The River Come Down
thinking, as the taxi left Mona Heights and dropped down through
Kingstons dense neighborhoods and passed along the shoreline,
under the conveyor belts of the bauxite and concrete plants, past
the rusted walls of the salt factory and onto the peninsula, that
the mountains are not made invisible by the clouds. You know the
mountains are there, clouds massed against them, driven against
them by the wind off the sea.
Behind the taxi, the clouds piled up against
the mountains while the sky above the sea remained clear. Around
the last bend away from shore, the red waterline of an empty freighter,
outbound, the glinting wings of aircraft taking off from Manley.
Higher and farther to the west the contrails of the aircraft bent
around the mountains and merged with the clouds, pointing north.
The driver was silent. The fetish of beads and hemp and scratched
compact disks that hung from the rearview mirror, vibrating in
the dense music, caught the light.
She leaned against me as she did a week
before, when we rode a route taxi in the early morning from Papine
to Mavis Bank, winding up from the city into mountains that were
filled between their peaks with clouds and occasional, swift rain.
The sound was even more dense then, the route taxi crammed with
sweating bodies, its large side door open and boys poised there,
leaping down as the taxi slowed, leaping on as it accelerated.
The density of the bodies lifted me up, but when I turned my head
to look at her there were tears tracking the dust on her cheeks.
The gospel voices on the taxis stereo were like the rising
wings of aircraft, diffuse at the edges where the voices pixilated
and mixed earth with air. In between, we rode distorted hosannas,
the feedback of glory-be.
In the heat, the clear places between the
clouds were beautiful and not empty at all. I held the sweat-soaked
page of my notebook open in my hand.
Off bus at Anglican church. T-junction.
Water relief valve to right. Turn left & down road 200 meters,
round bend, big rock on right, bridle path to right after rock.
Follow to river, cross, DONT LEAVE PATH.
The taxi left us beside the highway in front
of the parish church, and we walked down the hill under the eyes
of the men waiting on the other side of the intersection for a
taxi down the long grade into Kingston. The men stood smoking
under the broken clouds. We turned right onto the bridle path
by the big rock, down the winding hill below the houses and into
the forest, through the canopy of foliage that filled the valley,
dropping quickly after one wrong turn toward the river, which
we could hear growing louder, like static, until we came out blinded
in fleeting sunlight on its banks.
We sat and smoked on a boulder, our line
of sight long up the river where it grew broad over the tiny stones,
flickering like tinsel under the trees.
Why did you cry?
Im sorry. I didnt mean
for you to notice.
Okay, but I did. I just wondered why.
She pulled her feet up underneath her and
stroked her long toes. She was dark against the rock in the sun.
Because it was so hot.
I shrugged. It wasnt the worst
heat weve seen.
No, but with all the bodies, I guess,
the boys pressing against me. The music.
I thought about the heavy gospel sound,
the voices of the choir roaring straight up with the aircraft
toward a particulate heaven, the fuzz of the blown speakers as
the taxi swayed into each switchback, geared down and loud up
the long incline, Kingston flashing now and again below us. The
highway wound up one steep shoulder of the valley and then beyond
Mavis Bank through the highlands toward the north coast. Water
ran down the sides of the valley to join the river and fell in
waterfalls and bright sheets over the road.
But are you all right now?
Yes, she said. Yes, Im
fine. Im sure of it. It was the music before. Church music.
What does it make you think of?
Home, I offered.
This is my home.
One of. It was really, I knew,
in the speed and suspension of flying she felt most at home. I
had a handful of images, sun-faded, with little connective tissue.
Her father in his straw hat climbing the stairs to the aircrafts
open doorway, the gleam of aluminum skin behind him as he turns
and waves once and then steps inside. Years later her mother wetting
her hair and combing it down tight against her head, secured by
an elastic, dressing her like her sisters in a stiff white dress,
her brother in the black suit that leaves his wrists and ankles
showing, all of them climbing those stairs to the gleam of aluminum
skin and the clean interior of the aircraft, the stillness of
conditioned air, following her father to the tiny apartment in
the Bronx. Her mother was from a tiny island in the eastern Caribbean
they visited very rarely, all of them except her father with his
Indian skin, when there was money. Now her father drove trucks
loaded with fresh fruits and vegetables from the orchards and
farms of Long Island into the city, sometimes to Hoboken or Newark.
No, not one of. There have been others,
but this is the only one.
I shrugged. Are you sad now?
I wasnt sad.
You were crying because you were so
There are ways to feel between missing
something and hating it. With all your guts.
I finished my cigarette and stood up. We
climbed hard and for a long time after we crossed the riverbed
on rocks and planks and moved up through the trees, toward the
peak of the Blue Mountain that fell back behind its own shoulder
and was hidden, the fast-moving clouds were caught in the valleys
and occasionally spit fine rain. Like a spooked herd, I
kept thinking, in a box canyon.
The climbing was difficult up the path that,
under the dense roof of the forest, was gloomy and wet. Sometimes
other, smaller paths intersected with the bridle path, but it
was easy to follow the animal droppings. I kept rereading the
note in my mind, its final injunction. In the darkness as we rose
came a terrible stench of manure and of something else, and in
the darkness under our feet there were hard, sodden lumps in the
path that felt like small heads. I imagined I was walking over
tiny, rotting bodies, the skulls flattening but still solid beneath
When the foliage broke I could see, in the
tunnels of yellow light underneath the trees, rotten mangoes the
mules had chewed and dropped as they walked. Bright flies were
embedded in the stringy pulp, the glistening flesh of the fruit.
The fruit was mixed into a thick paste with mud and excrement
by the feet of the mules and horses and men. I looked at her and
she held my gaze for a long moment in the suddenly loud sounds
of our breathing and of the flies against the fruit and even,
I thought, of my heart.
This is the smell of hell, she
said. The smell of shit and rotten fruit.
But were rising. If we keep
moving well climb out of it eventually.
We breathed through our shirts in the dense
air and the stink that was held in by the trees and the overcast
sky. We kept moving, limbs loose, swinging in the rhythm that
sometimes she sang, clicking her long fingers. In the winter dampness,
the smell of the mule dung and the mangoes was suffocating. The
sweat poured from us until I thought we must be evaporating, the
boulder by the river cool and sparkling and almost forgotten,
an island behind us. We stopped frequently to suck hard candy
and slow our hearts in the wet heat, but then the flies from the
dung and the fruit would settle on us and we would move on with
our eyes fixed above and ahead of ourselves.
Finally we rose out of that dense air and
the bridle path was dry again under our feet. When the last of
the fruit and the flies had disappeared below us, we rested inside
a copse of young bamboo. We were high above the river and far
from the other densely wooded ridgeline as the valley opened up
and hid Kingston. Through the bamboo the light was pale, diffuse
with the ashen leaves and stalks like old ivory in the grove reflecting
in every direction. I thought about her kitchen with its wooden
cabinets and gas burners and refrigerator and blue linoleum table
and vinyl chairs and concrete floor. Windows shaded with the arabesques
of wrought-iron bars.
We sat apart as our bodies cooled and our
breathing became regular again. She hummed something softly, a
hymn I half-recognized. I thought about what wed come through,
the higher shoulders of the mountain above us. How the abrupt,
knife-like quality of flight had brought me there from a winter
that had buried my brother suddenly, unexpectedly. After his funeral,
after going through his things, his earthly possessions, in the
sealed apartment, I hadnt wanted to do anything but sleep
for a long time and not dream. Because we think of ourselves in
terms weve learned in a world of three dimensions, because
we must shelter ourselves against the weather, we live in a house
made of skin. But theres no real space between the meat
and bone like that outside, and because he didnt understand
that, because the difference between what he saw and what he felt
had seemed like a solid wall, hed cut himself.
Now everything was drowning as we rose.
Music, scraps of rhythm, came up irregularly from the valley,
passing aircraft thundered overhead. She touched my arm finally
Im sorry. It was selfish of
me. I waved my hand but didnt look at her. She dug
at the dried bamboo leaves on the ground with a stick.
You have to talk about it. I
shrugged. She placed the stick on the dried leaves and put her
hand on my thigh and I looked at the deep lines in her knuckles,
the length and thinness of her fingers, her bitten nails. I thought
about the way I understood things in silhouette, that I knew the
outline of an object without knowing any of its details.
She was silent then and looked down the
river valley toward the signs of hidden villages, bright roofs
and the occasional strain of music that emphasized the distance
wed covered over the rotten fruit and the flies. I thought
about the island shed described where her grandparents lived
with its single stand of palm and the sea massing for a storm,
the tiny apartment in the Bronx, its tissue-thin walls. The sympathetic
rhythms of the sea and sky, the seasonal return. In winter the
separation between the inside and the outside seems more pronounced,
so we mark the passage between. We remove clothing and boots,
we make a ceremony of transition.
We slept for a few minutes lightly in the
sun and then I was straight up and breathing hard. She put her
hand on my arm.
Again? she asked.
Yes, for a minute.
She was silent for a long time but when
I didnt say anything further she stood and then continued
on into the trees. When I caught up with her we were just beginning
a series of steep switchbacks with the shoulder of the Blue Mountain
always above us, like the summit until we crested it, when there
would be another, just the same, still above us.
Is this it? she asked each time
until finally I stopped and pulled my t-shirt up, wiping my face
You have to not think that,
I said. You keep setting yourself up for disappointment.
Looking up from below we had seen only trees but as we rose and
looked down into the valley we could see many flashes that marked
the metal roofs of houses, duller now without the full glare of
the sun and with the smoke just visible against the trees. Above
us the houses became more frequent again as we crested the last
great shoulder of the mountain. We came out of the forest just
before a small village, the bridle path turning into a rutted,
double-tracked road. The path had dried completely and the pulverized
dung rose as dust under our feet and the day under the trees with
the rotten fruit was in our nostrils.
Just below the village, we met a man shining
black with sweat, his shirt in a ball in his hands, who told us
wed come through the worst of it and had only a few miles
left to the lodge where we would spend the night.
Comin on massive, man,
he said to me when I crested the hill just ahead of her. He was
on his way to work in Kingston, seven miles back down through
the forest and across the river and up steeply to Mavis Bank,
and another forty minutes by route taxi to the city. Back the
same way in reverse in the morning, out again to the city by late
Shuttle of a rocking loom, I thought.
He didnt stop smiling the entire time he was talking to
After the smiling man, when the road rose
up through another village, two young men were standing at the
gate of a small compound filled with pepper trees. They followed
her with their eyes and talked in low tones to each other, glancing
at me only for a moment before looking away. We were just beyond
them and with their eyes in our backs when one of them, the larger
one in loose jeans and with his torso bare and glistening, spoke.
Thats a lovely friend you have
to travel with, man. I half-turned to them but they were
looking beyond me. I remembered how the mangoes felt underneath
You wont mind if we take her
from you, he said, and it wasnt a question. I didnt
laugh it off like it didnt matter, and I thought about the
sealed apartment near the lake that Id walked to through
the storm, climbing the wooden fire escape at the back of the
house, the bleary streetlights through the window as I peered
in. The sound of the snow driving against the glass and how dry
it sounded. Through the window, through my own shadow with my
hand cupped against the glass, I could see where the carpet had
been torn up. Hed lain there for almost a week. I thought
about the phone messages I left during that time, my voice in
that still room while the snow fell and brushed and rattled against
I do mind. They looked at me
then and I thought about how easy it would be. There was only
the sound of goat bells above us on the slope and her footsteps
on the gravel.
he said, and his voice wasnt loud but so heavy it almost
disappeared. The wings of the aircraft with their thankful noise
were almost over the horizon, echoing in the cloud-filled valley
at our feet. I watched her rigid back ahead of me, her arms and
hands with their long fingers wrapped tightly against her sides,
until we were out of sight around a bend in the road. When I caught
up to her I touched her arm and could feel the gooseflesh as she
shook me loose. -5>
We walked silently until the last of the
false summits was behind us and we could see over both sides of
the shoulder, north and south with the sun lower in the early
dusk of the mountains. On the exposed shoulder the air was damp
and almost cold. We came suddenly to the gate of the lodge and
Locksley the caretaker greeted us diffidently in his knit hat
and muddy Wellingtons. There were tall, thin trees planted as
a windbreak around the house, and our shadows were long on the
muddy drive. Locksley was tearing down the transmission of a Land
Rover with another man who was silent and wouldnt look at
us, a pack of angular dogs around their feet and goat bells hollow
on the mountainside.
The room was as simple as it could be and
still be different from the outside, a double bed and a single
bed close beside it with a corrugated metal roof above, patched
new and rusted old above the rafters. It was cool and dark there,
and on a low table by the bed there was already a kerosene lamp
burning dully through its dirty chimney. I watched her dark eyes
take in the bare room and the concrete bathroom and the rag of
a towel we had to share because wed brought none with us.
It reminds me, she said, of
the blue wall behind my grandmothers crystal lamp. Its clean
flame and tangy smell. The wind rocking the sides of the house
like a boat as evening comes on. My grandmother and grandfather
bent together over the table in the swaying shadows and with their
mouths full of scripture. When I was a child, I thought the day
disappeared because the waters rose beyond the blue walls. I didnt
sink but floated on the water, watched the last palm frond swallowed
up. That was a bad sign, that I could float on the water, and
my grandfather could read it on my forehead. You must beat
the devil out of her<-5>,
he said. -5>
After we showered under a weak stream of
freezing water we sat on the lodges sagging front porch
while the sun broke and fell behind a shoulder of the Blue Mountain.
The tea grew cold quickly in the enameled tin cups, but we drank
it for the water and the wheaty taste of lemongrass, and with
it we ate ginger biscuits. Locksley was frying chicken in the
kitchen, and I thought about the dried soup and lentils I had
brought and the roti she had made and put warm into plastic bags.
Well have a fire later,
I said, to break the silence. To drive out the cold. The
air is so much better here than in Kingston. Like autumn all of
a sudden. She was silent again but then she took a deep
breath and put down her cup.
When it storms in the hurricane season
its terrifying, because the highest point on the whole island
is only a few feet above sea-level. At night in my grandfathers
house, when the wind blows and the yellow light and the shadows
swing back and forth like on a ship, I imagine the sea covering
us over and Im unable to float. Ive been abandoned
Its funny, she said without
laughing, how Im afraid of the water in that way but
now, away from it, Im really terrified. I remember reading
somewhere that it took artists two thousand years to figure out
that shadows arent black, arent something separate
from color. Theyre differences in the amount of light striking
a surface, just as they are differences in the light reflected
from the surface to the eye. Infinite variation on both sides.
Shadows are in the world and not over the world. At night, in
the kerosene, everything turns the color of brass.
It was difficult today, I said,
thinking about the eyes of a beholder.
But you feel all right now?
I feel all right.
But not safe.
What are you afraid of?
Look around you, she gestured.
The evening had fallen and in the cool air
fog that was really clouds began running up the sides of the mountain,
over the shoulder on which the lodge sat, and then farther up
toward the peak. The fog ran like gray animals through the silhouetted
There is you and there is Locksley
and the man named George who brought the bananas and the other
man fixing the truck. There is just the unpicked coffee on the
mountainside and there are goats and the dogs and now the darkness.
There is the peak tomorrow and all day today we walked up and
I kept expecting over each ridge it would be the peak but it was
another ridge. It was not what I thought it would be.
I thought about how the sea now was completely
invisible but that tomorrow we would remember that it was all
But tomorrow will be easier. Tomorrow
its just the peak and well see all the way to Cuba
in the north and to Haiti, even, if its clear. The whole
Yes, a wonderful view, she said,
making quotation marks around the words.
Then why did we come?
Because you wanted to.
Because Ill be leaving soon.
Like I said, because you wanted to.
I needed to get away from the city,
the heat and the violence, to think about it.
Do you think thinking about it helps?
Theres no other way for me right
now. Ive got nothing left that wasnt inside that room
with me, that sealed apartment. And now, I said, looking
around, its far away, too, even in the age of the
Here the families stay at the airport
until the planes are out of sight over the mountain. They go to
the roof of the terminal and watch the plane taxi out and take
off and go all the way over and around the mountain. I remember
standing on the terminal too but that was in Trinidad, waiting
for my fathers plane to take off and then watching it bank
north toward New York.
Was it hard?
Sometimes. Theres a weightlessness
to letters. One writes faith and means the other must acquiesce,
a funny kind of freedom. She looked at me. Then we
came to New York too and my parents never talked about those years
apart. But you could hear them, those years, wrapped around the
shouting, the breaking things, the bruises.
I dont know how it happened.
There are lots of ways for it to happen.
Sometimes you dont even have to cut yourself. You just leak
everything out until theres nothing left.
And everything else is cliché.
Even if I had known I couldnt have done anything. It was
inevitable, or only a matter of time. You know, ways of saying
nothing at all.
I dont know. But there are other
things I know.
I looked at her. What do you mean?
I was just thinking about his hand,
coming down out of the sunlight to touch us all on our foreheads
before departure. That was all. There was no kiss. The hand was
very big, black around the nails, and it smelled like oil and
cigarettes. There were calluses, I remember, on the palm. Just
something quick like that, that hand coming down out of the sun.
It touches us.
I thought about the week to come when I
would ride down from Mona along the curve of shore by the bauxite
and concrete plants, the peninsula curving far out on the bay,
the low profile of the terminals at Manley. The crowd above me
as the doors close and the damp sunlight cutting off abruptly
as if amputated, the cabin pressurizing, the long taxi out from
the terminal, the steep acceleration until we are airborne and
doubling back over the wrinkled sheen of the bay, around the far
side of the mountains buried in the cloud that is a sign and not
a concealment. The peak would be visible for a moment before the
clouds are driven in by the wind off the sea.
Afterwards we went in together and ate our
soup with the roti and then, in the lantern light by the fire,
played rummy for imaginary sums. Locksley sat at the table with
us and repaired a broken flashlight.
Is the path complicated to the peak?
I asked him.
No, man, no worry. He bent over
the metal that gleamed in the firelight. There is only one
path to the top, one way up and one way down. He paused.
And no mangoes, he said, looking up at me without
We were tired and went soon to the small
room with the double bed and the single bed close beside it that
was empty. She turned the wick down until the room went from brass
to dark blue, submerging. We did not talk and I lay awake while
her breathing grew even and deep and the wind shook the thin walls.
I didnt sleep until the light was just starting to rise
and then was suddenly bright on the mountain and the fast-moving
Eben Woods poetry has appeared
most recently in Fence. The River Come Down
is his first published short story.
Steve<12.500000> Almond and
Melissa Pritchard, our judges for the 10th annual <12.500000>Boston
Review12.500000><12.500000> Short-Story Contest, had the difficult
task of choosing one winner from the more than 700 entries we
received last year. Although we ultimately chose Gale Renee Waldens
Men I Dont Talk to Anymore, (December/January
2003), we felt that the stories presented here deserved winner
status as well. The judges admired Eben Woods The
River Come Down for its nightmarish lyricism and for evoking
the themes of displacement and identity. We thought Weston Cutters
Model for a Square was exceptionally sophisticated
for a very young writer whose first accepted story this is, and
we enjoyed its postmodernistic playfulness. 12.500000>12.500000>
in the Summer 2003 issue of Boston Review