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Black River Rafting
By Richard Strachan
Saturday, November 09, 2002
Throughout my childhood I was convinced my brother wanted to kill me: I can recall two or three occasions when a tint in his eye suggested he had sinister designs.
I often wonder why I wasn't more apprehensive of him. Perhaps it was because I was three years older, with the unassailable confidence those extra years can bestow upon the elder sibling. I never took his veiled threats seriously. He didn't really talk much anyway. He just had this disturbing way of looking at you when you had displeased him.
A river flowed close to where we grew up. My brother and I would often walk across the fields to reach it. We would sit on its banks with a bent pin each and a length of string, and a stick culled from a nearby tree. We thought that with these primitive tools we would be able to catch fish, which we could bring home to earn the praise of our parents. We never caught anything. We called it the Black River, because the water was always strongly discoloured, dark and odorous with the peat that lined the riverbed. It was impossible to look into that murky, fast-flowing water and not visualise something evil lurking in its depths. When we fished, I think both of us partly hoped to catch more than we bargained for. My brother never speculated on this though, so I can only assume in his case. He would always just sit silent on the bank, inscrutable as ever, in some kind of quiet communion with the water. He had a strange way of smiling. It always made me feel that he knew far more than he was letting on.
Our family lived deep in the countryside, far from any town or city. We had to walk five miles to get to school in the morning. Our parents had moved there because they thought they wanted the quiet life. Eventually the solitude moved them in the wrong directions; they grew further apart and they argued frequently. With nothing now in the way of distraction they were forced to confront the fact that they did not like each other, and had little in common. Theirs were never the type of argument that involves broken glass or brutal invective, but they were no less distressing for that. When they fell out with each other, a brooding silence would descend on the house. Mealtimes would be intolerable; words I couldn't force myself to speak would choke me.
Often my brother and I would be asked to leave. We'd solemnly take our jackets down from their pegs by the back door, and wander about the forests and the fields all afternoon pretending to be soldiers on patrol. In many ways my memories of this time are quite idyllic, despite all the arguing and the strained atmosphere of home. I liked living in the country. I liked the open spaces, the quietness, and the sense of hidden mystery in the landscape. I liked the feel of the sun on my neck and the smell of cut hay in the late summer, and the sound of the season's birds singing their songs to one another. I'll always remember my childhood with fondness.
The moment I first began to suspect that my brother wanted me dead occurred deep in the summer. It followed our usual dispelling from the house after our parents had flared up against each other. It had come as no surprise to us that day. Small signs we had become adept at reading had given us prior warning; a slight inflection in my father's voice as he commented on the afternoon news; my mother using a degree more force than was necessary as she washed the dishes, cracking plates together on the draining board.
The day was warm, so we didn't take our jackets. We slipped from the house by the back door and walked along a dirt path bordering a wide field of grass, beyond which was a sprawling forest of dark pine and oak. Idly we wandered amongst the trees picking up broken sticks from the forest floor that we would pretend were guns or rifles. We carried them slung in our arms while we picked our way through the tangled undergrowth.
All was silent.
We stopped at a clearing in the forest where a crooked obelisk pointed at the sky. Its surface was furred with dry moss, and whatever writing it had carried was by now worn and unreadable. A small spiked fence, knee-high and rusted red and orange encircled the obelisk. My brother and I cleared a small patch of bare earth on the forest floor next to it, and then spent a few minutes searching around the obelisk for stones. Once we had found them we built a small circle which we filled with twigs and sticks and dry leaves. We both took a box of matches from our pocket and buried flame deep into the little pile of dead wood, until a small fire began to lick out from the earth. We sat on either side of the flames from each other. Dappled sunlight dropped from the overhanging branches into the clearing, but it was still dark enough under the trees so that the fire cast a flickering glow around us. The moss on the obelisk now began to look metallic. The flames lit a strange light in my brother's eyes. Neither of us spoke, and the only sound I could hear was the crackling of the wood and the leaves as they burnt. Finally my brother spoke.
"What do you think it is this time then?" he asked. He prodded at the flames with a blackened stick. Sparks leapt from our circle of fire.
"Between mum and dad you mean?"
"I don't know," I said. He smiled, still not looking me in the eye.
He didn't say anything else. A long silence descended. My brother had made a habit of this. He would make these cryptic assertions and allusions, and then challenge you with this prolonged silence to ask further questions. I could never resist for long.
"What is it then?"
"They're not arguing. They just want us to leave the house."
This seemed to throw him slightly. He frowned, and stared deeper into the fire. "I don't know exactly," he said. "I stayed behind once, and I could hear them upstairs. It was like they were fighting each other, but laughing at the same time."
I began to understand what he meant. My mind reeled back from the thought instantly, and I felt the benefit of my three extra years when I saw my brother's look of confusion. The thought of my parents having sex made me feel sick and obscurely angry. I stabbed at the fire with the length of wood I was using for a rifle, and broke the stone circle. Burning leaves scattered onto the forest floor.
"Let's stay out for a while longer," I said. "I don't want to go back yet."
"Okay." He looked at me through narrowed eyes. "Where shall we go now?"
"I don't know."
We both began to gather up handfuls of earth, which we poured onto the fire. Gasps of smoke escaped from the burning, and soon the fire was out. My face prickled with the heat.
My brother stood up and shouldered his rifle. He gazed far between the trees into the distance, in the direction away from our house. "Let's stay out until it gets dark," he said.
"We could go over to the old farm?"
"And then down to the river?" I said.
As we tramped further through the forest it became less dense and oppressive. In between dips and curves of the earth the space between the trees grew, and the light of the afternoon became more vivid as it pattered like rain through the leaves above us. We gave up our game of pretending to be soldiers, and turned our rifles instead to swords. We were now adventurers, questing across a dark and forbidding land in search of buried treasure and ancient magic. These woods were alive with evil things, and yellow eyes stared at us as we passed. Finally, we broached the edge of the forest and stared from the top of a slight hill down at the spread of farmland; golden fields glistened in the light, and about half a mile in the distance we could see the old farmhouse and its circle of abandoned barns. Beyond the farm was the Black River, another half-mile across another couple of fields. I began to feel thirsty and tired. We sat down just inside the treeline as a brief flurry of summer rain danced across the fields, caught in the sunlight. The rain sparkled like a swatch of crystals thrown into the air by an unseen hand. Almost as soon as the rain stopped, a vast rainbow bloomed across the blue sky. I could easily imagine gold being buried at the point from where it grew.
For a while I sat hypnotised by the colours in the sky. I turned to say something about them to my brother, and saw him standing above me with his stick raised high above his head, ready to bring it cleaving down on mine. His teeth were bared, his eyes gleaming black.
"Have at you, foul rogue," he said. Faster than I can remember doing, I brought my own stick up horizontally to block his move. The force of it drove me down onto my back and the bones in my arms shuddered right up to my shoulders. I rolled away quickly and brought my sword up to the ready. I blocked another swing as he sprang towards me, and parried two more attacks.
"Feel my keen blade, villain," he said. Normally when we fought like this, really descending into our games, we would always aim our stick firmly at the other's stick. It was sword fighting in the most literal sense. Now though he was genuinely trying to hit me, making calculated thrusts at my body and my head. The ferocity of his attack was forcing me down the hill, away from the forest, into the open. Soon he had pushed me up against the barbed wire of the fence that bordered the field. I could feel it spiking into my back, could feel the wire swaying with my weight. As I finally grew tired of defensive moves, and prepared to launch my own counter-attack, he cracked his stick against the knuckles of my right hand. I dropped my own sword automatically and brought my burning fingers up to my mouth.
"Jesus!" I said, my voice muffled with pain. My throat thickened with approaching tears, which I refused to let fall. "What was that for?"
He angled the point of his stick against my throat. I knew then that he had not been playing, and that if I had not turned at the moment when he was preparing to strike me, then I would now be dead. All was silent, until I swallowed noisily.
"You bow to my superior swordsmanship then?" he said, laughing. He lowered his weapon and handed me mine from where it had fallen in the grass. He began making a series of moves against the air in front of him, thrusting and parrying, chopping and striking at unseen enemies.
"That was excellent," he said. "That's the best sword fight we've ever had. Sorry about your hand though, are you alright?"
Still grinning he turned to me, and I nodded. Perhaps I had been wrong, and perhaps he would not have struck me while I wasn't looking. I couldn't be sure.
We walked along the edge of the field until we came to the track that led up to the old farm. Fire had disposed of the farmhouse many years before, and it was now a blackened shell. The upper windows gazed out across the landscape, cavernous, like the eyes of a skull. For a moment we forgot about being either soldiers or adventurers, and explored the abandoned barns. Shafts of sunlight broke through the missing rafters of the roof to pool the ground with great irregular patches of gold. A few scattered strands of hay littered the floor. The air in the barn was warm, sweet and slightly moist. I imagined I could smell the breath of all the animals that had ever lived here, as they huddled together for warmth in the depths of winter, or were led out to the fields at the heights of spring and summer.
Inside one of the other barns we found what remained of one of the farm's tractors. Its wheels where gone, and much of the engine was missing too. Buried deep inside the engine casing I could see a small ragged bird's nest, in which two tiny speckled eggs were softly resting. I didn't say anything to my brother about the nest, because I wasn't sure if he would want to take the eggs or not. I wanted to leave them undisturbed. It wouldn't have been right to touch them. He was distracted in any case by a length of rope he had found coiled in the corner of the barn, which he was prodding at with the point of his stick.
"I thought it was a snake at first," he said, by way of an explanation. "Watching me, all ready to strike me dead." He reached down and picked the rope up, and wound it carefully in a tight loop from his clenched fist down to his elbow. Then he unfastened his belt and slipped the loop along it, so that it hung down slack against his thigh. I had by now moved away from the tractor engine, not wanting to encourage him any closer to the bird's nest with its clutch of eggs. With nothing to base this on, with no prior memory of any similar act of such deliberate cruelty, I knew that if he saw those unhatched eggs he would crush them dead without a second thought.
From the barn we walked over to the farmhouse. The fire of long ago had devoured the roof, leaving the rest of the sorry structure open to the rain. We picked our way through the charred roof beams that now crossed the floor. Above us I could see the blue sky, stained in places by soft scudding clouds.
"I wonder if anyone died here," I said, "when it burned down." Something about the devastated house made me lower my voice. It didn't seem that different from where we lived now. You could still make out the partitions where each room had been.
My brother shrugged. He was standing in the middle of the floor, and by his feet was one of the doors to the other rooms. It was charred in places, and there was a fist-sized section missing from where the doorknob had been, but otherwise it was untouched. I had no idea what it was doing there, or how it had escaped the worst of the fire. My brother lifted it tentatively by the edge, crouching down to peer into the darkness beneath as if he expected something unseen to suddenly leap out at him. Still crouching he turned to look at me.
"I've had an idea," he said blankly, as if he was announcing that the sky was, indeed, blue. "We could use this . . . "
"Take it down to the Black River maybe?"
Ever since we had finished our sword fight at the bottom of the hill from the forest, I had managed to keep a slight distance between us when we were together. My grip on the stick I was carrying was still firm also, my muscles ever so slightly tense, as if at any moment I expected him to launch the sequel to our combat. When he stood up from where he had been crouching by the fallen door, I took a quick step backwards and swapped my stick to the other hand. He didn't seem to notice though, and in his eyes I could see his idea shifting its shape and taking form.
"Look at it," he said, pointing to the fallen door. "We could use it to cross the river."
"Like a bridge? It's too small, it would never work. Don't be stupid."
"Not like a bridge, like a . . . a boat. We could make a raft out of it and travel further down the river maybe."
Despite my reservations, I couldn't help a quickening surge of excitement at the thought of this. The same feeling I had when we walked in the forest, of the possibility of adventure and the discovery of hidden mysteries deep in the countryside came to me now. My brother's enthusiasm became infectious, and I helped him to pull the door from the charred shell of the house.
"How are we going to get it there though?" I asked him. I felt that, because it was his idea, he should bear the responsibility for seeing it was carried out properly. Also, he would get the blame if anything went wrong.
"We'll have to cross the field with it."
"That's . . . miles," I whined. My enthusiasm dampened at the thought of dragging this panel of wood all the way across the tall field of wheat that separated the farmhouse from the Black River. Already the muscles in my arms were shivering from the weight. I thought about my mother and father, at home, and what they would be doing now.
We got about a quarter of the way across, each holding an end of the door at chest height so we wouldn't damage the crops in the field, until we had to stop. My breath was hacking through me in ragged gasps, and my brother's face was stained with blushing blood under the skin. My shirt was sticking to my back, and when I looked up at the blue sky, I could see faint leaping spots of black in front of my eyes. They looked like a flight of birds flapping erratically at some great height above me.
"I can't manage," I said. "We'll have to leave it where it is."
He took the rope from his belt, and I watched him tie a tight knot through the hole where the doorknob had been. Both of us then grasped at the rope and dragged the door slowly across the field, cutting a vast narrow swathe through the crops until we came to the line of trees that shielded the river. We left a trail that could be easily followed, if there had been anyone there to see us. The landscape was silent and empty of other people.
Beyond the trees the air was fresh and cool. Light dappled through the leaves, and sparkled off the swift-flowing dark water. We pulled the door, our raft, up to the bank of the river. The sweat on my forehead cooled, and both of us crumpled to the ground as we caught our ragged breaths. I lay there for what seemed like hours, listening to the rumble of the river-water, the sighing of the tree branches above, as the light pulsed through my closed eyelids, blood-red and yellow. My bones and muscles ached, as if they were contracting slowly into tight knots that would prove impossible to undo. I felt all made of burning sinew. I must have slept for a while, because when I next opened my eyes the angle of the light had changed, and it seemed much darker under the trees than I had at first noticed.
My brother was crouching down by the riverbank, trying to push the door into the water. He had tied the length of rope to one of the trees that dipped their branches into the river, the other end of the rope still being attached to the door. I sat up from where I had been lying on the grass.
"Are you sure it's ready yet?"
"Of course," he said.
"What about . . . you're going to need something under it to help it float though. You can't just push it into the water like that."
"Why not. Look," he said in triumph, as he made the final push that launched the door out onto the river. It was indeed floating, and it didn't look in any danger of being capsized. "Now," he continued, "you can get on, and I'll stay on the bank and watch."
It was at this point that I became convinced he wanted me dead. My other suspicions that day fell into a clear focus; I remembered him standing over me with the stick, ready to strike while I lay there unaware, and the light that had come into his eyes. It was mirrored there now. I could feel a coldness leaking into my stomach as I slowly got to my feet. He was smiling at me in that way he had, as if he held secret knowledge that he would never reveal.
I couldn't say now why I did it, but I walked over to where he was standing and slowly began to lower my foot down onto the door, as it bobbed and swayed in the pull of the river. It was made of a sturdy wood, not too heavy so that it was able to float well, but not so light that it wouldn't take my weight. I think I wanted to prove to myself that I was right, and that he did want to kill me. Or perhaps it was the opposite; perhaps I wanted to prove to myself that I was wrong, and that as my brother he wouldn't ever be able to hurt me, as I in turn could never hurt him with intention. I wasn't sure, but I knew I had to set foot on the raft.
As I did so he scurried over to the tree where the rope was tied and began to loosen the knot.
"I'll let you go," he said. His voice was louder now, and was beginning to shake with the anticipation. "I'll follow you along the bank, and you can throw the rope back to me if you get in trouble."
Nervously I was lowering my other foot off the riverbank and down onto the raft. It wobbled, and water lapped over the sides, but it did not yet sink. Under my feet as I stood there I could feel the immense force of the water desperate to pull me away, churning like an angry voice around me.
"Wait - " I began to say, but my brother had already cast the rope out to me, and I was beginning to move. There were rocks up ahead, I suddenly knew. I could remember them, further down the river, from all the times we had been here before, but only now did their jagged forms come into my mind. I pictured my brother standing on the bank, laughing as I was dashed to pieces on them.
Incredibly the raft had not yet sunk. As it picked up speed, caught in the maniac pull of the water, I crouched down to stop myself falling off. The spray flecked my eyes, and overhanging branches from the trees on the bank whipped at me. I could see my brother running along the bank beside me. I threw him the rope, which he stooped to pick up and then callously cast back into the water. He was grinning, biting the ends of his fingers as if he was half-appalled, but unable to stop watching. With one impossible effort I stood and threw myself from the raft towards the bank. I crashed into the shallow waters, choking and thrashing about until I could pull myself up onto the land. Further up the river I could see the rocks, and the raft split in two ragged halves by the force of the impact, each half rearing up like an animal in pain before it was quickly swallowed by the deep black water. I rolled onto my back and sobbed, coughing up gouts of the muddy river. I wanted a fire, and my mother, and to be home.
My brother walked slowly up the bank to where I lay. Half of me was still in the water, cold and tired. I had been right, I knew it, and yet I could do nothing. There was no strength in me. I could barely make a fist with my hand. My head resting on the grass, the sun beyond the trees, the sounds of birds now coming back to me, the rushing river water . . .
"Don't, please . . . "
He stooped to lay a hand on my forehead. He smiled. He was so strong, his arms encircling me and lifting me from the river.
"It's okay, brother," he said. "Time to get you home."
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|Reviewed by Lillian
|Black River Rafting is a story that is many faceted. It speaks of relationships, adventure, suspense and impending doom. In reading the story I could feel the anguish and dread of the young narrator.|