The River (Part 2)

(originally written late 2004)

Chapter 2

The rest of the evening was uneventful. I was thankful for this, though to whom I do not know. Did I believe that the river was a god to worship? It seemed so primitive after all my education abroad to think that a river, a body of water, was sentient. Contractors rarely spoke to the river anymore. Some said this was because the distance of the new buildings from the water was so great that the river didn’t care. Optimists. It was clear that the land close to the river need better foundations and all new construction was done after the raining season, after the floodwaters cleared. The river wasn’t any sort of God, people just didn’t understand things.

But still, my mother insisted that the river loves us because we love everyone else.

If that was true, though, we’d be gone already. There was a resentment now between us and the cultists. They were peaceful and protected by the river, and we were aggressive and protected by the river at the same time. It didn’t make sense. People jeered at the cultists as they walked the streets. Some threw stones or garbage. Parents passed on their opinions to their children. It would never end.

I sighed and stepped out from the shower. I thought about things like this all the time. Part of me wanted to believe that our life was ruled by the River, and that it would protect us forever, while another part pushed forth all the evidence that this just could not be. My brain fought to convince itself of something, but couldn’t decide what.

As I dressed and prepared for another day at the dock, I wondered if that cult member would be back. His interest in me left me deeply disturbed. I could tell he wished to court me, but I didn’t want to accept this from him. He wanted to know more about me, to see what I really am, to get a deeper understanding of me—that’s just my ego. It couldn’t be anything like that.

It was something close to that, however. When I arrived at the Dock around ten in the morning, he was there. He was standing at my usual place, looking out to the temple. I could leave now, I thought, I could turn around and he’ll not even know I was here. But no, I couldn’t. It was a beautiful summer day, and a Saturday no less. Everyone would be out today. I would lose so much money if I did not work today.

I continued on to my spot and began to set up. He turned around when he hear the click of my easel being placed upon the boardwalk. My back was to him when he turned around. I meant to have him see me this way, bending over slightly and unfolding a stool to sit upon while painting. Part of me said it was rude to show him my back and pretend he wasn’t there, another part encouraged me to show off my less than perfect rear end. It wasn’t even very visible anyway, my light, brown jacket went to my knees.

“Hello,” he said with some trouble. I suspect it was because he was still nervous about speaking to me, but of course I hoped it was from my little display. Sometimes I wondered why I always thought double; I always ended up blaming it on my study in another city. I was educated by two cultures. Neither of these cultures, however, were very accepting of those different from their general populace.

“Hello,” I replied in a bored tone. I continued to set up, thought little more was needed. A sign was hung from my easel stating the prices for my skills, and I unpacked my tools.

There was a long period of silence between us as he watched. He leaned on the railing, watching me. Several customers were attended to, asking for simple portraits and paying simple fairs. It was noontime before I spoke to him again, and when I did, I was curt. “Is there something you wanted?” I asked.

“I-” he stammered, “I would like to know your name.”

“Zaria. Yours?”

He didn’t seem used to my short dialect. It took him a moment to realize I was asking his name. “Nandin,” he replied.

“Nice to meet you,” I said, though my tone conveyed my annoyance at his presence. I turned my back to him and returned to my drawing. He was silent the entire time I looked away from him. If he wanted something, why didn’t he just ask? Why did he wait for me to speak first? Then it dawned on me. What if, in his culture, they are not permitted to speak unless spoken to? No, that couldn’t be it, that would imply that I am his superior, and there is no way I could be that. Unless, of course, that didn’t imply to superiors but to outsiders—inferiors. They couldn’t deign to speak to us unless answering a question. Mechanically I drew another portrait. I tried to focus on that instead of figuring out things that needn’t be figured out.

Around noon I began to pack up my things so I could get lunch. The entire time, I refrained from looking at Nandin. If not looking at him kept him from asking any questions, perhaps he’d lose interest in me and move on. No such luck existed for me; he followed me directly to the restaurant. As I entered, the host asked if I would like to sit at my usual table. “Yes,” I replied, “and set it for two.” I never looked back, but I knew he was there, and I knew he’d be overjoyed to know he’d be lunching with me.

We were seated facing each other. This prompted him to speak. “Why is it that you would not let me speak to you until now?”

I raised an eyebrow in confusion. “What was preventing you from speaking other than your own closed mouth?”

“You have not faced me since you asked my name.” So that’s why he never spoke, they don’t speak to each other unless facing. Turning backs to each other must signify the parting of ways, an end to conversation.

“I apologize,” I said. “Now please tell me why you have followed me so patiently.”

As he was about to speak, a waitress brought us menus. He glanced over it thoughtfully. Good, I thought, at least he understands some parts of our social network. Or he’s pretending to so I don’t find him to be an idiot. Always with the double thoughts. I tried to stop myself from being so cynical. “You can answer once you’ve decided what you want to eat.”

He took that as a command and took it to heart. Ten minutes and several visits from the waitress later, I leaned in and asked him, “If you need help, just ask.”

His face turned red and he whispered in reply, “Please order me something with a lot of vegetables.” I let out a chuckle and ordered the next time the waitress came by.

“I don’t understand you,” I said after the waitress left. “I don’t understand a thing about your behavior.” I chuckled. “You are unlike any man—any person—I have ever met.”

“I don’t understand you,” he retorted, “I don’t don’t know how to behave around you to get what I want from you.”

“And what is it that you want?”

He remained silent, for a moment, considering he words. Finally he spoke. “I want to tell you that you intrigue me. I want to know more about you. I want you to know of your beauty and the beauty of your artwork. I want to you to know that I find everything about you to be pleasing to view and I want to become close to you.”

“Is that all?” I said. He looked slightly abashed that I slighted his heartfelt statement with such a short reply. I leaned across the table again and whispered, “Save your flattery, I have no time for infatuations.”

His reply was disbelieving of my words, “But I have dreamed of you every night since I was a young man. My father told me that the woman I would marry would be seen on the dock at the very spot you work every day, this cannot be just a coincidence—”

“Stop, please. I don’t believe lies or fairy tales.” That statement itself was a lie. I wanted to believe what he was saying. I wanted him to understand that there was a reason I was at that point on the dock. I wanted him to know, without me admitting it, that I was there every day because that is where my mother first realized that she was pregnant, and that the cultist who spoke to the river that day meant for me to be something special. The one thing I wanted most was to be special in some manner, yet it was something I greatly feared. I hated attention, yet I craved it so much.

“My father,” he started again, and I shook my head. After a pause, he continued, whispering, “My father told me that he spoke to the mother of my wife the day he spoke to the river, and told her something to ensure her love for me.”

I wanted so much to let him think he was wrong, but my eyes gave me away. They widened a bit, and he smiled, leaning in closer to me. “Please,” he said, “please tell me I haven’t been eyeing the wrong woman my whole life.”

The waitress arrived with our food and set it down after we hurriedly split. She scoffed a bit at the idea of a cultist and a citizen being so close and walked off. The meal was eaten in silence, and we parted after I paid the bill. He bowed deeply and went in the direction of the tower. I returned to the Dock and set up shop again. My cat would be so happy to hear about my day.

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