The Watcher and the Boy
I had little to do but watch and had watched for a long time. I have wondered why I made an effort. All there was to hold my attention was the boy and his doomed attempts to keep his little stream in its banks.
When I grew even more indifferent, I gazed at the horizon. Unlike the boy and his little stream, which did change, all be it slowly, the backdrop never did. Just sterile plains where the short brown grass never grew taller or varied in color. So, there was nothing to do but watch.
I don’t know why the boy was there or from where he came. I became aware of him one moment long ago. From atop a slight rise, there came a trickle of water. From a spring, I suppose. And then there was the boy. Like me, he watched the trickle. But, unlike me, it enthralled him.
He followed it from its source down a barely perceptible slope. It hadn’t gone far, and he was already calling it a river. The Great River was what he called it. For what seemed an eternity, he ran from the spring to where the trickle dried up in the sand. Then back to the source and then back to the end, over and over, again and again.
Each time he reached its mouth, the Great River had gone a little farther down its path, and then it came to a level spot where the water began to fan out into many smaller streams. The boy was not happy with the demise of the Great River. He must have wanted it to go on forever. He stomped his feet. He screamed.
“No! No! No! You cannot end here!”
But the little trickle would not respond to his tantrum.
He fell to his knees. I thought he was going to cry like little boys do. But instead, he reached into his back pocket and pulled out a wooden stick. I had not noticed the stick before. It was just a tiny stick but large enough for the boy.
Grasping one end of the stick with both hands, he stuck the other in the center of the tiny delta, right in the sandy, muddy goo. It went in about an inch or so. Then the boy pulled in the direction the Great River had been flowing. The water stopped fanning out. Instead, it filled his little channel. With repeated efforts, he pulled and dug. Finally, the Great River began to flow again in its proper direction. And once beyond the level spot, it flowed naturally down an easy slope.
The boy sat back on his heels, unaware of his muddy pant legs. With the stick in hand, he admired his work, proud of how he had saved the Great River. But his self-admiration was short-lived. He looked upstream to the source to get a grand view of his mighty stream. There, while the river had spread out, a quantity of water had built up. It now overflowed its bank upstream.
He darted to his feet and dashed to the outbreaks. His stick was now flat on the ground; he pushed and scraped piles of dirt and sand where the banks of the Great River had been. Next, he jumped to the other side of the stream and did the same. It was a desperate battle, but soon he had dikes built on both banks of the Great River. Then, like before, he sat back to admire his work.
But the self-adoration never lasted long. There was always some bursting of the dikes, some premature formation of a new estuary. These brought the boy out of his revelry and into an all-out panic to control the river’s flow.
The boy’s mania amused me, but it quickly grew old. With the stick in hand, he would run and repair the stream or sit for short periods delighting in his work.
During one of his times of gratification, I saw him staring into the Great River. The surface of the water sparkled where he focused his gaze. I could see that the boy admired the reflection.
But then his smile disappeared, and his face grew stern as he became aware of something more profound than his image. It was something within the Great River itself. I had never paid attention to the Great River. I had only watched the boy, and then only because there was nothing else to watch. I’m not sure how I managed it, but suddenly I was looking deep into the Great River. Not that it was deep, for it was very shallow. Instead, I looked deep into the speckles that made up the Great River.
These specks, little particles, were not slick and wet as I supposed they would be but had a life of their own. Some broke away from the others and flowed off in new directions. The remaining particles stayed together and ran passively down the course where the boy had directed the Great River.
Not to say I was interested but watching the two types of particles filled some of my endless time. The boy, too, was aware of the differences. It was clear, though, that he favored the passive ones. Because of this, I rooted for the contrary specks. I would have encouraged them, too, if I could have done so.
My wanting to encourage the oppositional, rebel speckles made me more aware that I did not like the boy. He had done nothing to me, yet I thought him foolish and proud. His little game of directing the flow of the trickle had gone on long enough. It was silly and pointless. Who did he think he was, trying to control the very direction of the Great River!
The renegade particles sparkled more and more. They glimmered as they pushed up against the boy’s dikes, overflowed the tops, and broke into the dry expanse. The boy fought back and erected mounds of dirt on both sides of the channel. It stopped the outbreak, but only temporarily. Soon the radicals threatened these mounds with overflowing. With the flood looming, he struggled to thwart the impending disaster. Higher and higher, he built the dikes. But as quickly as he had improved on them, waves would crest against their tops.
I enjoyed watching him struggle. Not because I admired his resolve but because of the utter hopelessness that would soon overcome the boy. My anticipation for that moment created my joy.
But the boy amazed me with the efficacy of his work. For all its contrary forces, the Great River continued to flow in the direction he wanted. Still, I thought for sure the boy, now nearly a man, would be defeated. Many times, it looked as if he had given up. Water would wildly pour over the top of a dike, and he would go to some rise above his riverbank where dejected, he would sit motionless, almost weeping. Once, he hung his head for what was a pleasingly long time to me.
I felt a smugness that I had been the one that had defeated him. I bathed in my triumph for what felt like infinity. Then I must have made some sound, or maybe I moved, which is highly unlikely. Yet the boy suddenly looked up. For the very first time, I could sense him looking right at me, which is not only improbable but impossible. He stared at me for longer than I had basked in my victory. So much so that now I could barely remember feeling smug at all. Everything changed after that.
The boy—I could not think of him as a man—continued to rule the Great River’s flow. Yet his attention was divided. At first, he only glanced back at me as he built his dikes and made deeper channels. Then he began to curse me. He would blame me for every outbreak of the contrary forces.
It was then that a grand idea hit upon his aging brain. He was so sure of its success that he turned towards me and, with a little sneer on his face, spoke his thought as if I were powerless to stop it.
“I will divert all the rebel specks away from my dutiful ones, far away from them all. They will no longer infect the Great River. It will flow the course that I want it to flow!”
He turned his eyes from me and gazed off into the sterile plains. I thought he would laugh some sinister laugh, but he did not.
While he stared away from the Great River, I looked, again, at the glittering specks. I had never thought that some of the particles were infecting the others. But I could now see what the boy had seen. The contrary forces in their bouncing back and forth did attract the passive specks. Infecting them, making them want to rebel. Yet the boy failed to make the converse observation. That the passive specs also attracted—infected—the oppositional ones.
When my awareness left the river and returned to the boy, he had moved. With his little stick, which had worn smooth through the years, he dug a pit some distance from the Great River for what seemed hours, even days, since time was so hard to measure, having only the boy and the Great River to watch. Then, when he was pleased, he jumped over the little stream and began to dig on the other side.
During this time, he rarely looked at me or even cursed me. Instead, I could hear slight mumbles coming from him.
The Great River flowed calmly during this time with few outbreaks. Left alone, the river continued to go in the direction the boy had wanted. Then suddenly, it came to some natural barrier. The river’s flow stopped and began to dam up behind the obstruction. In the past, the boy would race to the bottleneck. He would dig a hole into the barrier and re-direct the flow, but his new plan had his focus. He had to rid the Great River of the contrary particles. With them gone, the river would flow to its appointed end.
With the two pits dug, he went to the banks of the Great River and dug sluices from the dikes to the holes. With these completed, he cut little gates into the levees. These forced lapping water to gush down towards the waiting pits. With pride of accomplishment, the boy gloated over his success of ridding the Great River of the contrary particles and danced and leaped for joy.
“Now, it is truly my river,” he screamed at me. “There is nothing you can do about it. It will flow where I want it to and do what I want. It is no longer yours to command. It now obeys me. Only me.”
He looked at me, waiting as if I would speak. As if I had something to say.
“Well, say something,” he insisted. “Admit it! I have defeated you!”
But I said nothing, nor could I say anything if I wanted to speak, yet he stared at me, wanting something from me that I would not give.
“Say something! Anything! Grunt. Moan. But speak!”
But I did not. The boy’s success, seconds earlier, his crowning achievement, now meant nothing to him because of my silence. It was then that he looked again at what he had done. He collapsed to his knees, beaten.
Once a mighty torrent, the Great River was now a muddy mess, its channel a stagnant pool. Even the spring itself stopped flowing, and I saw the boy cry for the first time. Tears were making streams of their own through the wrinkles on his old face. Wrinkles I had never noticed before this moment.
His weeping moved me unlike anything before because nothing had ever moved me. Only one thing would end his grief, and that was for the Great River to come back to life. For this to happen meant the passive and the contrary forces flowing together.
Something deep inside me shook. I lifted up, and when I did, the water in the pits flowed back into the channel. Again, I lifted up, and the spring sprang back to life.
The boy, not quite so disheartened and looking younger than he had just moments before, sat on his knees. He watched the Great River flow through both old and new channels. Channels that meandered and merged with others, combining to push the Great River far beyond any natural or man-made barrier and into a future unbounded.
Avery S. Campbell is a pseudonym. It is a tribute to a chopper driver who insisted the author go back to college, a retired Marine Sergeant who exemplified honor and loyalty, and a geography professor who, once, gave an encouraging word. Campbell is the author of the western fiction series The Four Bags of Gold, which presently includes the titles Vengeful Riders, Reckoning on Bald Mountain, and Back from the Dead. His story, The Hook, previously appeared in this publication, Heart of Flesh Literary Journal. Under the name Joel Walker, the author has published The South Carolina Adventure and The Cottonwood Grove.
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