Word Count: 3300
Genre: non-linear fairy-tale-ish road poetry?
Warnings: suicidal thoughts, guilty Season 6 Sam, references to Seasons 1, 2, 3, 5, drownings
Summary: A hunt on the Big River-- where there are ghosts, water spirits, angels, devils, heaven, hell, memories, prophets, stories, and brotherly love.
Better to go down like this, be cleansed; sink here where sins are washed away, where they’re not even sins, never were, and there’s no devil, and you’re gone.
There are many ways to salvation, and one of them is to follow a river. — David Brower
Close, the big river whispers, close, close.
You’re right, for once, says the devil.
One breath into morning and Dean can tell Sam's gone off in the night. Not off, as in walkabout, or maybe, maybe that too, but more that he's wandered the way he does when he sleeps heavy after a hunt, dreams and regrets all over the map, changed chemically or some damn thing, so now he's tangled in sheets that don't smell right, shivering with what people around these parts, Big Muddy rolling past the door, cottonwoods on the banks, used to call ague. Probably brought it back from the freaking nineteenth century, from the bottom of the river along with a steamboat pilot's vengeful ghost and a handful of slave-trade blood money. Or worse.
"Sam?" A hand to the shoulder gets nothing back, so Dean gives him a shake.
"Dad," Sam mumbles, a decade too young, "going down."
"Yeah," Dean says, tugs free the sheets and pulls a dry blanket from the end of his bed, "you're off your head."
Sam doesn't say anything else, just shivers and furrows his brow and Dean puts a hand there, says shit, checks his body for marks and the room for hex bags, shoves his handgun in his jeans, steps over salt lines into the humid air.
"Stay put," he says from the door, to his brother’s trembling back, "going for supplies."
It was over, supposed to be, in the graveyard south of Cape Girardeau, south and east of tiny Dutchtown on the big river, rich with the smell of burnt bones and moonlight curtaining over the markers. Sam was broody. Dean was pissed, walleyed with fatigue, cut up in the hands and face, salt stinging his palms and the howl of a long-dead Confederate bushwhacker in his singed ears. Sam turned an ankle in hoof-pocked earth, got tossed into spiked grass at the river's edge, tore his shirt, scraped his ribs; Dean cracked his skull on a grave marked "Cross", swore, rolled up quick but it was quiet by then. Fish jumping. Night bird. Flames dying down. Mist rolled over the graves and seeped into their clothes.
It was over. Except it isn't.
Dean steps into the parking lot of the River Rest and sees her, his darling, stops to stroke her once, faithful, throws a glance for luck at shotgun, then puts her in gear, points her two miles up state road 25 to the tiny general store, for bottled water, snake oil, whatever they have, whatever might do what little good it can.
It's beautiful there on the bank, wide waters rolling past in the dusk, sedges and tupelo.
"It's not like I haven't been tempted before," Sam says to the woman with her toes in the water. Her hair's rivermud-black, weeds twisted through it dread-like, lilies twisted in too, maybe bells, bubbles from the edges of lilypads. Dress eye-green, shifting, luminous tie-dye fresh from the current.
"Oh?" she says, takes his hand in hers, runs a cool finger down the side of his face, "who was it then?"
"Lucifer," he whispers, for one, and she laughs; she laughs and there's hope in it and something sharper, heavier, fishhook and sinker.
"What?" Sam says, can't help but smile.
"He doesn't exist, where I am. Where you could be too if you wanted. You must know by now there are older things than angels."
"Yeah," Sam says, "I've met a few."
"I'll bet you have."
His hand pulls hers heartwards and stops when fingers swim straight through his ribs, float up in the empty cavern of his chest.
"You've left your body behind, for now," she says. "It's easier that way."
"Oh," he says, “makes sense,” and it does, it does. He’s done that before too. (And you will again, the devil whispers, far off, and of course I exist, wherever you are.)
Her smile tugs him closer.
"Come in," she says, "the river's ours."
The bones of her face are a weir, are the most beautiful things he's ever seen (more beautiful than Jess than his mother than his brother fresh out of hell) and the need to swim is strong, so strong, to go down in the river and never come out. Go down deep in the weeds where the light's black honey and you occlude, dissolve, disperse, shucked of the sorrowful, sorrowful world.
The door to room 14 clicks ominous, squeaks open to a hum like bees and a gasp.
Dean manhandles him over and up, shifts pillows to raise him, lifts his lids, gets barely a twitch.
"Crap, you're hot."
Cold towels, water, a labored swallow. Under his fingers Sam's pulse thuds, way too slow for fever, and his lungs gurgle distressingly at Dean's ear. He smells like green river sludge, the slick of the Mississippi, its treacherous sand.
"Damn it Sammy, you got to wait 'til we're stranded in this backwater to catch some kind of black-market pneumonia?"
No marks. No injuries but scratches, nothing to see except maybe his veins stand out more than usual, a tributary map laid out, mocking. And he won't wake up. And he’s drowning on dry land, no ghost ship in sight.
"Hospital," Bobby says on the phone.
"Wrong season for flu. It's supernatural, Bobby, I just don't know what."
Bobby quizzes him, takes in the riverside graveyard, the bushwhacker’s haunt (same kind of assholes who burnt Lawrence once, Dean says, in 1863,which is what Sam told him; this one led raids in a boat like a freaking pirate; but he’s toast now, you think it matters?) Don’t know, Bobby says, tells Dean to hang on, tells him he's on it, tells him to take care of his brother, hangs up.
Dean checks the windows, the weapons, toes a shotgun free of a duffel, takes Sam’s wrist; sits watch with the smell of salvage (warm metal on metal, canned food, home) kicking at him hard, right in the damn heart.
They drove down I-18, 30, 61, from angry Effigy Mounds to leveed, monster-haunted Cairo, where the great river opens to the Ohio, slips deeper into the belly of the nation, where they got waylaid by word of the raider’s ghost, thought it’d be quick, another black-souled bit of the war between the states gone up in sparks and sodium: it was, and it wasn’t. Sam remembers, there on the bank, her hand in his, wide waters, fingers in his hollow ribs. There were guilt-ticked mile markers, sins singing in the engine, penitent ghosts whitewashing fences, cranes crying their lonely roads over the prairies, and creatures, always creatures, human and monster, more blood than he ever thought he’d spill.
His brother ate a corn dog, pounded the wheel, called something in the road a goddamn sonofawhore, sang off-key, said it’d be alright, said he’d be alright, they’d be alright, looked left at the shining water, a bridge. (They talked about people who went under, died right there on the river all tupelo and blackwater, and it’s never going to be alright, not again, not with this much blood on his soul.)
It’s night on the river now, this river, her hand in his, their hunger. Better to go down like this, be cleansed; sink here where sins are washed away, where they’re not even sins, never were, and there’s no devil, and you’re gone.
I know you, says the woman in the water, there’s no fight left in you.
She’s right, for once, says the devil.
The prophet of the lord says, it's night on the riverbank, day where Dean is. That’s now. When they were children, on a hunt on the James, Dean was the one that nearly drowned, would have gone over a waterfall if John hadn’t pulled him out just in time. Sam put his hands on his brother’s wet knees while he coughed and choked and said sorry sir and didn’t cry. They don’t remember that now.
Dean is fire, says the angel, and earth. Sam is water. That’s just the way it is.
No right, no wrong, only tide, says the river, forever and ever amen.
How’s that for an ending, says the prophet of the lord.
They were rolling into the land of old loves, hunter’s creed, road code, rearview and exit sign. Further south: fuel oil and pine, magnolia, dogwood, bourbon, honeysuckle, hunting dogs, flint and guns, fast food, desperation, deodorant; sulfur, always sulfur, somewhere, always fire.They drove past bluffs. Sam wanted to talk about drownings. Jeff Buckley, lost in the currents(“Dude who sang that song they put on every shit TV show ever made?” Dean said. “Yeah, Leonard Cohen. You haven’t heard My Sweetheart the Drunk?”); that college girl back in ’89, can’t remember her name now, and oh, Sophie Carleton, sunk in the lake so many angry spirits ago;how easy it is, there on the big river, for a boat to run aground on a sandbar; floods, so many floods, sandbags and bloated bodies, Katrina, chaos, quicksand revealed in droughts, how easy it is to get sucked down, never come up. Ghosts, always ghosts.
“You alright, Sammy?”
“Yeah.” The light made his eyes squinty, showed the shadows.
Dean watched the river roll past, rundown shack, motel, motel, said, “getting close,” thought, Cas, not that I am, but if I called you, you know, would you come.
Sam coughs, turns under his hands, springs a fresh sweat in the rolled-on River Rest sheets.
Would you come now.
Did you really think, the devil whispers, far off, you could put me out?
There’s mud in his lungs and Sam thinks, strange, about bridles, reins, salt-licks, feels water licking at his distant calves.
“What’s your name?” he says to the woman in the water.
“Got more than one of those,” she says, “but Nessa will do, Ness; call me that."
"How’d I get here?" Sam says.
"I saw you,” she says, “last night with the pirate’s ghost.” “Called you," she says, holds out a bloody scrap of shirt, the piece of himself he left in the reeds, "with this. You called to me too; you just didn't know it. I've been so lonely."
"I know what that's like."
“I’ll bet you do. You don’t belong where you are any more than I do.”
“How’d you get here?” he says.
“Left the home water on a boat. No-one could see. Most of us won’t leave our places, you know, but I was different, always was.”
“A genius with wanderlust,” he says, worries bit of wet hair,“a freak.”
“Not natural for my kind. I crossed the sea and followed the streams west. You must know we talk here too, where I am, tell each other where to go. But there aren’t many like me, not here, not anywhere.”
“Good water,” she says, “full of stories, power. People who come to it, use it, hunger for it. But none like you.”
"It's beautiful,” he says, and it is, asterisms, five weeping sisters, seven more, shining in the dark river, "it was day when I left."
"It's night here," she says, "and under the water, always. You don't see anything you don't want to see."
"I've been to heaven," he says, and he doesn't know why.
"This is better."
It is. It must be. It's better than fireworks and windows down and freedom and love and beer and sunlight; better than books, than saving a kid, than a sweet dog licking your face in a hotel room plastered with highways, better than this: proud of you, Sammy. Better than his brother, back from hell, whiskey-warm and solid. It’s better, has to be after all this, after all the dying and coming back and to what, all the burning and bleeding and killing, to be nothing, beyond pain, beyond causing pain, beyond heaven and hell and death and time, to be nothing, to drown.
The human heart, the angel says, is a murky place, to say nothing of the soul.
You’re right, for once, says the devil, but is that the best you can do.
The afternoon goes to eighty; a woman shouts in the parking lot, done with you, fucking done with you; bees hum in the coolant in the broken air conditioner while Dean sweats, swears, paces, pulls the shredded curtains, turns Sammy on his side so he can choke up nothing, watches him gasp and struggle and fall silent, sweat and shake and go still, say nothing, keep breathing.
At four his phone goes off and Bobby takes a breath in his ear, says, “well, I got something, but you’re not gonna like it.”
Dean knees go out, sit him down next his brother, flush to his damp spine.
“Rare. Not easy to kill. Not even sure I got the right thing.”
“Just give it to me, Bobby; Sam’s dying here. Again.”
“Fuath,” Bobby says, “ceffyl dwr, morgen, kelpie. Old World water spirit, rivers and lakes. Sometimes a horse, or an old man, or a young man, or a beautiful woman. Tempts people in, gets ‘em in a thirsty frame of mind and drags ‘em under, drowns ‘em. Difference here is Sam’s body is still with you.”
“Homegrown version? Some kind of fucked-up water-fairy pioneer?”
“Could be. River made me think of it, and the hoofprints in the cemetery.”
“So how do you kill it?”
“You can try. They don't like... says here sunlight and steel; silver bullet might do it, if you can find it, see it. But it ain’t gonna be easy. And we don’t know why this one can take someone out of their body. Or maybe it’s just Sam."
“What are you saying?” Dean says, feels his Sam’s vertebrae slot into his.
"He has to choose," Bobby says, “not to go with it.”
"We can't, you know, force his hand?"
"I freaking hate free will."
Dean's hand goes to his head, to his brother's, sinks slowly in his soaked hair.
A nightbird sings on the bank, which one, which one.
"Your blood fell into the river," Ness says, spreads Sam’s fingers in the starlight, "I heard it there."
"That you’d be happy here," she says. "You’re too old for where you are. We're alike in that way, you and I. That, and the hunger."
“The hunger,” he says, and there’d be shame but there’s no shame here; he knows it; here’s where shame is irrelevant, washed away, nothing to the current, the freshwater tide.
“The hunger’s terrible,” she says. Behind soft lips her teeth are sharp, sweet, quartzite and oyster.
“I know,” he says, “it really is.”
You drag people down with you. Consume them. You can’t stop. You don’t even want to.
Did you really think you could put me out?
Her smile tugs him closer.
Ness, call me that.
There's washed in the blood of the lamb, says the angel-- and there's just, says the devil, you know, washed in the blood.
And no number of people saved, of little girls pulled, choking, from haunted pools, can ever make that clean.
Sam's sinking with the sun. The last light throws flame over the river and he goes cold at last, liquid bubbling in his lungs, his throat. Dean props him up, breathes into his mouth, wraps him in blankets, prays to nothing, to an angel that won't answer, keep him safe, keep him safe.
Chokes on salt water and says, "can't wait anymore, Sammy, got to try it. Got to find you, kill the thing that's pulling you under."
He leaves his brother gasping like a fish, weapons on hip, not praying. Drives through mosquito-haunted dusk to the cemetery at the edge of the river, where there’s nothing, no sign, no clue, nothing but hoofprints leading down to the bank, crushed reeds, the rhythmic suck of waterlogged sand.
No answer. Just branches and graves and ash, disturbed earth, then something crying faint in the wind, a shuffle on the bank, a ripple on the water.
“Might as well show yourself, bitch,” he shouts at the river, “because you can’t have him.”
He lights a torch, fires a silver bullet that goes wide of anything at all, sees a green flicker that’s just swamp fire, smells only mud and river and dusk, and then nothing, nothing at all. Goes down on one knee with his heart stuttering, one rough palm on the grave marked “Cross.”
Do you know, says the prophet of the lord, how many times you can die for another person, save them? The Winchesters do. By iron, by earth, by wood, by water, by fire, all of these and so many other elements that don’t even exist for most people. When they were young, Dean carried his little brother out of a fire, but you know that, how could you forget; in some ways it’s the only story he can ever tell. And the answer is an infinite number, of course, but sometimes you have to save yourself.
The river's up to Sam's waist and her hand's in his hair when he sees his brother on the bank, just a darker shade among the old stones. Far away, as though the water's already closed over his head, but he sees his brother's shadow and he smells graveyard dirt and boot leather, gasoline and flicked fire, feels something dry inside, a tiny islet of solid ground.
He doesn't answer; he's not really there.
"Shh," Ness says, “let go. Let him go too."
Find my bones, he tries to say, if there are bones to find; he'll find them and he won't burn them, because he'll hope, he'll never stop. He take it all on, weight of my bones and so much more. He'll drown.
He'll drown too.
Sam's hands go to her face, touch her forehead, her lips, her sharp teeth, the tangle of her weedy hair. "I'm sorry," he says, “I thought I could.” Pushes her out and away, to star sisters weeping on the dark water. "But I can't."
Her fingers reach for him, tug him back, send him her ancient despair, the blood-hunger he knows so well, and there's a wail, a terrible whinnying howl; there are crests and hoofbeats and a cry maybe his own(struggling lungs, closing throat) but he kicks, pulls free, kicks naked towards the bank, towards the graves and the starlit horizon, the memory of flesh.
Close, says the big river, close, close.
Yes, says the angel, that’s what they do.
It ain’t over, says the devil, til I say it is.
You’re right, for once, says the prophet of the lord.
Dean parks her, strokes her once for sorrow, limps up to the River Rest muddy and heavy with dread, pushes the door and finds his brother breathing, washed up half-warm, with mud in his hair, weeds twisted in it, hands twisted in the motel blankets, bare feet frog-printed with the Mississippi.
"Shit, Sammy." He almost goes to his knees, almost, but the bed catches him and he puts his fingers to his brother's throat, feels the current rushing there.
"I," Sam says, coughs up a lungful of silty wash, blinks at him like new, like something the devil couldn’t touch, "it's better here."
Outside the engine ticks cool; the road rolls past; the water hums midnight to the dead, and the living.
Dean’s hands go out, catch and close, pull the big river from its bed.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.-- Isaiah 43:2