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The River: A Short Story

Dedicated to Pierre Lioni Ullman and with the poignant memories of our walks along the Milwaukee River, our first friend.

the-river-a-short-story

It was late March, and the snow had melted enough to reveal the footpaths along the river that ran past Ephraim’s house. He put on his rubber boots after breakfast to walk along the river.

The snow was probably still melting upstream, he thought, as the river was swelling past its usual banks, and a cool breeze came off the river.

It was early which meant the chance to see some deer, always a calming, beautiful sight. The deer in the area knew him and never ran away, though he didn’t test their trust by moving too closely, either.

The sounds and stability of nature had become a source of companionship to him in the years since Sarah had died. He sensed a stoic knowingness among the trees and birds and animals, the sort of sentiment that couldn’t be put into words, and, if it could, was rarely articulated in a world so sure of itself. Ephraim was no longer sure about much.

He saw some movement ahead, but it wasn’t a deer. It was that girl he had seen before. Girl, meaning younger than forty, probably younger than thirty-five.

The path was narrow, so he had to step out of the way to let her walk by. She was very slim, with braids pinned on top of her head. She always wore loose fitting, long jumpers, with some sort of top underneath, and in colder weather, a navy pea coat.

“I’ve seen you walking here before,” he said, surprised at the sound of his own voice.

She looked at him, open and scrutinizing at the same time. Her skin was youthful and dusted with freckles. Her eyes were large and serious.

She wasn’t dismissing him, but she wasn’t smiling, either.

“I’ve noticed you, too.”

“You are always alone.” He wasn’t sure this was the right thing to say. He wasn’t even sure why he was speaking to her at all.

“I’m a widow.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“You are always alone, too.”

“I’m a widower.”

She scrunched her eyebrows a little but didn’t say anything.

“How long has it been?” he asked.


“Does it matter?” He understood the hint of anger in her voice. He didn’t like the question either and felt embarrassed of his rote reaction to another person’s grief.

“No. I’m sorry. I should know better. I really hate the question, too.”

She didn’t reply, but he did notice the way she cocked her head at his sentence.

“You’re here early.”

“I’m used to being up early. I’m a nurse.”

He wasn’t sure how long he should keep up the conversation, standing on a muddy path in this still cool, spring air. And he wasn’t sure how much energy he had for small talk.

“My name is Ephraim," he said, extending his hand and then, when she didn’t reciprocate, he pulled it back.

“My name is Ruth.”

“Nice to meet you, Ruth. I think I’ll take my usual walk now. Have a good day.”

She nodded and walked past. He thought to turn and watch but didn’t.

+++

Spring came a little bit early that year, and by early April, Ephraim was in the garden he and Sarah had planted so many decades ago. The perennials were all mature, so his main task every year was removing winter debris, thinning, weeding, and trimming. It was quiet, soothing work and close to the house, in case he needed to go to rest.

One morning, he thought he saw something in his periphery and, looking up, saw Ruth standing at the edge of the property, looking at him.

Ephraim stood up and waved. Ruth waved back but didn’t leave, so he, without any forethought, went to greet her.

“Good morning, Ruth. It is a nice Spring morning for a walk along the river.’

She didn’t respond at first.

“Is this where you live?”

“Yes, Sarah and I built this house.”
“Sarah, your wife.”

“Yes.”

“My husband Slavomir and I bought a house up the hill from here. We started a garden, too, with plants given to us by people at church.”


“Church?”


“The Orthodox Cathedral.”

“Oh.”

“Do you go to church?”

“I was an academic and thought I didn’t' need church. When Sarah died, I began to pray. I guess that’s my church.”

Ruth nodded.

“Slavomir, he was from...?”

“Croatia.”

“The war?”

“Yes.”

“So, you met his family at the Cathedral?”

“His family was killed in the war. He was an orphan.”

“Judging from the way you look, Eastern Orthodox was not your family’s religion.”

“I’m an orphan, too.”

They paused, the sound of the river filling in the gap.

“I’m not technically an orphan, but I understand a little bit.”

“Oh?”

“I come from the Appalachians and left in my late teens. I never went back.”

Ruth nodded.

“Was Sarah an orphan, too?”

“Not in the same way as you or Slavomir, but her father died very young of pancreatic cancer, like she did. Her mother lived in California and had her own life, and she had no siblings.”

Ephraim thought they’d gone far enough with that topic.

“You live between the Lake and the River. Gives you a lot of nice walking options.”

“I don’t walk there too often. Slavomir died by the Lake. Sometimes I walk there on the way to work, when I know I’ll have a distraction.”

“He was a young man?”

“Yes, only a few years older than I. He was struck by lightning.”

Ephraim knew that being struck by lightning along the Lake was a story that carried more with it than a simple lightning bolt. He wasn’t sure if he should invite the rest of the story. Still, he wanted to give her a hint that he understood this.

“Sounds like a story with a number of components.”

Ruth’s eyes widened, and then she looked away.

“I’ll see you again,” she said, walking away.

Ephraim went back to his gardening, thinking about this quiet, haunted girl. She carried the sort of weight that is more common among much older people.

+++


One morning, after a walk along the river, he returned home to find a bag hanging on his mailbox. There was an envelope taped to the bag that contained a note.


“Dear Ephraim,

There is a little asparagus patch in our yard from the previous owners. I thought you might like some. Ruth”


Inside the bag were ten slim stalks of early Spring asparagus.

+++

A week later, Ruth appeared at the edge of the garden.

“Have you come, so you can hear the ‘thank you’ I wanted to utter but couldn’t?”

“I just stopped because I saw you.”

“Well, I would like to say thank you, anyway. It was quite a treat to have some fresh asparagus, and I was touched by your thoughtfulness. I’m afraid a garden by the river isn’t good for growing vegetable, so I can’t reciprocate.”

She looked at him with her sad, big, fierce eyes and looked as if she might say something or if she might begin to cry. Ephraim stood very still, like he might stand near one of the deer he saw along the river, as if any movement too quick would frighten her off.

“I’ll be on my way,” she replied.

+++


Ephraim went about his days, heavy with grief and age, careful, feeling like one misstep might either collapse the whole thing or invite a tsunami of grief. He was glad it was spring. Being in the garden soaked up some of the pain. The fresh air cleared his mind.

+++

In early May, Ruth appeared at the corner of the garden again, not waving or calling out, just standing there.

“Hello, again, Ruth.” He thought to ask her how she was doing but felt that might be an invasion.

“Hello, Ephraim. I was thinking. You are always alone. Did you and Sarah have children?”

“No. We couldn’t but accepted this without a lot of trouble. Our love was enough.”

Ruth nodded. Again, Ephraim thought to ask her about children, but he knew the answer. She was also always alone.

“I thought as much. Well, I’m a nurse. I work in the neonatal unit, but I can do other nursing and care, too, if you ever need help.”

Ephraim laughed a little. “I have felt so old since Sarah died, but I didn’t realize it was obvious to others.”

“It isn’t a matter of obvious; it’s a matter of age, numbers.”
“Well, yes, I see.”

“So, I wrote down my phone number and email address. “
She handed him a slip of paper and walked away.

+++

When he went back to the house, he unfolded the slip of paper and looked at the small, neat handwriting. He knew it was not a world in which to trust a stranger whose last name he didn’t even know, and he really couldn’t imagine calling on this girl (well, young woman) for help. At the same time, besides his doctor and lawyer, he had no one to call on.

He added his email to his contacts list and programmed her number into his phone.

+++

May turned into June, and it was a most beautiful June: warm but not too warm, rained often and at night. The ample snow the winter before had nourished the plants in his garden (their garden) and along the river.

June was also a mid-point in the garden. The blooms of Spring had passed; the sturdier, late blooming flowers of mid-July were still preparing themselves.

Early one Saturday morning, having no work in the garden, he went for a walk along the river, wondering what wildlife he would see, wondering what thoughts he would ponder.

The air was still, and there was something different in the aural landscape. He heard no birds and looked around for a hawk high in some tree, waiting for breakfast.

He stood and looked in all directions. Usually, the majestic bird was not hard to spot.

As he stood, another sound came to his ears. It was the sound of an injured animal, a thin wailing. He proceeded cautiously towards the sound. He would call the wild animal rescue agency once he found the animal.

Walking along the thin path, through the now knee-high grasses along the river, he moved closer to the sound, keeping his eyes low for where it might be laying.

The sound grew louder, seemed to be coming from the riverbank. He looked up and saw Ruth.

She was standing on the riverbank, somewhat bent over and clutching her stomach with her arms.

As Ephraim walked closer, he heard the wailing more distinctly. Over and over, she was crying, “Why? Why? Why? Why?”

Ephraim stopped because he wasn’t sure what the right thing was to do. Should he call out? Approach her? Walk away? Wait?

He took a deep breath, walked a few steps closer, and called her name.

“Ruth?”

She kept wailing.

“Ruth? It’s Ephraim.”

She stood up and turned to face him.

He stepped closer and held out his hand.

She stepped back so quickly that she almost fell back in the water.

Ephraim withdrew his hand. “Ruth, do you want to tell me?”

“Tell you? That my baby died? That my husband died? That I am alone, alone, alone with broken dreams, wandering this earth like a ghost until I can die and be with my baby and my husband? That there is no one who needs me, no one who loves me, no one who cares? No one! If I died, no one would mourn. Nothing I do matters.”

Ephraim had a lifelong habit of respect and introspection, and he stood quietly with these words, looking towards Ruth but not directly at her.

“I am not as young as you are, so I do not have the same expanse of years ahead of me. Sarah and I never had children. But I do know what it is like to be completely alone in the world, and, now retired, know well the feeling of being a useless ghost.”

Ruth looked at him with her wide open, sad eyes which communicated recognition of what he said and that it was possible that someone else might feel the same way.

“How do you face it?” she asked.

“I try not to make anything worse. I try to live in a way that would honor Sarah, even if that only means taking care of my health and our home.”

Ruth nodded.

“And your feelings?”

Ephraim shook his head. “They’re hard. I can’t sugarcoat this. People try to – people who are alone or grieving and those around them – because the truth is so hard.” Ephraim shook his head again and looked down towards the ground, holding in the tidal wave of tears that threatened.

“I don’t understand, and I’m even religious. Sometimes it is so hard to grasp that I feel sick, like I might just gag and throw up all the pain inside of me.”


Ephraim looked up towards her and nodded his head.

“What are your plans for today?”

“I am taking a continuing education course, and today I will study.”

“Your are devoted to your career.”

“I am devoted to my patients.”

“Babies, right?”

“Yes.”

“Purpose helps.”

“It is all that gets me through.”

They stood in the relative quiet of the early morning along the river with the birds resuming their singing and the sound of the river’s current.

“I’m sorry, Ephraim.”
“What?”

“Purpose might be a difficult word for you.”

“What,” he smiled, almost laughing, almost crying, “Because I’m an old man?”

“Well, you said you were retired.”

“You are right. I struggle with the idea of purpose.”
“You helped me this morning. You helped me the day you accepted my phone number and email and offer to assist you.”

“I hadn’t thought of that.”

“I’ll walk back with you to your house; then I need to study.”

+++

A few days later, an announcement from the conservancy organization that took care of the green space along the river came, calling for volunteers for the Saturdays of May through August. They would meet on Saturday mornings to work along the river, clearing paths, pulling up invasive plants, and planting young trees.

Ephraim looked at the announcement and thought of Ruth. He found the email address she had given him.

“Dear Ruth,

The river conservancy is beginning their volunteer Saturdays this week. You seem to be free on Saturday mornings. Would you like to come? You could meet me at my garden at about 8:50, and we could walk together and see if there are projects we could do together. That way you wouldn’t have to socialize too much. Please let me know.


Ephraim.”

+++

Each day he checked his email, he hoped he might hear a reply. He wasn’t sure why – to help her? To have his own purpose (via helping her)? For a little companionship that wouldn’t demand too much? Maybe all. He hoped he’d hear., but he didn’t.

+++


Saturday came. It was a warm morning, so he went out into his own garden to do a little work before walking to the place where volunteers gathered. Like many lonely people, he often arrived too early, so he checked his watch often, trying to delay his departure until 8:50.

When it was time to leave, he put away his garden tools, and, turning around, saw Ruth standing at the edge of the garden.

“It’s a nice day to work along the river,” he said, “Are you joining us?”

“I think so, but I don’t want to have to talk to anyone.”

“Since it’s your first time, maybe I’ll suggest a project we can do together as a way of steering you away from the group.”

Ruth nodded, and they walked in silence down the path to the gathering.

+++

Ephraim was a regular volunteer, and everyone greeted him by name.

He introduced Ruth.

“Everyone, this is Ruth. She appreciates the river as much as all of us. She lives nearby.”

The volunteer leader listed the day’s chores, and Ephraim thought that planting some very young trees might be a good task for the two of them.

With two trees in pails and a shovel and a watering can, they set out to a sunny spot along the river.

“Have you ever planted anything,” he asked.

“No, but I’ve learned how to do other things. I can learn to do this.”

Ephraim dug the first hole while Ruth watched and then handed her the shovel for her to dig the next hole nearby.

Ephraim showed her how to break of the root ball of the tree and spread out the roots in the hole, how to pack the soil down, but not too hard, and then to water.

He did one tree. She did the other, and then they walked back to return the buckets and tools.

“I think I’d better go home and study,” she said.

“I’m ready to rest myself. “

Without discussing it, they walked back to his garden, and then Ruth continued on to her home.

+++

The next day, he made his daily foray into his email box which was his primary way of staying in touch with former colleagues and students. There was an email from Ruth.

“Dear Ephraim,

Thank you for inviting me to work with the other volunteers along the river. My feelings about this are summed up in the Old Testament reading at church today:

{from the 47th chapter of Eziekiel}

He led me back along the bank of the river. As I came back, I saw on the bank of the river a great many trees on one side and on the other. He said..." Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes. On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing."

I am never scheduled on the weekends anymore and would like to join you and the other volunteers next Saturday. I will meet you at the edge of your garden at the same time.

Ruth”





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