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The River

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The River

The scaly leviathans were barely twenty yards away. I watched as they devoured bone, fat and sinewy flesh, churning the water into a dark brown-red foam. Gingerly, I eased back into the dense, wet foliage, peering out at the alligators as they mercilessly sated their appetites. And as I sat there, watching them slowly eat my river guide, I wondered whether perhaps I was in rather a lot more trouble than I had thought.

I had said goodbye to Kate just fifteen days earlier. It was early March, and light, drifting sleet idly fell upon us as we awkwardly parted outside the airport terminal entrance. We kissed. I held her tightly. It was a tender, lingering, loveless embrace. I said I’d email her. Write to her. She said she’d phone me. Post things. Our guilty words hung in the air, frozen in the foggy glare of car headlights and misty condensation. We both knew I was leaving us behind.

Kate didn’t walk in with me. I carried all the baggage. She just waved and gave a sad half-smile.  She didn’t say anything. Didn’t cry. She just waved for a moment. Then she turned and, without looking back, walked to her car.

Lima was twelve hours later and twenty-four degrees hotter. A thick, grimy blanket of star-eclipsing smog lingered over the city, punctuated by the gloomy luminescence of towering high-rises and rivers of traffic. After managing to find a taxi, I weaved through the dizzying fluorescent blur of downtown streetlights past the city vendors, revellers, hookers and beggars. 

I found the hostel. The building smelt of cheap cleaning products, body odour, stale beer and cigarette smoke. I crawled into a dorm bunk and wrapped myself up in a mass of sheets.

I lay there and thought about Kate. I thought about my parents. I thought about my brother Pete and my friends and everyone else I knew who had taken easily to their twenties and had careers and partners and kids and weren’t crawling around a grubby, fetid dormitory in South America in a misguided attempt to frantically stem a seemingly inescapable drift into meaninglessness.

The nauseating cacophony of engines, horns and alien voices from the streets outside filled the dorm. I found my sleeping bag, a precious, tangible link to something I understood, something familiar. Something I had left behind. It still had Kate’s smell, and I clung to it with pathetic, childish desperation, silently crying throughout the night.

A few days later I left the city.  I spent three days and two nights on five different buses riding through lush, sub-tropical valleys into the heart of the Peruvian rainforest. Most of the buses were old and decrepit, long past their use-by date. One was practically held together with tape and powered by sheer will alone. All were overcrowded. I spent whole days thirsty and exhausted, stewing in a sweaty soup of perspiration and squashed like a seed between the voluptuous pulp of large women, all while balancing exuberant children precariously on my knees. Our luggage was tied haphazardly to the roof, every jolt in the road bringing with it the promise of another suitcase lost into the wild abyss. 

I eventually arrived at a small, mud-cloaked town inside the Amazon basin. Everything smelt of steam and wet earth. The air was full of swarming insect chatter. Sticky moisture clung to the swirling mist that floated through the writhing trees and branches, fracturing shards of sunlight and bathing the forest floor in patches of honey, ember and shadow.

I spent the night with a local family in a creaky, groaning wooden outhouse. During the night it was hot and muggy, but there was no roof, which made things cooler. I lay in my sleeping bag on a solid, hard workbench. I couldn’t sleep and gazed up at the clear black night. I started to think about Kate. I raised my hand toward the scattered sparkles and ran my fingertips over the stars. The same stars she could see, many miles away. I blinked away a few tears, which silently rolled down my cheeks.

I rented the outhouse for a week, eating meals with the family. The grandmother was the spiritual heartbeat of the household. She had curious, misty eyes and a warm, maternal smile. She washed my clothes and looked after me. During the day the children showed me around town and in the evenings I sat with them in the living room and watched television.

It was through the family that I met Vin Diesel. 

That was not his real name, of course. But he randomly owned a pair of faded, worn Diesel jeans that he obsessively wore everyday. When I read the label, recognition spread across his face and he began talking incomprehensibly about a film he called ‘Too Fast The Furious.’ I never found out his real name.

Vin Diesel was burly and humourless, with a thick nest of black-grey hair and cracked, leathery skin. He was about forty but looked much older. He lived alone in his small, sparsely furnished house on the outskirts of town. He had few material possessions, save a few clutches of trinkets and souvenirs left to him by Western passers-by through the years.

One morning he asked if I wanted to spend a few days fishing and wildlife-watching with him on his boat on the Amazon. I needed no persuading. Leaving my backpack with my newly adopted family, I packed a smaller bag and headed out onto the river with my guide.

Above the water a misty veneer lazily hung in the ether, the air saturated with heat and vapour. The river lay before us as one vast, impenetrable, overwhelming mass. It stretched endlessly toward the horizon in either direction while its skirting undergrowth on either side rustled with an abundance of life cautiously hiding on the periphery of the water. It was eerie and magical, an immense, glistening serpent slithering through the dense rainforest, slowly moving through space and time.

On the river we rarely spoke. My Spanish was poor and his English was non-existent. Sometimes we communicated through grunts, gestures and nods, but often we sat silently in the stifling heat, idly batting away mosquitoes and listening to the slosh of the water against the boats hull. As we glided along the opaque surface, I watched how the solid darkness of the river occasionally shimmered with sparkling glimpses of mischievous, playful sunlight.

I closed my eyes and imagined my friends back home. I imagined them going about their jobs and careers, not worrying where they were going in life and how they were going to get there. They had focus and ambition. They had purpose. They were already navigating the right path. Some of them were impressively far along that path. I lay back and covered my face with my forearm. I was nowhere.

We had been out for a few days before the attack. Vin Diesel had brought a gun, and he spent afternoons shooting at birds and taunting the smaller alligators with scraps of juicy bait. He taught me how to fire the gun, how to fish, and he tried to teach me how to steer and control his compact two-man vessel, though it soon became apparent that he was a very poor navigator, and we frequently found ourselves lost in a labyrinth of tributaries.

In the still, humid heat of the afternoon Vin Diesel insisted on steering. He dozily leaned on the rudder as we drifted gradually into an area of the river we had been avoiding due to the seasonally low water levels. As we hit the huge stump rising out of the water we both jolted out of our drowsiness. The scraping of the stump on the hull caused a painful metallic screech, causing severe indentation up the centre of the boat.

We lurched and rocked violently from side to side. The boat veered hard to the left and we started taking on water. Vin Diesel and I shifted all our weight to the right to provide a counterbalance, but it was no use. The boat strained and groaned, then finally capsized, throwing us out of our seats and into the river.

We bobbed amongst the debris of nets, bags and clothes, as Vin Diesel’s small boat lay capsized on its front, its wounds displayed to the world. We floated there, staring at each other for a few moments. I looked to Vin Diesel, wondering what the plan was. But he was anxiously kicking and splashing on the spot as he frantically turned his head left and right, like a man morbidly uncertain of the flow of traffic. I sighed. There was no plan.

We had been fishing near the shore so I grabbed my bag and slowly and steadily began to swim over to the dense, leafy river edge. I thought Vin Diesel was right behind me but when I looked back he was someway back in the distance. He had barely moved.

I swam on and reached the shoreline of overhanging branches, reeds and mud. When I looked back again Vin Diesel had still not moved. Something wasn’t right. He was pale, shaking, frozen to the spot. He looked physically sick. Confused, I scanned the river. As I sheltered my eyes from the fierce solar glare I saw them: the four dark, streamline shapes in the water, converging on him from all directions.

He began to thrash in a wild panic. But the stealthy shadows moved fast, honing in on him like a missile strike. They attacked virtually simultaneously. Vin Diesel’s screams pierced the thick, heavy air like a lightening bolt as the writhing, reptilian beasts tore into him. The river bubbled and frothed with blood, skin and scales.

I watched from the foliage. It was over quickly. After the initial frenzy the creatures brutally fought over the remains, then gradually withdrew to a more remote distance from each other.

I sat there thinking. I realised I felt little for Vin Diesel. His demise had certainly been horrific, but he had carelessly steered us into danger and had spent the last few days goading the entire rainforest. No, there was something else on my mind.

I sat there, breathing in the rich mixture of flowers, rotten wood, earthy reeds and plants. I listened to buzz of insects in the ether, the swaying rhythm of the arching trees straining up to the sky with their rustling green fingertips. I stared out at the river. I stared out at the misty horizon and back at the waters edge. I stared at my reflection.

After some time, I became aware of I how isolated I was. For the first time in weeks I was completely by myself. I was utterly alone, but I wasn’t lonely. I began to think about the paths my friends had taken. I thought the path I had taken and Kate had taken and all the paths that everybody might ever take. I thought about the river. And then, finally, I understood.

The river is a story told by the plotting shoreline. It is vast and deep, but it is neither impenetrable nor overwhelming. It can be navigated, understood. A river meanders, slowly and hesitantly, as it cannot see that its path ahead has already formed. The destination is already decided. While each path is ultimately unknowable and unfathomable, for some rivers the way ahead is visibly clearer, unclouded by mist, shadow and uncertainty. But in the end, each river can only travel at its own speed and follows its own path, wherever that may lead.

In the coolness of the rapidly approaching dusk I thought about these things. I looked out at the water and saw the boat floating close to me. It was salvageable. I would be able to find my way back to a nearby village. Then a nearby town. Then a city.

Then home.


1 Leah | on 10 November 2009

I read this from start to finish and loved every second. brilliant stuff, Andy!

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