by Erik Bailey
We live in houses built upon poles.
We do this because we know when spring arrives the river will swell, and the sides will rush over natural barriers. Dark brown with silt and debris from the mountainsides. It has always been this way.
They ebb and flow beneath our houses. Little eddies swirling around where the poles are stuck fast in the ground.
Every spring the river brings a body with it. It’s just how our town is, it has always been this way.
Every year, a different body. No one ever knows who it was or from where it comes. This year it is dark brown and bloated like the river. I remember looking for the blue in the eyes. The eyes never changed. Always blue. Always immobile, gazing up, towards the sky.
We watch it float under our houses, everyone silently hoping it wouldn’t be their own. Sometimes its arrival is unnoticed till the nights. The past couple of years groups of children watch and wait, a spring time game to see who spots it first.
We watch it float till it reaches old lady Jenkins house.
One arm became stuck, wrapping itself around one of her house poles. Some swear the arm reaches for the house, but the grownups know the body is dead. Regardless, somehow the body would always become stuck. The house would be marked.
Lazily it floats, no longer guided by the current. Always stuck fast.
At the end of winter when the snow melts and the river swells, the wood poles creak and groan as they absorb the excess water. The swollen river and its water means our crops will grow well every year. The river is a blessing. It never fails.
We lay awake at night listening as the cicadas and poles inform us that winter is over and spring is here. Then we lay awake for the day when the body comes, waiting for the change.
The poles cease their groaning. The cicadas fall silent. Except for the gentle thumping sound of the body against the pole. It grows louder every night as other silences grow louder. Slowly the silence envelopes us; creeping its way into the day till there is no break from the gentle thumping against the pole.
As children, our curiosity always gets the better of us. We sneak out while our parents are sleeping. In the moonlight we can see the body under her house. No one wants to give it attention during the day.
Shadows obscure most of the body and it’s hard to tell where the pole ends and body starts.
Moonlight reflected off the face. The blue eyes glimmer there and years later children long grown still swear the white of its teeth are always smiling at us by the light of the moon. Sharp needle point teeth leering at us. The rivers soul, dark and bloated. It demands its yearly tribute.
Come the morning the body still floats there.
It stays for three silent nights and everyone speculates the cause. Parents whisper between each other. We know the river feeds us, and once a year we feed it. Speculation of old lady Jenkins bad luck circulates. We need her to become bad luck. Every year someone becomes bad luck. It’s just the nature of this river. The silent nights wear heavily upon us.
On the third day one man takes a large stone, no one knew where he had been keeping it, and drops it on the body. We watch as it landed right in the middle of the chest, and the body shakes and rolls and sink down.
The collective watchers exhale a communal sigh, but slowly the body rise back to the surface. Eyes still wide, smile feral in its mocking of our effort. We knew it wouldn’t work, but sometimes we still try. Once year we didn’t met the rivers demands and we had starved through the summer; several had died that year.
We all knew what needs to be done. No one ever questions. No one readily steps forward. It becomes part of the silence once begun.
The fourth night as we were all laying in our beds the crack of a gun shatters the silence. As we rush out of our rooms we see the dark splash hit the water under old lady Jenkins house. The withered shape of her body surfaces slowly, and besides it another. Its arm no longer around the poles, but instead around her.
We watch as they float down the river, bodies entwined.
As they disappear down the river the ache of the poles and chirp of the cicadas quietly returns.