They found the offering after a night of heavy rain.
She was the first to spot the figure, caught up in an old tree branch in a quiet eddy. At first she thought it was an animal, but after he said it was a person, she could make out the limbs and the face.
He pulled the offering free, but she did what she could to help. As he often reminded her, she was not cut out for this kind of work. And when she complained at this, and said that he always got to do the exciting stuff, he told her that this was because he wasn’t as good at thinking. She could come up with a plan, and then he’d see it through. That was how it always worked.
Maybe he blamed her, she often thought. It had all been her idea, after all.
They brought the river’s offering back to the house, and placed the figure on a heavy blanket in the front room, starting a fire in the grate so that the water would burn off. Of course, they were careful where they placed the figure—they didn’t want to make that mistake again. She recalled the terrible stench, and it made her stomach growl even now.
She hoped this one would fare better. The skin beneath the tattered rags warmed as it dried, and she used a second blanket to gently rub the remaining moisture away. She started to remove the sorry remainders of clothing. When she first did this, on an earlier offering, he had told her to stop. But she had seen others with no clothes on, so why would this be any different? There was no reason for him to be so fearful.
Besides, nobody could replace him. He should know that by now.
They had been together for almost as long as she could remember. She had vague memories of the time before, when the house had been full, and when the other dwellings nearby had been occupied. She could sometimes bring to mind faces, but they warped and shrivelled, and soon were shrunken, the skin tight against the bones, and she could make out blood vessels and other tubing that should have been hidden deep down. With one of them—she thought this was the person who helped fix their roof, before they were alone—she was still adamant she had been able to see the outline of his kidneys, even though he told her this was impossible.
But that was a long time ago. Maybe months, maybe longer. Now, it was just the two of them.
Apart from the river’s offerings.
This one was not as emaciated as many she’d seen. She found herself squeezing the flesh, her heart fluttering. But that was fat, not muscle, and was nothing to get excited about.
They moved the offering up to the bed in the second spare room. She’d prepared the sheets before the sun had risen, as she always did after the rains. She was meticulous about keeping both spare rooms ready.
They tucked the offering in so that only the head was free of the off-white material. She felt the usual disappointment at that—they should be as bright as the burn of the sun on the back of her eyelids. Their guest didn’t deserve these stained, greying coverings.
Maybe, she thought, that was why the others had not fared well. Maybe, despite all her cleaning, some taint remained.
He told her that she was being ridiculous. Sheets couldn’t hold guilt like that. They had no memory.
And that made her think of the first few, of the thrill at the novelty, and the burning deep within. Of course, they had been careful lest they were discovered, but they carried on, until all were gone, and they had their paradise.
But it wasn’t paradise. Neither mentioned this, but they’d created their own hell. The only way out, the only repentance, was through a kindness.
And so they patrolled the river, searching for an offering that might be their salvation.
She had a good feeling about this one, had done since she’d seen the body beneath the rags. There were the usual patches of decay, and old wounds long since bled dry, but there was still some colour to the skin. She believed—she had to—that there was some life remaining.
They cared for the offering. She cleaned the room, opening the window wide to allow the fresh air to waft away the rancid river stench. They both prepared food, liquidised, which they administered using a syringe. They spoke to the offering, her more than him. Sometimes she stroked the cold skin.
She kept the window open for longer as the days became weeks, and soon she did not bother closing it at night. The offering became gaunt, and she felt the need to change the bedding daily. And when they moved the offering, they did so with more care, not wanting to damage anything through rough handling. The skin felt paper-thin.
And then, a couple of months later, when she sat on the back step of the house, trying to ignore the aroma drifting down from the open window above, he came to her. He rested an arm across her shoulder, and he spoke quiet words.
Yes. He was right. Of course this offering was not the one.
They brought the offering into the kitchen, and did what they had to. She cleaned the room thoroughly, and he set to work on the fire. It was, as he never tired of saying, the one true way to ensure there was no contamination.
They would sleep well that night. In the morning they would rise early, and they would search for another offering.
But they would do so on full stomachs.
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