The Story of the River and Ophelia by JoSelle Vanderhooft

The kid and I, we had us an arrangement from the day her boyfriend took off his socks and babbled on about handsaws and hawks.

I didn’t know her too well then, I must confess. Being a stream tends to limit interpersonal interaction and inter-intelligent attraction. It’s mainly just “glub glub” and sometimes “splash!” when a kid skips a stone across your surface. O, perhaps, a 110 pound beauty tries to commit hara kiri by throwing herself in from the second story of a willow growing aslant this big old brook.

O, willow, indeed! I bore her skirts up, set her down inside the reeds and I said,

“Ladybug, sparrow, look. Why’s a girl like you diving in a brook like me smooth and light as a grey-feathered arrow? Tell me, pretty, prithee.”

Well Ophelia, she was pretty shaken after all. Seems Old King Hamlet a few weeks back had had himself a pretty nasty fall. And all the kings horses and all the kings grooms couldn’t for all that all that find the way to crack that tomb. And since Old Hamet’s brother put his ass on the throne, well, quoth the maiden, “I feel pretty alone, ’cause you see, pretty Brook, pretty stream, with your rues, purples and daisies, something’s gone off in Denmark, ’cause they’ve all gone crazy like foxes.”

Well, hell, everyone, how can a Brook brook this kind of thing? So I sat by the kid and got her to tell me everything she knew. That the Old king was gone she’d already said, but as for the new one?”

“Well, he’s the King—so he’s said. He got the election—that’s what Papa told me. But now Papa, he’s—Papa’s, he’s—” and if nothing had sold me, I tell you, it woulda been that pretty show as her hands wrung her dress with her hair in her face, face so pale and her hands so distressed, that I had to say it; she fit me to a T. We might’ve been cousins, we might have been kin, but I saw the Brook in her and the girl in me.

See, now

I was here before their mothers bore them, and I was here before Elsinore was laid, and I was here before the coronation, and I was here before Denmark and Norway.

I told her this, and I dried her eyes with a reedy handkercher, and man you should’ve seen her then, my friend. Just by smiling a bit she looked more self-asured, and ready too, like she wanted to mention something she didn’t know, or something maybe bordering on dissention.

“What happened to you Papa,” I asked Ophelia.

“That’s the trouble, Brook,” she said. “See, I’m not sure. One minute he’s telling off Laertes, reminding me to cross my t’s and a’s and be a lady, and then, he’s pushing me into a hall where young Hamlet (that’s the prince) can find me and bawl me out for Cock knows what. And then, next thing I know, the Prince —”

“Go on, I’m here.”

She makes a noise low in her throat, like grinding flesh and breaking bones. “Well then, Hamlet he—stabs him. And I can’t—if swords were feathers, they’d fill up my pillow. But since they’re not, all I can do is walk along your bank and weep a willow ’til I find somewhere to wander led by a light or not, like somewhere yonder down the stream. Elsinore’s my home. I’ve never left it.”

“Well why not, dear? Seems it’s a too-tight fit for a lass with her head screwed right.”

She folds her arms. “Well, then, that’s cut and dried. What’s there to do to fix it?”

“You ever heard of Daphne?”


“Just skip it. You haven’t run from a talking brook, you know. And here we got this parlay started half an hour ago. What do you think that means?”

“I’m crazy too?”

“Wrong answer, daisy chain, that means you knew somehow I’d listen, that here you could find help, and that, sometimes, you can —”

“Go on?”

“Lady, by yourself,” I smile all pebbles and all crooked stones, “you can cash in your humanity without cashing out your bones.”

See, now,

A river has a way of moving on, and people have a way of keeping close. But there are other ways to move away, even when the walls push you the most.

“I do not understand,” Ophelia says. “And if I can’t lie down, I should lie in my closet where I know I’ll get some sleep.”

“And is that’s what you really want?”

“It’s all that I can keep,” she looks at me, and sighs. “But if I could…sometimes I look between the shore and you, and watch the moss that pulls against the stream. I think sometimes—”


“That I could grow long like a dream, so long and thin so thin and long I’d shed my gowns, my stomacher, my petticoats, and all the flowers leafed about my head like wedding veils. But that simply isn’t so.”

“Step into me.”

“I couldn’t.”

“Pretty lady—”

“I said no!” She stands only to sit, her dresses spread like a mermaid’s tail. Puzzled, she dips her hand against the heavy lace and pricks it with her nails.”

“If I could be,” she says at length, “transformed into a nereid, could I—?”

“I am the genius of all you see,” and I sweep out my tail to touch the sands, the reeds, the willow-tree and bridge that even now shines through the afternoon like dandelion seed.

“And if I did consent?”

“Welcome you would be.”

We each meet eyes and smile, we turn away, bashful as earth when first he kisses sky at matintide. She rises, my thin willow, dripping vinegar and rue like wax. Wrapping her skirts against her knees she takes a step, a step, another painful step until she is hip deep.

I take her hand. “If you consent, Ophelia, there is no separation.”

Her kiss alone is confirmation.

Many years have passed. The king is dead. The king, too, after him. And Elsinore
Lies ruined on my banks. The willow tree
Bends at the waist and peers beneath my skin.
Inside, she sees a thing that makes her shake.
Ophelia, quite scaled, quite wild, quite long
Fierce of hair and teeth, flicks back and forth
Inside our course. And I, provide the force
That bears us on and upwards, ever up.

Told you we had a deal.

JoSelle Vanderhooft graduated from the University of Utah in 2004 and has been roaming around the United States ever since. Her first poetry collection, 10,000 Several Doors, will be released later this year from Cat’s Eye Publishing, and she is currently editing an anthology of lesbian-themed fairytales for Torquere Press to be released in May 2006. Additional poetic works can be found in upcoming issues of Star*Line Magazine and the Prime Books anthology Jabberwocky #1. Her essay “The Most Important Letter of Your Life” is also slated to appear in an anthology of young gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender writing. A benefit for the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) it will be released from Random House/Knopf in 2006. She also writes for several newspapers and magazines.

Image © JW Waterhouse