The river, where its surface can be seen, is a muddy brown. It is indifferent to what it carries, unburdened equally by flowers, or corpses, or shit. Some girls wade in up to their waists, calling out names when a face is recognized. It’s routine now, just another chore, like grinding millet or weeding the garden.
It looks like the rebels visited the village a few kilometers away, walking in at dawn, just as families were stirring. They might not have heard about it for days, but the river doesn’t wait to bring them the news. They spend their lives learning this lesson—of the remorseless strength of the river’s pull; of the slow, unrelenting current carrying everything down to the sea.
Forgetfulness is easy to come by. The bush creeps in to erase the burned traces of homes; the red bus that used to stop there will soon drive by without slowing down. A bride stands on the shore, pretty in her western-style dress, gripping her flowers tightly. To her it feels like any other small catastrophe—a drunken argument between relatives, an inopportune rain shower—impossible to predict, nobody’s fault. The minister does not falter as, behind the wedding party, the flotilla of death drifts by.
Pain comes in drips; grief is paid in installments. On the bank of the river, the boys stop fishing out of fear of snagging a corpse, snapping a line, losing a hook. They jostle and push each other, roughhousing until the water is clear again. They have even stopped rejoicing that it wasn’t them, that they have another day next to the stoic river, that once again they have been left alone to die in their own time.
Old men sit drinking bitter coffee, trading gossip. The shop girl brings them napkins and a few bits of news. It’s all the same, intrigue and betrayal told in cheap bits, each new detail burying the last. Colonel Tsiba declared himself a prince and was murdered by his officers. The AFC split from the ARC; the FNL joined the PLF. Nobody knows how it will turn out, except that it always turns out the same way. They used to mark the spots with small wooden crosses, but that ambition has long left them. These days, communion is served with a nine-millimeter round, and everyone dies for someone else’s sins.
Fear swells the heart; it begins to feel like love. Where there is no tenderness, brute force will do. The wedding ends with another minor disaster. The bride’s veil has blown away, skipping mischievously down to the river. The minister, ever gallant, volunteers to retrieve it. The wedding party watches with trepidation, afraid that he might slip in the mud and ruin his best suit. Like a heron, he picks his way toward the veil, stepping carefully over the dead.
“The Pull of the River” first appeared in Vestal Review. Issue #38.
JOHN HAGGERTY’s work has appeared in dozens of magazines such as Carolina Quarterly, Indiana Review, Fourteen Hills, and Michigan Quarterly Review. Most recently, he has won the 2020 CRAFT Elements Contest and the 2020 NO CONTEST competition. He’s the founding editor of the Forge Literary Magazine.