This is a work of fiction.
The canoe drifted toward the house, and I thought it was going to collide with it, but it skimmed past the corner of it and carried me downstream. I had nothing left in the world except the canoe, the clothes I wore, and my daughter’s sketches. If I could ever get free of the river, I could earn food, clothes, and tools, and as long I had the bag strapped to my chest, life was still worth living, even without my wife and daughter by my side.
As the current carried me along, I had the luxury of looking at my surroundings. On either side of the river, there was submerged flatland, and the detritus of daily lives uprooted could be seen floating at times: a wooden toy, boards, and even whole houses that must not have been anchored sufficiently. I also saw people paddling canoes similar to the one I was in. Whenever I did, I watched, and gradually, I copied them, until I achieved some ability to navigate. I had nothing of use with which to barter for food, so I did not approach any other boats.
When night fell, I stopped paddling, and let the canoe drift in the moonlight. I didn’t dare sleep, for fear of inadvertantly ramming another boat.
At first light, I started paddling again. The banks were steep and the river was quite narrow, and I noticed that the scenery was passing by at an increasing rate of speed. Ahead of me, there was a bend in the river, and I couldn’t see what lay beyond, but I could certainly hear it! I became anxious, but there was no way except forward, so I kept paddling.
I rounded the bend and all was chaos. The canoe plunged down a cascade, and somewhere between air and water, I was dumped out of it. After what seemed like an endless fall, I landed in water. I flailed and thrashed, terrified of losing my breath and having my soul trapped there forever. I tried to regain my canoe, but I couldn’t find it in the tumble and tumult of roaring water.
Everything fell calm. My head was above the surface, and I blinked and looked around. The river was broad and there were trees and bushes on the banks. To my right, very close, there was a canoe, and somebody was pulling themself into it. It wasn’t mine, but I hoped that whoever it belonged to would share. I threw myself in that direction, kicked with my legs, and gained the side of the boat. I grabbed hold of it and pulled myself in. I landed beside the owner, and then I saw her face. It was the female Leader of Worship. Soon, I was going to get some answers.
“Let’s get out of the river,” I said. She nodded. I took the paddles and navigated us toward the right bank. When we reached it, the canoe touched down and I stepped onto dry land, and with that, I regained all of my confidence and anger at what had happened. “Come with me, please,” I said. She climbed slowly out of the canoe, and followed me up higher, until we came to a clearing. A short time later, she was tied with vines to a tree. I found a small piece of wood that would serve well as a gag, popped it into her mouth when she opened it to cry out for help, put a leaf over it, and glued it in place with resin from a nearby evergreen. I checked that nothing was covering her nose, started to go look for berries, but then I thought I’d better check the river, in case there were others who had fallen into the cascade and who were now boatless. I couldn’t swim, but I could throw them strong vine ropes and pull them in.
As I neared the river, I saw a canoe with a man in it. It was the male Leader of Worship. Quickly, I ducked behind a tree. Had he seen me? I peered out. He’d reached the bank and was tying his canoe to a tree. He finished and stepped back into it, and I watched as he began to untie something. I took my chance. I sprinted to his canoe, jumped in on top of him, tied him up, and then gagged him. I unfastened his canoe and dragged it until I found a second clearing. I tied the canoe to a tree, and went in search of red berries.
Once I’d eaten, I went to the first clearing, where the female Leader of Worship was bound.
I removed the gag from her mouth and said, “Tell me why you left your children behind.”
“I didn’t,” she said. “Have you seen them?”
“Yes, but I believe they are dead, although I haven’t seen their bodies.” Tears streamed down her cheeks, and it was a while before she spoke again.
“My Partner of Worship asked me to pack clothes and food and he’d help the children and the sitting bird. He’d already put the bicycle cart onto the father bird’s back, so all I had to do was load it. I packed what we needed and called to him that I was ready.” She took a deep breath to replenish her courage. “He came but the children and the sitting bird weren’t with him. He put me in the storage area of the bicycle cart. I heard him lock it and sit down at the front of the bicycle cart, and order the father bird to take off, or he’d take me out and do things to me in front of the father bird’s eyes. The father bird took off. Do you understand what I’m saying?” I nodded. “He made him fly until he had no spirit left. He flew and he flew, and he didn’t stop until he had just enough left to land us safely. As soon as we touched the ground, he collapsed beneath the bicycle cart.”
“Would you like some berries and some water?” I said. She nodded.
After she’d eaten and drunk, she said, “He took the bicycle cart off of him, folded him up, and shoved him into it. He opened the storage space, and made sure I had a good look. ‘The children are dead,’ he said. ‘The sitting bird and her eggs are history.’ ‘Why?’ I asked. He smiled at me, and said, ‘I was bored.’ I didn’t understand, and I still don’t. I asked him to explain, but he hasn’t spoken to me since. May I sit down?” I loosened the vines, helped her to sit, and retied her. “I heard what happened to your daughter.”
The sketches! With shaking hands, I removed the bag from my chest. I opened it, took out the folder, and we both stared in horror at the mangled mass of paper.
“The river,” I whispered. “That soul-stealing river did this.” She nodded. “Who made my daughter draw sketches of your children?”
“I asked her to. My Partner of Worship admired them, but he had no part in commissioning them. I asked what she would like as payment, and she said that being allowed to hold them and to play with them was all she needed.”
“What happened to you when the flood came?”
“The gods told him that the river was going to overflow its banks, so when it started to rise, he put us in separate canoes and tied them together with vines. Everything was fine until we came to the waterfall. Somewhere on the way down, the canoes became separated and I ended up in his and he in mine.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Are you going to let me live?”
“Before I determine that, I must speak with your Partner of Worship.”
“I know not where he is.”
“I do. He’s bound and gagged in his canoe in another clearing. But before I go, take breath! If what you have recounted is true, then the children, the mother bird, and one young bird are alive.”
“How can that be? They were left behind.”
“Yes, but so was I, and I found them. I packed the children and the young bird into the bags that were attached to the wooden seat, strapped the whole thing onto her back, and she flew us until we had to take shelter from that storm in the cleft of the mountain. I was the only one on the ground when she flew away, and I haven’t seen her, the children, or her young since. Now I shall leave you, and go interrogate your Partner of Worship. I’m afraid I must return the gag to your mouth, lest you call out and alert somebody that we are here.”
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