Light in the River by William VanDenBerg
A river passes between two mesas. In the east, bare mountains rise, cones of granite and shale. In the west, dry scrubland extends to the horizon. Twin columns of smoke plume from the mesas’ slopes. Hours pass. Night falls. A blue, piercing light cuts the sky. Brief silence, then a deep boom travels down the valley. A flock of birds rises into the air.
Morning at the river. George, a thin, gray haired man, sits among the reeds on the north bank. He drinks from a blue plastic cup, the white design on it nearly worn away. Blaring sunlight flits across the river.
Ian, a young man, emerges from the trees at the opposite bank. The water is slow and quiet, about fifteen feet wide. Ian and George share the same features: thin noses, heavy eyebrows, brown eyes. Ian glances at George but says nothing. George yells, Did you hear it?
Ian holds a metal bucket in his right hand. He nods then responds, Yes, I heard.
Large one if it was.
They quiet. Ian kneels by the river. He fills his bucket then turns to leave.
George asks, Want to see?
Upriver. Ruins of a small town on the northern bank, buildings long collapsed. Crumbled asphalt, tall grass pushing through.
Gravel shifts beneath their feet. George, breathing hard, asks, How long has it been?
How long since someone’s been by?
Ian replies, Last year. The five headed to Denver.
I don’t remember.
They heard there were living there. Ones without sickness. You told them not to go.
George doesn’t respond, keeps his eyes on the trail.
You called them idiots, Ian says.
Wasn’t there a man by himself?
Hard to remember.
Ian doesn’t respond. They keep walking.
A metal shard bobs downriver. Silver, five feet long, a foot wide. Gleaming in the water. It winds around a bend and out of sight.
Later that day. Sky deep blue, clouds pink with fading sun. The river narrows. Mountaintops peer over the high canyon walls. Cold water spatters into the air. Every few minutes, a metal fragment shoots by.
Dad, we need to make camp, Ian says.
A little more.
It’s getting dark.
Not much further.
They continue. Light exits the sky. Ian trips on rocks, curses. We need to stop, he says, but George keeps walking.
George asks, Did you dream last night?
No, look, this is—
I dreamed that I sunk my head in a lake high up in the mountains. The water was like glass. I could breathe under it. I opened my eyes, and the light—
They come around a bend in the canyon. They see a blue light in the river. Six feet wide and trembling. Water crashes into it. Water hisses as it hits the light. Steam jets into the air.
The light flares. George and Ian collapse.
Hours later. Still dark. George wakes at the base of a nearby mountain. Ian is nowhere to be seen. A high moon shines. His skin is itching, burnt. He views the valley below. The blue light glows in the canyon. A deep crater lies above the northern lip of it.
George watches the light. It crawls out of the canyon then toward the crater. It leaves charred earth in its wake. The blue gleam reflects on metal shards that line the crater’s floor.
George coughs and coughs. He coughs up a smooth black stone. Then another. Both a few inches across, uniform. He continues. By dawn, he has coughed up a slick pile of them. He gathers the stones in his arms. He climbs.
Ian wakes curled up where he fell. The spattering river has soaked his clothes. He unfurls and stands. His body aches. The sun hangs high in the sky. The light in the river is gone.
He scurries up a collapsed section of canyon wall. Above, he sees the wide crater. Arcs of metal radiate from the center like waves.
The blue light rests ahead of him. Ian stumbles toward it as if called. The light wavers as it speaks. It speaks without a mouth. It asks, What if your father was wrong? The light’s voice is liquid and wavering. Ian rubs his eyes. He has no answer.
An arm emerges from the brightness. He recognizes it. He shifts closer. He strains to see the hand against the violent gleam. Short nails, bit cuticles, a scar on the middle knuckle. He has not seen the hand in years. When he reaches out and touches its wrist, his vision cuts out. All feeling in his body vanishes.
Then he sees stars pass. A bright multitude. Breathing ray. Absorb. Collect. Time passes, the shift of violet suns. Grasp. Gentle arc. Atmosphere. Fire and impact. Use them. Their body a tool for appraisal. Form crude map.
Ian sees the stars pass again. They flicker out. He forgets.
Night falls; a solid layer of low clouds smothers the moon. George continues to climb. He clutches the stones close. His knees ache as he rises above the treeline. The rough terrain shreds his feet. He halts. He sees the soft edge where the clouds cover the mountain. No sound but wind. He nods then selects one of the stones. He presses it to his shoulder. The stone grasps his skin. He does this over and over. The stones decorate his wrists, arms, shins, hips, chest, stomach, forehead. He runs his hand across them. He continues climbing.
Ian dreams of a one room building in the desert. A cell tower rises from the roof. In the dream, he’s a boy. Three pairs of footprints lead into the building. The middle pair is scattered, dragging. Ian looks in from the doorway. A body wrapped in blankets lies on the floor. George, younger but not young, kneels by the form. He whispers something Ian can’t hear. A hand emerges from the blankets. Short nails, bit cuticles, a scar on the middle knuckle. The hand turns over, shows a wet, red blister on their palm.
George kisses the form’s forehead. He stands and heads for the door. He grabs Ian’s arm, pulls him out. Ian struggles and yells. The sound of the river bursts from his mouth. He thrashes. George pulls hard, drags Ian through the coarse sand. The river’s sound roars from the child, louder and louder, a torrent rushing out. Ian’s knees buckle. Dead weight. George can no longer drag him. Ian curls up.
George speaks. Blue light falls from his mouth. It has the texture of fog. The light covers Ian. He lets it filter into the river’s voice.
The sun dims. They speak the desert wet.
George climbs among the low clouds. He sees nothing but black fog. He longs for clear sky.
Over time, the full moon’s pale light pushes through. A few stars, more the higher he gets. He rises above the cloud layer. The stars glare and flicker. Bright multitude. He searches the sky. When he finds a suitable star, he wails. The cry descends into the valley. He chokes. He coughs out one final stone—small, porous, and irregular—then silences. When it hits the ground, the other stones release. They clatter down. George collapses among them.
The blue light in the crater flares. Ian is nowhere nearby. The sun rises, reds the morning sky. The blue light bellows. It melts the silver shards into mirrored pools. Then a shriek. Metal flows to the light as if swimming upstream. The blue glare wraps itself in silver, calls it back. Violent beams escape from between the gleaming streaks. Quicker now. Metal arcs through the air.
When it’s finished, a chrome sphere encases the light. No more left. The high and low tones merge, crescendo. The sphere rises.
Back at the mesa. Days later, late morning. George stumbles back into his camp. His skin is burnt but healing. His feet are caked with blood. In front of his tent, a note is held in place by a rock. It reads:
The light showed me nothing new. It was at most a reminder: You brought me here to keep me alive, but alive and living are very different things.
I have left. I will try to cross the mountains. My odds are poor, but if I stay here I will die all the same.
I hope you saw something in it. I hope the light showed you something new. I hope it gave you a vision.
George crumples the paper. He looks to the mountain in the west then turns away. He stumbles to the river. He washes his feet in the cold water.
William VanDenBerg is the author of Lake of Earth (Caketrain Press, 2013) and Apostle Islands (Solar Luxuriance, 2013). Recent stories have or will soon appear in Passages North, Okey Panky, and No Tokens. He lives with his wife in Providence, Rhode Island.