Nothing so terrifying – just the title of another writing exercise of a fairy-tale I’m sharing here (because as before I can’t quite think which journal would print it). It’s very much influenced by going to see Alasdair Gray last week, and by the collection of stories I’m reading at the moment, Somewhere, from a four-book collection called Elsewhere, printed by Cargo Publishing and McSweeney’s. I have to love a Scottish-American publishing collaboration, really. I’ll be reviewing it for PANK when I’ve finished.
There is a river greater than any that should be found in this country and it flows right in front of my tenement. Last week it was not there. The edges are tender. It is that new. It winds away down Buccleuch street, turning off through The Meadows, as far as I can tell, where the grass at its bank is still the bright trimmed municipal grass and the trees in the middle of the river show as yet no distress. It’s at that point that it becomes a Mississippi, an Amazon, a Limpopo and under the yellow clouds it glows faintly grey.
I wonder and others wonder too when it will vanish again. We look down at it from our windows. Sometimes we cry up and over to one another: any sign yet? Or, do you think the helicopters will land on my roof or yours? I say, yours. We’ve all made a pact to be kind. We make nets out of twine and scoop the river. It is strangely clean. I catch a salmon with good clear eyes and a ring in its mouth. I cook it on the stovetop, burning for fuel a phone directory and a bit of old chair that came with the flat. The blackened skin is the best I’d ever tasted. I wash it down with river water. Boiled, just to be safe.
On the radio they say it was not a flood. They say, remain indoors remain calm, and do not play music to the river. At night we all put candles in our windows and lean out and look. I mean, there’ s not much else we can do. On the fourteenth day, a woman brings out her guitar and sings a hymn of some kind. The river does nothing to her. It does nothing to itself. They don’t know that much, on the radio.
Some sharp little mannie works out it’s not a cursed river, but a blessed one. That had been the talk before. If it’s not a flood, what is it? It’s a misfortune. If we can’t get to work or the supermarket or the pub, we’ll die. But the mannie says, come on now, it’s not that bad. It’s a clean river. What a blessing to have such a clean river flowing right here. There wasn’t that much to recommend the area before the river came. Nobody argues. We get a bit tired, and one by one snuff our wee lights. Some time after the last speaker has turned in, I hear the rumble of a window opening, shortly after that a splash. It is the mannie, gone into the river. I get out of bed and whisper to him. Have you been drinking that water straight up? What’s got into ye? But he never hears me. He just goes swimming away down the river. A weird way of swimming, humping his back like a water mammal.
And then of course, everyone else begins to leave. Always at night, and always so quietly. A flitting. I only hear the lady with the guitar hit the water, because the guitar calls out, trannng.
And then all remaining is me and two others, fishing from our windows, cooking the eels and the salmon and the koi over bits of charring furniture. Chattering away at night, cleaning our houses or reading the books we’ve swapped in the day.
I begin talking to the river.
Hey, mon now, river. When are you going to buck up and dry up?
Quite soon after, maybe into the first month, the river starts talking back.
What does a river sound like? It talks in gushes and creaks. It talks like silt stirred up. It talks the patter of rain on its back. It talks green weed fronds and little sticks twisting in its currents. It’s got a personality all right, and that’s quite persnickety and footery. It’s here to get things done, in haste.
What does a river talk about? Itself. It is eternally irritable with its own shape, continually adjusting itself like a person wearing clothes that are too tight. It seems to want nothing to ever be always, and everything to come with it, wherever it is even going. If it even knows where it’s going. It’s like a mother running away with her children. It’s like a fire running after a forest.
I try throwing things into the river, to appease it. A picture I’d drawn of it. The ring from the salmon. My radio, in case it wants some piece of news or maybe the weather forecast. Still the river flows and still it talks. I am the last one left within earshot.
I beg the river to go away.
I write prayers that might dissolve it and throw them in.
I write a curse and seal it with wax and throw it in.
I write a badly spelled angry letter to my MSP and throw it in.
I write a letter to Santa and throw it in.
I write a confession of all my sins and throw it in. Then I get embarrassed and try to fish it out again – no luck of course. I hope a pike eats it.
I forget I’m not any kind of witch or child or a person who writes angry letters. I couldn’t even mind who was my MSP, because I’d moved house three weeks before the river. Maybe I’m in a bit of a state because I’m running out of supplies that aren’t fish flesh.
Before the river I was working in an off license. Remembering that, I pour my plentiful brandy out the window. Thinking, maybe if I get the river drunk, it’ll get lost somewhere. For good measure I pour in some vinegary red wine and a quarter of tequila someone had left from my flat-warming and some Chambord from when I was going to get into cocktails and a beer that is the own-brand of a place I don’t work at and then some buttercup syrup because I think maybe the river deserves a hangover for all the fuss it had caused. I keep the whisky for myself and drink it until bedtime.
The next morning I wake up.
And well, know you now and tell your friends, a river can get drunk.
Nothing in the street, and when I go outside, the road and pavements are dry to touch. I walk out across The Meadows looking for the ones who swam away, or where the river might have flowed into. But nothing is to be seen. The trees that were in the river look like they might be fine. The grass is a bit dead, but no real harm.
I don’t know where that river is now, but I hope it’s gone somewhere far away to sleep things off.
On the Sunday after the river, we lay a wreath at every door that will be empty now, but we don’t say anything out loud. You can’t say who might be listening. On Monday morning on my way to work, I look for that confession of mine. At the railing around Summerhall I spot a pile of litter – in fact, I’ve found the place where all the leaflets, missives, letters and confessions were beached. They’ve all dried out like everything else, and nothing is too smudged. I take them home but don’t read through them. It doesn’t seem right. Late in the evening, when the street is quiet – quieter, for the river’s absence – I feed the papers into the recycling bin, and go on my way back home.