her mother didn’t comment on the shirt. All she did was plop a fat pink and white square into Savatri’s hand. “Take this sugar cake down to your father, Savatri. You know, he has the worst sweet tooth.”

Savatri put the square of sweetened coconut flakes on a plate. She didn’t want her mother to see her face because that would make her cry. Her mother never looked at her as more than just a child, even when she wore grownup clothes, took care of grownup men, and ate grownup food.

Her father didn’t seem to notice that she was wearing his old shirt. He only said, “This sugar cake is dry. Thank God it has a wet centre.” He sunk his teeth into the damp middle. “Make sure and tell her that I said that. Now, tell me, do you love me?”

“Yes,” she replied, because this was the right answer. She hugged him. The chains hanging down her back from his wrists didn’t stop her imagining her slender mother’s body, nor her mother’s soft hair dripping down her shoulders. “Yes, I love you.”

Dawn was quick in the tropics. Savatri had to collect the water soon or it would lose the crispness of having been just drawn from the well. Savatri savored the fact that she and she alone got the first taste of water from the well. Still, she dawdled. She didn’t want to see her mother, who looked so pretty in the morning. Her mother wouldn’t see Savatri as equally pretty because Savatri looked like her father, with the exception of her lips. Her lips were as thin as her mother’s and had none of the low-class fullness of her father.

She leaned against the edge of the well, chewing on a bit of sugar cake she’d kept from her father’s supper, and almost skidded on a ring of cream-colored mushrooms. Suddenly one of the mushrooms turned and squawked, “Watch what you’re doing!”

The ring of mushrooms started to move. They weren’t really mushrooms, but little children no bigger than her thumb. She grabbed the little boy nearest while the others got away. He was lovely, with deep black skin and large brown eyes, but his feet were backwards and he wore a tiny conical hat which made him look like a mushroom when he was still.

“What are you?” she asked.

“I am a douen.

“What is that?”

“Someone who lives here, like you, I suppose. Now, put me down. I’m late. I’m supposed to meet the River Queen.”

Savatri held on tighter. “A real queen?”

“Yes. And I have to be on time.”

“I want to come with you.”

He hesitated, so she added, “I can take you there faster.”

“Go down to the river, there is a large rock in the middle. She’ll be there.”

On the rock was the strangest and most beautiful creature Savatri had ever seen in her eleven years. She, for surely it was a woman, had long black hair covering firm breasts covered with deep green seaweed. The bottom half of the lady looked like the gleaming tail of an anaconda. She was propped up on her tail, which was wrapped in three tight coils. Her eyes were honey-colored, and her lips were thin and pink. Savatri smiled because the woman half-looked exactly like her mother.

The douen in her hand addressed the queen. “I’m sorry, my queen, but she said she could get me here faster.”

The queen smiled and stretched out her hand for him. He stepped onto her palm, and she licked him like a cat before popping him in her mouth. Savatri started, but the queen remained impassive. “He is a douen. It is what he was made for. They have short lives. He, at least, was eaten by a queen.” The queen tilted her head to the side like a child. “Are you eating sugar?”

“Sugar cake. It’s made with coconut.”

The queen looked greedily at her, making Savatri feel surprisingly grown up. Savatri liked the feeling, and felt bold enough to say, “If you tell me your name, I’ll give you a piece.”

The queen smiled. Her white teeth gleamed. Her lips looked even pinker in comparison. “I am Madame Glo and I am the River Queen.”

Savatri held out a fat piece of the sugar cake. “Are you a real queen?”

She smiled and swam towards Savatri by whipping her tail. “Yes, I am the mistress of this river.”

“A mistress isn’t a queen.”

“I am the queen.”

“If you are a queen, then why do you want this sugar cake? Won’t you have too much of it already?” Savatri couldn’t imagine a queen having limited sugar.

The River Queen snapped, “Sugar is rare in the water. Every creature knows that. Besides, we have things that you have never seen before.”

Savatri bowed her head. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’d like to see the river very much.”

“Give me the whole cake and I shall let you see my queendom.”

“When?”

The queen slithered up to Savatri and balanced herself on her tail until they were eye-level. “Come to me on the first night of the full moon. Go to the well and I shall send a guide to meet you. Without him you will not be able to see me.” The queen held out her hand. “Will you make me beg?”

Savatri dipped her head. Her cheeks were hot and she was sure that the queen would think that she had bad manners and that she was unaware of proper conduct. She was just a little coolie girl, after all, and this was a real queen. “No, Your Majesty.” She put the square cake in the queen’s hand.

The queen chewed a bit off the edge. “If you bring me more sugar I will make you my princess.”

“Can you do that?”

“I am the queen. I can do whatever I want. Meet me again at the full moon.”

Savatri didn’t tell either of her parents about the River Queen, nor did she want to. The next day Savatri’s mother strolled back from the marketplace with a tiny black and white monkey on a leash with a metal collar. She gave it to Savatri. “You’d like it as a pet. It eats sugar cake and meat. You can feed it on your way to your father. But don’t tell your father. Keep this a secret. Your father doesn’t like living things.”

Savatri petted the monkey’s rough fur. She didn’t name it. Instead she fed it bits of sugar cake and roti before she gave her father his meals. She didn’t tell her father about the monkey. She didn’t like it when the monkey climbed into bed with her. Nor did she like its chattering, nor its smushed face, nor its hands which looked suspiciously like her own. And she really didn’t like how often her mother asked about the monkey, and how often her mother stroked its fur and sniffed its face. Still, she was sad when the monkey died three days later.

Savatri had just fed her father and was going up the steps, stuffing her pockets with leftover sweets for the River Queen when she came across the stiff body of the monkey. She told her mother, and her mother touched the cold body and smiled. A real smile which showed her white teeth, and which spread her pretty pink lips. “We should get this out of the house.”

She sewed the eyes shut with golden thread. She made Savatri stuff a stone in its mouth and bind its snout with a strip of silver silk. They threw the little body into the river. “The stone will make it sink,” her mother said, patting the river and making it ripple.

Savatri nodded but hoped that the River Queen wouldn’t see the body and think ill of Savatri for untidying the queen’s river. How different it would all be once she became a princess! Then everything she did would be right.

On the day that Savatri was to meet the River Queen, she was so excited she could barely eat her supper. Her mother wanted to know what was wrong with the food. She kept ladling out more and more of the soup she had made for Savatri’s father, asking, “Does it taste funny?”

“No, it doesn’t, Mother. I haven’t had any.”

“Then why won’t you eat some?”

“I’m just not hungry.”

“How could a chubby girl like you not be hungry? Do you want to hurt my feelings? It’s your father’s blood in you. It’s not enough that he gave you that flat nose, or those splayed coolie feet. He had to give you his bad mind as well.”

Savatri didn’t answer. The food did look wonderful. The soup was steaming hot and smelled of cooked beef, corn and onions. Savatri felt guilty and ate it. Her mother smiled. “Isn’t it delicious? Tell me it’s delicious.”

“It is delicious, mother.”

Her mother smiled and ate her usual nuts and greens.

Savatri thought she would be too full by nightfall to go meet the queen, but her stomach had settled itself by the time she heard her mother’s gentle snores coming from the only bedroom in the house. She pulled out the small sack of sweet treats she had hidden under her pillow. She wasn’t afraid of her mother coming after her, because her mother had started bolting the bedroom door since that night so long ago when Savatri found her bloodied and bruised on the floor. Still, Savatri tiptoed to the door and closed it gently behind her.

The moon was bright and bathed the little track to the well in silver light. She met a tiny winged douen sitting on the well. He glowed green like a candle-fly and had a high-pitched voice. “Are you here for the queen?”

“Yes, I am.”

At that, about twenty other little douens lifted up from inside the well and formed a glowing garland around her head. “We are so pleased to meet you! Are we bright enough for you?”

“Yes! How pretty you look!”

“Thank you. We are here to light your way to the River Queen.”

The riverbank was alive when she got there. Many douens, both winged and wingless, glowed around tiny shells and stones which served as tables and chairs. They shared plums and drank nectar straight from flower buds. Some douens danced in the air, and all the trees were lit with dewdrops that glowed silver in the moonlight.

In the middle of the river Savatri saw the River Queen wrapped again around the rock. She flicked her tail and met Savatri at the edge of the bank. “Did you bring the sugar?”

Savatri nodded and handed her the sack. The queen covered the sack with a green cloth. “This will keep the sugar dry underwater.” She hefted it up and all the douens from the riverbank eyed the sack greedily.

The queen held out her hand. “Come. I always keep my word.”

Savatri took her hand and followed her into the river until only her head was above the water. The queen pulled Savatri under. The water was black, but the moon on the queen’s body made her visible in a pale blue light. She grinned and Savatri recognized her mother’s face, but the look was one she had never seen. The River Queen leaned forward and kissed Savatri on her neck behind each ear. Savatri had never been kissed before. She felt her face grow hot and was sure that the queen could hear her heart beating. The queen only smiled and stroked the sides of Savatri’s neck.

“See, I’ve given you gills. Now you can stay with me.” She pulled Savatri deeper. Savatri was happy to follow. They swam outside a hole at the bottom of the river. “Come in.”

Savatri went in after her and was surprised to see that it was completely dry. It was a large circular room with five doors around the perimeter.

“Please, sit,” the queen said.

Savatri sat in the only chair in the centre of the room. The queen wound herself around a branch directly above her. Savatri looked up and saw the river through the hole they had just entered. Douens swam and chattered, while seaweed and bits of branches drifted along. They all glowed and Savatri was again surprised. She hadn’t noticed any of this because she had only looked at the River Queen while they swam to the hole.

“What a lovely queendom you have!”

“It suits its purpose. You should look into those rooms.”

Savatri didn’t want to leave her spot, but she did as the queen suggested. She opened each of the doors. Four of them led to large rooms all filled with things Savatri had seen before, though never in such large quantities. One was full of sugar, the other with coffee beans, another with cocoa pods, and the last with people hanging on chains. “They help me when I want nice things for supper and tea,” the queen explained.

Savatri nodded and opened the last door. It led to a large bedroom with a four-poster bed in the centre. It faced the grandest mirror Savatri had ever seen. The walls of the bedroom were carved to look like a purple and gold forest, and the roof of the room was hung with oil lamps which burned dimly.

Savatri turned and saw the River Queen perched on her coil next to her. The queen stroked Savatri’s shoulder. “Shall we sleep now?”

Savatri felt her throat turn dry and her stomach fill with air. She lowered her gaze from the queen’s eyes. She kept her gaze on the queen’s hands which looked soft and then gazed at the queen’s slim wrist encased in a delicate rose-gold braid. Savatri shook her head. “But I am not tired. I would like to see the river. It looks so pretty in the moonlight.”

“You can see it in the morning, my princess. It will be waiting for you.”

“But it won’t look the same. It looks so pretty in the moonlight, and this is my first night here.”

The queen stroked her cheek and again Savatri felt her stomach fill with air and her throat go dry. “I know it is your first night in my queendom, my princess. The river will be the same in the morning as it is now. But I am tired, and I shall not be able to sleep unless you are next to me.”

“I thought queens would be too old for bedtime.”

The queen scowled for a moment. “I am as old as the river, but you probably cannot tell. Even queens get tired, and this conversation is boring me. Come see the pretty nightgown I have for you.”

The River Queen pulled out a beautiful gown out of the large wooden wardrobe in the bedroom. It was pure white with lace edges and pearls sewn into the bodice. “It will look beautiful on you because you are so dark.”

Savatri put it on with her back to the queen. Savatri knew that the queen was watching her dress. She didn’t want to see the queen watching her because that would make the queen think less of her. She didn’t want the queen to think that she was unaccustomed to people watching her. Royalty probably did that, especially royalty which ran the rivers and ate douens for snacks.

The queen was in the bed when Savatri turned around. “Now, come and kiss me. You look like a real princess.”

And that made Savatri smile, so she kissed the queen, and let the queen stroke her hair and kiss her neck, though she couldn’t help it when her stomach started back filling with air. She wondered if the queen was right about the river looking the same in the morning and wanted to ask, but the queen didn’t seem to want her to talk. So Savatri looked in the mirror instead, but she could only see the back of the queen, and the queen’s flicking tail. Then the queen gathered Savatri into a tight embrace, clutching her to her chest. “Shall you stay with me in this room?”

“Yes, my queen.”

“Will you stay with me forever? And only stay with me? I made you a princess and you owe me.”

“Yes. I will stay here with you.”

Savatri felt the queen’s smile on the side of her cheek, but the queen didn’t reply, only continued to stroke her hair and her arms. “Roll over and let me stroke your stomach.”

And Savatri did, because the queen had made her a princess and Savatri had never been a princess before.

Later in the night, after the queen had fallen asleep, Savatri gently removed herself from the queen’s embrace. She wanted to see the river in the moonlight, and she wasn’t sure it would stay the same without the moon. She tiptoed towards the door and opened it as quietly as she could. She was too afraid to shut it completely behind her because it was far heavier than the door at home, but she pulled it as closed as possible without locking it.

She climbed up the tree above the chair in the centre room and pulled herself up into the river, pleased that her gills still worked even without the queen’s kiss. All around her the river glowed pale blue. Fish and turtles swam by. Two pieces of driftwood kept batting a stone back and forth while little douens cheered. She spotted a fat manatee which winked at her and continued on its way. She saw the little pet monkey her mother had dropped in the river. It waved at her with the strip of silk and went off to ride a small tropical fish. She waved back and started to move upwards and felt as if she was walking up an invisible staircase.

Most of the douens were smaller than her, but some were as large as she was. They either danced together or swam in large groups. One of the douens swam up to her and asked her to dance. She smiled and swam off to dance with the douen among the others. They gave her bits of seaweed to put in her hair, and tiny cups full of a sour but tasty drink. They taught her how to dance in their floaty style. It was so much fun that she didn’t realize that the light above was turning less silver and more rose.

Still, the douens continued to dance and make Savatri laugh, but some swam away, and a few asked her to follow them for more of the sour drink. She followed one who had smiled and danced with her, and who said “How charming!” when she clapped while she laughed. She didn’t feel the gentle coil around her neck, nor the gentle pressure on her gills until it became too tight. Savatri clutched at her neck and turned to see the queen with a snarl on her face. Her tail stretched out to coil around Savatri’s neck.

“I told you not to leave me. Did you think that you were better than me? I brought you here and let your breathe.”

Savatri tried to scratch away the queen’s hand but couldn’t. The queen only coiled her tail around Savatri tighter, while the little douen she’d wanted to follow tried to pull her free. The queen easily batted it away and hissed at Savatri, coiling her tail even tighter around her neck. “You were ungrateful. You should not have left me. You said I could keep you.”

Savatri clawed at the queen’s tail again and saw the queen’s blood spilling from beneath her fingers. She wanted to claw again, but saw her mother’s face snarling at her. Savatri felt her hands grow weak. Her arms grew heavy and she closed her eyes, seeing nothing but the glowing river blocking the shadow of her mother’s face.

Savatri’s body floated on the river facedown with her hair waving around her head. She was naked and her neck was covered in navy rings. Her body seemed light as wind, but was heavy when Savatri’s mother pulled her to shore. Her mother closed Savatri’s eyes and laid her next to her father’s body. Both were equally stiff. Her mother cut their palms and massaged the dead blood out. She sewed their eyes shut with gold silk and stuffed stones in all their openings. She flung Savatri’s father in without a word.

But she brushed Savatri’s hair aside and tied it with a pale pink ribbon, and whispered in her ear, “Tell your father that wet centres can be poison if you hurt them. You tell your father that. Now, both of you can go and I shall have no more need for stones.” She dumped Savatri in the water and waited until she sank to the bottom.

She returned to the house and watered her plants, and marveled at how her house seemed to glow with flowers, and how quiet the house would be now. Savatri’s mother would never know that for one night Savatri was a real life princess. And that was the truth, because who but a princess could spend a whole night dancing with douens? And who but a princess would try to fight off a real life queen with her very hands? And who but a princess and her father could be worth poisoning, when all they held were the remains of a wooden house in the middle of the forest in the centre of a tropical island?

Phedra Deonarine lived in Trinidad before moving to Canada. Her work has appeared in Indiana Review, MIEL, and on the Canadian Broadcasting Company website. She has been long-listed for a Canadian Broadcasting Company Literary Award in Fiction.

What person or thing gives her a sensation of floating? “The night sky because my father taught me about the planets by pointing them out to me as a little girl in the Caribbean.”

ArtPriscilla Boatwright is an illustrator and writer working in San Antonio. She is fascinated with myth, magic, and the connections between cultural identity and art. Priscilla received her BFA in illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design. See more of her artwork at http://cargocollective.com/boatart.

Back to Issue 5: Things that Float

11 Responses to The Princess and the River Queen by Phedra Deonarine

  1. Ayana Ramrekha-Roopnarine says:

    I had to read this to the end before I could even move. Stunning use of imagery and description. Ms. Deonarine makes the reader feel as though he is IN the story itself. Any one resident to the Caribbean will easily relate; anyone resident to but not living in the Caribbean will be homesick; anyone who has never heard of or seen the Caribbean, you have just visited in this story.
    Excellent story and beautiful introductory artwork.

  2. William says:

    A true modern fairy tale. I am impressed by the intense emotions evoked by never letting the registers of the mythic and the traumatic either to collapse or to subsume one another.

  3. Isla says:

    Awesome story!!

  4. vy says:

    Makes me remember the loneliness of childhood.

  5. Your story was Well written with a good climax and does make the reader very interested in caribbean mystery.

  6. Devon says:

    Captivating. I loved the imagery and the way it engaged me. Loved your take on the douens as well, yummy

  7. oseavaldez says:

    I loved it! A continuous feeling of wonder and danger never left the page. Bravo.

  8. Chanel says:

    The creative style and language used in this modern fairy tale kept me intrested from start to finish in this. But beyond a fairy tale, this story addressed bigger issues in a beautiful way.

  9. Jackie says:

    I love the details! Very well written story!

  10. Yasmin B. says:

    Any comment I can conceive will fall short of the graceful language used by the author in this very beautiful tale. I feel so familiar now with the river and Savatri, written in such a way that both have permeated me deeply and with ease. The characters and landscape will stay with me as I continue to ponder their deeply laden metaphorical, and cultural meanings. There is a particular unnameable beauty, and strength in the language used here to immortalize each moment of the tale. The best word that comes to mind to describe the writing of this piece is simply… masterful. Well done, Ms. Deonarine.

  11. Huw says:

    Such beautiful use of imagery. I love when words conjure up a world out of nothing, especially a word so intricate and luminous. This is some quality writing.

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