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The River Come Down

Eben Wood

8I was thinking, as the taxi left Mona Heights and dropped down through Kingston’s 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 taxi’s 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, DON’T 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?”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t 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 wasn’t the worst heat we’ve 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, I’m fine. I’m sure of it. It was the music before. Church music.”

“What does it make you think of?”

“Somewhere else.”

“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 aircraft’s 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 wasn’t sad.”

“You were crying because you were so happy?”

“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 my boots.

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 we’re rising. If we keep moving we’ll 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 we’d 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 hadn’t wanted to do anything but sleep for a long time and not dream. Because we think of ourselves in terms we’ve learned in a world of three dimensions, because we must shelter ourselves against the weather, we live in a house made of skin. But there’s no real space between the meat and bone like that outside, and because he didn’t understand that, because the difference between what he saw and what he felt had seemed like a solid wall, he’d 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 and smiled.

“I’m sorry. It was selfish of me.” I waved my hand but didn’t 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 we’d covered over the rotten fruit and the flies. I thought about the island she’d 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 didn’t 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 with it.

“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 we’d 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 afternoon.

Shuttle of a rocking loom, I thought. He didn’t stop smiling the entire time he was talking to me.

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.

“That’s 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 my boots.

“You won’t mind if we take her from you,” he said, and it wasn’t a question. I didn’t laugh it off like it didn’t matter, and I thought about the sealed apartment near the lake that I’d 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. He’d 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 the glass.

“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.

Back raw,” he said, and his voice wasn’t 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.

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 wouldn’t 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 we’d brought none with us.

“It reminds me,” she said, “of the blue wall behind my grandmother’s 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 didn’t 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, he said.”

After we showered under a weak stream of freezing water we sat on the lodge’s 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.

“We’ll 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 it’s terrifying, because the highest point on the whole island is only a few feet above sea-level. At night in my grandfather’s 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 I’m unable to float. I’ve been abandoned there.”

“It’s funny,” she said without laughing, “how I’m afraid of the water in that way but now, away from it, I’m really terrified. I remember reading somewhere that it took artists two thousand years to figure out that shadows aren’t black, aren’t something separate from color. They’re 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.

She nodded.

“But you feel all right now?”

“I feel all right.”

“But not safe.”

“No.”

“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 coffee trees.

“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 around us.

“But tomorrow will be easier. Tomorrow it’s just the peak and we’ll see all the way to Cuba in the north and to Haiti, even, if it’s clear. The whole Caribbean.”

“Yes, a wonderful view,” she said, making quotation marks around the words.

“Then why did we come?”

“Because you wanted to.”

“Because I’ll 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?”

“There’s no other way for me right now. I’ve got nothing left that wasn’t inside that room with me, that sealed apartment. And now,” I said, looking around, “it’s far away, too, even in the age of the airplane.”

“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 father’s plane to take off and then watching it bank north toward New York.”

“Was it hard?”

“Sometimes. There’s 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 don’t know how it happened.”

“There are lots of ways for it to happen. Sometimes you don’t even have to cut yourself. You just leak everything out until there’s nothing left.”

“And everything else is cliché. Even if I had known I couldn’t have done anything. It was inevitable, or only a matter of time. You know, ways of saying nothing at all.”

“I don’t 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 smiling.

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 didn’t sleep until the light was just starting to rise and then was suddenly bright on the mountain and the fast-moving clouds. <

Eben Wood’s poetry has appeared most recently in Fence. “The River Come Down” is his first published short story.


Editor’s Note

Steve Almond and Melissa Pritchard, our judges for the 10th annual Boston Review 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 Walden’s “Men I Don’t Talk to Anymore,” (December/January 2003), we felt that the stories presented here deserved winner status as well. The judges admired Eben Wood’s “The River Come Down” for its nightmarish lyricism and for evoking the themes of displacement and identity. We thought Weston Cutter’s “Model for a Square” was exceptionally sophisticated for a very young writer whose first accepted story this is, and we enjoyed its postmodernistic playfulness.

Jodi Daynard

Originally published in the Summer 2003 issue of Boston Review



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