My boys like to play by the riverbed. They like to run around and pretend to be knights and bandits. Thomas likes to pretend that he is the son of a dethroned lord, while Gregory likes to pretend to be a gentleman thief giving back to villagers. Allen, the youngest, mostly sat quietly by the river bank and stared at the flowing water.
When I was younger I used to play with my brother by the same river that my three boys loved. We would skip stones across the river’s surface. Caleb, my younger brother, he would always try to find stones tall enough so he could skip across the river himself. I was not as brave, the flowers on the other side of the river would give me coughing fits. But Caleb loved to pretend the other side was his domain.
My boys always leave right after lunch and return right before dinner. Sometimes they arrive a bit late and I start to worry. I’ve had to be stern with them several times before due to their late arrivals. Thomas, the oldest of the three, he started to argue that he is getting old enough to stay out later, but not anymore.
One night, after they arrived late, Thomas and Gregory went on and on about their games. Gregory was miming a sword fight while Thomas pretended to die. I don’t like to raise my voice, but I had to to get them to calm down. They left Allen by the river.
I had been yelled at before for the same thing. My mind was always lost in my own fantasies so I would often lose track of Caleb. Each time I would have to go back with a lantern and find my brother running around in the field on the other side of the river. When the wind would pick up was the worst, as I could hardly yell through my coughs. More than once I had to get his attention by throwing a stone.
That night I walked back with Gregory and Thomas. I didn’t want them to lose track of Allen again. I was more upset than I liked to be because it was starting to drizzle and the clouds were getting thicker. When we got there, Allen was sitting on the near bank, skipping stones across the river. I was a little startled, his form was impeccable, but I never taught him how to throw.
“Why didn’t you leave with your brothers?”
“I was making a friend.” Allen skipped another stone. It was hard to get him to focus on anything he didn’t already care about.
“Well you need to come home right now. Where is your friend? Does he need someone to walk him home?” I reached my hand out and grabbed Allen’s hand.
“Don’t worry, he is home.” He smiled, but then looked back to the river.
“Then let’s go.” I pulled him along.
Our mother would chastise us frequently for our behavior. She would whack our knuckles with her wooden spoon and yell at us for not helping out around the forge.
“You boys spend all day at the river, never helping me! If your father were still alive he would beat you much harsher than I!”
Caleb would run away when this would happen, always straight to the river. He said it was the only place he felt at home, safe. And when he ran there, I was the one who had to get him back.
Something was bothering me about Allen. He was always a shy child and would never talk to strangers, but Gregory and Thomas mentioned nothing about another child at the river. And why didn’t Allen leave when the other kid left? So, after dinner, I walked to the kids’ room and asked Allen to talk with me at the table.
I sighed deeply. “Allen, your brothers didn’t mention your friend.”
“That’s because they didn’t meet him.” Allen was playing with something he had in his pocket.
“Oh, where were you playing then?”
“By the river” He pulled out a small flat stone and twiddled it in his hand while refusing to look at me.
The storm was getting stronger, pounding on the roof by that time. That tended to be good for business as people would need repairs the next day, but right then, it made me worried.
“Did your friend teach you how to skip stones?” I took the stone from Allen’s hand and set it on the table.
“Yeah, he taught me. He told me you taught him too.” He looked at the stone, but then back down to his hands.
“What do you mean? I never taught anyone how to throw stones. Who is your friend?” I raised my voice, even though I didn’t want to. I felt like my son was trying to play a trick on me when I was just worried about him.
“My friend said he was the Emperor in the River. He lives there.”
At that point I could not control my tone. “Don’t play games with me Allen. Tell me who your friend is!”
“I told you who my friend is! He said that he doesn’t like you! And I don’t like you either!”
And then I did what I swore I would never do. I struck my Allen across the cheek with the back of my hand. The sting radiated heat around my knuckles. He started to cry, and then ran out the door.
One time I ran after Caleb to the river. I was slow that day because it rained the night before and the ground was thick with mud. The winds were picking up speed and I forgot my coat. I did not want to be outside that day, but if I went home without Caleb I was sure I would be beaten worse than ever before.
When I got to the river I found Caleb on the near bank, ready to start leaping to the other bank. I tried to yell out to him, but the smell of the flowers caught in my lungs and I simply coughed out his name. He was halfway across by the time I got to the near shore. I picked up a smooth stone and threw it straight at him.
It him in the back of the head.
He slipped on the stone.
He fell forward and cracked his head against the next stone.
Then the river, still raging from last night’s storm, dragged his limp body down the river.
I ran after him, but the river was faster than I could be in the mud.
I ran to the river bank wanting to apologize to Allen. The thick mud along the way kept sucking my feet into the ground, and the rain beat against my uncovered face and arms. The water quickly soaked through my thin shirt. I made my way down to the river, but by the time I got there I couldn’t find Allen, instead, the near bank was covered in flowers.