THE SWEETWATER RIVER
by Steve Carr Steve Carr 607 Circlewood Dr. Richmond, Va. 23224 email@example.com There beneath a pale blue sky, beneath the tufts of clouds racing westward, beneath the swirling starlings racing with the clouds, Luke laid upon the bank of the Sweetwater River. In the height of the day, past the brightness of glaring noon day sun, well before the rising of a full white moon, Luke laid looking upward, eyes fixed on the nothingness filled with all those things: blueness, clouds, birds.
In that moment, another moment much like the ones before it, he heard rustling of the tent flap, the flap to his tent also there along the bank of the Sweetwater River, the tent flap being tickled by the breeze that gently skimmed across his naked skin, the prairie grass, the bare rocks, and the narrow stretch of river, no bigger than a stream, flowing westward like the clouds. It had welcomed him, this spot, this place of sparseness, and allowed him to be its guest; a guest alone and without recall of how he had arrived there.
To be there where he was, and know who he was, that he was Luke, and nothing else, no longer gave him that feeling, that feeling he recognized as panic that had drifted on with the passing days and passing breezes. He was alone by a river bank, having arrived from a place or places he couldn't remember, and going to a place or places which also he couldn't recall. The sky and his mind were very similar, full of nothingness, a nothingness filled with passing things that left no impression, things there so briefly, clouds and birds and a sun and moon, in the passing of the minutes, hours, days, that they, like Lukes memories, did not take hold, other than as passing things.
But unlike the things in the sky, he didn't recognize his memories, in fact, other than his name, he remembered nothing at all. He did recognize the feeling of panic, what it was, and he recognized when it was gone. At peace and in calmness in the soft prairie grass there beside the river, the panic had gone, and he had no idea why he had felt it at all and he knew too little to fear it might return.
There, naked, he looked down the length of his body, a good body he decided, strong and lean, tanned and uninjured, no markings other than a tattoo around his belly button. That tattoo, sun rays encircling his navel like a ring of fire, provided a sort of boundary, everything above it helped him live, and almost everything below it helped him move. While his mind had become detached from who he was, or how he had arrived at this spot along the river, or where he was going, he remembered his body, but he didn't remember the tattoo. He didn't recall when he got it, where he got it or why, or the significance of it. He did remember it was called a tattoo, just as he remembered a bird was called a bird, a cloud a cloud, a tent a tent, and his name was Luke. He didn't remember the word for not remembering, he just knew that it was something he couldn't do anything about.
When the breeze rustled the tent flap again, he sat up and pulled his knees up to this chest, and wrapped his strong arms around his lean legs and watched the flowing water of the river, such clearness, cleanness was the water that rushed along between the muddy and grassy banks. The rocks and stones in the water's bed were so clearly visible, almost glistening, passed over by the cool water, swam over by an occasional small fish, the water too clear and rapid to even catch the reflection of the sky or clouds or birds. The water looked so sweet, visually sweet if that is possible, and then Luke recalled that he knew the name of the river, the Sweetwater River. And the water was sweet, refreshing and clean and cool. Each time he had drank from it, the water always tasted the same, sweet. He knew its name but he didn't know why he knew. He just did. He didn't think of the sky being called blue. It was just the sky. The river was sweet and it was the Sweetwater River, he knew that.
He stood up, stretching his very good naked body, reaching his fine, big, tanned hands toward the sky, wiggling them at some starlings in pointing range of his fingers. Holding that pose for a moment, he thought how good it was, to stretch, to see the birds, to. know the specific names of two things with certainty, his own and the river's. It was a start, a start toward being certain that he remembered his own name for a reason, just as he remembered the name of the river for some reason. He was more than just a thing, he was Luke, and the river water wasn't just sweet to the taste, it had been named just like he had been named. Lowering his arms to his sides as the starlings flew, swirled, circled, dove and rose into the distance beyond finger-pointing range, he felt the pangs of hunger that reminded him that his very good body needed to be fed.
Knowing what hunger was, was like knowing the sky was the sky; it was something that couldn't be forgotten. There was no food in the tent, only a sleeping bag and a backpack with his clothes, and certain that he had been eating, if only a little, over the past couple of days or for whatever length of time he had been there by the river, he wondered why there was no sign of what he had been eating, no containers, no cans or bottles or trash of any kind. He bent down and scooped water into his cupped palms and put the water to his mouth and drank. It fed his thirst, but it did not feed his hunger. Then a voice called out to him.
"The misses thought you might be getting hungry, Luke."
Luke saw standing in the tall yellow prairie grass, grass that swayed even in the slightest breeze, an elderly man, an old man, with a long white beard and long white hair, a man he recognized but didn't know, or know why he recognized him. The man was holding a paper plate covered with tin foil, holding it in his outstretched hand, like an offering, offering it, holding it out to him. Luke knew he should know this old man and why the old man had brought him food, but he didn't. He knew the old man's smile, a welcoming, friendly smile, but he didn't know, couldn't remember the man. He couldn't remember the old man's name either, even though the old man remembered his name was Luke.
The old man stepped out of the tall grass that swayed into the shorter grass along the riverbank that did not sway, coming nearer with the tin foil covered plate in his hand, nearer to Luke, offering the plate. "I see you're still not partial to wearing clothes," the old man said.
Thinking about it, about having no clothes on, that the old man knew him from a time before, a time before when he apparently had no clothes on that time, either, he searched his thoughts, searched his feelings, about his nudity in front of the old man. It was like looking up at the pale blue sky, there was nothingness with fleeting thoughts passing like birds and clouds, and he looked down at his naked body, then looked back at the old man offering the plate. "I could put on clothes."
"Don't make no never mind to me," the old man said, "but the misses wasn't too keen on seeing you out here naked as a jaybird again. She sends her hellos and this food, but she didn't want to embarrass you or herself again if you were naked, which you are."
"Yes, I am," Luke said, reaching for the plate of food. "Thank her for the food."
Luke sat down again in the grass now smashed against the riverbank from the weight of his body and took the tin foil off the food and put his nose to it and inhaled the aromas of beef, of potatoes, of carrots, a yeast roll, melted butter. He took the plastic fork that was on the sliced beef and stabbed it into the beef and then put the beef into his mouth. As he ate, lost in the sensation of eating, erasing his hunger, he thought about the names of the things he was eating: beef, potatoes, carrots, butter, roll. He knew these things, their names. Everything he had seen that day so far, he knew what it was or what it was called, except the birds, he knew they were birds, but he didn't know they were starlings. With a forkful of carrots in his mouth, Luke looked at the old man. "Do I know your name?" Luke recognized the look on the old man's face, and now recognized the man, but didn't remember the man's name. It was that look, a flash of concern, something new in the man's otherwise smiling, wrinkled, tanned face, that Luke remembered. He recalled it from somewhere, on a different face, a face he couldn't remember other than the look. The same look, concern. The look on the old man's face was like the appearance and sudden disappearance of a starling in the blue sky, a change, a shift in the things in the pale, blue sky. Then it was gone, that look, the look of concern.
"I'm Ben. Not a name you would have any reason to remember. It's just a name." As the breeze tousled Ben's long white hair, Luke repeated the name, Ben, in his head several times. Ben. Ben. Ben. He wanted to remember the old man's name like he remembered the name of the river, and the names of other things that didn't really have names but were called something. Tent. Bird. Cloud. Ben.
"Thank the misses for the food," Luke said, handing the empty plate, plastic fork and tin foil to Ben. "Ben and The Misses," Luke said aloud as if he had discovered a memory from long ago.
"Her name is Julie, " Ben said. "It's Ben and Julie. Can you remember that?"
Looking down, down at his naked, tanned, dirty feet, avoiding looking into Ben's eyes, at Ben's face, he watched a red ant scurry across the top of his naked foot and off into the dirt and grass where he was standing. It was an ant. He remembered that, and it wasn't the color of some other ants, the black ones.
In his chest, Luke's shirtless bare chest, there was a sudden heaviness, the sudden sensation of feeling sad, so incredibly sad.
"Julie said we should get you to some help. Do you want me to take you to someone for help?"
It was Ben's voice, the raspy voice of the old man, and Luke heard Ben's voice as if hearing thunder rumbling in the night sky some far distance, like the thunder from the previous night. There was something comforting, something also frightening in the sound of the distant thunder, in the sound of Ben's voice. "How long have I been here?" He looked up at Ben's face.
There was that look again, the look Luke remembered from another time, another place, on a different face. "We don't know for sure Luke. We found you here a few days ago, naked just like you are now, sitting on the bank of the river with your feet in the currents. You didn't tell us much other than your name, but you're a nice young man and you're not causing any trouble even though you're trespassing on our land. Julie didn't like it much that you go around naked, but it ain't hurting anyone."
"Did you tell me the name of the river?" Luke asked glancing over at the water, seeing a daddy long legs try to navigate a current on its long spindly legs and being swept along to wherever the river would take it. "Did you tell me it is the Sweetwater River?"
After a moment, scratching a patch of short stubble on his cheek above the hairline of his beard, Ben answered, "I don't recall that we did."
In the distance, there was the brief warbling song of a meadowlark. Luke looked in its direction, toward the meadowlark, the song of the meadowlark. He sat down on the bank of the river and put his naked dirty feet into the water and kicked them back and forth kicking water up onto his naked legs. "My name is Luke and this is the Sweetwater River," Luke said, not looking at the old man, the old man whose name he could not remember, that he didn't know, although he thought he should.
"Should we get you some help?" Ben said.
Luke looked at the Sweetwater River and didn't answer.
When the sheriff put Luke in the back of his car, he turned to Luke. "Your name is Luke, is that correct?"
"Yes," Luke said, certain that was his name. It was his identity, his name. He wasn't called a blade of grass or a leaf. He was called Luke, so he repeated it often so that he wouldn't lose that part of his identity also.
"Where are you from Luke?"
"The Sweetwater River," Luke said.
"Ben called and said you might need some help. Do you need my help?" The sheriff asked.
"Ben is a nice man. If he says I need help, maybe I do," Luke answered, forgetting at that moment that he didn't need help at all.