The woman was old and bent and gray, long in her days and hard-set in her ways. As constant in her course as the river which rolls past her place. Those whom she'd loved, (and some who'd loved her, she supposed) had long gone away, moved on or, mostly, passed on. Somewhere, (Tennessee, or Georgia she had heard) dwelt her children's, children's, children, but they neither knew her nor cared to.
Yes, she was old, but the river was older still. Her family had dwelt on its banks for many generations, further back than anyone could count, but the old gray river had flowed through its course since her earliest ancestors had crawled from the slime. Many times the river had risen from its banks to drive her family off, but they had stuck. The river had soothed them and nursed them and fed them and bathed them and cooled them, had even killed a few of them.
So now she was alone, just the river and she. That was how it had always been. She and The River.
"SSShh," the river whispered, muttering and mumbling its ceaseless speech, winding and wandering and wending its way through numberless lands and loves and lives; but speaking directly only to her.
Always, she had been the only one among them to hear the river's voice. At the age of six, she had gone running to tell of the river's voice, excited by her discovery, but her ma had laughed and said, "Yes, dear, we have all heard it, doesn't the river make lovely sounds?" She insisted that it spoke, insisted so loudly and so often they had begun to treat her as 'odd'. Eventually she had learned to 'get along', keeping her mouth shut and the river's secrets deep within her.
She sat on her tottering old gray front porch, slowly, evenly rocking in time to some unheard rhythm, watching her river and marking the passage of her years.
The sun flickered bronze in the rippling shallows. She looked back to the warm spring night, oh so many yeas ago, her second husband, Donald had insisted they go to the river to bathe. Her first born, Denise, lay asleep in the crib he had fashioned for her of wood from the old lightening-struck live oak out back. He had guided her, shy and reluctant, down to the banks, stripped off his clothing and run to splash in the river, his man-thing flopping around ridiculously. She had followed, though she thought it silly, shyly dropping her crude dress at he rivers edge, and blushing red all over. A woman follows her husband. It is the natural way. Donald had teased her, pointing to her nut-brown nipples, made ice-hard by the chilly water. Later, when Donald had entered her, there in the rushing shallows, she had felt the river enter her too, felt its ebb and flow within her, heard its voice ring in her ears, and had cried out. Donald had thought he pleased her. She had let him think it. But she had known that Mariah, the wild and uncontrollable second of her eleven children, had been conceived that night, not by Donald, but by she and the river.
Sixteen years later, when the river had reclaimed his child, had sucked out Mariah's life, cast her empty gray body on the rocks at Haswell's landing, and folks had wondered, gossiped, that she had not grieved the child's loss, she told them simply she could not mourn the loss of a child who had never been hers.
"Hush," the river murmured, rumbling and tumbling its eternal course down the ragged ruins of time.
In 'forty-three', the river had withheld itself from them, parching the land and shriveling the crops 'til they had all nearly starved. She lost Christian that year, her sixth child, to the fever and the drought. That year, too, Donald had gone on his way to look for work and never returned. The suitors had lined up almost immediately, for though she had four remaining children, and had never had the fabled beauty that brought men to their knees, she possessed many acres along the river, a rich dowry. How foolish men were, sticking out all over at the first scent of a woman, their minds growing smaller as their 'things' grew larger.
In '51, she remembered, the rains had come! The river had opened its wide gray thighs and took in the rain. And swelled and opened, pregnant with the flood, . It rained and rained. The river swallowed the livestock first. Its belly grew. Still hungry, it ate the crops. And still it swelled.
She too had been swollen, heavy with her ninth child.
Marty, her third husband, dear sweet Marty, had fought the river. And she by his side had fought, too, filling and toting sand bags for several days without stop, battling to keep the river from the house. The river ate and ate at the levee, devouring it nearly as fast as they built, had begun to nibble at the East corner of the house before the rains had finally ceased. To this day the house tilted that way. But the river had finally stopped. Ruined them. Impoverished them. But let them stay on to struggle anew. Later that year she had lost Marty, stomped by that stubborn old gray mule.
"Ssshh, hush," the river muttered, delivering its soothing message to her aging ears, as always only to her.
She had accepted one more man. Delvin, the strong stupid one. She had needed his broad shoulders to help with the work and so she had also to submit to his probings and gruntings and thrustings. At least he had demanded nothing of her but clean laundry and food on the table. When he was in a rut she merely lay there and took him in, grateful that he was quick and easily satis-fied. Still the children came. Marie, fair and graceful as a young doe. Then Henry, strong and dumb like his father. But after she had nearly died birthing that one, she had sworn there would be no more. Delvin had struck her when she had refused him. But she had remained steadfast. He had gone to other available women for his grunting pleasures then, and she had been grateful to them. Never again had she opened herself to a man, and she had been better for it!
Too many, too much for her to contain, control, her children had swarmed around her. Growing strong enough to help, then large enough to leave as soon as they could manage, happy to be away. Delvin eventually had found another woman to take him in, had fled like the others. The last of the children finally had gone.
The old gray river watched them go. Watched them all. And giggled and gurgled on and on, endlessly carving its careworn crease in the face of the earth. And told to her, only to her, its timeless tales of wants and dreams and ambitious plots, soured and surrounded and washed away.
But she had stayed.
She and the river.
The years ground away.
Content, if not happy, she had dwelt alone. Her life became a simple ritual of sameness. The interminable tread of her rocker rungs wore wrinkles in face of her sloping porch.
Except for a tiny plot of vegetables, a few chickens, and one cow, the land lay fallow now. She had ceased to fight the river. And it had never again tried to dislodge her. Many an hour she had sat here, her slate colored wooden rocker creaking its voice out to the dingy river, the river answering with its constant drone. Often she spoke aloud to her river,- phrases fraught with feelings, like those which pass between lifelong mates. And it spoke to her in return, only to her.
"Easy, Easy," the rambling river droned to her!. Chattering of the buts and might-have-beens in the lives of those it touched on its winding, wandering way to her and then away again.
She tried to recall how old she was. But with no one there to remind her, with no change in the steady crawl of days, she had no events to mark the passage of time. There was only one day. And the next. Not long ago, was it two years? Three? She had received a letter from someone named Shirella, (such a strange and melodious name), claiming to be her great, great granddaughter. A school project it was. Looking for a reply that would net her a good grade in school. She had not bothered to answer. Why should she? She had no need of these people, and they none for her. The creaking increased in speed, grew louder, as her rocking accelerated to match her mood.
"Peace," the river crooned at her.
The movement of the old gray chair slowed.
"Home," the river chanted.
Her eyes closed.
The creaking slowed. Stopped.
Her wizened, colorless face settled on her shriveled gray breast.
"Come," the river sang! "Peace! Home!" Its incessant silver voice pure and sweet, sibilant, insistent.
All was still, hushed, on the rickety, leaning, weather beaten gray porch. Even the clamor of the crickets ceased.
Silence was total. Save for the voice of the old gray river, burbling and bubbling along, singing its ceaseless song.