I speak of things caught in your periphery. In my case it happens often, even more so on long journey’s, maybe because we’re looking for them and our minds are more winsome to change, reaching out at the glimpses within our path. So these hints waft about in my subconscious all in their own time. But as I fetched these small oddities, not immediately understanding why they aroused suspicion or interest, they found their way together in a corner of my mind, garnering a more assured patina of intrigue.
We arrived at a local house, courtesy of the slow talking kiosk attendant, just a little ways off the main road, noted as “main” because it was only one lavished with asphalt. It was an old place, like most in its company, built of large stone bricks. It was guarded by a chicken wire fence held up by thin ageing wooden poles, restraining a well maintained front garden with what seemed like the greenest patch of grass on the street. We later learned it was because of a borehole on the property. Purple and white flowers were in bloom in the midday sun, much to the pleasant distraction of my favourite lady, Ina. After passing by a sun-bleached signboard we strolled down the short pathway to the gaping front door which stood open beyond a generous stone paved veranda which accommodated two small tables for patrons. A middle-aged lady in an old house coat, fanning herself with a pamphlet, emerged from the house and ushered us to one of these tables saying it was way too hot to sit inside. So there we sat, beneath the corrugated iron overhang waiting for a humble meal.
As colourful as the homely concierge-cum-waiter-cum-house owner appeared, offering us a selection of homemade jams and honey at country-town prices, it wasn’t hard to spot the odd something brewing beneath the surface of this rustically genteel woman who proclaimed herself as Merlene. It seemed like a routine she offered to all her guests as if she was building up to something, before she revealed the would-be gem in the concert of her hospitality.
It came after our meal and amidst the serving of our tea. To our mild surprise she’d brought a silver tray with three cups, setting it down with practiced grace. She then pulled a chair from the adjacent table to join us.
She spoke half in a hushed tone, or at least quieter than her usual vocal tenor, and inquired if we were here about “our river”. All three of us exchanged looks. I kindly mentioned that we had noticed that there was indeed a river, but that we’d never heard of it, although I added my vague observations that it was, in its own way, distinctive.
Merlene’s eyes narrowed and for a moment I thought I’d said the wrong thing or that my vague detective work was lost to her. But then she nodded curiously, “Why, because there’s no plants?”
I forged ahead, “What happened? There must be some story there.” Surmising there was some obvious mystery to this, hence Merlene’s simmering demeanour.
“Well, there’s more than one, pending on who you talk to.” She sipped her tea. “Yah, there’s quite a few. But you should try Birdy. His is the house next to the church in the main road, behind the tall trees.” She pointed and waved to the main road. Her hand made back and forth motions which only seemed to illustrate the straightness of the road from which we’d just come. “I believe it was a child that died. That would explain the crying.”
Ina looked to me with concern, for Merlene. I gathered she was beginning to detect that Merlene was, shall we say ‘a special kind of person’. The dry air here perhaps withered away the gears upstairs because a few weren’t meshing.
“Or most probably a dog or some strange animal, because there were no records of missing children. And in these small towns everyone knows everyone, so if someone went missing or died, everyone would know.” She looked at us nodding. Ina pressed me with a look of concern and the need to escape. “It was the fire you see. In the late sixties a truck overturned. Some say it was a sandstorm, but we don’t have many of those. That’s why we only have one bridge over the river, with a small pedestrian walkway that was completed the other day.” As it happened ‘the other day’ turned out to be 1999.
“So you see, the truck went off the bridge and the petrol spilled all over the river bank. This happened in the late sixties or early seventies. They managed to pull the truck out, but what could they do with the oil. Two days later the river bank was on fire.”
Ina reached out and subtlety grabbed my hand beneath the table. “So,” I shifted in my seat, “you mentioned something about crying?” Ina looked at me, squeezing my hand.
“Oh, that was during the fire. People said it caused a strong wind, kicked up a lot of dust. If you stand by Birdy’s house when the wind blows like that, sometimes you can hear like a howling sound, when it bounces off the church. And if you’re lucky, and it’s a windy Sunday, and they play the organ, they say it’s quite a sound. But I don’t know. Some older people say that a child died in the fire, but I think its just a story they tell to scare the kids. Most likely a cat or dog, if someone did actually die. You see in those days there was no proper fire brigade, so they waited long before the fire was put out. But these are just the stories we hear you know.” She got up as if she remembered something with her teacup still half full. As she moved the chair back to the adjacent table she said, “But you guys must go see Birdy. He’ll tell you.”
With the tea done and goodbyes said to Merlene, with a small basket of homemade goods in hand, we found ourselves back in our hot car. I was thinking, playing with the car keys as Ina buckled up. She then glanced around before giving me another look that clearly said “what is this place?”
Driving down the main road in silence, we cruised toward a church, or should I say The church. A quick glance at Ina, and then a questioning look, and I felt my foot ease off the accelerator. Ina did not look enthused.
He’d proudly announced himself as Landel, and I, meeting his enthusiasm, announced my objectives and curiosity, inquiring about “Birdy”. He conceded that that was indeed his nickname, albeit one he was never fond of. He slipped into conversation easily, the way only small town’s folk can do with total strangers, but that however, would be the extent of any dynamism on his part as he seemed to get slower and more contemplative the more he lapsed into the familiar tale of the ‘river of fire’. Most times, as people recall stories, especially painful ones, the story gets shorter and shorter with time, as pivotal moments become words or singular sentences, where once they were veritable cracks in the earth of the lives involved. To some extent this happened here with this man called Birdy standing on his front step. The difference of course, I noted, was that whatever pain there was in the past, was not his, or his alone. It was a part of the town of Moorn. It was a part of their identity. Perhaps he sensed my interest was a little more deliberate than the average sightseer types, and perhaps I was the type of person he’d been looking for, because it seemed like he was ready to share something more, to go a little deeper. After a few perfunctory probing questions about my person, he welcomed me inside his home while regaling me with same story Merlene offered about the church organs and the wind, it seemed to be a real thing, or maybe Landel started the story himself.
I inquired about an old framed black and white photo on the wall. It was Landel’s mother, though he treated the photo with little more than indifference since he never actually knew her. He’d been raised by his grandparents after his mother had died bringing him into the world.
“No, this wasn’t her house, she didn’t live here. She had a house by the river.” He said, in a way suggesting it had been told to him in this same way.
These were rural folk, living a humble existence in a small town. Many had been, knew someone or had a dalliance with farm life. Half the town were farmers. Most had known this remote life for a long time. Thus, when crossing paths with the occasional traveler, they were always ready to lend a word, to natter about the things of life. If they sensed you were of equally humble spirit, their words would doubtlessly flow like a fresh font. In their own way, this was their interaction with the outside world. The surface was as plain as the landscape, but these interactions had a rich inner depth. Deep down below the banter, they recognized that these foreigners were seeking more, to expand their knowledge. They were exploring and on a rudimentary level were discovering different colours of humanity. They know this, and are always ever willing to add their own hues to what was, or is to another life anyway, a greater story, greater than their own.
Somewhere in a quiet place, they knew they were being included in something greater than themselves. Out in these open planes and distant towns, they carry a shared ethos, in that stark reality takes precedence, minus many cumbersome distractions. Life becomes more rational, the way it was always intended to be. It is a lifestyle that nurtures the pure things, because in theory it is simpler. We all want the same things or are driven by similar impulses, and it is through this window that some truth graced the fringes of our sight.
I strode back to the car thinking as I always do. I peered inside. Ina was dozing in her seat, so I continued on around to have a look at the church. There wasn’t enough wind to make much of an impression, but I imagined the eerie sound all the same.
When my imaginings drifted on, so did I.
Getting back behind the wheel I could feel Ina was studying me as she did sometimes, still turned in her half-reclined seat, her one leg drawn beneath her. Resetting her seat I could feel the questions hovering.
As we cruised down the main road back the way we came, since the only way in was the same way out, I started my theorizing and what I believed this story of the Crying River was actually about.
The truth was that it didn’t matter. The origins are usually quite plane or so strange you know it could not be fiction. The answer though, that came to rest with me, was this:
In the aftermath of the truck accident and fuel spill, and after the spill was ignited, the details of which are an even greater mystery to all to this day, on the edge of town near the riverbank, a woman was giving birth. And through the pains, the flames raged on. The strong winds blowing over the planes past Moorn caught the small inferno and gathered momentum. And on the wings of that flame and wind, came the cries of a woman in agony. The pain would be too great, and would claim her life.
Perhaps Landel’s grandparents suspected as much issuing a nickname hinting at something mythical, emerging from flame.
Everyone knew Birdy. He was the local jack of all trades, a stalwart of Moorn, some would say it’s spiritual heart. What I know, or suspect with great conviction, is that Birdy is in fact the proverbial son of the crying river.
His story may have tragic notes, but it will live on as folklore for as long as the people of Moorn want it to, because it was never one man’s story.
Perhaps this is it, or maybe the truth is simpler, or stranger. This though, is the story I choose to take with me.
All rights reserved - © Steven Benjamin 2014.