She watches them, from her corners and shadows and out-of-the-way places, the eight breathing parts that make the shell around
them Serenity and not merely Firefly-class.
Each of them has a noun, a designation that she can picture as written on their hearts, a role to play. They are defined,
classified, categorized. Captain, preacher, pilot, mechanic; mercenary and soldier and whore. Even Simon
carries his role in a word- doctor.
River is undefined.
They have other words to bind them- husband, comrade, boss, wife, friend. At this level of classification, River does
have a noun of her own: she is sister, as Simon is brother. But this is the only point she can tie to, and
it is not enough to ground her in the world.
There is another class of definition, at once subtle and obvious, that shuts her out and leaves her floating and unnamed.
Three women on the ship, five men. Discrete categories, visible on the surface (the curve of Kaylee’s
hips under her coveralls, the swell of Inara’s bosom draped in silk, the way Zoe’s muscles fill in differently
from Jayne’s). Visibly in movement, audibly in speech, they are separated. There are walls.
And something else, something under the skin...on the inside, dark and mysterious powers of the body that define as well.
Should not be a mystery- she can recite the biological differences, the definitive changes of a chromosome, the critical firing
of hormones at precise instances that shape the boundaries she senses. Not a mystery, then. But it is- there is something
else, blurred and shadowed, possibly divine.
On the external level, the surface, the skin, perhaps she can be classified. Superficial indicators are present- the fall
of her hair, the smoothness of her skin. But these are trivial, and mutable. She studies herself in the mirror, and as ever
her body is formed of sticks and angles. Undefined, as a child’s. Cut off her hair, smear grease on her face, wrap
her in a soldier’s jacket, and could the fickle eye not cast her as a boy?
She traces the planes of her body and thinks of the lines drawn by mystery, the internal, the divine. Here too she is classless-
late-summer blossom, mother had called her child who had reached fourteen summers and yet to bloom or bleed. Soon,
mother had said, and certainly in the company of so many other girls, at the Academy.
But at the Academy her body had so much else to worry about, so many other pains beyond finding its place and taking its name
of mystery, and perhaps by the time she left, the time of possibility was past.
She considers this, and bows her head to mourn the noun that should have been hers, the class of woman she should have
been able to join. She should have been able to stand and smile and feel the secret power that binds Inara and Zoe and Kaylee,
to carry holy curves and darkness of her own. She dries her eyes and goes to bed.
And in the dark, the mystery embraces her (that books she read when she was smart enough to understand but too young to comprehend
called the divine feminine), and when she wakes at ship’s dawn, she smiles. Because now, finally, now,
she has a second definition, another word to bind her, and perhaps the two will be enough to keep her from drifting helplessly
in space as unanchored objects do.
She announces her joy at breakfast, beaming in her pride that at last she is something, she is named. Wash and the
captain drop their forks in unison, and Jayne shoves his chair back from the table in ill-concealed disgust. Book merely
closes his eyes, but Simon (other half, loving half, should be proud of her) goes white as a sheet and stutters at her to
not mention such things at the table.
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of, Simon,” Inara says, rising to her feet and putting her arm around River’s
shoulders. “A doctor of all things should know that. Come, darling-” and she eases River from her chair and
out of the room. Zoe and Kaylee are a step behind, shooting icy glares around the table that send the men back to their meals
in silence, before Jayne can decide between a joke that is merely crude and one that is truly appalling.
They take her down to Inara’s shuttle, and hurry back and forth to their secret stashes to bring supplies to share.
Gifts for a day she believed would warrant celebration. They smile at her, and call her “little sister,” and
after a few moments the sting of the shock and unease in the men’s faces and minds fades and she smiles again. The
men couldn’t be expected to understand, really. This power is not theirs, nor should it be. They have their own power
(brighter hotter faster to burn), their own secrets to keep.
The women have so many things to explain- health and hygiene, pain and cautions she must think of now that she bears their
name. Hot water bottles and slow stretches, herbs and sponges and safe days. She doesn’t understand all of it, but
she listens carefully and files it all away. She’s a good student, (her definition before the Academy), and she can
learn the ways of their mystery as well as she ever did the secrets of calculus and chemistry and dance. Their voices and
laughter wrap around her like safe, warm arms (mother’s arms, Simon’s arms, common theme that they are family),
made of light.
Inara pours them each a cup of tea and sings an ancient secret song of the Companion’s Houses that belongs to this day.
Zoe brushes her hand over River’s cheek, and the girl catches it in her own, marveling at the heat that rises from the
skin, the power she can feel inside. Power mirrored by her own, and how could it ever be reduced to mere biology, when so
clearly it is magic? Holy.
“I’m one of you now,” she says, returning Zoe’s gentle smile.
“Yep,” Kaylee says, smiling ruefully at Inara. “All the joys and the pains.”
River knows something of pain, and something farther back and nebulous of joy. But she knows nothing of belonging, of being
named and bound with others who were there before, who have wisdom she doesn’t share. “You’ll help me?”
she asks them, and all together they reach out, touch her, embrace her, and the power singing skin to skin wraps around her
like a blanket and a shield and a prayer. She closes her eyes when Inara (of they four the closest to a priestess in the
service of this feminine divine) kisses her forehead in blessing.
“Of course, mei-mei,” Zoe murmurs, and River feels Kaylee’s calloused fingers squeeze her hand.
River breathes, and her heart beats, and she feels herself settle more deeply into the life of Serenity, bound not only to
Simon as sister, but these others as well. She thinks of her words, defining her inside and out, the place they carve
for her in the drifting space of the universe, and she smiles.