I have been as tall as I will ever be for one whole year. I will never be as tall as my father.
This spring is no surprise and, for the first time, barely a relief. Our flooded, muddy bank of the Far River and the new green leaves mean the return of life; they prove the strength of the circle that cages us.
In our first summer, touching the skin of the mother of my son was like seeing lightning through closed eyes. Now she is in the earth, with my son, who never saw a storm, or a morning. The stories say I will see them after I die; I will never see them again.
The night before my father died, he talked in his sleep, which he did not do. The words he spoke were nonsense.
Or they were in an older language, from the other world.
The stories say that on the far slopes of the mountains beyond the Far River are black forests and lakes of ice. There live men with lines burned into their faces and long-staffed axes, and women beautiful as snakes, all banished from this fertile valley by God.
The mountains are real. From anywhere in our valley, I can see them. The rest of the stories is only as real as the monsters that haunted my dreams as a child.
Prayer, the acknowledgment of the presence of God, used to be my mother’s voice singing in the dark. But there is only one world: smoke, torn grass, a handful of cold water. Fog, first dawn-light. The only path is to work and, later, try to sleep.
And yet, this one blank morning, I do not follow the men to the fields.
I stand on our bank of the Far River and watch the mountains carve themselves visible against the day. I cannot find the prayer.
I had been told by my father, with the threat of a fist to the temple, never to attempt to cross the Far River until I was as tall as he was. He knew I would never be as tall as he was.
So I enter the Far River.
The hand of the current sweeps me up and for a moment I am lifted and carried, a child. But then I’m pulled down, wrong, hands squeezing my lungs, the river pressing against my mouth, and I’m smashed into stones, and I could let go.
I do not let go.
When I open my eyes I am lying in the mud of the far bank of the Far River. I hear the cry of my son’s mother wishing to die, and the cry of our son wishing to live; it is the same cry. It is my voice.
But I am in the other world.
I lift myself, part by heavy part, to my feet. My head rings, but I am whole. I am as close to the mountains as I have ever been. I know I will reach them. I will know if the stories are true.
Before I have taken the first step I see, in the near distance, massed like too many birds in a tree, men with lines burned into their faces and long-staffed axes, watching me, my death in their eyes.
But if monsters are real, then so is God.
Rob Roensch is the author of the story collection The Wildflowers of Baltimore (Salt) and the novella The World and the Zoo (Outpost19). He lives and teaches in Oklahoma City.