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Our town was baptized in the flood that year and the swehttp://gp1.wac.edgecastcdn.net/802892/http_public_production/artists/images/8714084/original/crop:x0y0w1000h750/hash:1706027686/5bb257fb0114551da50e98d3_1_.jpg?1706027686lling of the river unearthed relics from long before men settled in these parts. That same year I buried my wife and infant son, both lost in birth. Months after they were gone, our train of ragged coaches met the elbow of that great river, and upon our manifest of provisions and mouths, we would continue no further and abide where we stood. Two dozen families in wheeled shelters began to fish and hunt and gather wood for burning and wood for building. The men were strong and fleet and they fashioned homesteads and fencing and a great church for the preacher to tout fable and promise. He carried his book with him and went about our nascent village to bless homes and new mothers alike. His robes and hat threadbare and humble but black and foreboding as a doctor of the plague.

Coming to me one evening, he spoke of the beyond and the blissful eternity in which I was to one day join my love. He spoke quickly and firmly and I nodded and thought of her in a gown of white with our son in her arms and they were both searching waters just miles away as if awaiting a vessel. I offered this vision to the preacher and he nodded and thought deeply.

“She waits for you there,” he said finally, “alongside her kin and beside her God in the kingdom. All you need do is remember her and you’ll see her again in the after once your toil is done, and you will know pain nevermore.”

I nodded but without agreement, such was my hurt. The god that would take from me these blessings was not one I had the desire to know, and I turned a teary gaze to the preacher and quietly said, “bless you, father.” And he said “bless you, my son.” And I didn’t feel blessed.

In the first months, I brought deer from the forest, bleeding the carcasses and carving and salting the meat. I had but a horse called Beau and a rifle and smithing tools with which I would mend spokes and firearms but such things were less needed in the village. The coaches had now turned shelters and animals were now kept to be fed and milked and butchered. I would hang pelts of slain animals from my saddle and I stunk of blood and shit. The women would avert their eyes and hold their children as I passed in or out of the village. After a time, I spoke very little but held the dead close as if they would speak to me. In the evenings I would roll tobacco and smoke next to the fire and stare wearily at the steeple atop the church and talk to her. I wouldn’t hear her voice, but the chirp and howl of beasts beyond the village, and it was answer aplenty. God was not there with me.

The rain came on a clear day and brought with it a profound darkness. The steads were strong that they could hold up to formidable winds and bitter cold but the floodwaters took many of them. It drowned three of our cows and lifted corn and potato plants out of the earth and took them downstream. None were hurt but all had lost something in one fashion or another. The following day, our preacher offered praise to his god that we were spared this calamity and that we would continue to build in his name and reclaim what was taken. I refashioned a lean-to from the detritus of another home and remained near the treeline far from the village. I was spared no calamity and no god would give back what was taken from me.

I found a book near the water’s edge some days later. Black leather with ornately gilded lettering on the spine. Not of the preacher, but perhaps of a traveler from before we settled. I looked northward to the family of deer I had been tracking and considered leaving the book where it lie. I closed my eyes and listened for her and felt the wind rise and smelled rosewater on it. I opened my eyes and the deer had passed out of sight. I looked back to the south and breathed deeply and then lowered my rifle, hat and myself to the earth and lifted the book.

The pages within felt damp but pulled apart easily. I sat and read the beginning, which spoke to the beginning of all things and the creation of man. “Behold, it was very good,” I whispered to myself as I read. A grin formed across my face and I looked about to ensure I was alone and that no fun was being had at my expense. In turning the page, I saw there was no more. Several hundred empty pages remained, but turning them in succession, a few held handwritten passages. 

And wander ye who know not your path, for it lies before you coursing and winding and true.

My brow furrowed and I peered north, seeing the family of deer ahead once more, the tawny flicker of a doe tail and a young calf. I returned to the page and read the passage again, anxiously thumbing the edge of the leather cover. I turned to the next passage some pages later.

Be not afraid of what lies behind, but find within your darkness the strength forward. 

The wind lifted my hat from the ground and I placed it atop my head and stood. I breathed deeply and placed the book in my satchel and lifted my rifle again. Cold had taken me suddenly, as if a malevolent force were pursuing me to the treeline. I strode away from the waters and continued my trail of the deer family. A noticeable heft now affecting my gait.

Evening fell and I returned fruitless and tired to my lean-to outside of the village. I lit a fire and stared at the book. Firelight glinted upon the lettering of the spine and in the eyes of Beau staring into mine. “She would have me read it,” I spoke aloud to him and held the book in my hands for several breaths before opening it again. The story of genesis was the same, and the creation was the same, and behold was the same. But I couldn’t reckon the passages after were as I read them before.

For your path is behind, coursing and writhing, and darkness will carry you forward.

I quickly turned to the next passage, a more harried and difficult scrawl.

Ye must surrender to fathoms unknown, for in the deep lies your solace.

I felt the soft but quickened thud of my heart as I read this passage again and again and feared turning to the next. Beau continued to stare, undisturbed by the flies and mosquitos about its eyes and hind quarters. The fire crackled and spit and I turned ahead to the following page.

Thine heart, wrought of sorrow and fear, darkens in the light.

Rings of shadow formed in my periphery and my breath abated. I continued to the next passage.

Ye only need answer and ye may join the one true path.

Beau then began to jump and pull at his reigns, lifting the support of my lean-to and dropping the canopy upon the fire, snuffing it out in a searing cloud of gray. I rose to soothe the beast and looked about to see all that could be retrieved. The book lie closed atop my singed blanket and there I left it to find another place to rest for the night.

It passed in feverous dream. The river was full of copulating snakes, all of them writhing as one great living creature. The moon glistened over their scales and they rose and fell as if something were reaching from beneath to escape. There was wailing all about and black shapes darted in and out of the trees and I stood on the bank and watched the river swell and swell until the snakes licked at my naked toes.

I awoke the next morning and returned to the site of my lean-to, blackened and wet with dew. The book lie open but to no passage. Then I saw the watersnake lying beneath the canopy. I held still and the snake glided slowly back toward the river, it’s scales wet and brilliant in the morning sun. I gathered my satchel, rifle and then the book and set out with Beau northward between the water and forest.

The river bent west and in the haze I could see great hills rising and hear headwaters crashing upon stones. I had seen no animals to this point, but tracks led north into the mist and I followed and spoke to her and smelled the air for her scent. I heard a voice behind me then and spun quickly around on the saddle to see only a veil of mist obscuring the green behind me. It spoke again and it was her voice.

Would you surrender your heart?

My eyes swelled suddenly with tears and I spoke yes, yes I would surrender it that I might have her back. There was no answer. Beau flicked its ears and snorted and then all was silent. The mist rose and the sun fell brightly on the river. Light danced along the ripples and the water turned so clear as to see the bottom. I stared into it for many moments before a figure rose from the water’s edge.

Wiping away my tears, I saw her rising in a white gown, our son lie in her arms fast asleep. She did not smile but extended her other arm to me. Her eyes were clouded and unblinking and, though her mouth did not move, she spoke to me again.

Would you come with me? 

I leapt from the horse and fell to my knees in the damp soil. Sputtering and sobbing I said yes, that I would come. An invisible weight stayed my legs and I fell to my stomach and began to crawl along through the reeds to the edge of the water. I wanted so greatly this embrace, but as I reached closer my body ached and my arms fell tired and useless.

Come down with me.

“I am coming, my love,” I pleaded to her and my voice fell hoarse and I began to choke. I laid coughing and pitiful and blind through my tears. She was dying again before my eyes, escaping and leaving me to be wretched and alone. I threw my hand out to her in hopes she might pull me into the depths with her, that I might drown and end these toils. The clouded visage of my wife was unmoving but still beckoned. The ache within me turned to agony and my body convulsed and writhed there upon the earth and all went black.

I awoke to Beau nuzzling my face, seeking breath in the lifeless being on the riverbank. I started suddenly, recognizing I had lost countless moments in darkness. Regaining strength in my arms I foisted myself up to see no figure standing before me. Hurriedly casting my gaze all about, I spoke.

“I am here, my love.”

No answer followed. I spoke it many times and waited each time for response. Fresh tears brimmed in my eyes and I sat and watched the sun pass below the trees, stroking the muzzle of my horse and thinking of her in the waters below.

I thought then of the preacher and the words he gave us upon our marriage. That we were to surrender to one another and forgive and cherish all that each of us were and would ever be. That death would never separate us and that we would both share a world our own in the kingdom of Heaven. That should we be parted in death, it is only His plan and His path the other must take.

I sniffed and closed my eyes and listened to the wind and the water and the birdsong and the faint groan of branches and the whisper of dancing leaves. And though she did not speak, she was with me.

Beau grunted again, a sound deep and full of frustration. I rose and saw the satchel holding the black book, the lettering now dull in the gray of the mist. I pulled it from within and read about the beginnings of everything and leafed past the final passage. I reached back into the satchel and pulled a thin stick of charcoal and wrote within the book.

Heed not the temptation to surrender, for those lost would have you remember a love shared. For in this memoriam, a life lives eternal.

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