The River (part 1)

(Originally written in late 2004)

 Chapter 1
The Chase

The river was beautiful. It was as clear as filtered and processed water, but it was natural. The sky reflected perfectly making it the brightest blue. Not even the riverbed could dirty the water. The water flowed smoothly in some places, and had small rapids in others. Rafting the river was a common pastime.

It was the belief of the townspeople that they were the chosen ones because we were blessed with this perfect river. This city was the only one on the river. It was odd, so very odd. Others tried to start ports along the riverbanks, but the river would switch it’s course slightly to engulf their wharves, or it would rain and the runoff would flood the river and the town. The river seemed to refuse another city to be built on it.

Our city was only on one side—we tried to expand but the river allowed no bridges. Several were tried, but each time the wood and workers were swallowed by the river, never to be seen again. These attempts led to the gradual building of bridges, but each time the bridge went more than a third of the way out, it was destroyed. No further attempts to build bridges across the river were made, and instead we erected ‘The Dock’—a large boardwalk that extended to the bridge cutoff point. The river never swelled to swallow it. Instead, the river gave life to the wood, and it grew solid.

Gardeners kept it neatly trimmed so people could still view the river from the Dock’s growing branches. The Dock looked like as if it were a fallen tree that began growing again. There was no indication that it was man-made. The only way the younger generations knew that it was constructed by the citizens was from the photographs of its creation.

The city grew, as all cities do with time, and no one forgot the river. Extra care had been taken in every construction of towering skyscrapers to make sure that the river would not suffer. No pollution, no disruption of natural events. In all this effort, however, buildings still fell. The river attacked the creations as it attacked other cities. It was content with us being a small village along it’s western bank. The people felt left behind. Cities in the distance loomed over the people when they chanced to visit.

It became habit of one architect to consult with the river when something was to be built. He would go to the end of the dock and lower himself to the river. After he was close enough to the water and still able to bring himself back up with no trouble, he’d open up a copy of the blueprints. He’d then place it face down on the water’s surface, holding it still, and explain to the river what he was building and why it was being built. Some thought he was crazy for doing this, but not a single building of his fell. Other designers tried speaking to the river. Some were successful, some were failures. The successes, however, were always necessities: housing, stores, food production.

Forty years before my life began there came a small religious group. They were not from our city, but claimed loyalty to the river. We allowed any outsiders so long as they didn’t hurt the river. The cult lived peacefully among us for years. They didn’t force their rites and teachings upon us, and their practices never interfered with our daily life. They were accepted everywhere, and no one formed any false judgements about them. They bathed in the river with no ill effect, so we assumed the river loved them. They only oddity about them was that they never ventured on the Dock. They always entered the river from a clear patch of bank to the south of the Dock.

That was why, one summer day, so many people stood and stared as one of the cultists walked along the docks. It was twenty-one years ago. My mother was pregnant with me, though she did not know it at the time. She watched silently with my father and the others as the man, clad from head to toe in flowing purple and black robes, walked along the Dock. His head was shaved smooth and his skin was tanned from the sun. He continued along the dock, never stopping until the end, where he lowered himself to speak to the river. No one near heard him say anything, but when he returned he was smiling.

His return walk went uninterrupted until he reached a point some ten feet from the beginning of the dock. He turned to his left, looking for something, yet not quite finding it. He looked all around until he found himself looking in the face of my mother. He approached her directly and spoke softly, “The river loves only those who love others. Teach her this.” He left immediately. My mother thought nothing of it at the time. Who was she supposed to teach that to? And what did it matter?

It mattered so much that our city was destroyed for forgetting it.

In one week’s time, the cult had constructed a monstrosity in the river’s center, just south of the dock. Their temple resembled their robes in structure and hue, and was an abomination in the townspeople’s eyes. There were holes in the side where the cultists now slept, exposed to the elements, and they performed their rituals atop the spire. The citizens exclaimed their new distrust, and in some cases hatred, of the cultists. How dare they obstruct our river’s flow for their own purposes? It was a slap in the face – we accepted them and they mar our beautiful river in return.

That was where we went wrong. ‘Our river.’ It was never ours, we belonged to it.

The cultists never changed their habits. They were still peaceful and cordial to us. However, they were now greeted with snide remarks and bitter statements in return. Twenty years later, nothing had changed. They were still a mark for ridicule, and never once had they retaliated.

I worked as a simple artist, painting and drawing for those who would pay, along the Dock. Whenever I had no customers, I would paint the nearest object of beauty or obscurity. My eyes were often drawn to the monstrosity south of the Dock. The river had pushed land along it’s base now, splitting itself with an island around the temple. The towering structure now resembled the Dock in that the river gave it life. It was like a tree growing in the middle. It looked so natural and yet so unnatural with it’s purple-tinted bark and bright violet leaves. The cultists still slept in its branches, and still performed rituals at the top. The top remained devoid of branches, and many times gardeners could be seen trimming the tree keep it that way.

One day while painting a likeness of the tower, I caught the eye of one of the cultists. I could tell he had been staring at me for some time, though I never noticed until now. He still looked at me, and I looked back. He was situated somewhere around midlevel. the others in his area were busy reading or writing. I returned to my painting after about a minute, and didn’t look in his direction again until I chanced to see some sudden movement out of my right eye. I looked at his chamber, and he was no longer there. He was now in the water, swimming toward the dock.

I quickly packed up my equipment. The painting had no time to dry and was smeared in my panicked escape. I had no idea why I was suddenly stricken with a fear of this cultist reaching me, but I felt the need to leave immediately. I was at the edge of the dock, where it meets the paved road when I heard a man’s voice call after me, saying, ‘Please, wait!’ There was an urgency in his words, and a nervousness. There were many people on the street in the middle of the day, so I ignored him. I walked on and tried to lose myself in the crowd. I didn’t turn back at all. I didn’t know how close he was, and I didn’t care.

I ducked around a corner and into a store. I sat down and sighed. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as safe as I’d thought. This was a corner store that had two entrances. I heard some yelling at the other entrance, informing someone that he wasn’t allowed in with wet clothing. He responded in an urgent voice that he needed through, but I didn’t hear much more. I was out the door, hopefully before he could see me.

I went home, but in a roundabout way. What normally was a five minute walk home from the docks became an hour-long stalking of corners and alleyways. I was nervous and paranoid the entire time. Mid-afternoon I found myself back at my apartment building, ready to open the front door to a cozy studio with a cat and computer. A simple home to house my work and self.

He was there already. He sat in front of my door on crossed legs and eyes closed. He jumped at the sound of my satchel and easel dropping to the floor. He stood as I stared bewildered. He was a full foot taller than me, and his head was shaved like the other cultists. His robes were still drenched and he had left a puddle on the carpeted floor in front of my door.

“How,” I stammered, “How did you find…?” He looked just as lost for words. His mouth opened several times, but he never spoke. He fidgeted, clearly nervous and unsure of what he had just done, as if his decision to follow me was just as much of an impulse as my choice to flee.

He moved toward my bag with a sudden movement that caused me to jump to the side, tripping over the easel. He deftly caught me by the wrist while holding my bag. He pulled me to my feet and said, “Let me help you with your bags,” even more nervous than I could imagine anyone ever speaking. His cheeks were scarlet and he purposely failed to make eye contact.

I was completely at a loss for words. He still had his hand around my wrist. I tugged my arm a bit and he let go, his face getting redder. I pulled my keys from my pocket and opened the door while he grabbed the easel. The carpet sloshed slightly under my feet as I stepped inside. The water from his robes had seeped into my apartment. Upon seeing this he hid his face. He looked so embarrassed and ready to leave immediately. I was in no mood to stop him.

He set my bags down and I thanked him. He turned to leave. I felt the urge to ask for his name, but I remained silent. I didn’t want him to think I wanted him to stay or return. I wanted nothing to do with him, though I couldn’t explain why. I felt violated by his pursuit and presence. He left, his head hanging in shame. I shut the door and grabbed some towels from the linen closet. The movement disturbed my sleeping cat, who then yawned and stretched.

“What a strange day,” I said to him. He jumped down from the shelf and purred at my feet.

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