by C.T. Thieme
read by C.T. Thieme
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The River is a perfect mother. She supports you, sustains you, even rocks you softly to sleep, but always with the requirement that you keep yourself afloat. There’s a calm veneer of indifference in her tone. Her true sentiments are rarely spoken outright, yet the power of her love is constantly felt. Her recipe for success in raising children lies in a portion of love just enough to help you grow combined with a challenge, a challenge to rise to your potential and meet your own high water mark. Her love is burdened with full knowledge that the world you will enter does not love you and will not ever love you the way she does. This is the pain first felt in the throws of labor, the pain that never dies. This is the pain of a mother’s love.
We’ve all had boat dreams. That’s what we call them. Even in the middle of winter they’ll come with the full smell of water and heat of summer. A million variations on the same theme. Tonight, I have a boat dream.
The boat, our boat, is the Julia Belle Swain. She’s a stern-wheeled steam ship, an anachronistic Twanian archetype pulled through a wrinkle in time by Captain Dennis Trone. Three decks stepped like a wedding cake with two tall black smoke stacks with bulbs and feathers at the top towering over the box-topped pilot house. Her engines have pushed more than a million miles behind them at a top speed of 14 miles per hour. She’s got enough age on an ancient Mississippi and enough of our sweat, love and secrets to make a world of her own…
I wake up in my sleeping bag and to my surprise I’m sleeping on railroad tracks that descend straight down the steep bluff towards the Mississippi below.. I hear Christine’s voice, full of panic; she’s calling my name.
“Get off the track! Get off the track!” she yells. “It’s coming! The train’s coming!”
I don’t waste a moment. Heeding her words, I wrestle free from the sleeping bag and scramble off. I feel relief, but she’s still screaming.
“Get off the track!”
“Christine, I’m ok,” I shout back. “I’m off.”
But she still keeps yelling.
Then the train comes. I see it tearing down the river bluff, tearing through where I was sleeping.
“Oh my god!” she screams. “Oh my god, no!”
“Christine, it ok, I’m off the track.”
But then I see the front of the train. On it is a body. My body.
Now for some reason being in my body attached to the front of a train hurtling down a hillside towards the largest River in the continental United States was preferable to being safe and sound sans body. Can’t argue with dream logic, I suppose.
“Best get back in it,” and no sooner had I thought this than it was done.
As the train continues down the slope, the speed pulls and strains at my limbs. Pieces of me start flying off, first an arm, then a leg, not really painful, just disconcerting. Then there is nothing more than this white light coming from the middle of my chest. I look up to see the River coming to meet us, and the world went out.
I’m in a basement. I have no body. I’m floating. Daylight streams through windows set high in the concrete walls making for strange shafts through the dusty air. Large translucent pieces of plastic hang from the rafters and move slowly from an unfelt wind. I float towards one of the windows and easily slip through. Coming up the front of the house, I see the front porch. A small child sits there crying. Going up to the child, I ask without words what is the matter. The child’s tear stained eyes look into me. The child raises a finger, pointing up. I float up the outside of the house finally stopping at the attic window.
Behind the window screams a woman. Her eyes are wild. Her hair swirls like Medusa’s snakes. She tears at the apron she is wearing and slashes her hands against the window frame. Everything about her appearance is horrifying, insane, terrifying, but I am not afraid. Despite everything I see in her dark face, I feel…pain. She is in pain. Without a break in the epileptic tantrums, she tells me everything. She loves the child, more dearly and deeply than I can ever understand, but she is dead, and the child, alive. His fear of her keeps her from him. She wants him to know how much she loves him, but he can’t get past his fear.
Somehow, I don’t remember how, I pulled her through the window and guided her down to the child. They are looking at each other. Calm. Deep. Her hand holds his, and the dream fades.
The next morning, at breakfast, I write it all down.
Another 12 hour day has ended, and we’ve come back to our wharf boat, the Baton Rouge in LeClaire, IA. Julia is tied up securely to her side. Orlando Lowe, O, as we call him, had been on the boat since his early teens. He’d come aboard to swap the inner city of Peoria for a broom and the clean view of the River and has never left. O, Christine, Smokin’ Tom and I ordered a pizza and rented a movie. We’ve stuffed ourselves full of pepperoni and beer and are now settling into O’s room as he’s the only one with a VCR. We’re crowded all onto his bed as Smokin’ Tom pops in Child’s Play 2. Then O says in his calm tone, “I had the strangest dream last night.”
The hair rises on my neck. My blood runs cold. And that ain’t cliche when it’s happening to you. I find myself saying, “tell us about your dream, O.”
“I had a dream that I went back to my old house in Peoria. I was crying because they knocked it down, everything but the basement, the front porch and the attic, and I had a long talk with my dead mother.”
I feel tears well in my eyes, half fear, half sorrow, half wonder. The feeling is greater than the sum. “I’ve got something to read you guys.”
Smokin’ Tom stops the tape as I head back to my room and retrieve my journal. After I read them my dream, no one says a word. We grab our beers and head out for a breath of fresh air. No one’s in the mood for Chucky right now.
Sitting out on the wide deck of the Baton Rouge in heavy iron chairs, the star light is about the only illumination we have. O tells us about his mother.
“She was really my grandmother. She was the one that raised me, and when she died she left me the house. Now you ain’t the first to see her either. I have friends that won’t stay over no more. I’d put ‘em up in her old room and they’d come down for breakfast asking who was that crazy woman screaming outside their window all night. Always has that apron on. I remember the last thing she said to me. She looks at me and she says, ‘Candy,’ she always called me Candy, ‘Candy,’ she says, ‘I ain’t never gonna leave you. When you go, I go. My head may grow cold, but I ain’t never gonna leave you.’”
“Guess she hasn’t,” was about all I could say.
We all needed a couple more beers after that and some lighter talk to while away some hours before heading up to our beds. Morning is going to come up on us quick, and we have another run to do tomorrow. O puts his hand on my shoulder as he rises from his chair and says, “Well, I guess you been doin’ some travelin’. I’m goin’ up to bed now, and all I gotta say is this. You stay outta my dreams, and I’ll stay outta yours.” Then he gives me one of those smiles of his that’s brighter than the moon in a night sky and heads up to bed.
Smokin’ Tom brings me a last beer and takes one up to bed with him. Christine gives me a kiss on the cheek, then heads up herself.
Straddling the chair backwards, I look out over the bow of the Baton Rouge. A barge has passed, and the two boats, locked to land and each other, give a brief protest between water and shore then quite down. Those words dance in my head. A train whistle blows, far off, but it’s coming. The stars dance in mirrored reflection on the River, shimmering in the constant current. Those words dance in my head, “I ain’t never gonna leave you. When you go, I go. My head may grow cold, but I ain’t never gonna leave you.”
Find more of C.T. Thieme’s work at http://perpetualheathen.com/