The River Waits
by Ljubo Popovich
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
IFrom my window in the Grand Ferris, I looked out at the cities below like dark, sparkling cankers on the wrinkled topography of the surface, and beyond to the glassy curve of the Earth.
Being born aboard a floating metropolis meant that the world below seemed no more real than a dream. From the height of my room it was hard to believe that people actually lived beneath the smoggy clouds. I pictured hordes of surface-dwellers swarming over rivers and mountains like dense clusters of ants.
I turned to the blinking cube on my bedside table. Low battery, it said. Every night it dissolved my thoughts by simulating an artificial dreamland. Every morning my mind felt pinched. I switched on the television. It was easier to transition back to reality in stages.
Lost in a daze until the end of the episode, I was suddenly struck by the mention of my name.
“Conrad,” said the character on the other side of the television screen. “That’s right, I’m talking to you.”
Milk dribbled onto the carpet from my bowl of cereal as I went limp in astonishment. Since childhood I’d watched The Helmsman of the Forbidden River, and now my favorite cartoon character, the irascible Helmsman, was addressing me through the fourth wall.
“So, what’ll it be?” the character asked. “How about going for a jaunt along this treacherous river? You man enough?” He awaited my reply.
Nervously, I nodded my head, but the exaggerated eyes were still fixed upon me. “Yes,” I said hurriedly.
The helmsman smiled, displaying crude animated teeth. “I’ll see you tonight,” he said in his raspy voice. And the ending credits scrolled.
Will he actually come? To my room? I thought. Will I actually venture down to the surface? I laughed in disbelief and glanced again out my window. The dun-colored sun blared above a dust-colored landscape.
Part of me was convinced it had been only another hallucination. But then I remembered six weeks ago I’d filled out the form on the back of the cereal box: Take a Ride on the Forbidden River with the Real Helmsman! Like a true fan, I couldn’t resist, expecting a getaway trip to some amusement park. But I never thought I’d win.
Absentmindedly I packed clothes into a suitcase and pondered how the helmsman would fly up to the floating city where I lived.
No one visited the Grand Ferris. And if you were lucky enough to be born here, why would you risk going down to Earth? In daydreams I fancied that the Forbidden River was real, along with all the snake-charmers and fishmongers and the thousand and one other fantasies the show brought to life.
The day wore on and, seeking distraction, I set the cube on low and let the worries sizzle out of my mind. Everyone on the Grand Ferris owned a cube; televisions were already becoming old-fashioned. In the throes of the cube-dream, I quickly forgot about the prospect of leaving. That is, until a grappling hook shattered my window that evening.
Opening my eyes with reluctance, I regarded the daunting figure of the Helmsman with dawning wonder as his beard ruffled in the wind and his sword clacked against his hip. The grappling hook was buried in the wall and unfiltered air gusted in.
“Conrad,” he yelled, brushing bits of glass from his coat, “get off your duff, the airship’s waiting.”
“Airship?” I asked.
He laughed. “Come, tie this line to your waist, and we’ll be off.”
Slowly, as if in the midst of a dream, I attached the cord to my belt. The “real” Helmsman was far more intimidating than his cartoon self, I decided.
“All aboard!” a man called from the immense dirigible looming among the clouds. Summoning every ounce of courage, I swung down the zip line after the Helmsman. In midair I closed my eyes, trying to forget the rolling hills miles below. With a crash I landed against a barrel. The wind lashed my face as the Helmsman pulled me below deck.
The interior of the craft was drafty, and the floorboards were moist from the constant swilling of drinks in crewmembers’ hands.
“Look out at your gilded cage as we depart,” the Helmsman said.
I’d never seen the Grand Ferris from outside before, and I’d never realized how incongruous it looked, clogging up the sky.
“You won’t miss that old hamster wheel before long,” a crewmate said. I recognized one of the side characters from the show, Shifty-Eyed Pete, whose eyes looked two directions at once.
Every minute I expected the dream to end. Will I actually participate in an adventure or was this only a farce?
The first thing the cube does is lull you into a false sense of security. You get to thinking your mind is a safe place to reside, but one of the side-effects is unshakeable solipsism. And so it was natural for me to second-guess everything.
Bumping into someone was a revelation. The airship was crowded. In fact, I’d never been in a crowded place before.
Memories of the cartoon came flooding back as I looked upon their bearded faces. Already the airship jostled on its way.
Has everything on the show been acted out in life and then converted into the treacly colors of television? I was inclined to think so as I gazed with wonder upon the ocean of trees basking under the glinting stars.
The Helmsman’s eyes were swollen dark circles like a raccoon’s, the result of the vacant staring demanded by the helm. In reality he was more impeccable and enigmatic than any artist could have rendered him, and his presence immediately supplanted the image in my mind.
Never before had I truly believed the surface was a real place. Like the surface of the moon, it was simply unrealistic.
We touched down in a windy field. Brand new smells seduced my nose and the expansive terrain mystified my eyes as I disembarked within sight of the river.
The Helmsman waited patiently as I stomped on the solid ground uncertainly. The rowdy men and women filed out, lugging supplies. Their hairy muscles were oddly attractive. Each member of the crew was as different from one another as could be. They acted however they wished.
As in the show, everyone asserted their overblown personalities as they assisted the captain. The spectacle was worlds apart from the subdued politeness of my own aristocracy, the meaningless conversations and leisurely disregard for the passage of time.
A cut above the rest, the Helmsman always kept a civil tongue, but commanded attention with every pronouncement. His hair was greased over with the sparkling green mist of the river, and he possessed the scent of some sweet sea creature.
Since I was an honorary member of the crew, he led me on a tour of their large, rusty boat. True to form, it was cobbled together from flotsam and jetsam and bobbed against the shore like a tethered animal. I was assigned a room for the journey, and told to make myself comfortable.
“You got to get sea legs before you get your gills,” the boatswain Blue-Peter said, echoing a line from the program.
Anxiously, I sat on a bunk as the vessel rocked into motion. Since the Grand Ferris was a stationary platform, I’d never ridden anything in my life, and the whole idea of floating on untameable water both thrilled and terrified me.
Since my childhood, the Helmsman had captivated me with his ageless, inhuman energy, his adaptability, and the loyalty he inspired. For my entire life I’d been locked in a banal cycle of existence, punctuated by the cube. The Helmsman on the other hand seemed to radiate a sense of wonder with everything he did.
With mounting awe, I climbed on deck and surveyed the rough waves. The river invades you utterly; its interior landscape conforms to the creases of your brain... That’s how the Helmsman described it.
In the automated world of the Grand Ferris everyone went through life without the need for memories or pain, loneliness or hardship. But in the face of the glowing river, my illusions dropped away.
Steering day and night gave a man “tunnel vision,” made him “cocoon-minded.” At least, the Helmsman employed those terms.
“To navigate the river, one must have two minds. One is always elsewhere.” The rocking of the boat synched with the rhythm of his words. His eyes burned bright enough to fling shadows over the deck. “Patience is a lost art. The ability to do nothing, that is the helmsman’s gift,” he said.
In a few hours, my queasiness lost out to my curiosity. I breathed the natural air with relish and gazed upon the naked sky freckled with stars.
As we neared the city ramparts, the lookout in the crow’s nest shouted. Ahead of us, the current suddenly roared. The noise was like a continuous explosion. Swinging the wheel, the helmsman screamed, “Hit the deck!” The ship lurched, reared onto a sandbank and landed nearly on its side. It came to rest against a dam of twisting logs, perilously chained together.
Bandits fired pistols at us from the shore. In seconds they boarded and began to battle. The Helmsman sliced men in half with his scimitar and dodged lances left and right.
In the chaos, I lunged for the first weapon I saw, a spear gun hanging from a hook. Aiming unsteadily, I fired, but it missed, and the spear stuck into the mast, casting a line across the deck.
The Helmsman shot me a smile as an enemy stumbled over the line and got clubbed by Shifty-Eyed Pete. Before I knew what was happening, a huge bandit grabbed me by the shirt and tossed me overboard. This must be a dream, I thought desperately, I can’t die so soon.
When my lungs failed and the blackness spread over my vision, a blurry figure plunged in above me and wrapped a rope around my waist. Half conscious, I was hauled into the air and dragged onto the ship.
Coughing and shivering, I watched as the Helmsman dived beneath the crashing logs and, one by one, brought up his fallen crew. A few wounded pirates clung to shore where their comrades had already abandoned them.
Copyright © 2017 by Ljubo Popovich