The Boatman
Steve Himmer

All my dreams are of water, water running with blood. Night is a logjam of blue, bloated corpses I cannot pole past. Sleep comes in a trickle when it comes at all, and most nights it leaves me behind to watch bodies batter and swirl in the eddies, never sinking or washing ashore. I have all those hours to remember their faces, their baggage and their destinations. To recall the fast chatter trailing each mouth like a wake as they boarded my boat, leaving quiet lives in Demopolis and Burnside and Cape Girardeau for bright lights upriver, Saint Louis and New Orleans and Memphis.

They wear other faces when I haul them home. I find them hangdog on rickety piers a few months or years later and sometimes just days, chewed up by those cities, gouged like rocks underwater. Passengers pay me to leave them behind, but I'm the only one on board who knows better. I turn my back and my boat with the weight of their coins in one pocket, ready to fill the other once they drown on dry land.

I swing in the hammock of my keelboat's cabin, next to a blazing black-bellied stove. The river outside and the river within and not a night on dry land in more years than I know. I sway like the women and children whose sad lives I swamp when I float away with their men. Men who break on the sharp teeth of cities like storm-tossed tenders, men who tug loose from silk ties as soon as they're safe on my barge. They can't cut themselves free fast enough, these same men who bit hard on the coins I gave as change when they boarded my boat the first time, mistrusting me for the wrong reason. And on their way home, on their broken way home, they would swallow those coins if it meant they could keep 'em, could crawl back to their families with something to show for their time spent adrift.

More bodies meet me when I come ashore, the pulsing drunk bodies of men who wait for my blank, bearded face on the dock, fists coiled to spring with Dutch courage. Men who back down from the gaze of my empty eyes and mutter back toward their stools and saloons to tell drunker men how they drove Mike Fink out of town in revenge. These men whose daughters and sons left the world on my boat, who said their goodbyes and shouldered their bags and never were heard from again, ferried to the land of the fast-living dead to become whores and gamblers and drunks as quick as my pole-hands could push. Some of their bodies get broken but heal close to whole, pockets lightened but souls so much darker, burnt clean of desire to leave home again. Other bodies are lost to the river and never wash up, nothing left of them but rumors and whispers floating downstream time to time.

No one asks after the feather I wear in my cap, a red flag they all take as boasting about what a big man I am, about all the men that I've bested and the boats I've put down and the bodies I've spilled in my wake. They take it as taunt from the man who steals off with their children, but I wear it tall as a warning. When you see a pirate flag coming you run from the water, keep your family safe on high ground, but no one has the good sense to run from my feather, to haul their daughters uphill from the man who will carry them into the current.

A dark, angry river runs through the world and I'm lost on its skin same as anyone is. I'm trying to steer, trying to stay afloat, trying to stay out of anyone's way and avoid cracking up on the banks. That feather says don't come close, don't you folks come on board; it says I'm damned to float on this river but it doesn't mean you have to follow -- there's nothing wrong with your farms, nothing wrong with your towns, nothing upriver worth going to see. There are fakers and failures same as anywhere else only more of them because fresh loads of the lost are washed in all the time.

Still they come to the docks every day with their throwaway gold, lined up to leave in every damn town and none of them asks, "Why the feather?" so what can I do. I take their coins and they take their seats and the river takes what remains of our lives. I set them adrift when their ticket comes up but I never go under no matter how deep I sink. No matter how tangled I am in that reaching corpse reef. At night I pull the ropes of my hammock tighter, so I can swing over the dead. And I know this river wants me to swing.

Steve Himmer's debut novel, The Bee-Loud Glade, is forthcoming from Atticus Books.

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