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a collection of short stories
THE RIVER SONG
The sun had just come up and Santiago was drinking strong black coffee and smoking kick-ass Gauloise roll ups. Six years had passed since Santiago had been with The Corsican and Neil in Paris, and twenty years since he had first met her. Her name was Martina. She had been raised in Corsica by her grandfather, an illiterate shepherd.
When Martina disappeared in ’96 with Neil, Santiago stayed in Paris waiting for money he had hustled from old connections. While in Paris he met a whore he called Dark Eyes on Rue St. Denis. She helped him forget about being made a fool by Martina and betrayed by Neil. He departed for Scotland with the Dark Eyes in mid January and stayed until the end of a tourist visa in March. Santiago returned alone to America.
In America, Santiago went deep down into alcohol until he could not drink anymore, so he returned to the university trying to get Martina out of his soul. In the summers he returned to Corsica looking for Martina, but none of his old friends ever knew where she was. During his last semester at the University of Arizona, Oscar wrote he had seen Martina and she looked older. After a summer graduation, Santiago returned in the fall to the island.
Murder or suicide. It didn’t really matter either way. If he killed himself it would be ahead of the terminal disease that was supposed to have killed him 6 years before. If he murdered Martina, he would be no doubt be dead long before he spent any time in a jail. He played with the possibilities but everything seemed absurd -- but most of all, love. The thought kept running in his head, I am going crazy with these fucking voices…dogs, rivers, everything talks to me…
Daily on the farm, Santiago wore a red sleeveless T shirt emblazoned with Che Guevara’s famous portrait, baggy olive drab shorts and cheap rainbow colored rubber flip-flops. He smoked the strong French tobacco roll-up while sitting at a green metal table under the shade of an avocado tree. The sun cut through the Mediterranean summer haze that had only been up an hour but it was already hot on his shoulders.
Santiago reached under his T shirt and pulled out the revolver he had tucked into his shorts. He was not ready yet. He looked at the 38 caliber pistol his father had given him when he was a boy. He put it back down on the table. He was not afraid to die, but it was the angry sadness at the edge of his thoughts that stopped him from putting the gun in his mouth. Maybe he was killing the wrong person.
How ironic it was the way things had worked out. The Corsican had pegged him right from the very beginning. He remembered what she said. You have an assassin’s face. He should have killed her in Paris. What the hell did it matter? Everybody was going to die anyway and as it looked; his own natural death sentence was just around the corner.
The number six kept circling his life. Six Vietnamese villagers dying for nothing. His pistol was a six-shooter. The doctors said six months or at most a year, and now it had been six years. That had been without the complication Lady Luck had just dealt. The only luck he ever had was dodging bullets and now he was even dodging his own. Luck with women and love never had been good cards. Six of them -- I’m a damned weird six-card stud, he thought. Six years since he had touched Martina’s body. Six years since his death sentence.
Santiago thought about the cards that war and love had dealt. He could forget the six he murdered in the war. They would have probably been dead from poverty by now anyway. He didn’t give the command. He just followed orders. He was young and stupid. But six others he could not forget. He got older and the faces of love’s betrayal would not disappear.
One. His first love was Teen Baby. She was his steady all through High School, they were going to get married, have kids. She ran off with a Marine before he even had a chance to stick his dick in her.
Two. The Stripper showed him how to fuck in two dozen different kinky ways, but she had trouble leaving old men alone who had lots of money and could buy her mouth a suck at a time.
Three. After Vietnam, he met a beautiful hippy girl in the mountains of Colorado who he called The Gypsy. She was the best woman he would ever find, but the problem was he was still too pissed off from the first two love wounds, and it was the time of Free Love. There was just too much good pussy around for him to ignore. The Gypsy left with the endearing shout, “You are nothing but a son-of-a-bitch!”
Four. He went to Europe and there met a woman that followed him no matter how unfaithful and uncaring he was. It seemed to work. The more he did not love her the closer she stuck to him. He finally married her because she would not go away. She became the Wife and they had a daughter. After 20 years she could not take another day of his depression or disloyalty. “Get out of my life,” she screamed. He put his tail between his legs and slinked away. He knew that she had been his winning hand worth holding onto but she had been bluffed out half way through the game by The Corsican.
Five. The Corsican like the Beatle’s song came in through the bathroom window, that is she had been the lover he had first met in Germany in 1982, then magically reappeared as the lover of a mutual Corsican friend of him and his wife in 1986. The couple had come to dinner to their house several times and on one drunken evening he and the Corsican disappeared for ten days. Santiago returned to the Wife and she forgave him for the last time. Santiago could not leave the Corsican alone and found and lost her more than once. The last time she had simply jumped from his bed to the bed of his best friend, Neil.
Six. Then entered Dark Eyes who was the wild card. She gave him shelter but also gave him the secondary death sentence of AIDS. Dark Eyes who had appeared at the loneliest moment of his life had disappeared back into the mean streets of Paris. For all he knew she was already dead from the gift she had passed on to him.
But of them all, it was The Corsican who was the hand he wished he still could hold. And that was another irony, because the Corsican is the one that looked the most like the Gypsy, the one he threw away. God I am fucking crazy, Santiago thought, this ain’t no card game, it’s a fuck’n comedy…who ever heard of six-card poker.
The frogs in the pond were making their morning song of Whee-Whee and Rhug-Ghup. On a shoulder beyond the trees was the low drone of Oscar’s big red Russian farm tractor. Birds slipped in sharp notes chipping away at the silent spaces. There was the large cup of coffee, strong, thick and black as Africa in front of him. Its aroma mixed into the acrid smell of the manure Oscar was spreading over the newly plowed field.
He took a pencil out of the rusty tin can that also served as an ashtray and scribbled his thoughts into a cheap notebook he had brought from the guest house. He was thinking of what to do next. It was a ritual in the morning that he had done since he was a young soldier in Vietnam -- sitting and pondering the maze of existence, one day at a time. No matter what event surrounded his life; each day’s content was loneliness – a faithful companion during comfort and torture.
He stubbed out the roll-up and thought about making another one but decided against it. The pistol lay that near his hand reflected a dull sun off the barrel. The second cup of coffee was growing cold, so he slurped down another measure of black sludge then threw the remainder into the fallen dead leaves of the avocado tree. The coffee was doing its trick. He could feel the caffeine beginning to agitate his sleepy body. His nervous system was bump started again. I'll kill this bastard yet, he thought, but he knew he never would.
Dogs were barking up on the side of the mountain and their echoes were bouncing down the Gravone Valley. Cars shushed by on the village road. The sun was growing hot.
Santiago had been on the farm for two weeks. It was a place he often returned to trying to escape the catastrophe of his life, but more than any other reason it was because Corsica was the only place where the melodrama of life seemed just fine.
He had no idea really how much time he had left. The doctors said he should have been dead by now, but his condition was no worse. Physically, he felt as good as he ever did. It was his mind that was crumbling. He had to do something vital with what was left of his life and he had to be in a place that had meaning.
He had returned to the farm because his friend Oscar had written that The Corsican and Neil were back on the island. Santiago felt like the elephant that walks itself to the graveyard.
He had known Oscar since his early days in Corsica when he lived with his wife Leila and daughter Tara. After Leila had kicked him out of her life, Oscar’s farm had become his private paradise. It was only there, loneliness became sympathetic with the earth around him. Reality was just beyond the perimeter of the farm.
The river was the natural guardian at the backside of the farm that kept intruders from arriving by the rear door. The river was an Angel spirit who chaperoned his exile.
The voice of the River Angel spoke to him. “It is all right Santiago, everything is okay”
He would often sit in the course granite sand of the river banks leaning against one of the rounded boulders letting his eyes take his mind up through the gold and emerald leaves of the oak forests that covered the shoulders of the river.
The table under the avocado trade was only 100 steps away from his River Angel. Santiago would move from one sacred spot to the other avoiding the minor distractions of the farm, like Oscar starting a two-cycle water pump engine that sounded like Chinese firecrackers. The sanctuary under the avocado tree would be shot full of holes so he would have to move to his River Angel and let her voice wash away the noise. It was paradise with shifting parameters.
“It is all right Santiago everything is okay,” River Angel said.
“Thank you sweetheart I knew you would be here,” he said.
Santiago became accustomed to this short intimate greeting with the river. It never occurred to him that these words were anything more than his own crazed condition until on this day when Oscar started the noisy machine earlier than normal. Santiago gulped the dregs of his second cup of coffee, picked up his notebook and tobacco bag and walked to the sandbanks of the river.
It had rained heavily the night before so he had to find a place where the sun dried the sand. A shaft of light cutting through the tree limbs indicated a perfect golden circle. It was only a few feet away from the rapids where the voice of River Angel spoke most often. Santiago set down, rolled a cigarette, lit it and leaned into a granite rock armchair that was snuggled into the shore. He looked up through the frayed holes of leaves and saw that most of the sky was a hazy summer blue with only a few shredded clouds hanging on after the storm.
In the distant sky came the rumble of a motored aircraft, something big like a World War II bomber. Santiago thought about that sound and how it had thrilled him as a child when he lived only a few miles from the Army Air Corps training field. The sound triggered a mechanical reaction in him like Pavlov's dog and bell. When he heard the throb of the bombers he would stop what every was doing, then go to his mother‘s old upright piano, gently raise the keyboard cover and place both his hands flat-palmed down on the base notes. If he stretched his short legs he could depress the string damper pedal. Then he would push down as many keys as his small hands could cover and create his own earthly rumble that would lace up into the air and join and the sound in the sky. At that moment he would have the clear sensation that he was flying and he would see beautiful billowing white clouds all around him. When the bomber passed and the sound in the sky stopped, it would disconnect him from the experience. Suddenly he would just be sitting at the piano that was making a bell like ringing. He would look up at the portrait of a dead brother that had been shot down in the Pacific, and he felt as though they were connected. The sensation would remain within him and only leave when his mother asked, Santiago what are you doing? Nothing, he would say, then get up from the piano and go outside and play.
The sound of the plane on this day faded and Santiago watched the clear water of the river roll past him. Sometimes he sat at the river for hours, as if it was his job, his place to be until the cool shade indicated the sun was down and his duty was over.
On this particular day River Angel said something new.
“Santiago it is okay - but you are not all right, are you?”
“What?” Santiago was completely surprised. He turned around to see if someone had come down the path to the river behind him. There was nobody.
“Did you hear me Santiago?” River Angel spoke softly but with a slight urgency.
Santiago looked at the rapids and only saw the usual black and silver world passing over the rocks.
“Santiago what is wrong this morning?” River Angel asked in a concerned voice.
Santiago waited a moment before he began to speak going along with a joke he thought his mind was playing on him.
“Uh, yeah, there is something wrong - you’re right.”
“What is that Santiago?”
“I...I guess…I’m really lonely...no, not lonely. No. I want a woman. I want the woman who has never stayed...I want the love I lost...I want what’s gone...”
“A woman. When do you want her Santiago?”
“What do you mean when do I want her? I want her now, God damn it!” Santiago said angrily.
Santiago nearly jumped out of his skin when he felt at hand on his shoulder and a delicate voice said, “Bon jour, ça va?”
Santiago scrambled to his feet and saw the most beautiful woman he had seen in years, that is, the kind of beauty that especially appealed to him. She had dark walnut hair, skin almost mulatto, large brown cat-like eyes, a long graceful nose slightly upturned, full sensual lips, a gorgeous neck that flowed into squared boyish shoulders. She had on a low cut pale yellow blouse that revealed firm breasts -- just short enough to show a sliver of muscled belly. She wore faded Levi’s that fit her like a rodeo queen. The top button was undone and the belt was rolled over making her waistline very feminine and very sexy. On her feet were small but very macho looking brown hiking boots.
Shocked to be discovered talking to himself and embarrassed to be found in his private crazy space, Santiago stumbled over his words.
“Uh, yeah, ...uh, I… oui, oui, ça va, ça va...”
“It’s okay Santiago, you can speak English,” the young woman said to him.
Santiago looked at her, wary that perhaps his mind was really slipping and he was beginning to hallucinate. “How do you know me...I’m sorry, I mean, do I know you?” Santiago said.
The young woman smiled at him for just a bit longer than a moment teasing him with her eyes that seem to invite anything. “Your friend the farmer, Oscar, said you were down here, and I have wanted to meet you for such a long, long time.”
“Oscar? Oh yes! Oscar...of course...” Santiago was so stunned by this sudden appearance of the young woman that Oscar might as well have been on another planet. “Oh yes, I didn’t think he knew I was down here...”
“Yes I know. He said you may not want to be disturbed, but I couldn’t wait to see you.” She smiled almost like a little girl, but she looked in her mid 20s.
“I guess you know me, but I’m sorry I can’t seem to place...have we met to before? Forgive me what is your name?”
She laughed a delicious laugh. The sound of her voice was almost like a song that was in harmony with the rapids of the river. “You don’t remember then do you?”
“No...I’m sorry, I don’t know how I could forget you - but I don’t seem to remember you, uh...”
“I am Angel,” she said. “You knew my sister when I was little -- but I have never forgotten you.”
Santiago felt like he had been punched in the brain. “Angel…your name it is Angel?” His legs seemed to quake and he could feel the spasm of nervous muscles collapse underneath him. He set down quickly on the nearest boulder.
The young woman laughed again, taking delight in her taunt. She smiled and looked toward the river before she said, “What do you call it? Oh yes, my nickname. My real name is Angelica. I think it means almost the same - a little angel, yes?” She played her eyes over Santiago’s bewildered face.
“Sounds right to me,” Santiago said. “Who’s your sister? I’m really sorry -- I still can’t place you...”
The young woman just smiled at him, then reached the small space between them and put her index finger on Santiago’s open mouth. She let it slowly drop, tracing down his chin to his neck. She opened her hand and let it slide naturally until she held it over his heart. “Hello,” Angel said. She looked at him in a way that said only one thing.
Santiago put his hand on Angel’s hand as she slowly kneeled down and set beside him. She put her other hand around his neck and gently pulled his face to hers until their eyes were only inches away. He looked into her eyes so brown and golden all at once and he could hear the voice in the river whisper yes, yes, yes. Without a word he let his lips come to hers as each fell into the others arms like a slow motion dance they had rehearsed for years.
Angel’s lips were full, electric and soft as her tongue lightly brushed at the edge of Santiago’s mouth until their tongues spiraled together. Santiago felt as though he was floating off into a vast dark celestial room that was filled with thousands of candles flickering light across objects of gold encrusted with glittering jewels. He was gone.
The bank of the river was suddenly the softest of satin sheets but the sheets were not cloth, but like clouds that had no form, no firmness, yet held their bodies as they sifted into each other, their separate entities becoming one living breathing being. He was her, she was him. There was nothing left of a person that had been sitting talking to himself only minutes before. She was the river. He was the bank of the shore. They rolled together. He was the land and she was the liquid current pulling them both to the mother ocean.
It was not love-making; it was the creation of the earth and everything living and moving on it. There was no time. It was Infinity. The waters were pulled by the stars and balanced by the counter pull of gravity deep down in the folds of land. They were lost in each other -- there was no other, no self, no being alone -- they were together in one. They were all things mineral, organic, liquid and stone, fire and air. There were no arms, no legs, no cunt and no cock.
There was only the back and forth ebb of time and space, where it was light and only light that created material and sound. The light was music; the rumble that came from their center also came from every point outside of a sphere. They were inside and outside, and all of it was moving with the sound of a celestial chorus -- a symphonic orchestra of musicians that were sparkling planets that hung in the velvet black – and their world turned and rolled and burned and moaned in unending joyful falling - falling and floating in, over and around the inside center, around the sphere, in the middle of being, and being nothing and nowhere at the same moment.
There was no self, no other being. There was no world, no river, no breathing. It was a freedom beyond dreaming, beyond fantasy or thinking. There was only the sense of a sway -- a dance going without hesitation changing direction -- the movement was as easy as the water slipping around the boulders in the river bed.
It was the ring and the roar -- the rolling of water and air. Their love-making was the mixing and billowing of cumulous clouds raising miles high, sunbeam’s breaking and penetrating long shafts of gold through a purple horizon. No time and all of time, as though it was the first moment a creature pulled itself from the primordial waters and by miracle of evolution , a wedge of light like a slice of pie, revealed the shores of the long white beach glittering with a diamond facet reflection from the eye of God -- the sun shining down inventing the shoreline of a brand-new world, to be explored, to be colonized, to bury the eggs of one’s own re-creation along those sands, deep down in the solar heat granules -- eggs in the earth at the edge of an infinite ocean -- an ocean that was a sea of sperm that washed those eggs with the water of life inventing the birth of the new day -- back and forth -- flowing over and around.
They moved together into the roaring music that rose like flames, flicking dream sparks that became points of light in the infinite darkness at the edge of the minds horizon. They rolled and moaned and came into each other and coming together, coming as one.
There was a sound. It was the river, or was it just the rumble that came from the world slowly turning. The sound was music but not from any instrument of man. It was a long note that became longer, then rattling; raking at a deep sleep, like a buzzer that shakes one out of a dream.
It was a blue colored bird, high up on the top branch of tree that suddenly sprouted into a world that a moment before, or was it a century, or a millennium before that had no shape, no form. The blue bird screeched again in the tree and then it was answered by the voice of another bird from an opposite point.
There were now two poles of distance in the mind of being, and light came floating over all that separation of distance - was it feet, miles or light seconds between those two points. Then another sound came.
First it was a soft low moan so completely released -- a sigh of ecstasy -- the sound of letting go -- the moan of a soul as it relaxes into death. The sounds disappeared, then returned and began to build into a low throb and then like rippling liquid whispers of water kissing stones.
The river was singing and rolling past the banks through the deep forest. The blue bird called its mate across the river, then dropped down from the top branch and skimmed across the rapids and landed on a rock at the shore.
Santiago was startled by the bird. It was only an arms length away from him. The bird suddenly looked up as though it was equally surprised. It made a loud shrill call, then beat it‘s wings into the air and disappeared down the tunnel of the canopied river.
Santiago’s eye quivered in a rapid blinking as though salt had been blown into them. He shook his head and immediately looked to the right and to the left of his shoulders as he put his hand out to touch the beautiful body that only a moment before had been in his arms. There was nobody, no one.
Panic seized Santiago’s mind and at the same instant a blinding flash of light, like lightning that illuminates the blackest of nights for a millisecond, he saw the organic liquid chaos of the river framed by a tangle of botanical banks and what appeared to be several hundred people clearly nude but intertwined together as the warp and waft over forest.
He closed his eyes involuntarily and screamed a terrified sound that a man would make if he fell a thousand feet. He swirled inside the horrid sound of his own voice waiting to hit the reality of the earth that was at the bottom of his fall. The scream began to form a word in his mind. NOOOOOOO...
A sorrow more painful than anything he had ever known came into the center of his being. He could feel the wetness of tears flowing out of his eyes and stream down his cheeks. NO! NO! N
Santiago cried, and then was choked into sobbing and grief. It was like the Vietnam medic-evacuation, when his body was in pieces. Grief that was both terrible and joyful. A point of consciousness, or was it a mechanical release of pressure as though a logjam on river suddenly gave into the reservoir of weight it held back. The river burst tearing and shredding the driftwood away and crashed down the corridor of its natural channel.
Santiago felt arms around him. They were warm, comforting, kind and gentle. He felt his back being rubbed the way his buddy Neil had massaged him when he carried his broken body to the chopper as the mortar rounds came down hard and close. Joy of life came over his fear that just a split second before had been terrifying. He could hear a voice almost as if it were music.
“It’s okay Santiago. Everything is all right,” Neil said.
He opened his eyes and saw that he was sitting underneath the avocado tree -- at a green table with his notepad and a very cold cup of coffee, as black as Africa.