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I keep scooping.
The crying recedes into the distance. The mists begin to close in around the riverbank once more, choking the sounds around us except for our own groaning. Most of us stop shaking, and the river reeds take our place.
I keep scooping.
I see myself, and my mother. I am young, and she is not dead yet. She hugs me, and I fling myself from the side of a cliff. The skin on my back peels away--more than it already is--and I sprout wings. I claw out the eyes of the village boys, and then I fly to where the rivers pour out of the sky. The water smells like dog.
There is a hard crack, and this time the pain throbs inside of me. I lean over and cough. Fragments of tooth litter my lap. The molar finally finished crumbling. I rub some honey against the hole. It bleeds, but the blood mingles with the honey and I stop noticing.
The crying stops, but something else takes its place. The sound of wind, and churning water. The branches weeping over the river flail and bend, making way for the mist as it flees back down the current. I turn my head, and I can see the boat over my shoulder, naked and still in the waters. The pale man is speaking now, and the laughing man is arguing with him over something. They thrust their poles into the riverbed, but the boat doesn't budge. They strain and push. The aft end rises up and the prow dips, but they go nowhere. I see clutching, scrabbling little things clinging to the bottom of the boat. They look like waterlogged hands, and overgrown fingernails.
I hesitate, and keep scooping.
The wing blows harder, howls louder, and we hunker down and cry, or shout and leap up into it to be bowled over. The trees bend and rattle, and people are screaming in the village up the bank. My hands squeeze tightly around the jar, and I hold it to my heart.
Then everything is still. The wind dies. People lift their heads again.
There is someone else out on the river. He is looking at the men in the boat. But he is not in a boat. The surface of the water is breaking beneath his bare old feet, and gnarled bones are clutching at them, propping him up. He is wearing faded old green and blue that blinds me to look at, and his staff is as black as a yawning pit in the earth that I could fall into. He lifts the staff up, and the men in the boat start to shout or move. They do not finish whatever they are doing before the thunder cracks.
His staff hits the water, and it splits open.
The boat splits open, and the chest splits open.
All of the jars come crashing down into the hole in the river, and we hear the shattering of glass beneath the splintering of wood. We hold out our hands and cry in anguish. Some of us that can still walk leap down into the shallows and try to wade out toward the red-dinged water. More grabbing little things reach up out of the silt and stop them, hold them, and keep them from thrashing.
The laughing one and the pale one are clinging to the sinking halves of the boat. They are shouting out and cursing at the man now. I do not see the man that they were taking away any longer.
He breaks his silence, and the boom of his voice makes my ears throb. He speaks like us, but he is not like us. He looks like the old grandfathers in the village, but he is not bent by time.
His eyes are so bright.
They hurt the most to look at.
I stop scooping.
One of them swings a pole at him, and he raises his hand to meet it. The wood cracks in half and splits down the middle, and the laughing man falls down into the water with a shout. They are all yelling now, but the wind and the river grow louder. The current swells, and a wave rises up to scatter the last pieces of the boat. The laughing man and the pale one cough and sputter, and climb up onto the bank. They drag themselves into the forest.
The water glints and glimmers with honey and coins until they all wash away.
The old man is looking at us now. He is dragging the honey-drinker by his collar as he walks across the bones in front of him. He is coming toward us, and the hands in the shallows stop grabbing at us.
But they take our jars with them. Bony fingertips and split nails scratch over the glass and clay and pull them into the earth like it was sand, and we bloody our hands trying to dig them back out of the dirt.
I try to pull a root out of the way, but it is too deep, and my knuckles feel like they are going to pop. My face is wet now. I am sobbing into the dirt.
The man is standing over me when I look back up.
He is tutting at me, but he is smiling.
He says he is sorry that he has arrived so late. That he will do what he can.
The swirls start to fade from behind my eyes, leaving only the blur of my tears, and the pain comes back. It hurts less than it usually does. I can lift my arms when the old man extends his gnarled hand.
I take it.
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