The Cleansing River

By Walker Arce

I ran through the thick woods to my safe place. I know I can sort out my life there, it can’t be that hard.

My footfalls are hard as I enter the clearing near the river. I pass over some rocks and look at the sky, trying to calm myself. I look behind my back and to both sides. No one can find me here. Ever.

I settle myself at the edge of the river, gazing into its rushing depths, trying to let go of what’s just happened, but it won’t go away. I grip and rub the beaded necklace around my neck, the hard edges of the cross pricking the pads of my fingers. My brother has a necklace just like this, made by mom to always keep us together even when things get rough or we’re apart. I wish he were here. He’d know what to do. Through all these thoughts I can hear the water rushing below me as my eyes begin to focus on the rushing depths. My thoughts just flow from me and away into the water whenever I think about what happened. The cliff below me is sharp, but not too far down to the water. I can see the fish carelessly moving through the water, living out their–

I hear footsteps and hushed voices coming from the woods behind me, I get into a crouching position and wait, hearing it get closer with each passing second. I steady my footing when the voices get to be audible. They’ve found me. Before I could react, the ground below me gives in and I’m plunged into the depths of the river, screaming the entire way. Fractions of a second before I hit the water, I can see my pursuers looking over the edge with looks of joy. As if I got what I deserve.

I wake up though, to my amazement, and lean up on my elbows, looking over at my dear Elizabeth. She’s just turning over and I realize she’s awake too. She leans a little closer to me, “Good morning sleepy head,” she says in her soft, motherly tone. I lean down and kiss her on her lips. Once. Twice. Then I feel her tongue enter my mouth, along with rushing water and a burning sensation in my chest and throat.

I come to on a small, slightly sandy shore off the edge of the curving river. I feel soaked, seemingly to the bone, as I’m shivering deep. Thankfully, it’s summer and I strip down and let the sun dry my clothes, but as I’m unbuttoning my shirt, I realize why I’m here. I collapse from the weight of my actions, the tears not even arriving before I’m convulsing with sobs from my actions. I scream and beat the ground with abandon, not wanting to accept that my hands could commit such atrocities.

This went on for some time until I collected myself, realized that no nooses were laying around the woods and that I didn’t have the nerve to drown myself. I decided to get away from the river and find a clearing. I tried to get my bearings and oriented myself with the sun, which was just past midday. Since the sun was at my left, then left must be east and right must be west. I guess kindergarten does come in handy. I set off towards the east with the knowledge that there were train tracks that were west of the town.

I keep walking without losing my resolve somehow. It’s getting dark quick though and I can’t fathom how I could’ve gone that far along the river without drowning. I also can’t find the river though no matter how far I walk towards it. For whatever reason though, I ignore it and keep going, confident in my ability to navigate. Night fell too fast for my legs though and I had to stop and rest. I sat against a tree and affirmed to myself that I will live to see morning. When was the last time a coyote killed someone anyway?

My bed is warm and soft, the air conditioner ran softly. I hear my parents stumble in to the house. They make their way to the living room noisily, obviously drunk. Then they’re arguing about money, how too much is being spent, how it’s not limitless, how my dad wants to enjoy it too. How no one appreciates my dad for the money. How my oldest brother was always better, doing what needed to be done. How myself and my middle brother just sit around, waiting for something to be done for us. How I waste my money. Won’t get a license. Won’t do this or that.

I cover my ears and think of Elizabeth. I wished she were there to hold me, console my fears and doubts. Be my Rock. But I’m always there for her, but her never for me. I spend so much time trying to balance my world and never get enough for my own interests.

I hear my dad, “What the hell is wrong with him? Well?!”

I was startled awake by the sound of a train whistle. It was almost ominous, taunting me to try and find it right then and there. That’s when I felt my first twinge of doubt. That I couldn’t do this. I fell back asleep soon after disregarding everything I felt.

When dawn broke, I realized my clothes were dry, which was pleasant. This motivated me to go forward towards the east, against the direction of the sun. While trekking through the shrubbery I saw many deer rushing through the hills and away from me. They were majestic and made me smile, they took my mind off of the thoughts that lingered still.

I was confident in myself for some reason and kept going until midday. I didn’t feel hungry or thirsty, sad or disturbed, I just was. I kept going for hours longer, disregarding any feelings of being disoriented, longing for the embrace of my mother, wishing to hear the confident advice of my father…

I collapsed under the weight of my body and the exhaustion that was my being at that point in time. Everything hit me at once. Everything. My stomach turned knots and pained me. My mouth was suddenly parched and burning. My mind flooded with images of Elizabeth, of my parents, of my friends and coworkers. The burden of my choices weighed me down and I couldn’t move.

I suppressed the images and the worlds I left behind and ventured for some water. Against all chance, I stumbled upon a pond that looked clean. The water was cool and I drank from it and bathed in it. I felt at peace! Who wouldn’t want that these days?

My confidence returned and I dressed. I knew I shouldn’t eat anything if I didn’t know what it was, so I just kept walking towards the east. The sun was catching up with me and I worried about the night, I’ve never known what a hungry night felt like. I can’t go to the refrigerator anymore. I can’t get in my car or order pizza.

I make up my mind and decide not to stop for the night. Nothing can stop me from finding something. Anything. I just now see that I’m soaked in sweat and the skin on my neck and scalp are extremely sore and sensitive. How didn’t I realize this? That previous twinge of panic returns and I question my surroundings, ‘Did I go the right way? What if I confused the direction of the sun? Why didn’t I follow the river back?’

My eyes go wide, looking in all directions. Someone has to be watching me. This must be a TV show. This has to be a dream. Anything. Please.

I collapse against a tree and try to sleep. To forget everything. I hear twigs cracking, getting closer, ‘They’ve found me!‘ I quietly look behind the tree and see a shadowy figure stalking in the underbrush. I softly make my way over to my executioner. I’m sure he’s come to kill me.

I jump on his back, choking the life out of him. I squeeze harder and harder and the man pulls out a knife. I grab his arm and redirect the blade into himself, seeing the look on his face. His eyes go wide. His jaw drops. The life fades. The blood flows out.

The man collapses and I let him go. He falls to the ground and my eyes are drawn to his features. The unmistakable birthmark on his neck, the scar on his upper forehead, the necklace our mom made us both so we’d always be together. This can’t be real. It’s impossible. ‘Dan? Dan?! Wake up man, it was a joke! Come on. Please!

The visions of blood come back. Her hair in my hands. Blood everywhere. ‘No, no, no, no…

I run as hard and as fast as I can. I never look back. I don’t stop running for what feels like an eternity. I trip over a rock and I land on my face. I turn over and in the course of a second I remember everything that’s transpired over the past three days.

My hands grip my face, pushing my fingers into my eyes. I feel my nails dig in. My hands ball into fists and I pound my face, letting the pain fulfill my anger. I look at my hands and blood has stained them again, ‘Why won’t it just wash away?

Walker traveled all over the country as a child, but was born and raised in a small town in Nebraska.  He was then relocated into a very urban downtown center of Nebraska and since then his reflection on the nature of, and the intense seasons in, that rural space has driven him to try to capture those moments in word.


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