2019 Salisbury Literary Festival Short Story

Tributaries and pools

“Life is one long river,” my father would always say. “You’re born into it, and no matter how you might fight against it, you can never do anything to stop the river from taking you with it.”

He used to say a lot did dad, and he was rarely ever wrong.

The bedroom, always too big since mum had gone a year before, felt confined and small with us all crowded in around him. Diminished, just like the man in the bed, withered with the disease which had all but consumed him.

He coughed, a sad little sound, like the final call at a theatre, only in reverse, to announce that the curtain was falling. He had told us to come. He had told us that the whole family should come. That he had something to say.
And then he spoke, in a voice as clear as water. “The river sweeps you along,” he began, a soft smile gracing his papyrus features, “and for all your swimming against the flow, trust me, it’s all for nowt. The river is just too big and strong. Eventually you learn to accept that and let it take you where it wants. Or fight and have it swallow you in its depths or splinter you against its rocks. The river doesn’t care. The river’s too big and wide to worry about you. But if you care about the river,” his wet eyes flashing as he surveyed each of us, “it’ll lead you to some wonderful places and show you some wonderful things. Just as it has me.”

He closed his lids, a dwindling breath rattling out of him. Someone sobbed, hands clutching to mouths, before he stirred again and went on, as if his own little river of life had only momentarily become snagged, caught briefly in an eddy of still water before being freed to continue its journey.
“The river is everywhere. In this room, within you and about you and beyond those window panes. Everywhere you look, if you’re careful, you’ll see it. Every new friendship is a tributary, every a new adventure a pool within which to dive. How deep you wish to go is for you and the river to decide.

“Eventually, with care and the wits to steer a steady course, you might just reach the ocean. And home. To be swallowed somewhere between the waves, just like everyone before you has and will forever be. All of us are carried along this unerring river’s course towards the place of our unmaking. And eventual remaking. Journey’s end, as this is now mine.”

And he nodded, smiling for a final time as he closed his eyes, as if he had understood something of great importance, right then, at the end.

I turned away, to hide the tears on my cheeks. And realised that it was raining outside, little rivers down the window pane.

He used to say a lot did dad, and he was rarely ever wrong.

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