The River Waits
by Ljubo Popovich
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
When the first adventure was over, I begged the Helmsman to take me home. “You’re just shaken up,” he said, laying a powerful hand on my shoulder. “You’ve got a ways to go yet.”
All of a sudden the danger was all too real, and I looked to the rebellious river with dismay. How can it flow forever? How tiny and pathetic the Grand Ferris is compared to this!
Dismantling the dam was the work of an hour. Hauling the logs to shore was no simple task but, for a time, I was able to forget my trepidation as I labored and listened to the bawdy jokes of the crew. In good time we were on our way, up against the demented river and its infinite windings.
That afternoon, we slept, and I felt the void of the life I’d left behind receding into memory. For a time, my longing for the cube slid away or, rather, I was able to hold it at bay, but it was like holding my breath underwater.
As the sunset spilled over the shiny deck, I could hear a haunting thrum in the distance, as of a colossal beehive. We’d come to the great metropolis of Khai-han, I was told. The Helmsman guided the leaky rig gingerly to the dock.
“I’ve walked these streets for twenty years,” the Helmsman said. “Never have I seen the same face twice. There’ve been times I recognized a pair of eyes, or a toupee, or a certain moustache but, upon closer inspection, the likeness fades away. You have to let the images slip into the vast stream of time. These streets are as infinite as the imagination. And to search the faces in the crowd is to confront the abyss of the imagination.”
“The city doesn’t forgive.” I said, quoting his show. “The city never sleeps, only the people, like cells, like capacitors, on and off, light and shadow, male and female, a cooperation of particles, multiplying, expiring, evolving.”
He smiled. This quotation and many more were burned into my psyche.
Usually each episode of The Helmsman of the Forbidden River followed a pattern: the crew sailed the river, ran into trouble, surmounted all difficulties with unstinting courage and teamwork and then took time off in the city to carouse with “landlubbers.”
Sometimes they brought on new crew members, and occasionally lives were lost. But somehow I suspected that the serpentine waters were less mutinous than the vast metropolis.
At first glance, the surface world was too complex to fathom, but the Helmsman patiently escorted me. When he came into port, he logged his ship and deposited his booty. There were men to pay off and supplies to purchase. Within minutes I realized his purview extended far beyond the parameters of the show. How can such a person be flesh and blood? I wondered.
All the while, a question burned at the back of my mind, but I refrained from asking for fear of breaking the spell: Why me? Why has such a grand, ungodly, god-like man taken me under his wing? I was no more than an overgrown fan of his show. In terms of experience, I was as naïve as a child and a sorry addition to his retinue.
Sensing my pensive mood, the Helmsman pulled me aside and whispered, “Conrad, you still doubt my authenticity?”
With trembling lips I replied, “No... I only wish I knew why you lavish so much attention on me. I can’t figure it out.”
Soberly, he sighed. “It’s because I was like you once, Conrad.”
“But I don’t understand. You’ve been the same since I was a kid. You never grow older, you always come through in one piece. How can you really exist?”
“Do you remember the episode called ‘The Secret of the Deep’?”
“Of course, where you met the Mermen of the river and you freed their king.”
“You may believe I’ve passed unscathed through decades of battle, but perhaps I should show you this.” He folded back his high, stiff collar to reveal tough flaps of skin under his jaw. I thought they were scars at first until they flexed and seethed.
“Now you know the secret, Conrad. I’m no ordinary man.”
I was stunned into silence. But it still didn’t answer my question. Sensing my confusion, the Helmsman patted my head, fixed his collar and assured me I needn’t worry about understanding yet. One step at a time...
There was something sturdy and comforting about land, I decided. Even the Grand Ferris didn’t offer a sense of perfect stability in space like solid ground.
Watching the Helmsman work, I got the sense there must be doppelgangers of him, that every great city of the surface had a helmsman on its river. Very likely there was another pitiable blueblood like myself over the horizon, acting out the first adventure of his life with his living hero.
We traversed mudflats when lumbering shipwrecks and jaunty lean-tos were casting long shadows over the coast. A lone specter of a tree caught migrating tumbleweeds in its boughs. Sunlight dappled sidewalks, air-conditioning blasted from open windows. And the borderland of the river, mist-enshrouded, leered along the edge of the world.
“I’m among them, yet they are alone,” he said. As always, every word took time to sink in; everything existed within the context of the world his character embodied, every contradiction, every hyperbole.
“We are followers of ghosts. We follow them forever, but just as surely they disappear. For years I’ve looked into those windows. You can see them as you cruise the river. The occasional laundress folding on high, almost invisible, where the clouds erase the world. She folds and then passes on. Never to exist again. It’s as if they don’t know how teetering, how elegiac is their precious house of cards.
“And always through windows people enact personal histories, gazing at the billion-eyed city from the outside, it almost feels like getting sucked into a television screen. That’s why I took you on my boat, Conrad, I could see potential in your eyes. Potential and stupidity.”
Sprinkling equal measures of disdain and esteem was just part of his identity. “But how did you know I was watching?”
“People rely on machines to separate them from reality. Rarely do they realize that as they look upon the screen the world from within gazes with just as much longing.”
As we entered the urban sprawl he continued, “Look at the distracted drivers as they race toward oblivion. Those cabmen, blindfolded, or half-asleep, how many countless denizens have they slaughtered? They couldn’t be happier with their existence, their laissez-faire housewives. So many pudgy-faced businessmen, and ragamuffin children wearing Halloween costumes year-round... I mean, look at that roving mass: who ever knew living organisms could flow like liquid?”
Unidentifiable throngs of people passed in and out of doorways. When we entered the heated density of rushing feet, I continued chewing on his words.
Once the helmsman started spinning the gears of his mind, he tended to sweep up everything with his words. The inner beauties layered one upon another, more complex and nostalgic than cube-illusions. The more time I spent with him, the more authentic he became, the more his notions dissolved the artificial fabric of my cube-addled head.
“Who would try to remember the world when it can remember it for you?” he asked.
I was beginning to think he could read my mind.
“You won’t find any of those cubes down here, lad. The people of this droll hive operate on different principles. That hamster-wheel in the sky where you spin out your lonesome years, where you came of age suckled by the boob-tube and strung out on the cube, it did nothing but build up poisons inside you. How long can you contain it? When every want is gratified, you become empty. Oh, to bear the weight of genuine experience must be almost too much for you! Tell me, Conrad, do you still long for that silken domicile in the sky?”
At that moment I made a vow to stand by his side, as one of his crew, until the day I died. “Bold words for your first day,” was his only reply.
“Come, Conrad,” he said, “I’ll take you where you can fill that void for a while.” He plunged forward.
In the wake of inevitable fatigue, the amazement began to wear off. My fingers grasped at puffs of smoke emanating from storm drains. A gentle song wafted over the crowds of window-shoppers; it could very well have been imaginary. It was a circular maze, through corridors, alleyways and stairwells, a corrugated delirium of saffron lights, barely registered images, a labyrinth of scrambled pathways.
“This environment cunningly rearranges itself so these fish don’t know they’re swimming upstream,” he said, “with their faces taken out of magazines, in the gridlock of commerce, the essentials of life are transmogrified into sound bites. The farther you get from the Grand Ferris, the harder it is to recognize the expressions of fellow human beings. But up there, where the glittering windows hover like glassy comets, people recline in vacuum-sealed bedrooms, fondling cubes, shriveling, beady-eyed, poised in the lap of luxury.
“This bigger wheel of the earth is the real world, and it rolls on through space forever, as it ever has, and as it ever will. So I’ve been told. And so I believe. And when that glitzy belvedere comes crashing down, eons will have passed, and our brothers beside the winding river will look up perplexed as the survivors rain down. By that time, your kind will be extra-terrestrials, having forgotten that men dwelt below.”
The essence of his words trickled into me from the vast height of his raging intellect. In the radiant torrent of his words, I willingly drowned.
“Are you beginning to like the look of squalor?” he asked.
“It’s growing on me.”
We sat on a bench with plates of roasted goose and fried potatoes. It was hardly the thing to eat in the wee hours of the morning but I was famished.
“You’ll forget that silly cube once you have a woman on you,” he said casually.
“A woman?” My eyes widened.
“A real woman.”
“But isn’t that... dangerous?”
“That’s what they want you to think.”
My ravaged mind began to invent scenarios. “What’s it like? I mean, being with a woman,” I asked.
“It’s like velvet guillotines. Like you’ve been holding your breath for years and suddenly realize you’ve learned how to breathe. It’s like serpent bites and fever dreams.”
The club was full of strangling smells and the noise of a thousand voices that congealed into one thunderous vibration.
“Load us up,” the helmsman yelled at the bartender, who nodded in acknowledgement.
Two drinks appeared, connected to the counter by an auto-refill tube. As I sipped cautiously someone bumped into me. The contact of human flesh, the heavy darkness and the sudden fire burning my chest aroused an intense curiosity. Yes, perhaps this is the way to forgo the cube. How long have I been swaddled by a dream? Perhaps it’s time to wake up.
Inspired by my cheerful crewmates, I submitted to the strange energies that swirled around me. And in the distraught haze of my enflamed senses, I collapsed into a stupor. Vaguely I remember being carried up a flight of stairs and laid in a bed. Only the Helmsman was strong enough to lay me down so gently. I don’t know how long I slept, but it felt like whole eternities as my body bristled with blinding agonies I couldn’t understand.
It became clear that the cause of my pain was the cube. The void it had carved in me spilled out in one furious torrent. I hated it more than anything but at the same time desperately wanted it.
And so I slobbered, crawling into a corner, tore at the wallpaper and screamed for help. Through a slat above the door, I glimpsed the Helmsman’s stark visage deep into the endless night, gazing upon my torture with stalwart diligence. Why is he watching me? Will this night never end?
The world was a droplet of pain, drizzling through my bones. My mind was a heavy stone, sinking to the bottom of a barren sea. My eyes were seared by a sky-wide sun, exploding through airless doom.
A succulent shadow crossed my doorway sometime in the insensate nightmare. I remember the shape of a woman, descending upon me. And a tiny dribble of pleasure amid whole oceans of anguish.
And finally, gently lapping waves upon a distant shore. Repetitive, soothing spasms, and a sudden giddiness leading to ultimate sleep.
Copyright © 2017 by Ljubo Popovich