English Wells fought the Pumquich River for forty years, moving his will ever by degrees at it. “By God, Miriam," he often said to his wife, “I’ll go at it until I drop, most likely. What you work for, you get. You get what you work for." English, lacking funds or worldly promise, wanted to steal more land from this side of the river, to push his small estate out over the river’s run, to claim energy’s due.
“The two of us," she’d say, “partners to the end," the crochet needle at a small and quick twist in her hand, or a sewing needle making code against her fingers. At such watch her nose would announce when the pie in the oven was ready, or a roast in its own rank of juice. English always noted her almost inert actions, the messages driven home by them, and said the best things said were often unsaid. These days, he thought, she had become, for whatever, rounder and more content.
On the same hand, by its gifts, the Pumquich was magnanimous, an opulent river, a river that slipped unheralded out of the far country in various disguises. Furtive, escapee, melodious in turns it was, twisting or dancing on the face of Earth. At first a placid no-nonsense runner, gaited by life, it never ran out of normal breath. Then for a hectic bit it came a robust galavanter in those wild, wild places where hideaways gleamed their darkness among harshest rocks and vertical cli fs old as time itself. And now, decoded and broken into a lesser tributary by Earth’s curves, sleepily at times under alder-branched archways where fishermen lurked, near breathless but ongoing in the way of rivers, it came past English Wells. For those forty years he had gone without pause in his evening labors, after
a regular day’s work as a truck driver. And Miriam watched him from the window or the porch of their small bungalow, no children ever at her feet or at beck and call, saying, “You go about your work, English. We have no call on us otherwise."
There, for the nonce, in this one man, the Pumquich seemed to have met a match.
Miriam dwelled on him from odd angles; saw him broad, thick-browed, his deep brown eyes often at repose even when he was at labor, his energy seeming to leap from a reservoir she thought had no end. She’d see him at the very edge of the riverbank he was always moving, or attempting to move. English would look back on his property, at the peach and pear and apple trees marching in ranks down to the river with him, and random but deep green clutches of grapevines that joined the slow march outward, his invasion. She mused he was a mathematician at a problem’s resolution.
The measurement, his own planning with fruits of geometric concentration, almost overpowered him. Stabbed with accomplishment, Miriam heard, time and again, his confidential but tempering aside; “Them peaches keep pushing me, Miriam. Damned if they don’t." He’d look outward, and continue, “On the other side, over there by them muddy spots, it’s too damn low for any use. If I can stretch our piece of land a foot at a time, we just plain get bigger. It’s really that simple. And them at the town hall can’t plot the river’s line, but just obey every turn it makes."
To his liking, she phrased her comments or replies in a tum at formality and a bit of elegance. “You carry on, English, early when the sun leaps like a jumper. Or the moon later on, tired of repose or isolation in darkness, breaks loose of the horizon. Oh, like a prisoner from his cell, my river thief." The roundness hugged him.
With a new neighbor at a ka feklatsch, English o f on his regular job, Miriam said, “At first English makes a small dent in the Pumquich’s passage to the sea six miles down, hoping always by some miracle to bend its course forever in one night. He’ll build a wall of sorts against the river’s flow, backfill it, and start anew, all by a measured degree... rock by rock, stone by stone, shovelful by shovelful, or eventually by the third generation of his new wheelbarrow. Granite, big or small, in all its beauty, is moved with a loving care. Sandstone and mica are nursed into place as well. Boulders beget him, I swear, fused by some old glacier hereabouts. English, in this trade off, never knows how much sweat his body gives back." She paused, sipped her coffee and added, “And he never counts."
It was simply one of his old saws that came repeated in another voice: “Hell, Miriam, all it takes is energy, and I got a ton of that." She knew all of them, the one full page.
The weight of the statement, fully defined and worldly, fell o f his shoulders, like a slab of rock off a Pumquich cli f far up the river. His thumb was as green as ever, but he wanted a wider orchard, a bigger claim. “My sweat demands it," he would say, “and that force pounding in me, needing to move the very Earth itself."
“English," she would say, “you’re more than ever at your significant work." Her blue eyes shone their lamps on him, the needle in her fingers working that tactile code.
At the same time Miriam loved the slight smile at the comers of his mouth when he made his honest pronouncement, as if he thought he was sharing a secret she had not known. Her needle, or the crochet hook, would go its merry way, which English saw and took for punctuation of sorts.
Pointing out a rock or boulder he was hustling, he’d yell up at Miriam at her favorite window or at her favorite chair on the porch. “This rock might become a keystone, or this boulder the base of a pillar." There was reality in his proposition. Sunset glazed his sweaty forehead.
Then he’d shove his shoulder against the monster or wedge a bar beneath what only a glacier might last have moved, the glacier long ago calving the rock and the land into a lake of deposits, it seemed. Never had he been a serious student of Earth’s history, but nevertheless felt it tremor through his arms every day with his e forts; the shiver, the shunt, the movement, Earth on the slow prowl, reforming.
Miriam could not count the hours English had spent down there at the back of the house, with pick and shovel and barrow, nor counted his trips with donated fill dumped practically at their door; he had his own designs on what should go where. It was not that he was an engineer, she had convinced herself as well as he had, but certain things would last longer than others in the continual wash the river exerted and the drainage plying storm after storm across the land. Over the years he had developed his own laboratory for tests, calculated the results, planned the future moves.
Neighbors dropped their excess fill at the rear end of his driveway. Rocks, old stone walls, parts of foundations. Rock gardens, suddenly flattened out to choicer lawns, came trundled onto his property. English would accept only that which was natural; no junk, no plastic, nothing that would take a thousand years to get back to its original properties. He could have accepted Hank Patterson’s old Ford, because Hank had proposed its use. English could have loaded it with brick and stone that it would keep in place for years, a miniature chunk of breakwater, until it rusted out. He did not take it.
“Hank, I know you’re trying to do what you can, but this move of mine is for keeps, and I won’t really try to screw up the river or the land, other than just letting it mosey a bit. I know iron was here ever before I started, but I’ll not add it, or any plastic either. None of that new stu f that never lets go."
“English," Miriam argued, “You could start a new wall with that car sunk in place. You could roll it over and drop it right where you need it most. It’s a sure way to make a bottle cap." She felt she was trying to shorten his task; to see his dream done sooner; his place in the physical world marked off forever.
And so it went on for those years. English would handle shovel or barrow, she would cook or sew or bring a book of poems beside the window. She was content with him, life was sure, smooth, promised tomorrow on the plate. He’d wave the shovel at her, or the huge, rock-ribbed pick ax, with the shades of evening coming down on them. She’d wave back, in that gentle way she had, a book or the invisible needle in her fingers. Either was enough for English. She’d be there after the day’s last shovelful was flung or the last rock dropped into place. As rich as the Pumquich, she was. No other man could be so lucky.
From her spot at the window, she believed the span of his shoulders could support the world, and she knew the promising shadow those shoulders threw coming into the bedroom at night, his labors done, the next drive at hand. Never had she said welcome, though she could have, but threw the covers back for him every time, the white shank of her thigh like an exclamation mark. She thought it not lascivious, but part of her total need for him. And he thought she was beautiful at cover tossing, poetry in motion. English could have said so, but he didn’t. They had always passed on the pillow small talk, their energies matched and compensated. Morning was often the next thing they knew.
Shadows, though, as in all of life, were like hands reaching to grasp one another, or take them in; though these mates knew the distance between shadows was covered with good ground.
The one dark shadow in all of it that came at Miriam, out of context or kilter, was who would, in the end of it all, come into ownership of all his labor. Even with no children of their own, it still would not be fair for the town to end up with forty years or more of English’s work.
That shadow, though, lingered for her. Often she thought it like a forgotten meal reinventing itself on the palate at the strangest hour, a gourmet roast, a dry and irresponsibly memorable red wine. The taste was there, even if phantom.
The 4th of July bomb came into their lives, bursting from the shadow. Miriam’s sister Georgette and her husband Paul Linkard were obliterated in a head-on crash with a gas tanker truck in a night rain storm as they came from the wake of a neighbor woman. Georgette had ironically serviced the woman through a di ficult health issue. The sole child of the Linkard union was 5-year old Paul Linkard, Jr. Shortly he was the responsibility of his Auntie Miriam, or, as his mother used to say, Auntie Em.
Now Miriam had her own task; at her age to get this child to some kind of maturity so that he could function in the world. English had his river, she had this child. And, as with all things emanating from shadows, the changes came. Exhaustion came early at her in her new days, the day full of running, doing, getting done, chasing down the child. And taking care of her man.
The first night the covers were not thrown back on the bed, and Miriam deep into a demanding sleep, English Wells knew, even with the river still running, that life had changed.
Paulie drew at him as well, the towheaded smiler locking up a new place in his heart. Nights Miriam’s hand flopped innocently against English, and fell away. He thought of the river again, as a kind of lover, making demands, giving parts away, taking them back. He tried to think of some line of poetry she had read during one of the other days, days before Paulie. As always, he could not bring it back, knowing each verse was but momentary in him. Sleep, in its stead, came in reward.
And it was Paulie who came screaming out of the deeper yard one evening when English was pinned in the water by a boulder. Miriam screamed at neighbors. Two men leaped down the yard in bounds to find English caught between the boulder and the last wall he had built and the river washing over him. One of them, Patterson himself, wedged the long crowbar in place and freed English from certain death.
Waskovitch pressed on English’s stomach to push the river free of its claimant. English gagged and gasped and gave mouthfuls of water back.
Neighbors thought English would give up his quest, and Miriam for a few nights was back to her cover- tossing, but the river continued, and so did English Wells until the night, beside her man in a sudden stillness, him cool as the river, Miriam Wells knew one journey was over.
Evenings occasionally, Paulie leaping upwards and off to another school, Miriam Wells waves an invisible needle or a twig-like crochet needle out the window or from the depths of the porch. One night, nearly inaudible, she read a line of poetry into a small patch of darkness at the edge of the nver:
Once, near thirteen, we shared/a cigarette under cover of the mist/and the alewives passed us, upstreaming/That’s the night we forgot to listen./That’s the nightwe began.
It was the only secret she had kept from English, her own poem, and that night in the soft darkness she let go of it forever.
"The River Thief" was previously published: Epic Cures, collection of short stories, Press 53, Winston-Salem