I think my story-writing contest entry may be 23 years too late.
In 1987, Mike and I had challenged each other to a story writing competition. We had 30 days to come up with a story about the river. I had the story in my head but the deadline passed and I never put it on paper. Neither did Mike. Several years later we were chatting and the topic of that competition came up. He told me the story he had and I told him mine. All this time later the story was still stuck in my head. I shared it with a few people but never put it on paper. Then that blessed plunger showed up. As a result I present here today is my short story competition entry, 23 years too late.
THE OLD MAN AND THE RIVER TO THE SEA
a short story
In the forty years since the old man lost his wife to illness, he had walked every day. During his walks he would remember the times they shared, the life in her laughter and the promise in her smile. When she was alive he felt he could do anything and adventure awaited around every corner. With her at his side he was not afraid to brave new things, new experience were often explored and with her he felt he was living. He lost all that when he lost her and never found it in himself to explore his world the same way again. Instead, he walked. He had several routes that he would take over and over. His favourite path was the one he took every Saturday across the bridge that spanned the river, then along a path up the far shore which ended in a look-out, high over the large waterfall. There, in the thunder of the cascade he would sit for an hour on the wooden bench, lean on his metal cane and miss her, while the river flowed ever to the sea.
It was Saturday morning in late August and summer was still in the air. The sun rising in the brilliant blue cloud-free sky bathed the lookout in warmth. Bees were buzzing among the wildflowers while young birds flitted among the branches testing out new wings. The old man settled on his usual bench and noticed how clear the songbirds sounded. He had never really noticed their songs here before. Then he realized why. It was quiet. The roar of the waterfall was missing. He sprang up on his cane and rushed to the rail to look out where torrents of water had flowed for ages. The water was gone and in its place sat smooth water worn rocks drying in the morning sun. The river had stopped and the falls no longer flowed. The old man couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
The sound of a tiny splash followed by playful laughter below caused him to look down from the platform. A group of young children were hopping from round boulder to boulder, rocks that just yesterday comprised the riverbed and had not dried in sunlight for millennia. Fish, stranded in water now puddled in hollows and dips in the rocks, splashed and darted as the children giggled and tried to catch them with their bare hands. Hoping to bring them home for pets or for their moms to cook for supper. “I bet we are the first people to every play here,” one little boy said. “
We’ll be famous,” a little girl added. “Explorers!”
The old man called to them and waved his metal cane at the rock wall where the falls once flowed. He wanted them to realize the danger that any minute the river may flow again and wash them to the sea. They shouldn’t be playing there. But the children had already moved out too far from the shore. They could hear the old man shouting and when they saw him waving they giggled and waved back, thinking it was all a game. He watched in fear and dread and didn’t stop worrying until the children had reached the other side, clambered up the bank and vanished into the woods finding there way home for lunch.
The sun warmed the old man sitting on the bench longer then he normally did during his usual Saturday morning venture. An eagle soared overhead, its huge wings silhouetted against a white puffy cloud, one of several that now dotted the blue sky. His normal thoughts of his late wife had been replaced with questions about the missing waterfall, the huge dry cliff of rock that made its way across the empty riverbed was all that remained. It was just past lunch but he was not even hungry.
Happy voices sounded below the platform and as the old man looked down from his vantage point he spotted a young couple, leaping from rock to rock, happy and carefree. The young woman seemed to be trying to keep ahead of the young man, jumping to the next rock with giggles of laughter just has he would catch up to her. Finally, as if deciding to give up the race, she stopped on one large bolder and turned to face him. She held out her hand for him to hold as he jumped to her rock, but as he reached for it she pulled it quickly away and laugh. The young man balanced on one foot and waved his arms wildly as he kicked his other foot in the air, trying desperately to look like he was about to fall off the rock into the mud below. The young lady gave a tiny shriek when it looked like he was really going to tumble off the boulder and reached quickly to grab his hand tightly. With his feet firmly planted on the rock a huge grin appeared on the man’s face and he pulled the young woman to him. She melted in his arms as he embraced her to his chest. He held her there in the sunlight, then their lips met in a tender kiss. Then hand in hand, together, they leapt to the next rock. Under the smooth wall of rock where the water that flowed yesterday had cut swerves and swirls in the stone, the young man halted the smiling girl and turned her to face him. He reached into his pocket with one hand and took the hand of this girl he loved in his other. He knelt with a single knee on the smooth stone and there in front of her he asked her a question. She jumped and hugged and kissed him and it seemed obvious to the old man her answer was yes.
But they were in danger, it wasn’t safe there, under the falls. If the water started flowing the rush of water would carry them to the sea. The old man whistled and shouted and waved his metal cane at the couple trying to get their attention, to warn them, but he was to far away and the young couple mistook his gestures as congratulations on their engagement, and shouted back thank-yous. The old man looked up at the sky and prayed the river would not flow until the couple was safe on the other side. He breathed again when hand in hand they arrived on the far side and made their way into the woods to start a new life together.
Remaining on his bench on the lookout over the river, the old man noticed the sky had closed in by mid-afternoon. The harsh caw of a raven hidden in the distance could be heard. The air was still comfortable but there was no longer any blue in the sky. A gentle breeze trembled the leaves on the tree behind him as the afternoon went on. Summer was soon coming to an end.
He stood up and looked down on the riverbank underneath the platform and saw a family exploring the edge of the dried riverbed. The daughter was collecting smooth blue stones to take home with her, the son was turning over rocks hoping to find an arrowhead or pirate gold. The parents linked arm in arm smiled and the family dog ran and barked, chasing dragonflies and splashing in the puddles of mud. Someone was going to have to give that creature a bath later that evening. The wife was telling the husband it would be him. The family reached the base of the falls together. Where the smooth surface was marked with a pattern of bands in stone, the mother gathered the family together then pulled a small camera from her purse and set it up on a rock. With the empty waterfall as their back drop and the son tightly holding the wet, mud-covered dog in his arms, they all said cheese for a family photo.
The old man started to shout warnings of the danger but as he did the dog started to bark at him masking what he was trying to say. He pointed at the top of the waterfall with his metal cane, but they couldn’t understand him so they waved back. The mother held up her camera and the distant spark of the tiny flash indicated she had just taken a picture of him. She waved, then turned and joined her family. Disaster didn’t befall them. The river didn’t return and wash them out to sea. The old man was glad they were safe but at the same time he was a little upset about having his picture taken. His mouth was always open in photos and made him look crazy. He hoped he hadn’t blinked.
The sky had darkened and the old man’s stomach rumbled with hunger. It would soon be suppertime. The birds were gone. He looked up at the clouds which were much lower and darker now. There was a noticeable change in the air that seemed to announce summer was ending without notice.
He was startled by a voice behind him that spoke with a hint of relief. “Found him!” The old man turned and saw two men approaching from down the path. He knew these two gentlemen well for they were his neighbours in the senior’s complex he called home. His room was between theirs and they were even older then he was.
The second man breathing heavily, explained, “You didn’t show up for lunch and you weren’t in your room so we volunteered to be the search party. Though I have no idea who is going to come searching for us. Maybe the ladies who eat at the corner table will notice us missing,” he said hopefully. Suddenly the new arrivals noticed the dried riverbed and vanished waterfall. There old eyes opening wide at the sight.
“It’s been like this all day,” the old man explained to his friends.
“In all my years, I have never seen that happen before. The water, it’s completely gone!” exclaimed the first friend.
His second friend then added, “I’ve never heard of father or grandfather ever mentioning such a thing ever happening before, either.”
The three of them leaned on the rail discussing possible reasons for the river to have stopped flowing when the old man’s stomach rumbled again, this time loud enough for his friends to hear. One of them pulled a battered pocket watch from inside his sweater and after consulting it said, “We are going to be lucky if we make it back to the home before supper is served.”
The second friend suggested, “We can make it in time if we take a shortcut.” He then nodded towards the dried riverbed and winked.
The man stuffing the pocket watch back inside his sweater grinned, “True. Let’s do it. After all, at our age, when is the next time we’ll get the chance to say that we walked across a waterfall? It’ll impress some of the ladies back at the home. Surely those who sit at the corner table.” They turned to leave the platform but found their way blocked when the old man slammed his metal cane down in the railing in front of them.
“It’s too dangerous, the water could start flowing again at any moment. I’ve been warning everyone about it all day but no one would listen to me.”
The two friends looked around, there was nobody in sight but the three of them. The first one said, “I don’t see anyone here so I guess they all made it across safely, right?”
“That’s not the point,” the old man responded, “it could have happened!”
“But it didn’t,” the second friend replied, then asked, “Are you coming across with us? It’s spicy goulash night!” He reach out and moved the cane aside.
“It’s to risky,” was the old man’s answer.
When his two friends had made it to the riverbank’s edge, below the platform, he tried one last time to dissuade his friends, “Do you want to be washed out to sea?”
The second man, breathing heavily, unused to this level of physical exertion, looked back up and said with a grin, “You need to live a little.”
The old man felt the anger rise up within him at that statement and pointed his metal cane at his friends and spoke loudly, “Don’t tell me to live, I’ve been alive for 87 years!” The two friends looked at each other and shrugged, then turned to make their way slowly across the dried river bottom.
Arriving on the opposite shore they paused to catch their breath and looked back at there friend. As the first drops of rain began to fall they could see the old man high on the lookout platform. He was waving his cane high in the air and it looked like he was shouting something. Whatever it was he was saying could not be determined by them because he was too far away and in the distance a low rumble growled, growing deep and ominous. It made them think of their hunger. They would have to ask the kitchen staff to keep his supper warm for him. They waved and turned up into the woods.
The old man watched his friends reach the other side as a drop of rain splashed on his face. If he had of gone with them he would be safely across now, that much closer to a full stomach and a hot cup of tea. All day he had been afraid and worried of dangers that never happened and now he felt a little foolish for wasting his time with fear of what could have been. He thought about the words his friend had used that upset. Then he realize, he may have been alive for a long time but for the last forty years he hadn’t really been living. He felt the burst of a sudden wave of courage flow over him and sweep him to action. No longer satisfied with just being alive he determined it was time to listen to his friend and live, even if it was just a little.
Pumping his fist, holding the metal cane high over his head, he climbed up on the bench and shouted up at the blackening sky, dotting him with cold raindrops. “I am not afraid!” he shouted. “I am going to walk under the waterfall!” He laughed, loud and long. As a low rumble sounded beyond the horizon the old man knew his friends on the far side of the dried up river were too distant to understand what he was shouting, but he would tell them about it all when they gathered around the table for supper. They would slap each other on the back and say well done, and the ladies at the table in the corner would be impressed. They would enjoy their spicy goulash.
His two friends waved across the river then turned and walked into the woods. The old man climbed up on the railing then paused there before he would make his way down to the river below. He waved his cane in the air and laughed as the rain now pelted his face. He shouted out loud because he wanted to hear himself say, “I am going to do this and the river can’t stop me here! If it washes me away I’ll laugh and ride it all the way to the sea!”
And with the start of the rain the river returned in an exploding torrent. Its sweeping waters raged over the falls flooding the empty channel below that had marked its course for ages. Determined to race to the sea the dark brown waters moved boulders from places they had rested forever. The valley shuddered. Those few souls who had witnessed the river’s return described the might of the roaring flow as awesome, but secretly the merciless rush of water erasing all in its path would haunt their nightmares till the end of days. The waters did not calm till it reach the sea.
Three days had passed. Just before the funeral began the undertaker stepped up to close the old man’s casket. His two neighbours watched as the wrinkled face of their old friend was hidden forever. “At least he looks happy,” the first friend said.
“Yes,” the second friend agreed, “But really? I thought he had more sense then that!”
The first friend nodded, “I know. Standing up on the platform’s railing like he was, waving that metal cane of his in the air. What was he thinking? It really is a shame.”
“Yes, yes it was. Of all the ways to go out of this life.”
“So true. After all, no one ever expects to actually be hit by lightening.”
-Brad Locke- 11.22.10
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