A man decided to kill a stream because his daughter had drowned in it. The stream ran across the edge of his land. It was his to do with as he willed. Despite this, it had done to him something that opened his veins and drained the red power from them. Because of it, he could seek his revenge: a few drops of power remained. He would make the punishment fit the crime so that sense could be restored.
He hired men with shovels and the stream was choked with the mud that his daughter had swallowed as she fought to rise from her final bed. The man was satisfied and went home to sleep himself.
But the mortality of the stream was an illusion. New rains melted the crust that had settled in bitterness over the burial site. Bubbles of air rose up amidst the ooze. The brown mass began to move. In some places liquid escaped and ran free across the grass, dropping its load and beginning to resemble the water it had been.
The man awoke in a rage, hearing the sighing of his daughter from across the fields. Coming to the stream he vowed vengeance a second time and went into town to order stone. When the stone arrived he flung it piece by piece into the muddy water, hoping that the stream so dammed would cease to flow and become stagnant. Then the sighing would cease and his daughter sleep sound.
So it was. And the man decided that he could leave the land in the hands of his son and journey away, now that his duty to his daughter was done. He sought what was owed for his grief in the world of pleasure. He went to towns devoted to excess and dived into a lake of spirits. The spirits were whisky and gin.
Time passed and the man drew less pleasure from the drink as he found that he could not do without it. Among the other drinkers, he was drawn to a woman with a pet monkey that she tended like a child. All day she sat and played with the beast with an enthusiasm which bored mothers scorn, thereby losing pieces of their infants’ hearts. When the man sat with the woman, the monkey climbed on him and expected him to play as well. He found that he did not know what to do, but the monkey was patient with him and taught him a few of its favourite games, applauding when he performed correctly.
‘Do you want to stop drinking?’ asked the man of the woman one day.
‘No,’ she replied.
‘I’ve asked everyone the same question and all of them before you have answered yes. So why are we all here?’
‘You must spin things round a little,’ the woman said. ‘We drink because we are here. This is not understood. The mouths yearn for fresh air, but the feet are in charge. They come here and they stay here. The mouth will forever be foul while it is so.’
‘I want to stop drinking,’ said the man.
‘Then you must do what few have done before you: you must go home. Your feet must take you back where it is painful to tread. I will stay here and drink. I am not as courageous as you.’
So the man went back and found his son toiling as he had done: up at dawn, asleep in his chair in the evening, earning well to keep his family, but angry when they hailed his tractor or bumped into his outstretched feet.
The man survived the winter in his son’s house with the windows tight shut against the cold. He filled himself with soup where the alcohol had been and went to bed when the craving grew too strong. But in the spring he flung open the window of his room and heard for the first time the singing of his daughter from across the fields. Then he bolted the window and took a bottle back with him to bed. His daughter-in-law tried to rouse him in the afternoon, but, after sniffing the air about him and sighting the bottle upended beside the bed, she let him be.
There he stayed, but for the regular trips to the gin ship, until the heat of summer burned him and he was forced to unbolt the window. There, in the night, when all else was quiet, he listened to his daughter as she sang to him and he tried to remember how she looked. He could hear her only when his own head was still, and so his drinking slowed in order not to drown her song.
The man did not understand the song, but he felt its agonising beauty and, through it, he began to recall the agonising beauty of his daughter. He remembered how that beauty had teased him and made him angry; how he had paused from his work to wonder where her mother had gone; how he had shouted at his daughter that she should go too when she failed to comfort him. But how did I try to comfort her? He asked himself as he opened the bedroom door. Clung to her in my dreams, then brushed her aside when her tears might have held me from my work. No wonder she used to sit by the stream. It listened to her more than I. What did it hear? He asked himself as, booted, he left the house to cross the fields. It must have heard something of me, amongst the tales of pimply love and teenage tragedy. How bad was it? Will I be forgiven? Will it tell me if I ask?
When he arrived at the stream he understood the change in his daughter’s voice since he had heard it sighing gently over shovel loads of mud so many years ago. Nothing showed now where the shovels had been. Where the mud had been displaced, it had oozed its way back to where it preferred to be. But the stones were different. The stones were shuffled and smoothed, patterned for performance. Like hand bells laid out on felt. The water ran over and between them, making music as it went. Stepping up to the edge to search the stream, the man saw white froth above the bottle green depths. Then, at last he recalled with clarity his daughter’s face and heard her voice among the many notes: Come to the stream with me, come to the stream! This time he did not refuse, turning back from her to other business. Instead he planted one hand in the muddy bank, then his buttocks, and, seated, he trailed a boot in the stream.
How can I understand what she did? he asked the stream. Why did she love you so much and life so little?
Because, because, because…, sang the stream, and sunlight hopped about it, playing catch me with the ripples.
The daughter-in-law was pleased that the man was now often out of the house, and that the smell of the devil was seldom on his lips. Sometimes she let him mind the children. They were shy with him but laughed when he put funny voices into their stories, or when he pretended not to see them behind young trees in the wood.
Several times a week he walked the fields and settled himself down beside the stream. Hours passed as he listened to the tune that did not care. Pitch and rhythm uncomposed, seeking beauty in the random fall of water on stone. Because, because, because…. Saying nothing, saying all.
The man knew now that the stream would not answer him, could not answer him, need not answer him. All that his daughter had told it had gone, floating down to the sea like petals curling and fading in the sun. But he knew why she had drowned herself. The full body of her experience was beyond his grasp, but at the centre he could feel the squirming of the lungs and the softening pulse of the heart that ached for love.
I love you now, he said. Too late, I know, but it’s the best I can do. At last I’m where you wanted me to be. You are gone and I remain, to gain the consolation that I fled and you sought in vain. To look, to listen, to feel, to love…these you could have shown me. Now I see. I let go my guilt: it shall die, not me.
With this he flung the remaining bottle into the water and rose for home.