My canoe drifted lazily down he center of the deserted river. The gentle rocking matched the rhythm of the clockwork-ticking crickets and the alien deep throated belching of the river frogs (if that’s what they really were). An occasional birdsong trilled from the thick forest’s trees that lined the river’s edge and swayed, whispering in the subtle breeze like a billowing curtain.
There was no need to paddle. The river undoubtedly knew where it was going. I just sat in the canoe allowing the warm summer sun to seep into my spirit, drinking the beauty and peace of each singular moment. Occasionally I’d use my heavy wooden paddle to guide myself around a rock or a shallow area, giving into illusion that I was in control.
The river’s waves sparkled like fluid jewels, their rainbows glistening in the sun. The small waves trickled. I imagined they sounded like a sweetly giggling child. The large ones crashed with a sound of unstoppable power. The waves of an ocean crash and die when they reach the shallows of the shore. The river’s crashing waves, though, are frozen in an eternal state of breaking in one spot over the rocks and gullies of the bottom. The waves don’t move, the river does.
I’m moving with the river, but it occurs to me that the river isn’t moving. I am going someplace where I’ve never been before. The river’s been in the same place for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. My past is behind me and my future is somewhere ahead. The river, though, is in the past, present, and future at every moment. What is this future I’m being so forcefully, so inexorably drawn to? I can’t see around the next bend but I know the river is still there. It doesn’t end. Someplace, I suppose, it joins with the sea but even that is not an ending, it’s a joining; it becomes one with all the other rivers and streams.
Suddenly, a dark cloud moves in overhead. A knot begins to form in the pit of my stomach. What’s around the next bend? I feel like it’s something frightening, something ominous. I’m terrified. Quickly, I turn my canoe and paddle furiously up the stream. The sound of the river becomes louder as the vicious current rushes against my canoe and the waves crash against me. My paddle tears at the surface throwing cold, clammy water in my face. Debris from the forest, floating with the currents becomes sharp, dangerous objects that bang against the side of my boat. The wall of trees on either side bear down on me like prison walls. The ugly bleating of the crickets mock me and tick off the last seconds as my remaining strength ebbs.
I risk a quick glance around. The river is winning! My best efforts against the current bought me only a few moments against the inevitable. “I’m not strong enough!” I cried out in frustration. I stood and threw my paddle at my enemy, the watery beast. Then I held my breath as I was carried around the corner to see what form my doom would take.
The river became quiet as I again moved with the current. It was almost peaceful again for a moment as the waves lapped gently at my wake. I took a breath and listened. It was quiet, quiet enough that I could hear, just ahead, the thrumming of the object of my terror. I crouched down and held tight to the sides of my canoe as I sped up. Then, with the moment-by-moment, single frame slowness of all things that should be over quickly I was swept over the edge of the raging waterfall.
The sound was immense. The power of the noise overwhelmed all thought. Breath was torn from me as I plummeted, twisting and turning, drenched again and again by the deluge that had me in it’s grip. I opened my mouth to scream but it filled with water as I was pounded again by the mad thrashing torrent. Then, with a bone-jarring THUD I landed, still in my canoe, at the bottom of the falls. Although water was still pounding my head and shoulders, pushing my canoe under the falls, I knew the worst was over. “I’m going to make it!” I said. I glanced up briefly only to see my discarded paddle rushing toward me and hear the dull “Thunk” as it plunged me into darkness.
“Row, Row, Row, your boat…”
There was soft music all around. Angels? Beckoning me to sing.
“Gently down the stream…”
The call to sing along became stronger but all I wanted to do was listen to the sweet voices.
“Merrily, Merrily, Merrily, Merrily…”
Sing! Damn you! The call was urgent now, inescapable. So I opened my mouth to sing along. “Life is but…” but I only choked. My throat was blocked. I couldn’t breathe. I sat up, eyes wide with surprise and shock as I coughed up water. Then more water, gagging and choking with my need to breathe. Finally…
“A dream!” I gasped, gulping in precious air. Somehow, I had been washed up onto a shallow area of calm water and soft sand. The ceaseless roar of the waterfall was just out of sight behind a clump of trees that jutted out into the river. I had no sense of how long I was unconscious. It could have been moments or hours. I was completely wet, cold and shivering. I crawled to the shore and lay on the grassy bank to catch my breath.
I rested there for a few moments. I thought about how lucky I was to have survived. How is it that I was unconscious in the water but, rather than drowning, deposited face up in a shallow cove? Did the river want me to be alive? I made a mental note to think about it when I got back home. Back home… back home. I sat up quickly and looked around for my canoe. How was I going to get back home? Somewhat unsteadily I stood up and looked down the stream. I saw nothing but the river and the trees.
Wait! Something moved behind a large rock nearby. It looked like a hand, or a foot. I ran to the rock and looked over it. There was a half-drowned woman, coughing, crawling on her hands and knees up to shore. I couldn’t hear her coughs over the pervasive sound of the falls but I could see her body was wracked by spasms. She was drenched, her hair gnarled and twisted. She wore cut-off denim shorts exposing strong, but scratched and slightly bleeding legs. Her back looked muscular but exhausted through her tee shirt.
I bounded over the rock and took her arm to help. She looked up gratefully surprised and mouthed “Thank you.” Then she collapsed, panting, on her back on the dry shore.
I watched her. Her heaving chest rippled under the clinging wet cloth of her tee shirt. Her slim, taut abdomen sucked in air through her parted lips as they turned from blue to red. Her breasts were small and firm, her nipples erect from the cold or from the ordeal. I looked away guiltily, took off my shirt and folded it. I placed it gently under her head. Slowly, her body relaxed, her breathing became regular, her eyelids began to flutter and opened, looking directly into mine. She was beautiful.
I was falling again. Falling into her clear, deep, blue eyes. Suddenly, I could no longer hear the waterfall or feel the cold. I was drawn into the depths of her eyes. They spoke of pain and passion, power and wisdom. I saw myself reflected in her eyes, looking at her with tender concern. Strangely, I looked older in the reflection. Then, in a moment, older still. I felt like I was seeing my future in her eyes. For a moment I was frightened. I almost pulled away and fought the powerful current that was drawing us together. Then I saw her looking at me, questioning, caring. I relaxed and allowed the next moments of our lives to unfold.
Wordlessly, with looks and gestures, we asked each other if we were all right, and able to walk. Soon we found her canoe and, when we were ready, drifted further down the stream.
To this day, as our lives near the place where we too will join the ocean, the river still flows swiftly, but moves not at all.
© 1998 Mark C. Robinson. All Rights Reserved