10th Stave of Edju and the first barrel is almost done.

by RW Spryszak


he is hot to warm in the neck. instant he goes into the fog. oars crack glass and reveal the wet. far he goes, not far enough.

I row for hours. The landmarks on either side of the river obliterated by the steam. Water drips from lifted oars back into the river below and makes the sound of violins. I am happy. There are hard veils of fog all around. To push them aside is some kind of sin. So my head is down. My shoulders work. My arms tire. On and on I row. The happiness fades.

How does a man go forward when his back is to the future? There is an island somewhere far off in the mist. The call of rare birds, unheard for centuries. The creak of the wood. The march of the pods. Broken tines and barrel staves litter the surface of the water now. Perhaps there has been a shipwreck. The island, unseen, biting a passing boat. Lost crew and all, eaten in the foggy dew. Can you smell blood? Does blood have an actual smell? If it is possible, then I can do it. I can do it now. The closer I get to the island, the bigger the odor of blood. I did not pack provisions. I only have a gun used by the Cheka.

This is a moment I need a third hand. One for this oar. One for that oar. One for the gun drawn, or ready between the oars. Or at least near the oars. Near enough to kill whatever creatures are causing the scent of blood to fill the air. To row with one hand on one oar gives the world the usual direction. A man needs two oars when his back is to the future. It's why we do it. What we live for. The way it is and has always been, forevermore amen.

I cannot pray without the face of a saint before me. The words fly away in seven directions without one. They go off with no intent. No purpose. Like water spraying against plastic. The plastic will not relent. The water runs down and the ground sucks it up. One waters for nothing this way, and it is the same with prayer.

But if I did pray I would ask the celestial assembly to guide the boat or at least be the eyes in the back of my head. And please do not let Marta Vansimmerant leave town until I can cross the river. And please let no one open the bag of Alice. And also food please, as I took none. Also do not let my gun get useless with the dampness enclosing me. No, says St. Michael of the Arch, not to worry about the gun. It was meant to kill fascists in any weather. Remember? Besides it's beauty, that is why you bought it. But he is silent about the other things because I have no painted plaster to beseech and cannot focus. He is the god of war. The angel of no mercy, holding a pike to off a head at the whim of the master. Like the ruin of Job. So he is familiar with guns. I need not worry.

But I cannot eat the gun. Nor the bullets. Nor can I eat the residue the firing of the gun will leave in the air and on the ground for the detectives to note and study. I am alone.

There is no island. There never was. There was only weed and wood laying on the dead surface of the water. Perhaps the other side of the river is near.

If I could see everything would be different. I could read. I could watch women. Hide my eyes from the sun and worry I am going blind. How is this justice, I ask. I have rid myself of possessions to be clean. I say nothing, and tell all my grief to the dead saint and her daughter. Was this never enough?

I am taunted from the shores. Again and again. I can hear their voices and I wonder, after all my prayers, how is it I am abandoned? How is it the force and face of God is yet denied me? I am ridiculed by beings I can't see.

Who these creatures are I cannot tell. The music they make gives every sign they are insane. Violins do not speak. Cellos do not negotiate. Clarinets do not declare right and wrong in the wars between tuba and oboe. Yet they all are doing the things they may not do. So they are mad, whoever they are. Yet this music is as haunting as projected swaths of light on gossamer. In the dark. With a cold current of air in a closed space. And an owl. Where this music come from I cannot tell.

Sooner or later the mouth of God will open below my boat and I will be spit down into the foam. Down the rolling tide. Into the open air. Bow first, crazed and screaming. The bravest children will have arms up. The fearful, who know better, will fall unwilling. Oars will go flying away from my hands, and this will make the watchers onshore happy. And then I will never reach the other shore. Marta Vansimmerant will escape. And Alice, poorest Alice, will be gone from me.

I will not see her lump in the sack again, or hear the gas escaping through her drawstring any more. No more the lilting sound I imagine as the gears of her brain work out the mathematics of decay. How will I fill the space by the radiator? What pile of bones and fabric will I nod to in the morning in hopeful greeting? There will be an empty space there. How will I go on at all? My chest fills with heavy sadness. The boat sinks an inch in the water. It is the opposite of when a man dies and they measure the soul leaving him. It is the addition of the grief, a haunting creature, part of the air. I've heard of this before.

So what was the direction my life points to without her? An upward tilt? A slow fade away? An outward shoot? Do they know what they have done to me, stealing her? No. They don't care. They never care. It is a careless world. An unthinking orchestra. Selfish violins, after all.

So I row. And I keep rowing. I must. I row for a hundred years because I found her body on the street. Because of the things they will do to her. Because that's the way the world is now. Mean and cruel. Careless and unthinking. Filled with oboes and misdirected by  a skeleton in a suit coat, waving a baton. When someone dies there are those who grieve. But as one man cries two doors away two are making love. Next to them someone laughs. There are cats. There is rain. The loved one is dead, but there is still sun. It's the cruelty of life itself.

And that the anointed daughter of a canonized saint may do such an evil thing to me seems to tell me something. Perhaps I have wasted all my devotions. All my supplications. All my candle money. No. I cannot believe in the wide white halls of heaven or the dank red caves of hell any more. There is only sleep. Like it was before you were born, so will it be when your eyes close for the last time. What cares remain?

I press on, praying. I cannot not believe. For just when I stop believing it will come true. This is how my luck runs. I will believe and persevere and believe still. Then the moment I quit the clouds will open and the hosts will arrive. And I will be nothing more than a clown with a taffeta collar and big blue shoes, standing in the forsaken rain.