Mauk Donnabhain is a queer, working-class writer from Donegal, Ireland. His short story ‘The Rabbit and the Moon’ was shortlisted for the Colm Tóibín International Short Story award 2020, and he has had other work published in Profiles Journal, Crannóg 54, Untitled Voices: Issue 2, The Honest Ulsterman, The Blue Nib, Cold Coffee Stand, Pendora magazine, and The Galway Review. He lives in London.
WHERE THE RIVER RETURNS
By Mauk Donnabhain
The River has its own way of doing things. A vitality that is little understood by people, calling life to the home shore. Pulling volumes of rainwater, scraping out its bed with stones. Sometimes busy and focused, at other times sluggish and recalcitrant, as though it isn’t quite sure if it wants to continue, in this endless cycle of seasons, fish-swelling, pebbles overturned, and young men being dragged downstream.
The villagers live in constant fear of its energy. Its need for movement, and the uncertainty of the River’s intentions. The old folk say that the River is cursed. They call to notice the many accidents and suicides. They claim that the River is a great fish swallowing up the life blood of the valley. They will plead with the young men and warn them not to go there. To do as the women do. To shun the riverside path and its bathing pools. Subject to prying eyes on the opposite bank, it’s a place where a person can’t feel safe. Neither in the water, nor out of it.
But the young men flock to the home shore in summer. When the heat is bouncing off the land, pushing them into the water’s embrace. Why would they heed the prattling of fogeys anyway? The River’s bent towards violence makes the whole thing more appealing. And what of those people on the other side? The enemy foreigners? What should young men have to fear, in a flood spread out at their feet?
The real reason they go there is to become the very men that the villagers are so afraid of. Far away from the women and children. The home shore is a refuge. It’s a young man’s place, where young men can enjoy their freedom. Stripped down to their bare flesh, battling against the crosscurrent. The River has flashpoints. White water and whirlpools, where the surface swirls in its thirst. It’s a place where a young man can prove his worth. At least in the eyes of his peers. To gain the admiration of his mates and play the hero. The River mainly ignores their games. Just occasionally it will catch one of them in its undertow and drag him down into the darkness. But there are always other young men around, to pull him back to the light. And they will laugh about it afterwards. It will be part of their braggadocio. Because the River has a mean streak, and everyone knows that never, under any circumstances ever, should you go swimming alone.
Levin strips off his clothes and places them in a neat pile on the grass. He loves the rawness of undressing. Penises shooting in and out of their nests of dark hair. Sweat on their chests and in their armpits. Their muscles rippling in the cool air and naked skin as far as the eye can see. Tapping into a well of shame, but it’s the only excitement he gets. Swimming through the early evening, after a long day in the fields. When the harvest is brought in, and the land is scented with a quiet submission, his mind simmers with a queer intensity. He can hardly contain himself, and it makes him restless, as he eases his body into sleep at night, the images of flesh turning in eddies of his subconscious mind.
Now it’s festival time, and the River is left in peace. The parades have disbanded, the villagers retired to the common. A day of drinking and flirting. Levin watches the women with their eyes smiling. The men breathing beer with their ties loosened and caps tipped casually, inviting an unknown chaos into the late afternoon. He’s never felt lonelier. He longs for the coolness of the water and the flashing of skin. The jostling and grins, hot breath in his ears. There might be someone there. He knows well that you should never, under any circumstances ever, go swimming alone, but he is drawn to the home shore by a force that is beyond his control.
But there is no man there. A sign that there really is no man in this world who isn’t beer-drinking and women-flirting. He plunges into the water and feels the strength of a sudden chill, until his limbs spread out, and the River accepts his company.
He stands on the riverbank afterwards and lets the evening air dry his skin. The festivities will have ended. The villagers making their way home through country lanes. The publican wiping down tables and stacking chairs. Levin hears a sudden splash on the far side of the River. A foreign enemy. They are officially at war. The villagers have learned not to acknowledge the other side. Not to think about that country. Not to see the buildings of the town further downstream, nor the factory spewing filth into the air.
A figure is swimming most deliberately towards him. As it clambers onto the home shore, the figure turns into a young man, with blond hair pressed to his head like a net, and skin that is paler than anything Levin has ever seen. The stranger stands up, tall and smiling. Levin doesn’t know how to react. No one has prepared him for this, but he follows, as the foreign enemy draws him back into the water, and the River pulls him away from home.
He sees another life for himself. On the other side of the River. In a new country, where the foreign enemy turns out to be human after all. Athletic, intelligent. A real man, both in the world and in bed. No one remarks when they move in together. A small house in the town, and Levin learns another language. A language with no words for shame or despair. He finds a job at the factory, and his new life is one that he’s always dreamed of. He doesn’t look back towards the home shore. He doesn’t even think about home.
But as he’s swimming along, his fantasy ebbs. He needs to focus on his breathing. Too late to heed the warnings or seek help. The foreign enemy has reached the far shore and is waving his arms. Calling out to him, promising another life. But the River bubbles and grumbles beneath him, then swells up in a rage. They say it will happen three times before the end.
His head dips, then he pushes to the surface again and splutters.
The second swell pulls him even deeper, so his feet brush against gravel. It’s more of a struggle to return to the surface this time, but he fights his way to the top. He’s out of breath, and the foreign enemy is nowhere to be seen.
No new life for him. No words, except sorrow and regret. He’s trapped. Alone in his drowning, and every man can see that.
She looks everywhere, but she can’t find him. On the common, shrill with activity. In the village square, with its upturned chairs and crumpled pamphlets.
Surely not? He wouldn’t dare.
Everyone knows that you should never, under any circumstances ever . . .
But the River is greedy. Especially on autumn evenings, when the light slips off early, and the villagers are distracted by their own entertainments. She overcomes her fear and takes the path out through the water meadow. Crickets clicking all around her, and the damp of the oncoming night wafting through fields of corn.
The River is spread out in front of her. A cat sleeping in the shade of the trees, the surface rippled only by the flicking tail of a fish leaping into the air. But there is no human life to be found there.
She sits at the edge of the water and loses herself to a dream. She sees him drowning and waves her arms in the air, as she runs along the home shore, panicking at first, but then quietening her mind into a resolved intent. There will be the fallen branch of a tree on the ground. She’ll hoist it up onto her shoulder. The branch will be heavy at first, but she’ll find the strength somewhere deep inside her, and she’ll heave it upwards, launching it into the water. And it’s heavy enough to hold against the current. She will save him.
The villagers will hardly believe that it’s possible. The women will kiss her, and the men will lift him onto their shoulders. Of course, he will be forever grateful. That she saved his life. He’ll find a love for her that he never knew he had. Something will awaken in him, that they will tell themselves had always been there. They will marry in the spring. Before the summer’s misery and the River’s call.
She feels sadder than she’s ever been, and the River reflects an emptiness, as the sun pulls away from the sky. She gathers up her skirts and leaves the home shore without him.
The City doesn’t care about the bodies of young men or the dreams of villagers. Coming down into the estuary. What’s another body, after all, with the sheer number of young men pouring down from the hills? The City doesn’t have time for life’s tragedies, it’s as simple as that! It needs to get on with its business. The newspaper callers. The buyers and sellers. Food served in steaming bowls. Dogs begging for scraps. The rich ladies in their pearls and furs. Men in their smart suits sporting expensive watches. The theatre of city life is immersive. Thus, the City carries on in its general way, hardly noticing the detail of dreams shattered, or lives falling apart.
The River dumps his body on the quayside. A discarded toy, and the City sends its police and services. Making notes and taking photographs. He’ll make a sub-paragraph of page five if he’s lucky. A split second of loss, that will catch someone’s eye over breakfast, as they regret their choice of egg, and sigh about the multitude of stories the City has on offer.