The River
rating: +15+x

The river flows and croaks and burbles soft

as hush of falling snow. The waves belap

upon the banks and gleam with wettened slush

that floats along despite the winter chill.

In the beginning, there was the River. This River was small and it was large, and this River was the beginning of many things. This River was not the beginning to all things, of course – that honour was reserved for none – nor was it the end of all things. This River, large yet small and important yet insignificant as it was, was merely somewhere in the in-between: it birthed and it killed, it sustained and it decayed, and never did this River choose one method of living over the rest, because this River was the living fulcrum of many things.

This River was old and it was young. And though it was eternal, the River was not constant. For the River, time was largely irrelevant, only experienced not through watches or ticking clocks or the rise and fall of the Sun, but through the changes in its water, in its sandy-pebbly bed, in the ever-deepening jagged scars turning smooth in-on-under-between -through the hairy bleeding surface of the Earth, much like an artery changing course through skin. The River experienced time in this sense, and it was such that in the sections of itself that ran over lava-glass and titanium mineral deposits, the River felt that time was very slow indeed.

But this is not important for our story.

The River was present at the dawn of time; had begun its flow there and from then on never stopped, never faltered. All things, of course, were present at the beginning of time – atoms turned to bitty stars through microcollisions generating sparks and heat in the primordial soup – but the River was more than they were at this time. This River was present at the dawn of time – had been present not as water, but as a collective, a string of atoms, floating in the void with a budding consciousness forming from watery neuro-synapses mixed in with the soup of fellow future planetoids and asteroids and stars and voids that still bled the aorta’s milk of the universe. This River was born at the dawn of time and was there to see it, was conscious enough to see it, and though this River had no arms, legs, or ears, in that moment – the moment that lasted a billion years after everything had happened all at once to form the Big Bang – the River, in its baby-fresh knowledge and consciousness, decided that it wanted to see it all happen again. It decided, before most stars had formed and while the last electrons were still busy getting hot and settling down with their requisite atoms, that it intended to live to see the death of the last stars. All it had to do was wait.

This River was vast and miniscule, omnipotent and idiotic, infinite and finite, and this River was the beginning and end of many things.

The one thing that this River was not was ordinary. This River, unlike most Rivers, did not stay on just one planet. Rather, when the soup of the universe turned to chowder with baby planets and just-fusing stars, the River – just a wee water snake a thousand miles long – wound its way through the void, devouring anything that came its way and avoiding that which would devour it. The River, after all, would not be around to see the death of the universe if it were eaten this early. The atmospheres of some of the baby planets worried it, of course, but there was not much it could do. The gravity wells worried it further, and after several close calls with stars growing hot and buff, tossing solar flares and magnetic fields out like javelins tossed by rowdy teens to announce their strength – idiot stars, they were, and still most are – the River took a chance. The River turned, still a mild hundred thousand miles from the eye of the universe, and headed North (North-center, that is, relative to the point of origin where the first few stars were born, a distinction unknown to most new planets nowadays) and, after several million years heading in that direction in a state of consciousness somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, the River found a planet that suited its needs: dry, hot, with a gravity well not too strong for it to be trapped, and with magnetic shielding to keep away the ever-inquisitive rays of the sun. Finally, after years of searching and ultimately satisfied, the River dove down to that beautiful atmosphered solarstationary planet and drowned its lands in water.

Once upon a time, there was a River. This is a river you know; the river that passes through your backyard. You know, your backyard – that too-big stretch of wooded city forest that came with your house. It’s big, heavy with green, a patch of nature in an overdeveloped and otherwise cramped city. The woods that are your backyard are as one of a kind: the land upon which it stands was too hilly to develop back when the property lines were laid out and stays still because some homeowner a hundred years back tried to sue the city when officials came to bulldoze the place. Now, in a city of metal and asphalt, you own a too-big house stained by water damage and termites and have to stand up to the homeowner’s association when they do their annual protests at your doorstep every summer.

The forest – and its river – make you tired. So very tired. The woods require minimal upkeep, much less than anything you would have to do if you had a manicured backyard like all your neighbours, but had you an apartment, you would not know the difference in emotional satiety.

However, it is a simple fact: you live with a forest instead of a backyard, and though you have never known what it would be like to have a house with something normal instead of something strange, the strangeness – the woods and their river – does affect your life, and next to the river and the woods, when you wake to birdsong rather than car alarms, you are happy.

And, though you do not know it, the River is happy too.

The River lives in your backyard, among other places. It is polluted, sown with garbage and runoff and nightsoil and aluminum cans that bring with them the reek of the city. The River is a whole entity, not just one – it had been a solid mass on the day of its birth and, as far as it is concerned, will remain a solid mass through to and beyond the day of its death, after it freezes solid come the deathday of the universe. The River, however, is not blind to the fact that a life is not just the first and last days of existence. It is such that, ever since it landed on the first planet it could call home, the River tended very carefully to the matters of its happiness.

The city does not make the River sad, for the River is much larger than that. Despite the matters of its desolation in the city of decaying worth, the River, too, runs through mountains, glasslamp solar-cities, moss-dripping forests, loud steaming jungles. The River would wrap around the Earth several times, glutted as it is with the rains birthed from its many bodies that wash it clean in several lengths every moment of every night. And so, for the length of the River that lies in a city that tries its very best to kill it, the River does not feel sorrow, nor despair, nor pain. Rather, the River feels that localized pollution like an ache; the kind you would feel as a soreness in your leg. Something to be concerned about, but something which, if it does not get worse, will be of no worry to it or anyone. The city is a bruise. A bruise, and nothing more.

Unbeknownst to the River, of course, is that the bruise stays a bruise – it does not get any worse, and might even get better, with time – because it runs straight through your stretch of the woods.

The River was located on Earth. The River was buoyant, salty, freshwater, alkaline, basic. The River was every temperature, every pressure, and the River supplied the world known now as Earth with lifeblood, feeding it plump and healthy like it were the great artery of an arm. Winter, for the River, was at all times, for the River encircled the planet many times over. For those sections of itself experiencing winter, the River bled red with cyanobacteria and rusting iron, spoilt the air with red sulpher from hotsprings and geysers. Too, the summer was experienced always, for the River, just over different portions of itself over the year. In those parts of it suffused with the long light and mirage-prone heats of summer, the River ran white with salt and broken snow and slush. Its waters started cold, at the edges of summer, but warmed to balmy bathwater – that, too, was but smaller poolings of the body of the River – come the trailings of summer entering fall.

The River was many things, and the River was the oceans, the rapids, and the rain. The River was all. The planet the River now held itself on, of course, believed itself to be suffused with water due to asteroids, but the River knew better. The planet had been parched before, and though it was large enough to draw in water from outside, there were much larger, more likely planets for ice-carrying asteroids to fall upon. It was for this, for the fact that no parts of the River entered or left the world for many millions and millions of years, that the River eventually relaxed and turned its attention away from waiting for the death of the sun and to the sustained happiness and health of its body.

With this increased attention to itself came life, and it was such that in the years of the Cambrian explosion and beyond, the River found itself the king of kings. In Spring, glacier-melt rapids roared down its banks, flooded from high airless peaks down to the sea and bearing troutspawn down to the sea, and buoyed otter pups in the gentle caress of murky currents and kelp. Further down and away from the mountains, the River played with the life it sustained: swells of cool water swirled under fallen boulder shells, carried welcome warmth and oxygen to shaded salty orange salmon roe, and washed fly-swarmed fish carcasses downstream to feed the roots of huckleberry bushes so they could grow as tall as their brethren. The River, in desert oases largely cut off from the rest of its body, spun lazily under the sweltering sun, coaxed palms and sage up from seedlings, gently tickling their roots and coaxing them to root deeper, deeper, until their thirst could be quenched and until the oasis turned from a puddle in the dunes to a deep lush valley filled with raucous cries of birds and lumbering sand-tigers. The River was everywhere, and too, far from the deserts and the mountains in winter-wetted fields hushed with snowfall, the River cut black veins through the snow with slow trickles over dry rocks, bringing life to silt-shelled cassidflies and grey crawfish lying dormant in stagnant pools beneath heavy stones. And as always and for ever, the River, no matter the place or the season, was king.

Through the years, the River grew thick with plastic and oil. And despite these irritancies that wiggled in its skin like sand under clothing, the River endured. The River knew, after all, that those species who threw their waste into its waters would soon die out, and if they did not, the River could always stir, rise from the depths, wash over the planet, flood the land like it had done so many millions of years ago and hurl itself into the great void beyond in search of somewhere else to sleep, like a toddler throwing a scratchy blanket across the room in search of something softer.

Thankfully for all of the plants and animals that lived on the planet called Earth, the River was lazy. And though some banks grew heavy with oil, with spent buckshot, with hunter's garments of microplastics and canholder-plastic-choked turtles, the River wished to stay for a little while longer. In Spring, the salmon fry amused it. In Winter, the seagrass enchanted it. And despite all the terrible things done to it on its many limbs, such was the case that for now, the River was happy.

It all started when they bulldozed your stretch of the woods.

It wasn’t you, but it didn’t matter. It might as well have been you, in the end. Maybe you were too lax in your duties, too soft in your persistence to heed the law of your land. Maybe it was something else. In the end, the River did not know whom to blame. The city had gone behind your back; they had been paid a hefty sum by greedy apartment-builders, lining the pockets of those who did not need their pockets lined any further and reassuring them that no matter how much they were sued, they would win in the long run. besides, they were the city, and like the House in a casino, the city always wins.

The River did not know that you were not to blame. It did not know you woke up that morning in your pajamas, soft and warm on a chilly morning, and that you bolted upright out of bed, sprinted out the backdoor in a cold sweat and with tears on your cheeks, muddied your sleeping-socks. That morning, the River did not know that you woke not to water and birdsong, but to the guttural roar of construction engines, the heavy whine of industrial chainsaws, and the whistling crash of felled trees. The River did not know that you stumbled out of your door with cries breaking in your chest for them to ”Stop! Stop!”

The River did not know this. And while you trampled the skunk cabbage and scraped your skin raw and bloody through the brambles, as you frantically cried and pleaded out to the loggers as they felled sixteen birches still wet with morning dew, pleaded with a voice lost to the groundshaking roar of forest-breaking war machines, fell to your knees as the machines crushed the snowberry bushes you had so painstakingly coaxed from the acrid ground, the River stirred.

The River stirred. Things were crawling on that bruised spot. Right then, in that bruised spot upon its being, just one of many now but the one it knew so well, a great sour spot upon its being that had not grown any worse or better with the years, the one that had lain still for so many centuries, the River felt a sharp tearing, like a dull scalpel through its flesh, like the too-thick needle of an epipen had shorn through skin and muscle and artery and wiggled about. The River felt this, and the River Writhed.

And for the first time in nearly four billion years, the River came to life.

You felt it first. You, you pitiful, bleeding-skinned thing sweating and freezing in the cold morning wetness of an inner-city forest, deafened in the tyre-flattened scrub-brush, in the bleeding and matted mass of crushed swordferns, on your scraped knees, and you felt it first, because you were touching the ground and knew how these trees should look and how they should and should not shake in the wind. You had walked these woods a hundred times since you lived here: after work, feeling your stress ebb as you stared up into the trees; as exercise, wandering the dappled sunshine and blooming huckleberry bushes that fruited sweet and sour on your tongue; as therapy, cracking twigs between your fingers and staring in wonder at the dew-sparkling fronds of arboreal licorice ferns. And so, cowed and watching your beloved woods being broken for too-expensive houses and feeling the death of wonder like a broken bone in our chest, you felt it: the ground trembled, the river rose, and water seeped from the pores of the earth. And all of a sudden, the ground was bone-dry, the water of the river was buoying you to the treetops, your house was beneath you, you were rising to the clouds with a great rush of speed that blasted your skin flabby. You, you with a heart that beat fast in a chest made fragile by the rocketship-fast solid mass of water on your back, saw the broken remains of buildings and houses in the ocean of water now in the air and-

The River did not know any of this. The people and buildings in its waters, where it had risen one great arm of its being from the earth and swept it about, it could not feel. The River, too lazy to leave the planet that slowly killed it, swept one great whiplike limb from the ground, from the air, from the clouds, drew itself far from what had suffused so easily to the earth that thirsted as deeply as it had all those years ago when the River first came. The River did not want to leave, now, as it once had, and so instead of leaping, as it knew it could, drawing its strength and catapulting itself from the planet and spending a million-billion years sailing through the stars, heading to Universal North, finding somewhere else to live, the River decided to destroy. The River took one great arm, drew itself up, and slapped the land that had poisoned it and hurt it so terribly.

And the River let itself fall back down. The pain, so deep, faded over the years. And that spot had nothing at all, and from that great drawing of water from the land that relied so heavily on it, and those mountains that rose up from the earth in jagged peaks from the great shakings that came through the crust of the planet from the weight of the water coming crashing down, came a desert.

The River watches and waits for the death of the sun, and should anything get in its way, it will destroy that thing without mercy.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License