Grand Island

by John Riley

Chained to the steamboat's smokestack, Emperor watches his only son limp down the deck. The morning's first light is clearing the mist off Grand Island's deepest cove. Vanity had led him to name his son Corporeal, Emperor had realized during the night, but something more than vanity had driven him to create a son from mud and sticks and weeds gathered from the slow river.

Corporeal stumbles to a stop below Emperor's strapped feet, braces himself against the boat's cabin. He had spent the night raising the anchor, stopping to catch his breath with each half turn of the windlass.

The boat rolls softly from port to starboard. “The engines are stoked,” Corporeal says after catching his breath. Thin puffs of dust circle his words. “Yes, the engines are stoked,” he repeats. “So tell me, dear father, are you ready for a voyage?” His face cracks into a lopsided grin. “I can promise it'll be a warm day.”

Delighted by his own wit, Corporeal pushes himself away from the cabin and begins to dance a jig. Two steps into the dance his legs collapse with a mushy crack. Falling forward, he grabs Emperor's sturdy legs, hangs there for few seconds, and lowers himself slowly to the deck. His face smears a trail of dried mud across Emperor's trousers.

“I made your legs from dry cypress limbs,” Emperor says. “I warned you they were fragile.”

“Shoddy workmanship,” Corporeal mutters, “will be the death of us both.” Perched on his folded legs like a heartbroken ballerina, his brown, hairless head hangs down. How desperately he wants to continue, Emperor thinks, even as his body turns to dust. He had never thought a being who breathed but two weeks would cling to life so savagely.

After a moment, Corporeal composes himself and slowly rolls onto his stomach. His neck's dried mud and straw wattle sways as he drags himself toward the steamboat's ornate staircase.

“You've never given me credit for the effort I made,” Emperor calls after him. There is no fear in his voice, only the hint of a plea of a man who wants to be understood. “You were strong enough last night to knock me out. To chain me to this smokestack.”

Without looking back Corporeal mutters, “And I'll still be here to see you smolder.”

Emperor watches the cracked soles of Corporeal's useless feet slip down the staircase. He knows it is the last time he'll see him. The poor boy is wrong, Emperor thinks, I'll smolder alone. Grand Island's looming silhouette fades as morning spreads across the river. The light mocks him. It was the loss of fear that brought him to this end. Without fear he no longer had faith in shadows, only trust in light, and light lured him into being a creator. The giant engines below begin their slow rumble and as the smokestack warms he remembers that during the night, as he struggled to think of what he could have done differently, a loon cried for its mate. It wasn't until the loon fell silent, that he relaxed in his chains.