On a trip down to Peru last Summer, I spent a few days in the jungle at a lodge overlooking a tributary of the Amazon river. The night sky there was amazing, and you could see a big swath of the Milky Way, along with a whole set of stars and constellations that aren’t visible from the Northern Hemisphere. It was a very peaceful, contemplative time, and while watching the sky and the river it felt natural to ponder the bigger questions in life. One night I saw this big river boat go by, all bright and flashy. While it was there it demanded attention, But it soon passed out of view, disappeared and the river was dark again. It seemed profound at the time, and to start out my new feature of Friday Fiction, I decided to write a story about it.
The Magic Riverboat
The old man sat up at the top of a high hill overlooking the wide river. The man sat silently watching the river as the boats went by, slowly meandering down the stretch of river. Some were faster, others slower. They’d appear in his field of vision on one side, move down and then disappear as they went around the bend, flowing on down, maybe as far as the Gulf of Mexico.
The old man sat silently and watched as the sun slowly went down behind a hill, painting the sky in shades of orange pink and blue. Then the sun was gone completely and the sky turned first violet, then dark purple and finally an inky black. The stars were out now, and as the time passed they filled the sky with hundreds, maybe thousands of tiny points of light. The moon was somewhere in the sky behind him, but it was just a sliver now and the stars stood out as the only light in the sky.
The old man hardly moved. He listened to the sounds of crickets. He heard some mosquitoes buzzing around him, but he was stringy and thin and they didn’t even bother biting him. After a while, a big boat came around the bend in the river and into his field of vision. This was a big riverboat like the kind he used to see back when he was a kid, but hardly ever saw anymore. It moved slow, but with purpose, its’ smokestacks trailing dark clouds, taking up the center of the river like it owned it. The riverboat was all gleaming white and radiant, decked out like a Christmas tree with trim lights of all colors – reds, yellows, greens and blues. The old man looked down at the boat and he heard the soft sound of music rise up to him, faint at first, but then louder as the boat came fully into view. He heard horns and a piano, a beat of drums. The old man smiled and thought back to when he was young. This was the sound of his youth, Dixie land jazz the soundtrack of Summer nights years ago.
He thought back to the people he used to know, his good friends, his mother and father, his brothers and his cousins. All of them were gone now. He thought of the days he spent fishing, frogging and swimming in the river. He remembered friendships and fights, long afternoons and lazy evenings just being on the water and letting time pass by. He thought back to his first taste of love, Maddie in her yellow dress, and how he stole his first kiss on the riverbank just down the shore from town. He still dreamed of her from time to time, even though he hadn’t seen her in almost seventy years. She’d married a man from out west and moved away from town.
The big boat went further down the river and the music was louder now. The old man strained his eyes trying to see what was going on in the ship, He wondered who was on the deck, and where they were headed? He wondered what the people were doing on this night, what they were thinking and if they looked out and even wondered about who was living on shore, and what their lives were like? He heard faint laughter. The big boat sounded its fog horn, a deep bass honk that would be heard from miles away. The old man ached to be down on that boat, he wanted to be part of the party. He imagined the music would go on all night, and the people would stay up until they couldn’t dance anymore. Then they’d stagger back to their cabins, fall asleep and wake up miles down the river. They would go on, and the next day he would still be here, in this same spot.
The riverboat chugged along down to the far edge of his sight, rounded the corner and was gone. When it was gone from view there was still a trail of sounds like the ghost of the ship, and then that was gone too. The night sky was dark again and the only sound was the chirping of the crickets.
The old man sat still and waited. Soon he would be like that boat, the light and the music, the smoke and the celebration, once so bright and urgent, then fading to nothing but a memory. Like the boat, he would be gone and only the river would remain. Some day. Maybe some day soon. But not tonight. The old man slowly pushed himself up to standing, took one last look at the river and headed off toward home.