Excerpt From “Standing Stone” by Patrick Egan

By the early afternoon of the fifteenth day out of Catawissa, the clouds had lifted from a steady rain that began shortly after dawn.  Fallen leaves of orange, copper, hues of red, and even a few lingering greens, littered the flat surfaces of the somber gray rocks and shale ledges that made up the shoreline along this stretch of the river.  Dark green hemlocks kept the stony alcoves shaded and musky.  Large ferns, rooted in cracks at the base of the cliff, were turning yellow.  Some were long dead, their leaves folding and crumbling into brown hanging rags.

Alain’s stomach muscles tightened with anticipation.  He stared at the crimson trees along the cliff top and for a moment marveled at how they stood out in intense contrast to the deepening blue of the western sky.

The boats moved slowly upstream, a new vista appearing around each bend.

Alain’s stomach muscles quivered again.  Perhaps, he thought, the quiet was unnerving him.  Something seemed troublesome about these waters.  He made no attempt to spear an especially interesting leaf with his sharp stick, which lay against the gunwale beside him.  He was seated in the bow of the second boat.  He thought of what terrible things happened, days ago, in waters calm as these.

Alain’s stomach muscles tensed once again.  Perhaps it was not the water after all.   He had known since rising before sunrise, that around one of the broad curves of the river, they would find the land that was to be their new home.

But Alain could not shake this uneasy feeling.

The convoy of boats entered a sharp bend.  To the left, on the outside of the stream, loomed a bowl-shaped cliff, covered with moss.  Small trees had gained a hold in the cracks of rock.  Towering pines topped the cliff.  On the right bank of the river, the inside of the curve, was a broad stony beach of rounded rocks, bordered by a tangled forest of alder, beech, hemlock and maple.

Occasionally, a pole or oar knocked against the gunwale of one of the boats. When it did, it produced an immediate echo from the cliff to the left.  Like the inside of an empty crypt, the echo somehow made this tight meander of the river seem hollow and lonely.

“Alain!” shouted Clarice.

He heard his name echo off the rock wall.  He turned and saw Clarice wave from the bow of the third boat in the line.  She laughed, and he heard the laugh reverberate into the thick forest opposite the cliff.  He waved back.

No one else spoke.  A strange silence descended upon the group.  Except for the chance splash of a pole, no other sound made an echo.

“There!”  The silence was broken by one of the boatmen.

Alain looked up to the man standing next to him in the bow of the boat.

“There!” the man repeated as he gestured toward the base of the cliff.

Following the man’s extended arm with his eyes, Alain scanned the shoreline to his left and saw it at once.  It was caught between a log and a shale ledge.  It bobbed about in an eddy of water at the outside of the river’s turn.

It was the corpse of a man.

He was lying face down, and his left arm was slightly raised above the water level as if trying to reach for a branch.  What little flesh was visible was white.  His neck seemed covered in blood.  The bloated body filled and pushed against the man’s deer skin shirt and pants.  He was barefoot.

The lead boat approached the body.  The bowsman secured it with a hooked pole and they pulled it across the river to the rocky shore.  Alain could see that there was no blood after all or any visible injury to the man’s neck.  The scarf, the body was wearing, caught his attention.  It was deep scarlet.  Even soaked and soiled, it retained its distinctive hue, very much like that of blood.

Alain held onto his mother’s right hand while Clarice held the left.  The last of the rocks had been piled on the grave of the man pulled from the river.  All the travelers and the boatmen were gathered in a circle.   Standing over the mound, Gabe, the boat master, spoke a few words about God, and the rewards of a paradise that awaited those who possessed faith and patience.  He held a small Bible and read a passage from it before calling for a long moment of silence, allowing the others to pray in their own way for the soul of the unfortunate man.

Had not the Lord been with us, let Israel say, had not the Lord been with us—when men rose up against us, then would they have swallowed us alive.  When their fury was inflamed against us, then would the waters have overwhelmed us; the torrent would have swept over us; over us then would have swept the raging waters.

Blessed be the Lord, who did not leave us a prey to their teeth.  We were rescued like a bird from the fowlers’ snare; broken was the snare, and we were freed.  Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Gabe closed his weathered Bible with a purple silk ribbon marking the Psalms.

Alain thought about whether the man under the rock pile had either faith or patience.  He hoped so, because, by the look of the body, a reward of some kind was certainly to be hoped for.

“Maman, I want to ride with you for awhile,” Alain said as they walked back to the boats.

“Me, too,” said Clarice.

“Of course, my dears,” Marie said.  “No eyes, especially as young as yours, should have seen such a sight as that.”

Clarice walked alongside Marie, clutching her hand and pressing her head against Marie’s skirts.  The child slipped frequently on the wet leaf-covered stones.  Alain could only imagine what memories of death filled his young friend’s head now.

Back in the boat, Alain let his mind begin to dwell and become troubled by dark thoughts about the two dead bodies he had seen in the same river, within days of each other.

Meanwhile, the rowing continued and the steep slopes of the shore gave way to more distant hills.  The place of echoes and death was behind them.

Along with white seedpods, the cold, late afternoon breeze carried with it a mossy, decaying, dank vapor.

Alain watched the snow-like puffs drift by and began to think of the entire river as some sort of watery cemetery.

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