28 May 1974
Working at the docks was alright as work went. For people living in Jeremiah's neighborhood, there wasn't much available that was better, at least. As a nephil, he was stronger than the rest of the crew, which helped; and his connection to the water meant that working on the lake was a source of comfort in his life. But everything else about the job, from the actual work involved to the way the foreman treated the crew, was terrible. And outside of work, Jeremiah felt like his life was slipping further out of his control and settling into a much more mundane, hollow ritual than he had signed up for.
Elizabeth was still active in the community, of course. But with the death of so many people she had invested hope in and the dwindling influence of the Black Panthers, she was growing visibly jaded and sometimes seemed to just be going through the motions. The spark that had drawn him to stay in Erie with her was fading, and he didn't know how to reignite it. Henry was powerless; Jeremiah wasn't sure what he had expected his son to be able to do, but his perfectly human approach to life and blindness to spirits felt like an insult to Jeremiah. Life was growing repetitive, dry, normal. Jeremiah was growing resentful.
He was eating dinner and half listening as Henry told them about his day, mostly thinking about the foreman running his mouth earlier and how he was going to have to brace himself for more of the same tomorrow, when there was a knock on the door. Jeremiah snapped out of his reverie and looked across the table to Elizabeth, who looked worried. She'd been concerned lately about someone coming to the house because of her activities, and they weren't expecting guests. Bracing himself for the possibility that she was right, he stood and made his way to the door.
The salesman was lean, white, and wearing a suit that looked like it had been top of the line three owners ago. His deals were at least as fake as his smile, and he was clearly used to throwing people off and getting a good bit of his pitch in before his victims knew how to respond. He certainly caught Jeremiah off guard, since he was expecting something very different, and nearly managed to weasel his way in to perform a demonstration before Jeremiah's hand had him up off the ground by his collar. The man squeaked as Jeremiah's eyes narrowed on him.
"We're having dinner," Jeremiah hissed. "Have you no respect?"
"Oh, no, certainly, sir," the man replied, fumbling over his words as he adjusted to the situation. "I certainly have respect. I have nothing but respect! That's why I'm here, you see."
"I doubt that."
"I-I mean it! Really! You know, around the office, they talk about this neighborhood as a zoo. They do, can you believe that! They told me, they said, 'Jim, there's nothing there but dumb animals, you won't make no money there,' but I said, look here, now, these are hardworking people who've been trying to get a better life, right? Surely they'll want to know about-"
"Is this supposed to make you sound like the good guy?"
"Now, now, see, I'm trying to offer you something better, see, and you're just being threatening! Is this how you treat people offering you a chance to prove you're better than they say?" Jeremiah growled. "Fine! Fine, maybe I should just take these amazing offers back to-"
"Then you should hurry!" Jeremiah yelled, then threw the man back at the sidewalk. He didn't think about the way he threw him, or how much strength he used, until he heard the crack against the concrete and watched as blood started to pool around the salesman's motionless head. He was breathing deeply, clenching and unclenching his fists, when he heard the floor creak slightly behind him.
"...Dad? What did you do to him?" Jeremiah stood up stock straight and turned around to find Henry. The boy was shaking, his eyes wide with tears starting to gather in the corners. Jeremiah didn't know what to say. In that moment, he realized the life he had been dragging himself through was over. He turned back to glance at the man he'd just killed, then to his powerless, weak, mumbling son. Henry was waiting for an answer, or comfort, or something; Jeremiah wasn't sure what, exactly, he could offer at this point. So he took a deep breath, adjusted his shirt, and then nodded to Henry. The boy looked at him confused for a moment, before Jeremiah vanished into the metaphysical realm.
11 September 1972
Jeremiah's birthday passed with a small party in which Elizabeth jokingly referred to him as his correct age. No one else present knew that he was actually turning 66 that day, but they knew he had been growing a bit irritable lately and she give him a little light-hearted ribbing for becoming a grumpy old man.
As he stood out in the backyard later, staring at the sky, he thought about why that joke had landed so well. He had been incredibly frustrated lately, but he hadn't wanted to think about why. He had tried hard not to dwell on how he seemed stuck in the same kind of poverty he'd turned his back on so long ago. He was constantly pushing thoughts out of his mind about how limited he felt living as human, how powerless he felt with dark skin in the wake of King's death, how little of the world he got to see now that he was tied down to a house and a wife and a child who showed no sign of inheriting anything extraordinary from him. He didn't want to dwell on how time just dragged and crawled while he did the same endless work over and over again to provide food for his family.
Jeremiah told himself he loved his wife, and his son, more than anything; and he really believed it. But he was growing to hate what it meant to be with them, to play along to the rules of a government that viewed him as lower than human when he was so eager to show himself superior. He hated the community he and Elizabeth were trying to save. He hated his little house and his little city and his little life.
An old fire was burning in his chest, and he didn't know how long he could contain it.
5 February 1963
Henry James Matteson was born in the bathtub of his parents' home, delivered by his maternal grandmother. When Elizabeth went into labor, Mama Kline was immediately called, and she shot off a phone call of her own before making her way over. By the time Jeremiah emerged to get a pitcher of water and some glasses, nearly every Kline (and some accepted additions) he had ever met was gathered in the living room and kitchen.
The years of fighting about racial equality were beginning to get under his skin, and Jeremiah had begun to focus more and more internally ever since Elizabeth informed him she was pregnant. As such, he was loathe to be out of that bathroom for any length of time. His concerns about the absence of Aaboukingon in his own youth stung most fiercely as he spent more and more time aware of his pending fatherhood, and while he knew he couldn't be there for everything his son would face, he felt he needed to at least be present for Henry's first glimpse of light.
But there were others in the house now who knew far more about delivering a child than Jeremiah did, and there was no room beside that tub for spectators. With promises that he would be brought in as soon as possible, Jeremiah found himself slowly relegated to the living room for congratulations, excited discussion, and well-meaning but largely repetitive advice. He greeted people who popped by just to check on progress and deliver a plate of something or another, and tried to drift between rooms, and by the time he was called back into the bathroom he felt like he'd aged a decade.
But as he stood beside the tub, holding his newborn son, he whispered a short blessing and oath he had learned in his travels, then looked to Elizabeth with a smile, and everything seemed like it had finally come together.
9 April 1961
For decades, Jeremiah drifted in and out of the metaphysical realm. He spent most of his time among spirits, wandering deeper and deeper into their realm, learning their ways and customs, making connections, but never finding quite what he was looking for. The more time he spent away from the world of man, the more he wondered what it even was that he wanted. When he set out, it had been about money and a comfortable life, or at least that's what he told himself. When the economy collapsed and he stepped into the world of spirits, he realized that money would never be secure enough to meet his desire. So he sought power, but his rejection from the River Network and his human nature closed too many doors. In the later half of the 1950s, he finally returned to the physical realm for an extended period, to remind himself what he was missing and refocus on whatever it was he had always been searching after.
Not all waters are part of the River Network, and they have varying views on how to deal with the edicts of one another. So he found himself settling among the Great Lakes, their freshwater welcoming his blood and their independence from the River Network preventing his utter rejection. He still found hatred from mankind, however, for his dark skin and long, straight hair; but there was a civil rights movement underway, and he was able to find acceptance among black people to match the hatred he received from the whites. It was in these days that he met Elizabeth Kline, a black woman living in Erie and seeking opportunities for community action. She was stern and fierce with those who stood against her, and patient with those who, like Jeremiah, had never fully considered the larger impacts of race in his country but was willing to learn.
They spent a great deal of time together, with Jeremiah slowly getting involved in Elizabeth's community. He avoided using his powers, or revealing much about his true nature, but he began to find himself otherwise surprisingly open with her. It was a couple years before they began dating, and more information on his nature and history began to arise in their conversations, and a little over a year into that relationship he finally began to piece together what he wanted out of life. From his father that never rose from the river, and his mother that wanted him to be someone he wasn't, and his communities that feared him and the spirits that turned their backs to him; in Elizabeth, for the first time as he reckoned it, he found an acceptance that did not demand him to give up half of himself or play by rules that seemed designed to keep him out. In her community, he found people more interested in his commitment to them than in his origins. He gathered his mother's books from the place he had hidden them, and at Elizabeth's urging began adding his own notes on the things he found in his years away from the physical realm. He managed to secure a house, and on April 9, 1961, they were married and she moved in. She kept her name, as she had expressed desire to do and he wished to respect her identity as much as she respected his, but it was agreed their children would get his name if only because no one else could pass it along.
For the first time, Jeremiah was happy.
8 July 1936
The stolen car kicked up dirt as it drew to a stop on the edge of a stretch of road across the Ohio River from Midland, PA. It was getting dark, so Jeremiah glanced around for headlights before opening the back seat and pulling out a body wrapped in bed sheets. He made his way to the edge of the water, and carefully set Joanna down just barely beyond the reach of the water.
"Aaboukingon!" he shouted at the river. "Show yourself!" The water in front of him bubbled and churned, and soon the water parted and Aaboukingon emerged, in his human form.
"You're my son," he said, smiling as he extended his arms, "the messenger told me."
"It's a bit late for all that," Jeremiah replied, turning away. "Where have you been?" Aaboukingon stopped and sighed.
"It took me many years to recover from my time away from the river, and once I had, I was in no condition to leave again and look for you both. Even now, I can only manage to go a few feet inland before I grow dangerously weak."
"Good thing you don't have to go so far." With that, Jeremiah, pointed down to the body, and as realization dawned on Aaboukingon he nearly collapsed onto her. He pulled the blankets away, revealing her face, and laid his forehead on hers as he cried.
"Could you not help her? Oh, if I had found you, taught you-"
"I did help her. This world is no place for someone who lives with her heart among the spirits." Aaboukingon's gaze snapped to Jeremiah.
"What did you do?" he demanded, rising to his feet with his fists clenched.
"I don't want to hear it from you. She spent a lifetime suffering because of her devotion to you, and of the two of us I'm the only one who bothered to do anything about it!" Aaboukingon raised his hand and Jeremiah stiffened, gasping for breath.
"You killed her! I could have given her a better life, you could have given her a better life, but instead you killed her!" Jeremiah's eyes began to glow, and then he forced himself free of Aaboukingon's power and, with his own power, threw the river spirit at the water. Aaboukingon slid across the surface before coming to a stop and standing.
"You're still weak. No one calls the river by your name anymore. Soon no one will remember you. Then what will you be? Just another forgotten underling to the mighty Ohio? How does it feel to be an inferior water spirit to someone born of flesh?"
"You're no water spirit. You are hate, and rage, and death. I will ensure you never find any welcome in the River Network as long as you stay on this path!"
"There are better spirits than you to judge me, Aaboukingon." Jeremiah turned and walked back to the car before driving away. Aaboukingon returned to Joanna's body, lifted her into his arms, and together they disappeared beneath the river.
5 July 1936
Joanna woke from a fitful nap, coughed a deep and wet cough, and rolled over for her medicine to find it being held by Jeremiah.
"How long've you been there?" she asked, weakly. He poured the medicine into a spoon and served it to her before leaning back into his chair.
"Only a few minutes, mama. Probably what woke you." She rolled onto her back and pushed herself slightly upright against the wall.
"I been hearin' about you, you know. I tried to keep track, met some occultists who've helped me out." He closed the medicine and set it on the small table beside her bed, next to the necklace holding the vial of sand.
"And what've you been hearing?"
"You been murderin' people, boy?"
"Now come on, mama, I heard you was sick and came to see you and you wanna talk about strangers?"
"Don't play coy with me!" she snapped, turning her face to glare at him. "Did I raise a murderer, or didn't I?" He sighed and looked down at the side of the bed for a moment.
"I only done what I needed to. Some people got in the way." She huffed.
"Got in the way? And where d'you think you're going, like that?"
"I was trying to make a better life for both of us. I was always gonna come home, get you out of shacks like this," he answered, waving his hands out to indicate the old wooden structure surrounding them.
"Yeah? Waitin' til you was done, though, I guess?"
"I knew you wouldn't understand. Not until I did it. I've seen so much, mama. I've walked in the realm of spirits, I've held power over life and death in my hands, I-"
"All that power, lookin' out at the world as it is now, and you didn't think to help no one but yourself?" He stopped, then hit the arm of the chair and stood abruptly to turn away and look out the window. "Maybe you was named right, boy. All that follows after you is lamentation." She turned back to look toward the wall while he rested his fists on the window sill and stared out at the river.
"I came to help you," he finally said, softly.
"I always said I was gonna free you, from this life, from this misery. Give you something better. I know how to do it now."
"You know I'm ill."
"You won't be anymore." He turned around and walked to her side. She turned her gaze to him, and he gave a weak smile and placed his hands on either side of her head, leaned down, and kissed her forehead. She closed her eyes as he did so.
"You know I love you, boy. I know you can do good in this world, if you choose." A tear began to run down his cheek.
"I know, mama. I love you, too," he said. Then there was a crack as he snapped her neck, and the room fell silent as he lowered her head back onto the pillow and pulled himself away. "You'll see. It's not so bad as all this where the spirits live."
5 July 1936
Even within the metaphysical realm itself, the true spiritual nature of water is somewhat elusive. For most spirits going about their days on land or sky, the waters look much the same in that world as they do in ours. It is those few spirits who can dive deeper, slip not into the water but past it, that ever manage to find the true realm of water hidden behind the waves. There are a few distinct realms in Water; rain and clouds do not directly commune with rivers who work with but keep their distance from seas and oceans. They all work in concert, they all understand the importance of the others, and communication travels freely between them, but they are distinct and would remain so forever given the choice.
The River Network is as vast a plane as any in the metaphysical realm, stretching well past the borders of the actual rivers in the physical realm and branching out through underground aquifers and the artificial rivers mankind shapes with canals and pipes. It is a hectic, bustling realm, or collection of realms with oceans filling the enormous spaces between them. Scattered throughout the River Network are smaller waters, each governed by territorial spirits who cannot cross from one territory to another. The nature of these waters is a matter of ongoing dispute; in Africa, there is still a battle raging over whether the Upper and Lower Nile are two distinct waters or should be governed by one of the primary spirits in residence. A few other lands have access to the River Network, usually the homes of spirits associated with water but not part of it. Iravati is one such land, straddling the banks of many rivers near the Indus Valley.
Aaboukingon was once the sovereign over a river that shared his name, when the people he knew spoke of their river with no regard for the names it had further up or down its banks. When the white man came they renamed it the Allegheny, then debated among themselves for years before deciding the Allegheny ended at Pittsburgh where the Ohio was born. Aaboukingon, being out of commission for significant portions of this process, woke to found himself a very powerful resident of someone else's river. It took some convincing for him to reclaim his waters, even if under the authority of Ohio, and still retain the freedom to move among Ohio's other waters. As soon as he could, however, he sent out messengers to scour the River Network for Joanna. By that time, the pressures of society against her occult leanings had paired with the uncertainty of the Great Depression to drive her away from Ohio's banks.
When word returned that she had been located in a small cottage in Arkansas, he immediately went to petition Mississippi for passage. But Mississippi did not know Aaboukingon as Ohio did, and anyway, what is one mortal to a spirit as grand and powerful as Mississippi? After a great deal of pleading and rebuttals, Aaboukingon accepted that he did not have time to continue this route and instead sent one of his messengers to find her and tell her to come home, that he was waiting for her, that he would give her everything he had ever promised and more just to see her again. When the messenger arrived, Joanna was not at the bank of the river, and it called out for bird or land or any other spirit who could hear it and bring Joanna to receive her summons. All day and most of that night it called out, and as dawn began to break, a young man stopped at the edge of the water and knelt down.
"Who are you calling for?" he asked the water, softly to avoid drawing the attention of other mortals.
"Joanna Matteson, bride of Aaboukingon! He has been searching for her, and now would welcome her home; and I have been sent to bring her home, but alas, I cannot leave these waters," the spirit replied. "But you are Riverborn! Do you know her? Can you find her?"
"I know her," the man said, "she is my mother, and Aaboukingon my father. I am on my way to her now, I--" he paused and looked away for a moment, then turned back to the water. "She is not well. I will see what I can do for her, but you go. Tell my father I will bring her home, one way or another." The river spirit poured out thanks, and as Jeremiah stood and turned his back to the river, the spirit rushed north to carry its new message.
9 december 1929
The front of the bank was hectic, people arguing with each other and with clerks about money that was lost as the world made less and less sense to them. The Roaring Twenties were ending, not with a celebratory shout, but with a deafening howl. In a back room, two men were discussing a similar problem; and finding themselves in no better condition.
"Oh come on, Charlie! You can't do this to me!" Jeremiah railed, hitting his hat against the desk. Charlie, the unfortunate man who had just informed his sixth client of the day that they had no stocks of value remaining, was trying and failing to clean his glasses, if to take his mind off of what his job had become.
"I'm not doing it to you, sir," he replied, in an even tone. "I'm sorry to say that the world is in something of a panic right now, and those of us who have invested in the stock market are dealing with rather unprecedented failures."
"I didn't fail nothin! I put my money where it was supposed to go, and now you're telling me it's just flittered away?"
"That is not the best description of what has happened, but I suppose it will do." Jeremiah leaned over the desk and began jabbing it with his finger for emphasis. Charlie leaned back slightly in response.
"Now listen here, I worked hard for that money, and I need it to get through this thing!"
"Yes, well, that puts you in the same boat as everyone else, I'm afraid. We are all the same in the end, Mr. Matteson, and I suppose we are suddenly in this mess together." Jeremiah growled and glared at Charlie, who suddenly found his vision growing impaired and his breaths growing more difficult.
"The one time a mortal actually thinks we're the same," he muttered, as the left side of Charlie's face began to droop and his arm went numb, "and it's some sniveling little roach who thinks I need more suffering in this life."
"I am sick and tired of every trace of humanity being nothing but weakness and loss! I'm done with you, all of you, do you hear me? From now on, I claim my rightful place!" Jeremiah stood up straight as Charlie tried reaching out, weakly, with his right hand. Jeremiah looked down at the hand, then scowled and waved his hand in front of Charlie's face. Instantly, Charlie's eyes glazed over and he froze, just for a moment, before blood began leaking from his ears and nose and his face fell onto his desk. Jeremiah turned toward the door, then stopped. "If I am spirit," he muttered, "maybe I can travel as one." He took a slow, measured breath, reached his hands out slowly, and stepped forward into the metaphysical realm.
28 February 1925
Joanna slammed the door shut as she entered her home, a small shack on the Ohio River in southern Indiana. Jeremiah was sitting at the small table that occupied nearly half of the main room, and looked up from his newspaper when he heard the door.
"What did you do?!" she yelled, storming up to him and then standing, arms crossed tight across her stomach.
"Now, mama, you have to know-" he started.
"Just answer me, boy!" He sighed and set the newspaper down, then turned to face her.
"I saved our house is what I did, and got nearly a year's wages out of it."
"You nearly killed Mr. Robbins! I've only just managed to establish a life for us here, and if he turns against us-"
"What kind of life is it?" Jeremiah screamed, standing so rapidly his chair slid back and fell over. "All of my life has been spent in tiny shacks, with barely enough food, watching you work a string of meager jobs for people that hate us! Why won't you let me find a better path for us?"
"Because there's a darkness in you, Jeremiah, and your attempts to 'fix' this invariably include hurting people who look at you funny for your skin or your mom's habits."
"They mean nothing! They're little, pathetic things, running around acting like everything of value is built on these little kingdoms they manage, ignorant of the world that exists all around them!"
"These are human beings you're talking about, now."
"And what good is that? I have the power to take this entire river off its course, and I need to play along to their rules? Fit in to their society? Who put them in charge of this?" he finally screamed, holding out his hands and floating as all the water in the sink and his glass rose up with him.
"They matter because they're people! All that power don't make you more important than them!"
"And all them books you lug around and read don't make you any different! You're punishing yourself! You'd rather keep people like Robbins happy while you waste your life away waiting for a man who'll never return, than let yourself have even a taste of what his power can give you! I think you prefer having him gone!" Joanna slapped Jeremiah hard across the face, and as he snapped out of his trance and fell the water in the air splashed to the ground.
"You don't talk to me like that, boy. You don't know what I go through every single day." They both stayed where they are, Joanna standing next to the table and Jeremiah sitting on the floor, and stared at each other catching their breath.
"You're never going to leave this river, are you?" he finally asked, softly.
"I made my choice. I took my vows. I keep my word." He sat in silence another few moments, then slowly stood and dusted himself off.
"I'm done, mom. I can't do this anymore."
"Can't do what?"
"Wait for him. Hide what I am. Live this life," he answered, indicating the cramped house with his hands. "It's time I go live my life." Tears started to form on Joanna's eyes.
"No, please, Jeremiah, I'm sorry, I-"
"It's not your fault. Not really. We just don't fit in the same world anymore." She reached for him, but he turned and walked into the side room. By the time he returned with a bag packed, she was sitting on the floor and sobbing. He paused, then flicked his fingers. The liquid from the tears came out of her clothes and off her face and landed in his cup. She looked up at him and opened her mouth to speak, but he just gave a weak smile before turning and walking out.
22 december 1921
Joanna was sitting by the fire knitting in her house just outside of Milton, Kentucky, when Jeremiah finally burst through the door. His arm was slung around Orville's shoulder and they were both laughing as Orville was trying to tell a story that quickly tapered off when he saw Joanna very calmly but decisively set her needles down and turn to glare at them.
"Ma'am," he said, clearing his throat and removing his hat. Jeremiah groaned and stood up straight next to him. "Mighty sorry 'bout it bein so late an'all, didn't mean to disturb ya."
"You're quite alright, Orville. But if you wanna stay that way you best get home and leave my boy to set down right here for a talk." Orville nodded, then gave Jeremiah an apologetic look before slipping out into the night. Jeremiah made his way into the living room and sat down on the other chair facing the stone fireplace.
"It was harmless, Ma. We was just out-"
"Ain't worried about tonight, boy. You know damned well I don't mind Orville. It's about somethin happened at the railroad yesterday." Jeremiah sunk slightly further into his chair and fixed his eyes on the fire. Joanna watched him for a moment, then sighed. "You remember why we gotta keep moving so much, right?"
"I could control my power better if you let me use it!" he said, sitting bolt upright.
"Oh not this again! You know full well I let you use it just fine, just-"
"'Not to get my own way,' I know, Ma. But what was I gonna do? They already been itchin to get rid of me over my skin, if that tank fell over I'd been out a job and probably worse, and where'd we be then?"
"We got by just fine before the Pennsylvania Railroad came to town, we could get by again." She leaned over and put the knitting aside.
"Oh, what, moving again? I don't even know what business you had hearin about it while you was down at the river all day anyway."
"It was my anniversary, and I spent it with as much of my husband as I could! And if you don't want me hearing about your business you need to stop makin it so loud!"
"Your husband, listen to yourself! He's gone! He ain't comin back, why we gotta keep waitin for him?"
"I swore to God, Jeremiah, to be his til one of us dies, and ain't neither of us dead!" He stood and threw his hat at the wall.
"He may as well be! What good's a husband can't keep his family fed, anyway?!" He stormed out of the room as Joanna tried to call him back. Once it was clear he wasn't returning, she sat and watched the fire for a few minutes before rising, putting on her coat and shoes, and walking down to the river.
"Oh Abe," she said, sitting down on the beach. "Please, wherever you are, please come help me with this." It was two hours later when Jeremiah wandered down to the river's edge to find his mother asleep.
"See what you've done now," he muttered at the water. He carried her inside, covered her up by the fire, and went to bed.