A River Runs Afoul

There was a time, since which much hardship has come to pass, when a great river yawned over the earth, teeming with many and beautiful fish. It stretched across the widest plains, wove its way like thread through green mountains and crumbling cliffs. The river saw the rise of every kingdom, spread its giving fingers over many, many harvests.

All the people of all the villages whose lands were quenched by this humble river would come to its shores each day to fish. For some, its banks were wide and soft, and the people came with hook and line to sit and wait upon the mild sand for fish to taste their bait. They warmed below the pleasant sun as the river gave them much to eat from its abundance. Others, for whom the river’s edge was hard with rocks and craggy trees, stood with spears upon the steady boulders. Gleaming like the brilliant sun itself, they sent their weapons through the rushing water, drawing them up with sometimes several fish around the shafts. Near the cliffs, there were no shores at all, and there the people dove with nets to scoop the slippery game from out the frigid current.

All these peoples saw each day the goodness of the water, living comfortably beneath the generosity with which it greeted them. They never cried or scorned the river when it betrayed its banks and flowed over the land on which they lived. They simply waited for the flood to abate, and, when they once again could walk about, they sewed their seeds into the marshy earth. In this way, the mighty river gave them vegetables as well as flesh to eat.

Sustenance, though, was not the limit of the water’s beneficence. The people bathed themselves, their garments, their pots and pans and tools, their animals and their children in the plentiful flow. They dug channels from the shores to lead the kindly water through their gardens. Deep wells they made to store it for the dry season, when the river slackened its rush. They built wheels in the river, which helped to turn great shafts that saved them all from milling corn and grain. And they sent goods and word down along its current to other peoples with whom they could not speak otherwise.

At the end of each day, the various people from the various villages along the river stopped their fruitful industry to look upon the white-capped water with gracious thanks. They offered livestock, produce, prayer, and every sort of sacrifice they could to show the water that its alms were not in vain. Even as the winter blew across the river’s banks, making plates of ice that ground away the slippery rocks and creaked across the frosty sands, the people knelt to put their hands into the freezing stream and bless it for the gift which they received. Nothing stayed them from their gratitude.

Winters came with bitter gales and harsh air to settle on the people. Then, when it seemed the arctic grip would never let, the spring would beckon the sun to warm the breeze and melt the frozen earth. With it life renewed from the damp and steamy ground, awarding the patient villagers with such wonderful scents and charming colors for the hardness they endured. And yet the spring, too, would turn.

The sun would draw closer still, until its warmth would turn to heat, setting fire at times to the once green and steamy lands. The soil would parch and toughen, the sands become a skillet on which the tender feet of children dare not tread. But then the sun would tire, exhaust itself and slowly retreat, letting the clouds which hid behind the mountains again come forth and drain their tears about the thirsty land.

For ages did this repeat, over and over, like the moon that chases every day the light from out the sky, and the light that soon rebounds to scare the moon below the earth once more. And the people loved the land, even as it spoke to them the harshest words, because they knew its song would not stay hostile but would sweeten if they only wait.

They saw the river, always flowing, always preaching the sermon of the land from which it rose, as the heart and blood of the earth. The people listened carefully to how it spoke, took heed of its word, for never did it misguide them. When they saw the water clapping foamy white, or felt the touch of mountain ice begin to cool it as they bathed, the people thanked the water for its word, and prepared themselves for winter. When they heard the ice crunch less and less, or the erratic splash of newborn fishes bounding toward the surface for their first glimpse of sky, they knew the cold was near its end, and thus could stand to weather it for just as long as they would need.

But then there rose an especially cold season, like no winter which had churned before. Snow fell for months on end, turning the ground solid beneath the pure white blanket that it laid. Animals froze and died as food ran low and the unrelenting air pushed them longer than it ever had. For the first time any of the people had ever seen, the river stopped completely, its many banks halted by the thick ice which crowded ever further till it stretched across its mighty width.

The people—all of them, from every village which edged it—were dismayed at the overawing silence of the water. They prayed and made sacrifice, even though they themselves had little left to give. They gathered at its banks and hammered breaches in the ice. Using spears and hooks and nets, they tried plucking fish from cracks made in the gloomy river. But no fish were pulled up, only empty nets and brittle, frozen lines. The spearmen, even the most adroit of them, could only falter in the tiny fissures. Frustrated by the hard, opaque, speechless water, they thrust with all their might and keenness, only coming up with spearheads white and cold.

Sorrow swept along the quiet shores of the petrified river. Like the winter wind itself, sadness blew straight through the hardy people’s flesh and chilled them to the bone. Some continued to pray that the water might soon resume its life. They huddled together in the hard and dour sand, or perched between some towering rocks to shelter from the gales, and stoked endless fires on the banks while singing their miserable songs to the river and the earth, which neither seemed to hear. Not even beneath the blazing orange coals did the ice begin to thaw.

Most relented hope and journeyed from the river’s no longer wandering edge to find life anew, though life they could not quite call it. Without the blessing of the water, the land was loath to sprout a single seed. Farmers turned their tools of harvest into tools for foraging, scraping bark from old and tired trees, or hacking arduously into the frozen ground for the tiny, sour creatures who feed upon decay. People scattered as they left the water, no longer able to support the lives of others.

In this life of cold and isolation, the people no longer recognized one another; they knew only themselves or, if so blessed, the very few that made their family. It did not take many years for the people to make enemies of one another. New spears were made as well, new hooks and lines and traps to catch and kill those who might wish to do ill to them or to their scant belongings. And blood could soon be seen in patches frozen on the snow.

The elders who remembered it remembered the river with hatred, hatred that it had abandoned them in the midst of such a winter, hatred that it had teased them for so long with its benevolence, only to tear from them the life to which they’d grown accustomed. Tales of the distrustful river now rang through the lands like echoes of the rattling bones of corpses, issued forth with scorn like blood from a deep and pulsing wound. And death and anger reigned upon the earth where once life rippled like the calming waves of ponds in spring.

Small and meagre families dotted the earth where once great villages were built. Often they were only held together by the need to raise a child. Once the little ones proved that they could stand alone, the families broke, each to go their lonesome way.

And all this time, for ages and ages past, the sky was veiled in ashen grey, throwing snow upon the ground or dreadful rains that turned to plates of ice at once to toughen earth. It ceased its pouring only for the wind, which hardened everything it touched as it scoured through the mountains and tore in churning gusts above the plains. Lighting shot sporadically and split the icy land, shouting as it did as if to blame the people for the worlds designs.

Soon there was not a soul on earth who even remembered the doughty river and the pleasantness is proffered. But every man and woman knew well the myths of its corruption. And the river became a villainous ghost that haunted all their fables. Around their pathetic camps, the scattered people sang forlornly of the river that betrayed their ancestors, sentencing them to lives of solitary plight. They had no love within their prayers. Many had no prayers at all, choosing not to pass along the tales which only spoke of sadness.

There came the time when no one spoke a single word. Stories of the river, filled with pain and sorrow, had long been forgotten. The lonely people, living isolated from one another, had no use for words at all, and soon their voices left them. Not long after, their ears as well grew weak, finally closing altogether to the sound of the relentless wind, the only sound that could be heard. Thus none on earth could neither speak, nor hear, but no one missed the bitter reprimand of the cold wind.

For generations life was stale and stagnant, like the languid skin upon a puddle as it festers in the swamp. It dwindled and diminished until few were left to walk upon the earth. These few were deaf and dumb, calloused from the chapping air, and unfit to taste the miserable foods that rarely slid across their useless tongues.

And then, from deep within the grip of this the harshest winter ever lain upon the earth, a day of utter stillness dawned. Not a single tear plunged from the sky to add itself to the mass of frozen land. Not a whisper spoke the strident wind that had howled for years and years, whose voice so harshly blamed the people and the land alike. No thunder beat the clouds above, no lighting cracked the aged trees and sent them tumbling down the slopes. And yet the people heard nothing, for their ears had long been dead to words and deafened by the roaring storms.

But still, their eyes betrayed them not, and they began to see above them the faintest halo pierce the ashen skein. Just the softest hint of golden light travelled through the heavy mist and shone upon the plains, the mountains, the unforgiving cliffs and, yes, the buried sands upon the shores of the still unmoving river.

They knew not what to think of this. Puzzled by the sight, they uprooted and began to move, all of them of their own accord, toward where the light seemed strongest. They descended from the peaks, emerged alone from the thick, white forests, climbed down the precipitous crags where they took shelter from the once driving sleet. One by one, some in pairs, but most alone, they journeyed to a spot far in the distance, on the brink what was once called the horizon, until finally their paths converged.

At first, the people were scared of one another, some having not seen another life since they left their mothers and their fathers. But all were too enamored by the growing light to give much concern to the mass of people gathering. And the light continued to wear away the dullness of the sky.

It wasn’t long before a glimmering sphere was directly above them. The people stared and pointed, looking nervously from the sky to one another, hoping to gather some explanation from the faces of their neighbors. But none could find the answer. And then, at once and with startling abruptness, the massive cloud that had assumed the sky for so many ages sundered, sending forth a band of flaxen light that beamed like no lightning any of the people had seen, straight and steady, without the crack of thunder or the smiting of earth and trees. The people fell to the ground, terrified and clutched their heads beneath their arms. And there they stayed for a time, until realizing that what fell upon them was not destruction.

What flooded down upon their backs as they crouched in fear was warmth. None had felt its touch in all their lives, and now it cascaded from the sky with great abundance as it broke the thick darkness and spread across the earth.

Some were lulled to sleep, and they slept in comfort which had never once embraced them. Others were refreshed, and shed their thick, filthy garments to let the light fall all over their pale skin. Others simply lay upon the ground and cried, though they knew not why.

The warmth turned to heat and began melting away the age-old frost that had engulfed the earth. Once again, in places, the soil and sand awoke to see the day that left them so long ago. And as the ice abated, the river whose breath was stayed for so long, the river who once wound round the earth and gave it life, the river who was simply forgotten—for tales of the river had been silenced long ago—as the ice crept back from its shore in the radiant light, that river began to creak and moan beneath the load.

The people had converged directly atop the frozen water, and now the ice, once thick as the crust of earth itself, was quickly losing strength. Yet the people, having given up their words as they grew apart and lost the need to hear in consequence, did not hear the words which the great river began again to speak. It growled and groaned below the ice, and its warning fell on deaf ears. Those that felt it as it began to move, they could not yell to others, for they lost the words and voice to share their fear aloud. They waved frantically, but too many still were enamored of the sun.

Cracks began to shoot like bolts of lightning across the thawing river. The plates of ice shifted and lurched, causing the people to erupt into chaos as they scattered for safety. But because they could not hear the warnings of the reborn water, it was too later for them to reach the land.

The cracks became like gaping jaws that opened to now raging water. Many people plunged into the icy flow and sunk down to the riverbed, never having the faintest chance at all. Others were stranded on large, icy rafts, careening violently as the river found its stride. But the sun beat down upon them still, making their vessels melt at their feet. They too found no safety, and the icy water filled their lungs at once when they fell in. Not one survived as the long awaited spring finally fell upon them.

The river soon snaked its way over the entire earth once more, spreading life into the plains and mountains alike, helping to sprout wonderful carpets of green grass. Even young fish could be seen darting back and forth beneath its warming waves. But no person remained to see it.

The river knew nothing of the lives of all those people—of the good, who fished and thanked upon its banks; of the sad and lost, who hoped and prayed for the winter to relax and let the water move again; of the angry, who deserted the river and found anew the hardened life beyond; of the deaf and dumb and lonesome, who lived unaware of the river and its voice, and reached their hapless end just when life arrived again. The river only spoke. It sang its song like it always had, though no one yet should hear.

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