Denis was numb all over. He reckoned it was like stepping on the same pebble between his foot and shoe sole for dozens of miles and the prick of the stone deadened the ache to naught. Neither could he feel a cool breeze in the midsummer heat any longer, nor even the heat itself. The rot of mud and fish and drowned carcasses no longer affected his senses like it had when he crossed the river with the wagon some hours ago. He swallowed so much of that devilish muck that he nearly drowned, having found himself caught between two upturned trees well past the broad course and just beyond the big bend to the west. Dirty river. His stomach no longer ached where the horse kicked him, too, as they both lost their footing and were swept down current. Though, if he thought about it too long, then the pain would come back.
Took hours to find Catherine. He first saw her bluebonnet caught in a frothy whirlpool of twigs and leaves on his side of the river. Nearly died right there, for he thought Catherine had done passed on…. Yet, he heard her call out his name and his heart jumped when she revealed herself just a ways up river and safe on the other side, just where he’d left her hours ago when he crossed. Nonetheless, she wasn’t right. He’d call out to her, but she was deaf to his pleas. He’d even throw sticks and rocks above the roar of water, yet she was blind to his acts. She’d just look out over the thundering current, shivering from fear, and scream out his name and in fits and wails. She wasn’t right in the head. Maybe even blind or deaf.
Of course, he’d try to cross the river a dozen times and save her from her confusion, her strange delirium. But, each time he did, the river gripped him like a wicked hand from Hell and pulled him through a stinging fire of mud and rocks that crushed his bones, nearly skinning him alive. How those two cranes, their feathers brightly blue and fluffed without a feather blown from its bedding; how could they remain so clean and unburdened was a mystery.
He had no time for mysteries. No time to admire the beauty of those otherwise oddly figured creatures. Impressive and odd, too, how those cranes could stand there in the water and for hours on end while creations busied on and rudiments swept past. He had no such luxury. He had to keep moving. Catherine was ill. And she couldn’t remain still in her delirium.
She would wander, back and forth, up river and down river, gripping her black dress in one hand and her chest in the other, stumbling over the fallen trees and ripping her dress into tatters calling out Denis’s name and pleading to Christ Almighty. Terrible sight to witness and so helplessly from the other side of the raging river. No matter how much he begged her to look his way or to acknowledge him, she’d turn and go the other way or head deep into the woods for hours; until he’d see her stumbling out from nowhere further up river or down and as confused as she had left him. Has a day passed already? He couldn’t remember if it ever got dark. Or if he ever saw the moon. The sun was like a coppery wash; dull and always present in his eye. What will happen when it gets dark? The thought of it led to desperation. He kept hollering out to her until his voice went out.
Exhausted, Denis stumbled over a waterlogged oak, its bark long crumbled and rotted away. He crawled back to it and took a seat, felt nothing under his skin but numbness… like he was floating. Sagacious or imaginings; he couldn’t tell if he was a prisoner in his own delirium. What was real anymore? Everything was all one swipe of colors -- was he even breathing? He felt guilty thinking of falling to sleep. He looked at his arms and wrists. They were swollen and scratched. Certainly, he took a beating against those sharp thickets. Utter exhaustion. He tried to say something – anything to hear his own voice. He struggled to clear his throat, still feeling the muck’s pressure from inside where it had lodged and nearly killed him. Catherine, he tried to say, but could only mouth the words. He tried again. Nothing. He cupped his hand around his neck as if to squeeze the words out. Catherine. Catherine McGeown. Still nothing. He adjusted himself on the log, putting up one leg and stretching it out. He felt guilty about that, too; his reposed state, so he sat straight on the old log and looked down between his knees, tried to distinguish his shoes and legs from the chalky refuse of the White River; the broken tree limbs and river mud and thick muck of leaves and acorns and other seeds from the flooded river must’ve had a terrible stench, but he couldn’t really smell a thing anymore.
The chalky mess was a depressing color; the worst kind of color. It rendered the vibrancy of life to dullness and a ghostly look. He thought about Catherine and her colored charcoals and the lovely drawings she was making on their journey. He thought about their wagon and all the books they were reading; colorful book covers with words between them that he wished he could make sense like she could. He thought about their precious cargo of beans and English teas. Her wedding dress…. He thought about their mare. All were lost, washed down with the current, and apparently, all were gone forever. And his wife had gone mad. Apparently.
He remembered the young mare was terrified before Denis led him to the bank. He wished he would have taken that warning as the sign it truly had become. Catherine told him to heed, too; but her warning was less as sure as the mare’s. He gazed out towards the river, angry at its devilish deed; angry at himself for not fearing its wrath. Good that Catherine did not follow his lead; that she didn’t attempt her own crossing. Whether crazy or not, she was safe… if over there. She was disoriented, yes; maybe even a little damaged in the head. But, thank God Almighty, she still survived.
He got another glimpse of her! He lifted against the pull of the mud, searched across the river for clearings in the thickets despite their wild knots, looked for opportune windows that allowed him a peek into the cavernous woods that would reveal her wandering about. He loved his Catherine! She was so kind and thoughtful, so beautiful… so clever. She could read better than anyone he’d ever known and draw better than any man. She was about near the ends of her chalk, and it worried him more than it did her. He prayed that the camp southwest of the river had a goods store. Yet, his wife was clever. She would find something else to draw with, as she had done before. She’d sketch out her thoughts, as she would say; fill them in later. It wouldn't make it less true, she’d say; just a little late. This last winter when her chalks whittled down to naught, she had the mind to find wet clays from a single creek bed that worked just fine enough before they got to Philadelphia. Catherine could think her way through such things. She was so very clever. Of course, she’d come to her senses, like she did her chalk. She’d come to realize her predicament and go get help. She just needed time to rest. She was as smart as any man. She was smarter than any man. Where was she now? He strained to find her.
There! Even in the muted midsummer sun, he could see her through the thickets as if she were a light of her own making. Though his voice was so hoarse it was no longer audible, he’d cry out if she’d move closer to the river; subdue his worry whenever he caught a glimpse of her beautiful light that radiated deep from within the shadows of the woods. He moved with her as best he could, paralleling her wanderings along the other bank; blundering to the east and then pausing; staggering west down river as she wandered blindly in her obvious misery. She disappeared into the woods again. He kept on the move.
Like a pebble in the shoe, he was bruised to the point of feeling nothing at all. When he wrestled with the men at the mill during breaks and he'd be so tired and beaten that he didn't care if he couldn't do more than swing his arms and drag his feet on his way back home: that’s how tired he was. Tired of thinking, too. What to do? He couldn't cross the river, not until it calmed. And his wife was wandering in and out of the woods with not a sane thought in her head. Maybe he should just stay put? He leaned against a young oak just strong enough to hold his weightlessness.
Denis had fought to accept the truth. Catherine could not see or hear anymore; and that was a truth he could no longer deny. But why had her mental capacities collapsed at all? He was fine, and he nearly drank the entire river while he crossed! She stayed behind. He was torn to shreds from a dozen lashings against the river’s bed, but he was fine. Did she drink something the night before that sent her mind adrift? She made them tea, from milkweed – to calm both their worries. Did Catherine make herself ill?
After all that had happened, he was still fine.
Did she go into the river, after all, when he was swept away past the bend? To save him, only to have damaged her senses in the mayhem? No. Before she last disappeared into the woods, he took note that her light blue dress was dry and only splotched with dried earth on the trimmings; but not wet…not soaked. She looked so pretty. And brightened up even in this dull sun. He remembered her pointing to the rocks near where he crossed, and a tall man behind her was shaking his head as he wrapped his arm around her thin shoulders. They stayed a while at the bank, saying nothing, before they took to the wagon trail back into the woods. Some hours had certainly passed by since then. Been quite a while since he had seen her or the tall man. She had disappeared once again, probably lost herself in the woods, in her delirium. Again.
Denis pushed himself up, took foot along the banks to find another clearing in the thickets across the thin river. The thickets were greener and darker than they were a few hours ago. Tried to call out again, but his voice was gone –maybe damage done for good. He was beaten to a pulp. Numb. Denis no longer felt the soreness of his body. Why feel anything at all? He was overcome by the desire to see his wife again. She mattered more; her comfort. Her sanity. He stepped through the skeletal roots of sycamores washed out by a hundred floods, pierced the fallen trees without awareness of having stepped over them. His eyes and thoughts were not on the river, but were fixed on the bank across it; searching, praying for his Catherine. Whether the bank gave way to stony bed or weedy crag, he didn’t care to take note of where he stepped at all. Only the river's bank on the other side kept him moving. Only the thickets he searched to find the light that was his Catherine. Only she kept him on the move down the river and then back up river with an eye on the other bank and searching for windows in the green – a hideous dark, blackish green -- of the thickets. No rest will ever come until he --
Catherine? Yes! Catherine!
He found Catherine once again just a stone’s throw downriver of where he made that wicked crossing. He saw her through thickets so wild and tangled where, by chance, they’d made a window that let him see deep into the woods. Denis jumped on a fallen tree, called out to her, but her illness must’ve only worsened as she stood there and looked to the sky, as if in prayer. Her face, bright with the dazzling sun, was flush in color and full. Her hair, a light brown like an acorn’s shell, was pulled back under her white bonnet without a strand out of place. The man next to her was so tall and thin that he’d easily be mistaken for one of the beech trees had he not taken off his hat and knelt beside his Catherine and held her hand by the river’s edge. Her Catherine then tossed a clutch of white flowers over the water, and the sight was a strange thing to witness. The young child next her – the boy; he, too, knelt down by the river as if to grab the floating flowers. Catherine then grabbed the boy’s shoulders and pulled him back, held him tightly against her chest. The boy; the little one began to cry. Catherine was sobbing, too...?
Denis called out to her, his throat too sore to let out a sound. His heart was broken, for he never witnessed his Catherine sob like that. Heartbreaking, in a hundred pieces. Like she was forever hopeless. Denis stepped into the water; felt the rage of the river inside his head and a sickness in his stomach. He stepped back up the bank, called out to her again. She could not hear him. Catherine then stood up at the tall man’s beckoning; and she and the boy followed him away from the river. Denis begged her to stay and wait until he could go get some help from the canal town just a mile or two south. Yet, his voice was so hoarse that even he could not hear his cry, thus she never turned back, never turned her head. He watched her light fade with every step as she, the boy, and the man took to a dirt trail that led to a timber-lined wagon trail at the crest of the shallow hill. How sick she was, and how delirious with fever or with a kind of mental collapse to not see him at all. Were the ripples of the retreating stream that sung over the bed of rocks too distracting? Or, was he so battered and weakened after the crossing as to blend in with the black and brown and grey and chalk of the woods and the riverbank, that she truly could not see him?
An old, ragged crane startled at the sudden splash of a muskrat upstream and flew to a shallow pool just two feet from him. Denis had never been so close to a crane before, and he was so fascinated by the winged beasts, even asking his Catherine more than once to draw the one they’d seen along the Ohio. Yet, he was too numb to take much notice of the odd, gray-feathered thing now standing as still as a stifle near him that otherwise would have brought much joy to him and his Catherine. No joy could this creature bring him now.
Denis jumped up onto the highest felled trunk and looked out over the river where hours ago he had just crossed in that dreadful current. The river looked calm on the surface, evenly mirroring the white clouds like a lovely painting. Strange it could look this way after all that has happened. How the river tried to fool him with a serene moment; fool him into another crossing. He wasn’t fooled. The Devil calmed the water where it met the sky, but under that blue sheen burned a cauldron of mud and fury that would drown his lungs and roll his body into a knot. Willn’t be fooled again. Instead, he searched for windows in the brown – the dead, dried out brown -- of the thickets.
Denis got sight of her again through another opening, another window within the wall of thickets! He could see his wife walking with her cane along the gravel road that led to the bridge. Her face was lovely ashen, though he had to squint to find her lovely green eyes. And, her gray hair fell over her forehead like a frayed curtain of tangles, though her hair hung from her pretty blue bonnet…the very bonnet his ma had made for her before they left Boston. Not all was lost after all, he then realized. The bonnet!
He had to get to her. He had to cross the river. He had no other choice. He ran into the water with all his might, knowing the Devil would pull him under the surface and drown him in the rot of mud, batter him against the bed of scouring rock. He felt the water course through his body as if he were part of the river itself, but he moved against the current as best he could. Yet….When he reached the middle, he couldn’t go any further. He felt the wagon lift around him as he tried to steady it and push back against the wild current. He felt a shock of pain deep within his stomach, and heard a rib crack from the horse’s kick. He felt his left foot get caught in the wheel spokes and then turn him under the wagon’s sideboard. He stood in the middle of the river, its water cool and still. But, he sensed his whole body pulled under the wagon and rolled into the water, his back and shoulders scraping against the rock bed that slashed his skin open like knives. He could sense his lungs filling with his last breath of mud and thorns and river rot and struggled to take another step. Burning in his lungs. He couldn't do it. He stopped dead. He could not go farther. The river was overwhelming. He called out to his Catherine, who had already reached the bridge. He called out her name and told her he loved her. He told her he’d get help; that she must stay where she stood and not to wander off anymore. He promised her that he would get help from the canal town just a mile or two south. They’d have boats. They’d have men to help steady the boat and get her safely across the river.
Catherine; she only leaned against her cane and stared into the water and said not a word, looked at not a thing but the ripples in the broad of the river where Denis stood. How could she not see him, for her eyes were not resting on him? He'd swear she could see right through him. Was she lost in sickness? Was she somehow blinded by the lavish sunlight? Was it the milkweed she pulled the other day? The tea she made for them the night before?
Catherine then drew out a sheet of paper and looked it over. She said something that he could not hear. She then folded it in half, and she folded it again. She wrote with chalk some words on the paper’s face. Or, perhaps a drawing? A prayer? Something in blue. With some effort, she bent down and placed it under a rock near the bridge, and then she took to the road with carefully laid steps. He strained to look at what she laid down. He couldn’t make sense of it; only made out the blue chalk.
Why hadn’t she acknowledged him?
Perhaps the sun danced its flames across the ripples that rang through him like a thousand tiny bells, so she could not only see him but couldn’t hear him, just the same. A single crow screeched up the river, and two other crows just beyond the trees followed suit. Denis watched Catherine's every footfall until he could not see her foot fall anywhere. He returned to the bank, feeling entirely numb. He would wait for Catherine’s return. He would then get on the move, step through the skeletal roots of sycamores washed out by a hundred floods, pierce the fallen trees without awareness of having stepped over them. His eyes and thoughts would not rest on the river, but would be fixed on the bank across it; searching, praying for his Catherine. Whether the bank gave way to stony bed or weedy crag, he wouldn’t care to take note of where he stepped at all. Only the river's bank on the other side would keep him moving. He would fix his gaze over the river, on the bank across it. Only through a break in the green – the pale, dusty green -- of the thickets would he find the light that was his Catherine.
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