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    photo of rapids in a river overlayed with an Early Christian drawing of a fish

    Ichthys

    A Story

    Elizabeth Genovise

    June 24, 2021
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    Three days from now, fished out of a coma to gasp and writhe on the shores of his own consciousness, he will insist that he remembers the river. They’ll assume he means the muddy waters that eddied around the train after it careened from the irons. And they’ll assume he had only the most fleeting glimpse of those waters, if he had any glimpse at all, for they found him unconscious in the wreckage, and there were no more than ten seconds between the train’s barreling around the bend and the buckling of the bridge whose bones now lay heaped among the rocks like the leavings of some leviathan’s feast.

    It’s true that he glimpsed the flat brown waters up ahead, as well as the spindly legs of the old bridge. He even thought to himself, perhaps this is where we’ll go down. For a tarot card reader told him that if he rode this particular train, there would be catastrophe, and his cousin called him to say for God’s sake stay where you are for once, this feels all wrong to me, and in the morning his mirror fell off its peg and shattered partway into his coffee. Bad omens for some, but not for him; they were tidings, as sumptuous and inviting as holly wreaths and tall red candles had been for him as a child. “One-way to where, sir?” the ticketmaster asked him twice, for he had no answer. He didn’t care what city lay at the other end of the line. He wanted only to ride until he died. He had been riding this way for years now, but lacked the courage to put a pistol in his mouth or take a razor to his veins. If the tarot reader turned out to be wrong and the train failed to derail, he’d let himself fall off the platform somewhere along the route. Countless others had done it – people too dispirited to wield the weapons themselves, preferring the culpability of iron and wheels.

    He bought his ticket and boarded bagless, dropping into the first seat he saw. Others jostled for thinking spaces, the window seats and the upper-deck benches, and he watched this with wan amusement, for he had no desire to review his life. Why pick at the remains? Better to recall it hazily as if it were some drunken misadventure than to suffer a revenant’s senseless haunting. He’d learned long ago that for him renewal was no mere matter of atoning for past sins. The real question was how to move forward engineless. He could dredge up no workable fuel, and no one could say that he hadn’t tried. For when the standard coal and oil of career, marriage, even his parents’ rhythmic religion had failed to burn for him, he spent years shoveling all manner of surrogates into the tank, working himself into a frenzy.

    He laughed under his breath now to think of the ludicrous hopefulness of those proxy fuels, which ranged from a passionately earnest affair with a young woman after his divorce to an epic alcoholic binge that landed him in a drab motel in a strange town to an eight-week stint with a humanitarian group building houses for the poor. Then there was the attempt with the watercolors … and the lamplit dip into the books he’d kept from school, philosophers whose names were as weighty and cobwebbed over as the tomes themselves … and then a few months of political fervor with all its attendant protests and petitions and maniacal scapegoating … and then the purchase of all that hiking gear, a month’s pay squandered on the risible notion that he could summit the mountain of his own bewilderment to find the answers all mapped out at his feet. After this charade, a different job and then another. A different city and then another. Meditation, gardening, the bottle again. And round and round it went.

    The train was fast approaching the bridge, an ugly bridge spanning ugly water. Not that he expected anything more. He reflected dully on the fact that there was no longer beauty even in his dreams. Everything was lusterless. There was a time when this would have grieved him. Now, he felt only tired and vague, though he had enough disgust left in him to mutter, “No, I’m not even going to bother with you.”

    The identity of this you was a mystery both to him and to the few curious passengers who overheard his mumbling, but it didn’t matter: they had reached the bridge. At the halfway point, the world groaned and gave way, and the train capitulated to its fate.

    photo of rapids in a river overlayed with an Early Christian drawing of a fish

    Photograph by Joris Visser, line drawing public domain

    The final explosions of iron on rock fade out like distant fireworks, and he finds he has left the ruined train behind to traverse a worn path south. To his right, the deep swift river has a silvery sheen, and he is drawn to it as he once was drawn to a watery glass paperweight on his grandfather’s desk – an orb he believed could reveal one’s soul if one gazed determinedly enough. As a boy he’d always been on the watch for such things. “Palantír,” he says, recalling another. It was a globe of dark opal in a story he’d loved – a seeing-stone, crafted by noble men who wished never to sleep. How he once dreamed of holding such a jewel in his hands, before it became something to fear! Now he envies the willow branches that comb the river’s depths and the shafts of light that pierce their way to the sparkling sediment below. On the opposite shore stand three giant oaks, their silken arms clasping one another in a primordial dance, and while he intuits that he is not meant to cross here, he aches to wade into their shadows’ embrace.

    There are others hiking the trail or else pacing the riverbank. They are of all ages and manner of dress. Some are engaged with arts long forgotten, fishing with handmade poles or building small fires with crude tools. Others stand in groups, speaking softly beneath birch trees whose profiles in the spectral light remind him of tall spears of greyish tapering ash, an image from a tale he cannot recall reading. Other words drift on the wind: “the salmon,” “up ahead,” “impossible crossing,” and they hum with tension and doubt, but he walks on, his gaze still fixed on the river where he half expects a vision of the past or future to wink back at him like a signal mirror.

    As he walks on, he hears more talk of the perilous crossing ahead. His understanding is that everyone yearns to make this crossing, because beyond it is a landscape beautiful beyond imagining, but the bridge is unsound, and many have been maimed or killed in the attempt. Each time he hears the word bridge, it stirs something in his heart: a memory of the Bifrost, a rainbow conduit between two ancient worlds. It shimmers through him like a tremulous breath. In which story did he learn of it, and when?

    The trail is long, but his legs do not tire. He passes many strange scenes. A young man fits an eye into the basin of his father’s face, and the old man rises and points jubilantly at the river as though seeing it for the first time. A wild-haired man drops from a tree into the path of a warrior, and they stand there poised for combat until the warrior calls the wild man his star-friend and they clasp hands and start the trail together at a great long-legged lope. A white horse rests in a cloud of mist rising from the rapids and it regards him with large dark eyes until he averts his gaze. Upstream, a child kneels on the riverbank shaping clay dolls, and he is so focused and impassioned that at one point he bends down to kiss one of his figurines on the mouth. Beneath a cypress canopy, a woman draped in grey-blue fits an amulet over the neck of a beleaguered knight. It is all unknown to him and yet as familiar as his own hands.

    Beneath the slowly falling sun he passes through clusters of silverbell and poplar. The soil is darker here, richer, and the air smells of sap and mountain water. Ahead is the murmur of a waterfall, and he finds that he is now in a deep ravine. He pauses in a clearing cathedraled by massive pines. There is a battered fire ring at its center, and heavy logs rolled in for seating, and a palimpsest of old tents and shelters pressed into the soil all around him. White trillium tremble like moths at the clearing’s edge, lighting the way forward, but he stays where he is for a moment, sensing that many have paused here the way a man might pause and breathe just before the plunge into deep water – or flames.

    But night looms and he must press on through the gorge. He hikes toward the din of the falls until he reaches the crossing, where the river is deafening and the cliffs sheer and threatening. A splintered bridge, hanging helplessly amidst the raging falls, stands between him and the shining slope of the trail that resumes its course on the opposite shore. Through the shrouded light he can just make out stone steps spiraling toward a plateau whose treasures are hidden from him. He returns his gaze to the ruined bridge. A gust of wind parts the mist over the rapids to reveal white bones scattered among the rocks – and slicks of fresh blood here and there like maple leaves stuck to stone. He cannot see a way across. He cannot see how such a bridge ever could serve. He turns to glance behind him; there is no one. Where have they all gone?

    He hovers there a long while, gauging. The rocks are viciously sharp. Downriver, there would be nothing to halt a fallen man’s course down the ravine, save one gnarled old pine growing inexplicably from an island of smooth round stones. Surely he will be broken apart should he attempt to cross. Nothing save a miraculous feat of acrobatics could ferry him to the stone steps on the opposite side. And yet he is transfixed, unable to tear his gaze from the plateau, unable to think of anything save what might await him there.

    He will never know precisely how it happened, or what contortions of the body such a leap required. But quite suddenly, he finds himself on the opposite shore, sweating and panting and incredulous. He turns back. The bridge is still dangling partway in the water; the rapids are still screaming; the rocks are still frothing with mist and blood. Anyone who attempts to follow him will perish. But he is across, and he is unharmed. He takes a breath and regains his balance. For a fleeting moment he is overcome with a sickening sense of having cheated somehow, but above him is the glimmering plateau, irresistible. He races up the stone steps two at a time in a kind of ecstasy at his triumph.

    Up and up he goes. Eventually the path levels and the world behind him diminishes. He is in a late-fall landscape now. Colossal oaks drop coppery leaves. Diamond-bright brooks form latticework beneath the trees and flood the hollows alongside the trail. The streams’ voices braid together in lush polyphony, a music that arrests him in his forward motion and summons an image of white boats sailing toward a far green country. He reaches down to caress the carpets of emerald galax that soften the streambanks. The wind has a sound of silver violins. Everywhere are towering stone statues whose eyes meet his with such piercing sagacity that he must look quickly away to compose himself before he can glance back. Saxifrage shivers from the crevices like whispers; ageless inclusions scar the stones like words. He reaches out to touch the foot of one of these figures as he had touched the galax, then draws back his hand.

    The trail is clear and bright, even in the twilight; the flooded stream water scintillates in the ditches alongside it, and he can see the waving banner of it for miles and miles into the future. He quickens his pace in excitement. But then a sound below him distracts him. He stops and peers down to find a lone salmon twisting and writhing on the ground, asphyxiating. He recalls that all along the trail, he’d heard people speak of the salmon – but how could it have gotten up this high, and this far from the river?

    In great consternation he crouches beside the struggling fish and pleads with it to be gone. He wants only to remain in this haven, and is it his fault that this creature should have gotten itself into such a state? The salmon is large and muscled and it manages to flip itself on its side. Its mouth puckers and widens, puckers and widens; its dirt-caked gills heave in the chilled air. Its eye searches desperately until it locks on him.

    “Oh – ” He rises, turns in a circle, kicks at the dirt. In frustration he crams his hands into his pockets, and in the right pocket discovers something softly coiled. He draws out the loop of string and stares at it. He’d forgotten he had it.

    It is an absurd idea, he tells himself. Preposterous. But he drops back into a crouch and with shaking fingers binds the string loosely around the salmon’s middle. Carefully he lowers the fish into the shallow ditch on the right-hand side of the trail, sashaying the creature back and forth to let the water in.

    “I’ll lead you back,” he hears himself say. “All right? We’ll go back to the gorge.” Fear judders through him, but he stands up with the end of the string in hand and begins to guide the salmon along the rivulet of rainwater back toward the ravine. Through the livewire of the string he can feel every tiny jump and quiver of the fish, and these reverberations shake his blood, fill him with a longing he cannot name. There is a word buried deep in his memory and each time the string vibrates he comes close to tasting it again.

    The journey back through the autumn wood is impossibly long. It is as though he covered thousands of miles in mere minutes during that first rapturous stretch of the trail across the plateau. Night falls in earnest. In the velvety darkness he can see little beyond the pearlescent glow of the salmon itself, who has become a kind of lamp beneath the water. The stone statues are broad shadows now, the trees ghostly forms. Several times he stumbles off the trail, but the salmon’s resolute course veers him back, for he is no longer leading the fish; rather, the fish is leading him, pulling him along with incomprehensible power. His hand and arm throb with it. He can hardly walk fast enough and then he is running, gasping for air, flailing to hold on in the dark.

    Hours pass on this black road with only the salmon’s lamplight to guide him before he detects the first flicker of dawn ahead and the white smoke of the falls. He tries to slow his pace but the salmon presses on. It takes all his will to hold on to the string. He itches to abandon the creature and turn back, but he must not let go until the salmon is safe to jump. The fish cannot be allowed to die. He feels this as an edict of Time itself. The fish cannot be allowed to die.

    He finds the gorge awash in first light, its mist indigo and rose. With the salmon he hurries down the damp stone steps toward the ruined bridge. And then, to his relief, the salmon leaps from its tether and into the savage waters below, disappearing near the lonely pine.

    The fish is safe and now he wants only to return to the plateau. But his body has gone rigid, and he is fixated on the pine. He finds that he cannot turn around or scale the steps again, and after a moment, realizes that he does not want to. The pine seems to beckon to him as the three dancing oaks had at his hike’s beginning. Against the force of his own history he lowers one foot into the frigid, fast-moving water. “Just a little,” he murmurs to himself. A beat passes. The words echo in the gorge like a birdcall – just a little, just a little – and suddenly they enrage him. Why only a little? He thinks of all those he met along the riverbank: the child with the clay dolls and the warrior with his friend and the woman who lowered the amulet onto her soldier’s neck. He recalls the large dark gaze of the white horse. And then he is in the water, completely submerged.

    The current rakes at his body, bruising him, overturning him, threatening to fling him downriver and shatter his bones. He is in a maelstrom now and there is nothing he can do on his own to escape it. Beneath the water a wooden cup slides past him, and a tattered net, and a pair of dice. The shadows of three trees convulse above him before the current obscures them. He exhales in submission. But then the river pitches him hard against the old pine, which is so brittle that it breaks and falls sideways with a tremendous boom.

    Time stops, then resumes. He is left on the island of smooth round stones, staring in disbelief at what he has done. For the gnarled pine has fallen to form a seamless bridge across the chasm. It lies there firmly wedged between one shore and the other, its trunk just wide enough for a solitary man’s passage.

    He picks up one of the stones beneath him and holds it to his face. He is weeping and does not know why. The last thing he sees is the salmon’s back fin flickering goodbye.

    A nurse reports to the astonished doctor that he is awake and trying to speak. He has found his word, and is saying it again and again for fear of forgetting it. “Is this, what?” the doctor asks gently, mishearing him. “Is this what, sir?” But the man does not need to answer or explain. He waits patiently to walk again, and in the meantime he holds his word close, like a smooth round stone.

    Contributed By Elizabeth Genovise Elizabeth Genovise

    Elizabeth Genovise is an O. Henry Prize recipient and the author of several short story collections.

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