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How Far Is The River

2006-07-13 22:25

  Between the boy and the river stood a mountain. The boy was young and the river was small but the mountain was big.

  The thickly forested mountain hid the river, but the boy knew it was there and where it was and what it looked like; he had never seen the river with his own eyes, but from the villagers he had heard of it, of the fish in its waters, of its rocks and currents and waterfalls, and it only remained for him to touch the water and know it personally.

  He stood in front of his house on the hill opposite the mountain, and gazed across the valley, dreaming of the river. He was about twelve years old, a sturdy boy, with untidy black hair and shining black eyes; he had fine features and a clear brown skin, but his hands and feet were rough and scratched. He was barefooted; not because he couldn't afford shoes, but because he felt free in his bare feet, because he liked the feel of warm stones and cool grass, because not wearing shoes saved him the trouble of taking them off.

  It was eleven o'clock and he knew his parents wouldn't be home till evening. There was loaf of bread he could take with him, and on the way he might find some fruits. Here was the opportunity he had waited for; it would not come again for a long time, because it was not very often his mother and father visited relatives for the entire day and left him on his own; they had gone out on something important, that was why he had been left with a very sketchy meal; a loaf of bread, some milk and two eggs. If he came home before dark - before they return - they wouldn't know where he'd been.

  He went into the house and wrapped the loaf in a newspaper. Then he closed all the doors and windows.

  The path to the river dropped steeply into the valley, then rose and went round the big mountain. It was frequently used by the villagers- the woodcutters, milkmen, mule-drivers; but there were no villages beyond the mountain or near the river.

  The boy passed a woodcutter and asked him how far it was to the river. The woodcutter was a short but powerful man, with a creased and weathered face, and muscles that stood out in hard, ugly lumps.

  “Seven miles,” he said, which was fairly accurate. “Why do you want to know?”

  “I am going to the river,” said the boy.

  “Alone?”

  “Of course.”

  “But it is too far. It will take you three hours to reach there, and then you have to come back. It will be getting dark. Besides, it is not an easy road.”

  “But I'm a good walker,” said the boy, though he had never walked further than the mile from his house to his school. He carried on down the path, and the woodcutter looked after him with some misgivings and decided to keep an eye out for the boy on his way back from the market.

  The path was steep and the boy had to run most of the time. It was a dizzy, winding path, and he slipped once or twice and slid into a bush or off the path and down the hill. The hill was covered with lush green ferns, the trees were wound in creepers, and a great wild dahlia would suddenly rear its golden head from the leaves and ferns.

  Soon the boy was in the valley, and the path straightened out and rose. He met a girl who was coming from the opposite direction. She held a long curved knife with which she had been cutting grass, and there were rings in her nose and ears, and her arms were covered with heavy bangles. The bangles made music when she moved her hands, and it was as though the hands spoke a language of their own.

  “How far is it to the river?” asked the boy.

  The girl had obviously never been to the river, or she may have been thinking of another one, because she said “Twenty miles” without any hesitation.

  The boy laughed and ran down the path. A parrot suddenly screeched, flew low over his head, a flash of red and green. It took the course of the path, and the boy followed its dipping flight, running until the path rose and the bird disappeared amongst the trees.

  A trickle of water came from the hillside, and the boy stopped to drink. The water was cold and sharp but very refreshing. However, it seemed to have the effect of making him more thirsty. The sun was striking his side of the hill, and the dusty path became hotter, the stones scorching the boy's feet. He was sure he had gone half way; he had walked for over an hour.

  Presently he saw another boy ahead of him, driving a few goats down the path.

  “How far is the river?” he asked.

  The village boy smiled in a friendly way and said, “Oh, not far, just round the next hill and straight down.”

  The boy, feeling hungry, unwrapped his loaf of bread and broke it in halves, offering one portion to the village boy. They sat on the hillside and ate in silence.

  When they had finished, they walked on together and began talking, and talking; the boy did not notice the smarting of his feet and the heat of the sun and the distance he had covered and distance he had yet to cover. But after some time his companion had to diverge along another path, and the boy was once more on his own.

  He missed the village boy; he looked up and down the mountain path but could see no one. His own home was hidden from view by the side of the mountain, and the river was not in sight either. He began to feel discouraged. If someone had been with him, he would not have faltered; but alone, he was conscious of this fatigue and of his isolation. He was sorry he had finished the bread; he might want it later.

  But he had come more than halfway, and he couldn't turn back; he had to see the river. If he failed, he would always be ashamed of the experience.

  So he walked on, along the hot, dust, stony path, past mud-huts and terraced fields, until there were no more fields or huts; only forest and sun and loneliness. Now there was no man and sign of man's influence - only trees and rocks and bramble and flowers - only silence……,

  The silence was impressive and a little frightening. It was different from the silence of a room or street, it was the silence of space, of the unknown, the silence of God……

  There wasn't any movement either, except for the bending of grass beneath the boy's feet, or the circling of a hawk high above the pine trees.

  Then, as the boy rounded a sharp band, the silence broke into sound.

  A sudden roaring sound. The sound of the river.

  Far down in the valley the river tumbled over rocks, fast and frenzied. The boy gasped, and began to run. He slipped and stumbled, but still he ran. Then he was ankle-deep in the painfully cold mountain water. And the water was blue and white and wonderful.

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