I’ve put together a bunch of collections of my shorter fiction over the years, into entities I called the “Triads” – three thematically connected stories per book. Several of them still lurk on Amazon these days. I combined a bunch of them into a more substantial collection which I called – after one of the stories – “Weight of Worlds”. But those were all my own tales, culled from previous publications or never-before-published, showcase collections of my shorter works.
But then, a couple of years ago I put on a professional anthologist/ editor’s hat and pulled together an anthology entitled simply “River”… a collection of other people’s stories.
The high-concept conceit of this book was that it wouldn’t have a table of contents. It would have a “map of contents”, with individual stories taking place at different stages on that river, from source to sea.
I was fortunate enough to gather together some remarkable writers to take part in this endeavor, and the book remains a shining highlight for me – not least because of my own relationship with The River.
As I put it in my editor’s foreword –
There is Only One River
That there is only one river, only one River, in our world and our mind and our consciousness and our spirit, was not a new idea – I had been cherishing the concept of an anthology built on that premise for years, a collection of stories any of which may or may not take place on the banks of the same body of water as any other in the treasury of tales… and yet which would all tell of the same River, in essence, the River that flows through all the stories of all the world.
Mine… mine… let me tell you, briefly, about mine.
When a friend and and colleague, Steven H. Silver, proposed an issue of an ezine edition of the St Petersburg Gazette on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Mark Twain’s death, I contributed an essay, entitled, naturally, “There Is Only One River”.
This is what I wrote about it, in that Twain Anniversary essay:
“I was born on the banks of the Danube – when it is already an old river, muddy, treacherous, full of shifting sandbanks and sucking mud and terrifying whirlpools. This was the river that held my own imagination. I was told stories about it when I was barely a toddler, of the years when the winters were so diamond-hard that the ice on the river was thick enough to bear sleighs and horses and they had sleigh races, complete with thundering hooves of iron-shod horses, up and down the frozen river. The river which ate life during the war, when the invaders took the local residents out onto the ice and pushed them under, sometimes still alive, for the crime of being who and what they were. The river which threw out bright glints when the summer sun hit the water lapping at the muddy banks, or the deep green depths where sometimes the clear water lingered; the river whose bottom was trawled by great bewhiskered catfish whose smaller representatives you could see moving sluggishly in a large tank at the marketplace and you could walk up to it, point to the fish you wanted, and it would be expertly extracted and brained and decapitated and wrapped up for you while you waited – but I, even as a child, knew that there had to be bigger and wiser catfish in the river who had lived there for a century or more and were far too canny to get trapped into that death-tank…
I was told that when my grandfather was a child the river was still clean enough to drink from. When my mother was a child it was still clean enough to swim in (and you probably wouldn’t catch anything too bad if you swallowed a mouthful or two). By the time my time came, you’d probably catch seven different kinds of dysentery from the thing, and it smelled of diesel, closer to the main quay where the boats tied up, and, further down the embankment, of soft squelching ripe river mud, the kind that would suck the shoes off your feet if you wandered too deep into it. The mud hid things that were known as bikovi, a kind of seed pod which was distinguished by sharp spikes – three of whom at any given time served as a steady tripod on which the thing rested and the fourth pointed straight up, sharp and solid and sturdy enough to drive through the sole of a shoe. One didn’t walk barefoot on the shore – at least not where there wasn’t open sand – without paying close attention to where one stepped.
I loved my river with a great love. The Danube which was not blue, not here, and never was. It does not matter. I worshipped the great brown water flowing swiftly by. I loved the ramshackle fishing boats pulled up on the sandbanks out where the river was not constrained by concrete or great levees. I loved the forests of cats’ tails and other water reeds that crowded its shallows, wading out into the stream. I even loved the sharp seedpods which I took such care to avoid. I loved the way it looked, the way it smelled, the way it flowed through my own veins, like blood and memory.
I was, still am, in a sort of superstitious awe of the thing. When I returned to the city of my birth in the aftermath of the NATO bombing campaign in 1999, the one that had taken out ALL the bridges that bound together the parts of the city on the river’s two banks, the only way across was by crowded ferries which often had standing room only and were stuffed with as much humanity as they could carry… or by cockleshell boats plied by private enterprise, which would take you across for coin, like the ferryman across the Styx. We did that, my mother and my aunt and I, one time, and sat in the little wooden boat as it was flung across the river by the good offices of a tiny outboard motor. I remember sitting on the wooden seat in the boat, next to the edge, with the boat low enough in the water that I could, if I wanted to, reach out a hand and trail it in the water as we crossed the river.
And I tried.
I put out a hand and spread out fingers that trembled… and I could not make myself touch that holy water. Holy, to me, for so long. I had been warned against its whirlpools as a child and now there they were, swirling brown and oddly innocuous right next to my boat… and I could not touch them. Because the legends I carried in my heart and in my spirit told me that there really WAS a river god living here, and that he was drowsing, and that my touch might wake him, and I would pay the price.
The great river. The old river. The river of dreams, and of power, and of eternity, flowing like time.
[Mark Twain’s] gift to me was to realize eventually that there was a way to make something into an archetype that transcended the mere quotidian. My Danube would have been a stranger to a Twain riverboat, or a black slave running away to freedom; the Mississippi would have equally been a stranger to sleigh races on ice, or to the specific kind of water reeds that grew on its banks. But I like to think that the catfish of both rivers would have found a common tongue between them as they slipped past the archetypical waters of all rivers and of all time. And I like to think that some day, if I find myself with my toes curled into the mud of the banks of the old downstream Mississippi of the Twain stories, I will instinctively be watching out for sharp seed pods which could not possibly be there.”
May the rivers you cross always know your name.
Read all the other offerings in “River”, the anthology, to get the rest of the story…
(get it here)