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Existential Hydrology

A short story by Matthew J. Richter

The man rises stiffly from the breakfast table and shuffles to the sink, he looks out of the window and across the street at his neighbors who lie there in neatly aligned rows. The fog that had loitered through the night has been evicted by the morning sun, revealing men in the distance at the edge of the trees hoisting a canopy. There will be a show today, a B-lister he thinks based on the small number of folded chairs stacked on the ground.

Still holding his breakfast bowl, he realizes he has lingered too long; the oats he missed have already become one with it. He releases a warm stream from the tap and picks at them with his thumbnail; the water trickles over the thin and spotted skin on the back of his hand as he gently lays the bowl in the sink.

Exiting the front door, he stumbles through his gait unassisted as he crosses the quiet street and under the arched iron entrance way. A narrow gravel road climbs gradually before him through the center of a vast expanse of manicured green lawn. Carefully planted trees intersect with other roads at equal distances as the elevation becomes more severe. Granite and marble of every size and shape surround him on both sides, engraved with days and months from countless years, family names and titles, quotes and psalms. Many are adorned with trinkets that shine and twinkle like stars each night, solar angels spread their wings over deer that emerge like ghosts from the trees to feed on the fragrant sympathies.

The man’s pace slows; his shoulders shrug with each breath as he begins to ascend the steepest part of the hill; they come quickly and are not complete; his mouth hangs open trying to gather what it can; his heart is offended by the expectations he has burdened it with. He practices this dying every day, but he has not yet mastered it. Suspecting the absurdity of pharmaceuticals he ingests daily are keeping him from his full potential, he feels it may be time to reconsider them if he wishes to meet his goal. Stopping now, he lifts his eyes to the top of the hill; he sees his wife; she has gone before him. He has been trying to catch up to her for quite some time.

Returning home, his hands shake as he pushes open the front door, he crosses the dark living room and collapses into his chair. Exhausted in every way, he knows that this daily ritual of despair must end. He decides that tomorrow he will seek counsel from an old neglected friend. There will be no acknowledgement of his presence and no words will be spoken, but he knows he will be offered resolution, either through wisdom or mercy.

The morning greets him with a cold wind, the trailing marauders of winter’s last days cruelly conspire with the grey veil that obscures the sun, sowing doubt upon those who felt the hope of new life and renewal that mingled in the warmth of recent days. His long winter fell upon him some time ago, bitter cold loneliness left him numb and diminished like the warmth of the sun’s light slowly surrendering to darkness, unable to nurture the seeds of recovery buried in the frozen ground of sorrow.

It is a short drive to the vacant lot that was long ago occupied by the small brick station, once a hub of small-town life, it exists now only in old photographs. He parks in the back corner leaving the keys in the ignition, taking a deep breath he slowly exits his car. Finding the narrow entrance in the bramble of bushes, he climbs the remnants of the old bed, plastic grocery bags impaled on thorns buzz in the wind as he steps onto the abandoned right of way.

The ballast is impossible for tired knees, so he keeps between the ribbons of rust, sidestepping small trees that grow between the measured spaces. The creosote is long evaporated, baked by the sun and no longer able to assault anyone’s sense of smell. He stops as he reaches the old structure adorned with rusting rivets that attach the crisscross of sloping iron beams fastened to hand hewn rock piers. He has arrived.

Envious of the trestle for long ago being relieved of its responsibility for bearing heavy burdens, he wonders as he steps out onto to the edge of the first span if it will be able to support the weight of overwhelming sadness that he pulls along with him, like the cars of the trains it once obliged. Beneath him the water climbs over itself, melted accumulations have robbed the river’s banks of their civility. Winter is losing interest, but neither the warmth of a false spring nor comforting words can remove the stinging pain of the cold reality that remains, it has merely changed form and gathered into a torrent. Like the snow, he has lost his cohesiveness, serenity seems impossible now and he fears that this turmoil cannot be tamed.

It feels appropriate for him to be here. The river has been his companion for all his years. As with his life, it has seen highs and lows, tranquility and rage, always reflecting the warmth of the sun or the darkness of a storm cloud. Below the surface the intricacies of life, sometimes obscured by the murkiness of uncertainty and doubt, or shining in the luminant clarity of confidence and satisfaction, carry on.

He has always been drawn to this place, early memories of skipping stones with his father, a campfire on its shores with his childhood friends, days spent observing and dreaming or contemplating decisions of great consequence, and a walk with his first, and only love, to this very spot. But he is old enough to understand the treachery of nostalgia and he won’t be lured by its promise of a warm embrace, one he knows will become a constricting grip on his heart, leaving him breathless with an agonizing longing for something he can never recapture, and someone he will never see again. This river has flowed through countless lives with no concern for any of them, and it has none for the man who stands precariously above it now.

In an instant, he feels every moment and memory that he has ever experienced here, delivering to him a sense of purpose that has been missing for far too long. His liberation is at hand. He wonders as he clears the rail if the river will carry away his grief with the debris and fallen branches, diluted and absorbed to flow into a bay of sadness. Or will it simply bury his bones in the mud and muck? His eyes look west towards the horizon, his courage falters as he struggles to take the step and follow the light that is fading behind it into darkness. He hesitates, then looks down past his feet that are still firmly planted on the edge of the old ties, and he remembers: the river always moves forward.


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