There is a river that bisects the city. We see it every day, when we commute, when we go shopping, and for some of us when we simply look out our windows. It is a quiet thing, languid and complacent, a silent presence we easily forget about. Even in the spring, when the runoff from the snow swells its banks, it remains docile, carefully lapping at the cement pillars of our bridges. Polite. Gentle. We forgot it was there.
Our city has no stories. Its memories are young, immature, and it knows more of the present than the past. We have no understanding of what is beneath our sidewalks and highways, what was once the foundations of our buildings. The river is merely a river – we do not know its heart, we do not know its bones. They were all forgotten, neglected and left to die, or perhaps they never existed to begin with. Earth is simply earth. A river is simply a river. We have no secrets.
I first heard the whispers in my dreams. This was how it began for all of us. Every night, the voices waited for us, an indistinct murmur as we dreamed of power or love or fear. I know, logically, how dreams are created. They are tidbits of the day, thrown into a pot and stirred by the subconscious, fragments fed to a sleeping mind of things that may be my hopes or aspirations, or my terrors and the things I dread. Or nothing at all. We call the things we want more than anything dreams, for sometimes our dreams speak a truth we cannot admit to ourselves. We call the things we cannot have dreams, for they are intangible things that melt away with the first light of the sun and we know that all our wanting is nothing more than sand in the wind. It cannot be grasped. Logically, I know this, and logically, I do not take my dreams as holding truth or meaning. The whispers were nothing more than a fragment, like a TV dissolving into static, somewhere far away.
I did not understand the discontent. My waking hours were tormented by restlessness and I spent it out in walking through my neighborhood, headphones in my ears, thinking that perhaps exercise would excise the sensation. I sought to make myself numb and I saw others doing the same, faces hollow as they jogged along the sidewalk with headphones in their own ears. Drowning out the static. I thought that perhaps I had simply rediscovered a joy in music – that I had new bands I liked and wanted to hear constantly – and that this was why I sometimes fell asleep at night with the light still on, a book on my chest, and my headphones still in my ears.
The voices only grew louder.
The changes were gradual. I told myself this was just a phase, that it was the weather or the changing of the seasons. The sky was gray most days it seemed and I stopped opening my blinds in the morning as there didn't seem to a point. I knew what my backyard looked like when it rained – soggy and depressed – and the rain clinging to the screen was no incentive to greet the day. I thought that this was why traffic was so bad, why people seemed more inclined to cut me off or ride my bumper. These were gradual changes and as each increment slipped by it became the new standard without even a thought given. The city changed. It became subdued, paranoid. We retreated into our own private worlds and if anyone spoke about these changes and the voices that invaded our dreams, I was not privy to it. I recognized them as something of substance now, though I did not know what they were or why. I still thought them a fragment, a figment, and took medication at night to stave off the dreams. The whispers fought their way through the haze and so I spent the night in a dull stupor, my mind black save for the sibilant whispers, like the lapping of waves on the shore.
The voices grew stronger.
Then, in the late autumn, when the rains had swelled the river to the last of the watermarks on the pillars of our bridges, people started to disappear. In a city of our size, this was not unexpected, but the nature of the incidents was enough to stir us out of our collective apathy. There were deviations in the people that vanished from the typical profile – and the ones that did vanish failed to reappear in any form. There were no bodies found, no phone-calls from the next state over. One of my neighbors stopped me as I was out jogging, my heart pounding in my chest as I pushed my body to expel the lingering traces of the voices I heard in my sleep. They were like fingers trailing across my skin, cold even in the daylight. I saw the same sensation echoed in her eyes and for a moment – one brief moment – I wanted to ask what she dreamed of. Then she spoke and the opportunity was gone with the news she gave me.
One of our neighbors had vanished – a single man that did not interact with people very often. His house was empty, his car was in the garage, and there wasn't a trace as to where he had gone or why. No signs of violence, but she cautioned me to keep my doors locked anyway. I already did, but that night, I double-checked every window and door, pressing my forehead against the cold pane of my bedroom window and watching the rain choke in the screen. It was a long time before I could fall asleep and when I did, the voices were waiting for me. They were no longer whispers, they were words, spoken in a language that was either not real or one that I had forgotten long ago. I felt, somehow, that it was the latter and that it was a language my bones and muscles knew, that the body remembered just as the earth knew it was more than earth and the river knew it was more than just water.
I tried not to dwell on this in the morning. When I drove across the bridge, heading towards work, I could hear the voices whispering from the water below. I felt cold and no matter of heating inside my car could dispel it.
We had experts brought in and they talked on the news, talking in the newspaper, and talked about everything. Seasonal depression, they said, a matter of the weather. The economy. Dissatisfaction with the political situation. There were so many logical reasons given and yet the disappearances continued, for their logic did not reassure us and their logic did not calm the voices we heard. Mass hysteria, they said, and the police searched for bodies, for evidence. They trawled the river, boats dotting the surface, and they only stopped when the people that operated those boats vanished in quick succession. It was entire households now, apartments and houses left empty in the gray half-light, doors hanging open with not a thing taken. We locked our doors at night. It became a rititual – to check the doors and windows and then I would sit there on the windowsill, my forehead against the pane, gazing sightlessly into the dark and wondering why the rain whispered to me so.
As I said, we had forgotten the stories or perhaps we had not learned them to begin with. A river was just a river and the earth was just the earth. Our bodies were just flesh and our dreams were just figments.
It will be winter soon. The river will not freeze this year. I know this. It is a wild thing. It is not rising any further, its surface is still calm, yet I know the voices I hear is the river's. It cries out in a myriad of tongues, telling us stories we should know, demanding to have an answer. Our city plods along but we are in our death march, shadows under our eyes and incomprehension on our tongues. We've forgotten how to listen, how to know that which cannot be known. We have killed ourselves with our logic.
Soon, I will go to the riverback. There is a path, down near the highway, that switches back along the steep incline. It has been worn by countless feet over the years, each of us walking a hidden path we do not know exists, and it will carry me down to where earth meets water, river meets land. The water will lap at my feet. I will find stones there – out where the water is deep – for the ones close to the shore have all been taken already. I will not be able to see the bottom of the river, for the water is murky, but my hands will close on those smooth, cold pieces of the earth without err. I will fill my pockets. I will clasp them close to my chest.
The river speaks to us, it tells us stories we should know. Water is our place of birth, our heritage. We swam in it and breathed it in, sightless in the dark, and then we were given to the land and to the light. Then we forgot. This is not a death the river is calling us to. It asks us to remember, to lay down and let the voices sing to us in the dark, to find the bones that lay at the bottom, the foundations that were always there before there was the city and even before there was time. This is not death. We are remembering, all of us, and returning to the place we began. To the stories, to the dark. To the river.