THE RIVER GOD
Our town used to have a river god. Most towns did. And like most river gods, ours is dead now.
As you might suspect, we killed him. But it wasn’t from hunting, extraction, pollution or even coddling. That’s how other river gods died, but not ours.
When I was a boy, I would spend long hours at the riverbank, watching the river god. Sometimes he drifted, passing slowly with the current. Sometimes he leapt in bounding arcs, cutting the surface with foamy splashes. Sometimes he darted in short bursts, and sometimes he swam at a sustained clip from the top of town to the bottom and back, again and again. Sometimes he was nowhere to be seen. Sometimes he came right up to me and smiled. It was always something different with him. I was captivated.
When I talked about him, the adults seemed to think I had a special connection with the river god. I don’t know about that. They asked me about him, what he was like. They said they’d never gotten a good look at him.
I never knew what to say. It seemed to me that the closer you look at something, the harder it is to say anything definitive about it, to really understand it. And when there was a face involved—forget about it. You, for example: Describe your face for me. Aquiline nose, you say, beady little eyes. But practically everyone has an aquiline nose and beady little eyes, more or less. Could you ever describe your face with enough detail that someone with only that description could pick you out of a crowd? You see, thething about faces is that they cannot be captured in words. And the thing with the river god was, I think his whole being was his face.
The adults didn’t seem interested in hearing that. But you said it smiled at you, they’d say. Well, you must have gotten a good look. What does it look like? It’s a simple question.
I always said they should come down to the riverbank and sit with me. They laughed and said there was no time, that I should recognize the fortune of youth, that I should be grateful they’re out working to provide for me while I sit idly by the river. When it came to adults, they only wanted words. They didn’t want to look.
I didn’t want to seem ungrateful, so I relented to venture a description, doomed though it was. His skin was sleek and mottled, I said, and greenish brownish blue. With a little pink. But those are opposites, they’d say, and a thing can’t be green and brown and blue and pink. A thing can only be one thing at a time. Then they lost patience with me, turning to do something else. Eventually I’d learn that you can’t do much for the kind of person who will ask you a question and deny your answer.
Sometimes there were other kids at the bank, and we watched the river god together. We talked about him. Sometimes they essayed descriptions, too. Some of the kids said he was a kind of whale. He blew water like a fountain, and sometimes he sang in a deep voice, very like a whale. But why, then, did his eyeballs stick out of the water when the rest of his body was submerged? Those who pointed this out insisted that he was a kind of frog, seeing as frogs sometimes sat underwater with only their eyeballs sticking out. And though the river god did leap from time to time, he did not have a big, flat mouth like a frog, and nor did he ever leave the water.
I didn’t put much stock in trying to figure out what kind of thing the river god was. Just calling him the river god was almost too much, because he always seemed to be changing. He could barely be one thing, let alone a thing that was a kind of this or that. It seemed to me that the kids who talked that way were not so much kids as little adults.
When I was a young man, a famous naturalist came to visit our town. He was a man who had traveled the world over, examining the flora and fauna. He’d produced volumes of measurements and descriptions, and apparently he was very well known. In the letter the naturalist wrote to our barber, he said he’d heard of our river god and wished to observe it. My father said the naturalist believed that all living things were related, that it was just a matter of tracing the lineages. He would catalogue our river god.
In those days I was occupied with my apprenticeship, and I hadn’t thought of the river god in quite some time. But I recalled his face with fondness, and when the naturalist arrived I went down to the river, along with twenty or so others.
The naturalist stood at the bank exactly where I used to sit and pronounced with a sophist’s air that, though interesting, our so-called river god was simply a freshwater cetacean, an individual of the species I. fluminis, as he’d half-suspected. The other people there oohed and aahed. And that, I think, is when the river god died.
The naturalist retrieved a tome from his trunk and opened it to a table of figures. He held it up, running his finger up and down a column, apparently demonstrating that he’d observed many such creatures before. You see, he said: average size, average color, average song. While all this does make it an exemplary specimen, it also makes the creature completely unremarkable.
I looked at the river god then, trying to see its face, but it was gone. The creature we once called a god still darted and chortled in the river, to be sure, but its face was no more.
Tim Gorichanaz is a PhD candidate in information studies at Drexel University in Philadelphia. His work appears in various literary and academic journals. Tim enjoys running long distances and practicing classical guitar.