The Cold River Boy

The river ran cold and fast and the boy was born in it without drowning. The river ran icy around the boy. The river flowed icy over him. But the boy did not notice the river. The boy noticed neither the river nor its current; neither its iciness, nor its cold. The boy had never known otherwise than he knew, and what he knew was a cold fast river, so the boy noticed none of these things.

A woman passed along the river path. The woman saw the born boy in the cold flowing river. Pitying him, the woman lifted her long heavy dress. With her bared legs the woman waded out to the cold boy. She pulled the cold boy from the icy current. With her bared breast the woman warmed the cold boy. Finally, the boy breathed. And suddenly, the woman loved him.

In her sudden heedless love, the woman built for the cold senseless child a small bridge. The woman built the bridge of wood. The woman fastened the bridge to trees on either side of the river. The bridge traversed the river. The woman left the boy then. The woman knew that she must leave the boy for awhile. The woman left the boy because she loved him.

The boy did not live now in the icy fast river. The boy lived now on the small wooden bridge. But the cold river boy could hear still the swift rushing of the current beneath the small wooden bridge. And the cold river boy could feel still, at times, the cold water rise to his dry skin over the bridge's wooden planks. In those times, when that cold rush rose to his dry skin, the boy began to notice the iciness of the river.

Soon the cold river boy grew. Soon the cold river boy was something of a youngster. Once the boy became a youngster he recognized other cold river boys nearby. He also recognized their small wooden bridges--bridges just like his own. The cold river boy also remarked a much vaster bridge. It rose high above the river in the middle distance. That bridge was quite impressive, he thought. But, after some remarking, the boy looked away from the great bridge. He looked away because a woman came treading along the river path.

The woman had come to the cold river boy now and again as he grew. Little by little she had taught him to be warm. The boy learned from the woman how to be warm. The boy also learned from the woman a preference for warmth over cold. More and more then the boy noticed the iciness of the river when it rose to his dry skin. And less and less then the boy liked that iciness chilling him. The boy was an intelligent boy. The boy had a sparkling lustrous intelligence. With it the boy began improving his small wooden bridge. It seemed to the cold river boy the bridge might protect him from the iciness of the current. Maybe too, he thought, it might quieten the river's rushing. The boy wore a thick cloth now. He wore the thick cloth for warmth against the cold river fog.

After some time, the cold river boy noticed other boys on the river bettering their bridges. Encouraged in his own pursuit, he began working steadily on his small wooden bridge. During this era the cold river boy grew from a youngster to a sturdy young boy. Once he became more sturdy and assured, less and less he thought of the woman who visited him now and again, and more and more he considered that vast high bridge in the middle distance. The boy noticed how that vast high bridge was constructed of stone. The boy noticed how that vast high bridge spanned the fast river at impressive heights.

The other boys on the river were imitating that vast high bridge. The cold river boy did the same. Sometimes the cold river boy copied the ideas of the other boys in his fortifying. Sometimes the other boys copied his. But, by the time they were all a little older, they all boasted quite substantial wooden bridges. Their bridges were so substantial, in fact, that they often looked down over the river's icy rushing with aloof indifference. And they could see now too, from this new vantage of theirs, something very important about the vast high bridge in the middle distance. They could see that it was not just a vast high bridge, but a vast high bridge with a tall shining building standing atop it.

The cold river boy watched that tall shining building for countless wondering days. After watching it for so many days, the boy--who by now had become an older boy--trod resolutely to the far edge of his wooden bridge, stepped with decision from its planks to the grassy ridge that paralleled the river, and began a deliberate footing toward the vast high bridge of the middle distance. As the boy approached that vast high bridge he realized it was not just one vast high bridge, but very many vast high bridges. And as he came abreast of that vast high bridge, he saw there was not just one tall shining building standing atop it, but very many. The cold river boy stood dumbstruck.

He hesitated.

The boy put his hands then on the edge of the vast bridge. Over its edge, he looked. There, far below him, the river ran. Icy, the river ran, cold and rushing. All the many bridges behind him adjoined each other, he understood then. And together, he understood, they formed a tunnel, a dark tunnel over the river, a tunnel through which the cold river ran fast and icy, but through which it could neither be heard nor seen. Looking at the river from that bridge, the cold river boy felt hollow and lonely. So the cold river boy turned away.

And then he stepped away.

And away.

Before the boy had found the middle of the many bridges he stood surrounded by the tall shining buildings. This was the cold river boy's first true appreciation of the city. He put his feelings for the cold river behind him then. He went into the city wonderingly. For in the city it was warm. And in the city he did not feel lonely.

* * *

One day the boy--who was now a man--sat at his workdesk in one of the city's tall shining buildings. He sat quite busy carrying out his daily tasks. These tasks kept him warm. And they made him feel un-lonely. But they did not make him happy. On this day, as he labored, he overheard a second man relating the latest gossips. This second man bore the tale of a boy who had come to the city from the cold river. Our man, who we will now call Benny, listened attentively to this telling.

Rarely did Benny think anymore of the cold river. The cold river was a thing for him past now, hidden, an ancient event removed from him and rather frightful. But, occasionally, Benny would be reminded of the cold river. Benny liked to watch strange people dancing. And Benny liked to listen to strange people singing. Sometimes these strange people came to the city from the river regions. While Benny found their performances enjoyable, many others found them startling and provocative. For these strange people brought with them river water. And when they sang and when they danced they soaked themselves in that river water. Invariably, as one man twirled or another woman kicked, warm droplets would shake free of the strange performers and arc into the audience. This scared some. But for Benny it was a thrill. But also for Benny, afterward, it meant a feeling of hollowness and loneliness. Benny did not understand these feelings. He chuckled at them uncomfortably when they arose in him; and then he turned back toward the tall shining buildings of the city. This was how Benny usually remembered the cold river.

But today a man was talking of something a little different.

"There is a boy," the warm office man said, "A young boy who has come to the city from the cold river without first building a bridge."

The warm office man paused. His pause was dramatic, but not artfully so. This man was no orator. He just felt an unease, a palpable unease. The other warm office people hushed.

The man continued: "Such a thing has never been known before. Many do not know what to make of this." Then he finished, "It is also being said that the boy brings river water with him wherever he goes, and that the river water is always cold, and that he splashes people with the cold river water intentionally."

A woman stood from her workdesk then and stepped to the large windows. She looked down over the city. Another woman stood from her workdesk too and stepped to the large windows. She was wringing her hands. One man rose and began pacing back and forth. And then another man rose, too, pulling at his collar. In a short while all of the warm office people stood at the large windows. Together they stood, peering down over the vast high bridges. Together they stood, peering down with concern and half-belief. If this story be true, they considered, it was certainly terrifying and unquestionably unacceptable. But then, in somber authority, one of the eldest among them spoke. Reassuringly the older man professed his belief. "The cold river no longer exists," the older man said. "The cold river is just a myth."

But Benny did not believe this. As Benny stood gazing down over the city, worrying, he knew the cold river still ran. To think otherwise was to think dishonestly, he decided. What of the warm droplets from the strange people who danced and sang, he reflected. And what of this cold river boy? Where else could such a cold river boy come from, if not from a cold river?

Much time passed and word of the cold river boy spread. With the spreading of the word came a growing fear. And with the growing fear came popular discomfort. The cold river boy frightened the people of the city, one and all. His roaming the city with cold river water endangered them. His wetting the people of the city with cold river water injured them. His hands felt icy when, unbidden, he approached and touched them. And he seemed to be everywhere! He always appeared right next to you! "Scandal!" the warm city people cried.


"A threat, this boy is, to personal well-being and warmth!"

At last, the whole of the city demanded the cold river boy be stopped. And this was Benny's job. For Benny labored in one of the tall shining buildings that worked to assure the uninterrupted warmth of the city people. But how should he proceed? Benny frowned down at his workdesk. He did not know. Benny squinted at his idle, still hands. He sat stymied, pondering.

Then the city elders assembled. Then the city elders conferred. Then the city elders came to Benny with a suggestion. The city elders suggested to Benny: "The boy should be made to prove the existence of the river. And if he cannot prove its existence, he should be killed."

Benny started.

But then Benny agreed, and heartily. For Benny knew the cold river existed. And Benny thought perhaps proving the cold river's existence might quiet many fears. The cold river would be known then, he reasoned, instead of unknown. Together the people of the city could study it and discuss it. Unfounded terrors would dissipate then, Benny believed. All would return to heart's-ease and contentment, Benny believed. This is truly what Benny believed.

The cold river boy stood quite small and he smiled a great deal. He usually approached a person of the city quietly, without betraying himself, in silence. One moment he stood beside a person unseen. Then the next moment he was sprinkling them with icy river water, or clasping their unexpecting fingers in his cold wet palms. Startled, the person of the city would jerk, recoil, curse. But before they could gather their wits enough to flee, as they stood there still agog before him, all a-fluster, the cold river boy would bathe his semi-nakedness for them with cold river water. The boy would beam for them too his broad guileless joy.

"See?" he would cheerfully call to their now retreating figure, "Once you remember, it's good. See? No fear. None."

So went the cold river boy's usual daily proselytizing. But today was not so usual. Today, instead of the cold river boy going to the people of the city in silence, the people of the city had come to him in volume. And now, this very afternoon even, in response to their staggering but exceedingly welcome petition, the cold river boy was giddily leading a large troop of them--Benny among--to the edge of their warm shining domain.

The troop followed the cold river boy beyond the last of the city's vast high bridges.

"See?" The cold river boy exclaimed. "Here ends the warm shining city." He tramped on. "It ends here. It's warmth is extra. Soon you will see what I mean." Gaily, the cold river boy went, humming as he led the people of the city. The troop followed the cold river boy along a grassy ridge paralleling the river bank.

"See?" The cold river boy exclaimed, pointing below. "We walk above the cold river. It is clear that it exists. Look! Do you see it there below? Can you deny? And look at its cold. See the rafts of ice. Warmth is a habit. Cold can be a habit, too. It is very simple."

Yes, the cold river boy thought to himself happily. Yes, it is very simple.

The troop followed the cold river boy on. They threaded with him down a footpath that led to the very shore of the cold river itself. The cold river boy halted there. Reluctantly, the troop came down after. Warily, the troop descended, in caution. These people from the city trembled now before the cold river boy with staring glistening eyes. Some of them panted in fear. The boy faced them grandly.

"This is cold river." The cold river boy gestured simply. "I am sure you now believe. Look there. There is a small bridge that a warm-hearted woman built for another cold river boy. I was offered one, too. But for some reason I knew better than to accept it. I refused my bridge. You can refuse your bridges, too. Yours are big bridges. But bigness does not matter. No bridge is true. Every bridge is false. When you refuse a bridge you understand the river; you see that warmth is just a burden that keeps you from swimming in the truth. See? Watch! I will show you."

And then the semi-naked boy stepped to the edge of the icy water. And then the semi-naked boy denuded himself of what minimal cloths still hung about his waist. And then the denuded child drew a breath and sprang from the bank into the fast flowing current.



The boy's rash act shocked the troop of city people. The troop lost its breath for an instant. Then, an instant later, the troop inhaled deeply. In fear the people of the city tightened their bodies. In fear the people of the city knit themselves into a single, many-headed beast. Closer they drew to one another, crowding against one another's flesh. Nearer they came to each other, clutching for the security of numbers. Hands they gripped at, and glances they exchanged. Pants they expelled, and shoulders they embraced.

The cold river boy thrashed and kicked in the river. He dove and cavorted in the current. The cold river boy guffawed and spit and frolicked and slapped and swam and gargled. The cold river boy chuckle-giggled throughout. He was a porpoise leaping. He was a dragonfly frisking. And even as cold as the boy must have been, and as alone as he certainly was; even as naked as the boy swam, and as vulnerably as he sometimes floated; and even as frigid as the boy had to be sporting there before this astonished troop of city people, the cold river boy grinned. He grinned and grinned. Gleefully, the cold river boy grinned. And grinned and grinned.

"Cold, yes," the boy called out finally. "But soon you understand. You remember. Then you want to swim in the river more than to hide on the bridge. Then you like to feel the cold better than to feel the warmth of the shining buildings. Then you dislike the warm office rooms."

The cold river boy proclaimed then each of the city people watching him capable of paddling about in the river as easily as he, as freely as he. He begged they try--and immediately. He exhorted they join him--and right away. But immobilized they stood. Dumb. They did not move. The city people gripped only at one another's elbows. The city people clutched only at one another's waists. At this the cold river boy was finally stumped. What further proof could he provide, he wondered? He considered this question furrowedly as he clambered up out of the icy water. He puzzled over this question knittedly as he dripped there naked on the muddy bank.

Then he brightened.

"See!" he called suddenly to the city people. "Understand!"

And the cold river boy rushed along the riverside to where lie a ragged rope end. And the cold river boy tugged and pulled at that ragged rope end until a basin was drawn from the depths of the cold river. And then the boy stooped to that basin and lifted it from the shallows. And then the boy ran with that basin, tilting it, and ... The boy sloshed its icy contents, its frigid river water, all over the people of the city.

"See!" he commanded again.


Cries answered him now.


Howls bellowed.


And shrieks rose. And anguish pealed.

And what had been the covert twitterings of the city people became suddenly a roar. And what had been the cowering timidities of the city people became suddenly a fury. The city people bustled against one another, eyes flashing. The city people elbowed away from one another, finding fighting space. They dripped now with cold river water before the boy. They flamed now with heated rage before the boy. They quivered.

"Sacrilege!" One man erupted. "Outrage!"

And what followed passed very quickly.

A few of the city people stormed the cold river boy and knocked him to the ground. A few more of the city people hurried up after then to join in the beating of the cold river boy. And then the rest arrived in haste to curse the cold river boy as he was mauled, to call him a liar, to call him a devil.

"He must be stopped!" A woman shrieked amid the melee. "We cannot allow this to continue!"

And the biggest of the shouters sprinted off then some distance. Then the biggest of the shouters sprinted back to the fray with an extremely big stone. The people of the city bound that big stone to the ankles of the small stupefied child. And then, together, the people of the city heaved the senseless boy into the cold river. There, weighted by the big stone, the cold river boy sank to the bottom of the cold river.

Benny did all he could to stop these horrors, but he failed.

And that is how the cold river boy died.

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John Dishwasher

The Cold River Boy