The River

“And again, because they saw that all this world of nature is in movement and that about that which changes no true statement can be made, they said that of course, regarding that which everywhere in every respect is changing, nothing could truly be affirmed. It was this belief that blossomed into the most extreme of the views above mentioned, that of the professed Heracliteans, such as was held by Cratylus, who finally did not think it right to say anything but only moved his finger, and criticized Heraclitus for saying that it is impossible to step twice into the same river; for he thought one could not do it even once.”

Aristotle; Metaphysics Book 4, part 5

Waldemar awakes. He blinks, then squints, then tries to focus. Water splashes into his face, and sprinkles on the lens of his spectacles. He shakes his head, as if to rouse himself. Morning sunlight glimmers off the river, imparting a golden hue. Waldemar tries to raise his hand to wipe the water from his face, and finds them both bound behind his back. He looks down; he notices he is wearing a red life preserver, keeping his chin several inches above the level of the water. He struggles and find his legs are tied together, at both ankle and knee. Waldemar tries to kick out in frustration, or perhaps to break his bonds.
“So you’re awake, then?”
Waldemar instinctively tries to turn body and head to face the source of the unexpected baritone, emanating from directly behind him. His efforts are to no avail.
“Don’t wriggle. You’ll just make me uncomfortable.”
Waldemar realizes that he is not just bound, but bound to something. To someone.
“Who are you?” asks Waldemar.
“Who are you?” he receives as reply.
“Walt. Most people call me Walt. And who are you?”
“My name, what does it matter?”

The conversation ends. The two men float, back to back, down the river. As they do, their orientation occasionally revolves, so at times Waldemar is to the front, and other times to the rear. The steep sides of the riverbank afford little view beyond them. The water is cool, but tolerable. In contrast, the sun is hot on the skin.

“I told you my name. It’s only polite that you tell me yours.”
“This isn’t what I call ‘polite society’. You should be asking me why we’re here.”
“Very well. Why are we here?”
“I don’t know. You tell me. You must know. Otherwise you’d have asked me already.”

Waldemar thought about that for a moment. Why had he asked the man’s name? What did a name matter in a situation like this? What was this situation?

“I don’t know why we’re floating in this river,” Waldemar paused whilst he thought some more, “I can’t remember anything from last night. I don’t seem to remember anything relevant.”

A long silence ensues.

“I’m Adam.”
Waldemar laughs. “Well that’s just what we need. A dam. Then we’d stop floating downstream.”
“Very funny,” says Adam, dismissively, “a knife is what we need. Do you have one?”

Waldemar instinctively looks down and around his person. The action provokes no memories. Waldemar considers his senses instead. Both his shirt and trousers have pockets. By moving he tries to gauge if there is anything in them. There is something in his trouser pocket. Perhaps they are keys. As he thinks of what he can feel, his eyes stare forward, not seeing, until a patch of blue flowers on the bank capture his gaze. Waldemar thought they looked like bluebells but was unsure; he was not proficient with the names of wildlife.

“I don’t think I have a knife,” replies Waldemar, “and even if I did, I don’t see how I could reach to get it out.”

As he thinks about his trouser pockets, Waldemar notices the water warms a little.

“Did you just piss?”
“Yes I did. I didn’t know I needed your permission.”
“You don’t need my permission.”
“Good. I didn’t think so.” Adam’s voice has a condescending tone. Waldemar is unsure if it reflects Adam’s mood or is merely a symptom of Adam’s accent.

Adam starts to struggle violently against his ropes. He twists and writhes. He jerks his head backwards and forwards, knocking skulls with Waldemar.

“Hey, hey,” protests Waldemar, “calm down. Stop banging my head.”
Adam stops struggling. He is silent for a while, then says: “Shut up for a while. You give me a headache.”
“You’re the one who’s giving out the headaches, pal.”
“I just want to get out of this,” Adam resumes the fight with his bonds, and then is still, except that he pants with his former exertion.
“Use your head for something useful. Think. What do you know about how we got here?”
“I know nothing. I woke up and I was floating down this god damned river with you tied to my back. Who are you? What are you doing here? What is this about?”
“Look, pal, I don’t know what’s going on here. Just tell me what you can remember.”
“I told you already. I don’t remember anything about how I got here. I’m forty-two years old, I’m an engineer, I have a wife and four kids and the last thing I remember I was on a plane going home to see them. Then I wake up floating down a river, tied to some guy who speaks English. Now you have my whole life story.”
“I’m sorry. We don’t have to talk in English. Parlez-vous français? Habla español?”
“No, but I can speak English. And you can shut up in three languages.”
“You spoke first.”
“No I didn’t. You were talking in your sleep. You were saying something about when you were last in the mountains. I couldn’t understand much of it.”
“Well, we’re not in the mountains now. Judging from this river, we must be in flat country. This river has to be a hundred metres wide. I can’t see any hills or anything above the bank. Have you seen anything since you’ve been awake?”
“No. A goat.”
“Have you seen any towns, or people?”
“If I saw towns or people, I would have shouted to them. We should try to swim to the shore.”
“I don’t see how we can swim. I can barely move.”
“We have to try!”
“Okay. Which direction do we swim?”
“Follow me,” without further instruction, Adam leans to one side, thrashing his legs from side to side. Waldemar tries to move his legs in concert with Adam, but the motion is unnatural and the ropes dig into him.
“Swim like a snake!” shouts Adam, who is ineffectually wriggling his body. Trying to lean so they both point towards one bank, Adam’s movements cause them to roll around, so that he is face up and Waldemar is face down. The water is in Waldemar’s face. Waldemar responds by striking Adam any way he can – scraping his heels down the back of Adam’s heels, pushing his elbows against Adam’s elbows, and mostly by clattering his head against the back of Adam’s head.
“Stop, you cretin,” Waldemar splutters as he spits out water.
“Okay. I stopped.”
“You fucking idiot. You could have drowned me.”
“I’m sorry. I stopped. We had to try.”
Waldemar shakes his head and his wet hair. He looks over the top of his glasses. Drops of water obscure his view through them, but they were not dislodged from his face. Waldemar gets his breath back.
“I’m sorry. Are you okay?” asks Adam. “Walt, are you okay?”
“I’m alright. But I don’t see how we can swim to the side.”
“Maybe not. But I don’t see us just floating to the side either. We are stuck in the middle of this current. We could be floating like this for days.”
“There has to be a town eventually. You saw a goat. There must be people. We’ll wait to we see somebody and then we’ll call to them for help.”
“I don’t know,” responds Adam, “it seems like we’ve been on this river for a long while. Why has no-one noticed us already?”
“It’s still morning.”
“And who put us here? What is this crazy game? I didn’t do anything. I just want to see my family.”
“You say you’re an engineer. Maybe this has something to do with the project you’re working on. What is it?”
“I don’t remember. A pipeline, I think.”
“What kind of pipeline?”
“Oil? I don’t know. What about you, Walt? Why are you here?”
“That’s a very good question. I teach journalism and philosophy at the University of Chicago.”
“What kind of answer is this? Wait, you say you are a journalist? Are you maybe writing a story on somebody who doesn’t like you?”
“I just teach.”
“You just teach. Then maybe one of your students is unhappy with his grades,” Adam says, sarcastically.
“This isn’t helping. I have as little explanation of our predicament as you do.”
“Maybe you should apply some critical theory to explain the events,” and Adam snorts in derision, then continues, “you don’t sound American. How do I know you are who you say you are?”
“I’m not American.”
“So where are you from?”
“For the life of me, I can’t remember.”
“This is ridiculous. You don’t know me, I don’t know you. We remember half of our lives, not the other half. We are tied together in this river where we don’t know where we are or how we got here. And I’m hungry.”
“Maybe this isn’t real.”
“Shut up. Of course it’s real. It was real enough when you were complaining I was drowning you. Stick your face back in the water and see if that’s real.”
“Maybe this river is the Acheron, one of the rivers that borders Hades.”
“What an imagination. I know this river. I was born near it.”
“You know this river?”
“I know the river Acheron. We lived nearby when I was a child. This does not look like that river.”
“I see. Do you…”
“Shut up, I see something.”

Adam is facing forwards, in the direction the river flows. The river bends to the left, and he peers past the overhanging trees from that bank, to discern a man-made structure in the distance. Waldemar twists his around, in both directions, but is unable to see what Adam is looking at.

“It’s a bridge,” Adam shakes with the force he puts into saying this.
“Is there anybody on it?”
“No. We should try to grab a hold of the central pier.”
“What do you mean by ‘pier’?”
“Pier, a column that supports the bridge’s middle.”
“You mean ‘abutment’.”
“No, I don’t mean ‘abutment’. I mean ‘pier’. Shut up. We are getting close. When I tell you, I want you to try and swim to your right. I will swim at the same time. If we can get stuck on the pier, we can shout and then get the attention of anyone going over the bridge.”
“Okay. Just be more careful than…”
Adam shouts over Waldemar’s words, “now!”

The two men thrash, hopelessly. Their vigorous motions are so stymied and dis-coordinated that they fail to influence the direction of their movement. Nevertheless, they pass close to the bridge’s central pier. They come alongside the pier, passing underneath the bridge, so close that Adam sticks his neck out and abrades his forehead against the pier in an attempt to slow them down. As he does, his feet glance against a submerged ledge in the side of the pier. He bends his toes to try to place his feet upon it and so brake their movement. Adam’s toes grip the inside of his boots. Waldemar continues to jerk spasmodically, causing Adam to loose his footing. “Stop it!” shouts Adam. The two men spin around in the stream, now with Waldemar’s face pressed against the bridge’s central column. This cracks and twists the frame of Waldemar’s spectacles. And then the bridge is behind them, as they continue to float downstream. Both men’s faces are scratched. Waldemar’s glasses half hang from his face, with one arm bent and comically dislodged from his ear. They pirouette in the water as the bridge steadily recedes into the distance. After one revolution, Adam shouts: “Hey, there’s a truck. Hey, hey!”
“Help! Help us!” shouts Waldemar, and he gives a loud whistle. As he spins around, and catches sight of the vehicle, Waldemar thinks to himself that it is not a truck, but a delivery van, painted in green livery.
“Hey!” but the van has crossed over the bridge and is out of view and out of earshot. Not long after, the bridge is also out of sight. If the two men could have seen each other’s faces, they might have described each other as gloomy. They drift in silence for a long while.

“I think it is mid-day,” said Waldemar, at long last interrupting the nothingness which he found oppressive, though which Adam seemed to prefer. He half expects to be told to shut up, but there is no response from Adam. “Maybe it’s a Sunday,” he continues, “and hence why nobody is out.”
“We could suppose the world has ended, for all the value of supposing.”
“Hardly. There was that van. If they had seen us, we would have been saved by now. Our timing was just unfortunate. A minute earlier and we might have been spotted.”
“Or maybe, if they saw us, they would have kept on driving. Maybe they did see us. We must look very peculiar.”
“I imagine we look a little beaten up now,” Waldemar could taste a little trickle of blood in the corner of his mouth, the result of his impact with the bridge. There was something vaguely comforting about the sensation as it cut through the monotony.
“None of this makes any sense,” began Adam, after a pause.
“What does, when you think about it?”
“Most things. Everything.”
“Does it really? I mean, if you didn’t show up at work tomorrow, would it matter much?”
“My wife must be waiting for me at the airport. It will matter to her that I won’t be there as expected.”
“Then she can raise the alarm and eventually the authorities will send out a search party to find us.”
“Until then, we are as helpless as babies.” Adam pulls again at his knots, even though he knows it is useless.

“Would you like to play a game?” asks Waldemar, after a while.
Waldemar is undaunted. “You start by asking a question. Then the other person answers the question with a question. Then you keep taking turns, answering each question with a question.”
“Wherever did you hear of such a stupid game?”
“I think I saw it in a play,” replies Waldemar.
“You lose. You had to answer with a question. Tell me, what kind of play is so stupid to include this game in the dialogue?”
“I don’t remember which play it was.”
“You lose. You had to answer with a question. Are you ready to start playing?”
“Does this mean that we’ve already started?”
“What does meaning mean in this context?”
“Are you asking what does the word ‘meaning’ mean?”
“Can you ask that without first knowing the answer?”
“Does asking a question imply you have to understand the question?”
“Need anything be implied other than wanting an answer?”
“Why imply anything when you can simply state what needs stating?”
“Is there enough time to state everything that needs stating?”
“How long does it take?”
“How long have we got?”
“What time is it?”
“In which timezone?”
“Which timezone is this?”
“Which country is this?”
“Which river is this?”
“Did anyone say it was a river?”
“Does it flow to the sea?”
“Will we see if it does?”
“How long does that take?”
“Repetition. You lose.”
“How do you know the rules?”
“What makes you think I know the rules?”
“Are we playing again?”
“Who can say if we’re playing?”
“Rhetorical. Now you lose.”
“But I wasn’t playing that time,” protested Adam.
“How am I supposed to tell the difference?”
“Who says that you should?”
“Are we playing again?”
“Repetition. You lose.”
“No, statement. You lose. Repetition doesn’t count across games, only within games.”
“Is this a stupid game, or what?”
“Statement. You lose.”
“It wasn’t a statement. I asked what was what.”
“Then you should have said ‘what what?’. That’s what.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Don’t ask me what you meant. I can’t know the answer to that question.”
“But you do know how to ask the question.”
“That much is true.”

A goat is eating grass on the river bank. Waldemar sees it and tells Adam. Adam is unable to see the goat, but he hears the bell around its neck.
“What colour is the goat?” asks Adam.
“White. What does it matter?”
“I just wondered if it is was similar to the goat I saw before. That goat had a bell. Can you see anybody?”
“Shout anyway,” and Adam starts to shout himself, “Hey! Hey! Is anybody there?”
“There’s nobody,” insists Waldemar. The goat is frightened off by the shouting.
“Whistle. You have a loud whistle. Maybe that will carry further than our voices.”
Waldemar whistles, but to no avail. They drift on. The sun has climbed to its peak and is starting to ease back towards its resting place.

“How long do you suppose we have been in this river?” asks Adam. “At least seven or eight hours now,” he says, answering his own question.
“Time has no meaning in a place like this.”
“My stomach marks the passing of time pretty well, let me tell you.”
Waldemar sighs and arches his neck backwards. Their heads glancingly touch. “My watch,” remarks Waldemar, “it’s not waterproof. It’ll be ruined.” Waldemar can feel its familiar strap around his wrist.
“Maybe you’re not wearing it.”
“I can feel the strap.”
“Maybe they swapped the watch as a joke, but put the strap back on.”
Waldemar thinks about that. The weight on his wrist feels about right, but it is light and it would be easy to be tricked. He asks: “why would they do that?”
“Why would they do this? This whole thing seems like a terrible joke to play on us. On me, at least. For all I know, you are one of the jokers.”
“I’m not finding this remotely funny.”
“Maybe not, but I still don’t know who you are, Walt.”
“This conversation isn’t get us anywhere.”
“Like this river, which doesn’t lead anywhere.”
“Well, that must be wrong. We’re obviously flowing downstream. If nothing else, we’ll eventually be washed out to sea.”
“Why are there no boats on this river?”
“Why are there no houses on the shore?”
“I don’t want to play that game again, Walt. It was a stupid game. And I won.”
“Look, Adam, if I talk to you, and if you talk to me, maybe we can find some clue as to why we’re here and what we’re meant to be doing.”
“Try prayer instead. He might have some answers worth sharing.”
“I don’t especially believe in God. At least not one that you can have a conversation with.”
“Maybe not, but perhaps he believes in you.”
“If there’s a God, this makes even less sense.”
“God can make sense of anything. His sense is nonsense to our puny minds.”
“Are you suggesting that God put us in the river?”
“Do you know who put us here?”
“No, I don’t know who put us here, but it wasn’t God.”
“God is responsible for everything in this world. In a sense, he put everybody in their place.”
“No, people choose where they are, more or less. People put us here, in this river. Perhaps we put ourselves in the river.”
“Now you make me laugh,” though Adam coughs rather than laughs, “why would we do this to ourselves?”
“I don’t know, but I don’t remember, and nor do you, so we can’t rule it out.”
“I don’t recognize this river. If I put myself here, how did I find this river to begin with? And why don’t I know it now?”
“Maybe you’d recognize it upstream.”
“It’s the same river. I should still recognize the countryside. I don’t know this place.”
“Where we are now isn’t where we started.”
“But still, I would know where we are.”
“Perhaps things have changed since you were here last time.”
“Enough!” Adam gets angry, and he starts to shake backwards and forwards, splashing the water and throwing Waldemar around. “Enough of this shit! I don’t know where we are.”
“Okay, okay. Calm down, pal.”
“Why calm down? Am I disturbing anyone?”
“Is there anyone else to disturb?”
“Who is not disturbed already?”
“Who is willing to be disturbed?”
“Are all men disturbed, to some extent?”
“Rhetorical, you lose.”
“Shut up.” Adam is sullen.
“Hey pal, don’t be sore. Tell me about your kids.
“I don’t remember them. I have a daughter. She has blonde hair. But I don’t remember the rest. How is it that I don’t remember her face, or her name, or any of my other children?”
“Maybe this isn’t real?”
“What, like this is some kind of dream? How can we both have the same dream?”
“It’s not a dream. Dream’s aren’t wet.”
“They are if you piss yourself in your sleep.”

Both men pause for a while, contemplating what Adam said.

“I don’t remember ever wetting the bed when I was a child,” said Waldemar, breaking the silence.
“Maybe you are still a child. You’re a child dreaming of being an adult.”
“And dreaming of floating down a river, strapped to a man called Adam… I don’t think so.”
“It would explain why our memories are so…” Adam pauses whilst he thinks of the right word, “hazy.”
“This isn’t a dream. I’m thinking it’s more like a metaphor.”
Adam snorts and laughs to himself, “a metaphor?”
“Yeah, like a metaphor for drifting through life, without purpose.”
“I’m wet and I’m hungry. I never heard of a metaphor that made you wet and hungry.”
“Maybe we’re looking at this all wrong. Maybe this is like an impressionist painting. If we look at the brushstrokes, it makes no sense. But if we stand back, we can see what the picture is.”
“I don’t understand you.”
“Listen to me, I don’t need to make sense. I’m just making conversation. I’m drifting down a river and I’m making conversation.”
“You like the sound of your own voice, that’s a fact.”
“What makes you so angry?”
“Maybe it’s not me that’s angry. Maybe it’s whoever is writing this metaphor that’s angry. And then the metaphor is making me angry.”
“Yeah, maybe you’re right. Maybe you know more than you’re telling.”
“I don’t know anything you don’t know.”
“I mean, maybe the answer’s are somewhere in your mind, without you realizing they’re there. Maybe if I ask you questions and you just give me the first answer you can think of, without stopping to think, then we’ll find out why we’re here.”
“What is this stupidity?”
“Why are you here?”
“To make your life miserable.”
“Why am I here?”
“To make my suffering real.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means suffering is more real when witnessed by someone else. Suffering means less when suffered alone.”
“Because we’re social animals?”
“You could say it like that. Suffering is worst in polite society. The suffering of poor lonely barbarians is hardly worthy of remark, and goes unnoticed even by the sufferer.”
“Are you saying that what is public is more real that what is private, so I need you, in order to make this experience real?”
“That doesn’t sound any more crazy than anything else you said, or I said.”
“I’m asking about what you said.”
“You said, I said, who can tell the difference? What difference does it make?”
“Of course it makes a difference.”
“Not if we forget the difference.”

Waldemar laughs. He laughs long and hard. He tries to look around at Adam. He stops laughing and is mildly disappointed that he can see somebody behind him, with short brown hair, fair skin, wearing an anorak and a red life preserver that matches the one Waldemar is wearing. As Waldemar stops laughing, Adam begins to talk again.

“Critique this. We’re floating down a river. By having me here, this experience is made more real for you. Without me, what commentary could you give? You saw a bridge, a goat, some repetitive scenery. That’s all. You’re not attached to anything, but at least you’re attached to me.”
“Because you’re here, this has meaning. With meaning, it could go on indefinitely. Without meaning, it never occurs.”
“This could go on forever, so long as it has meaning.”
“Like Waiting for Godot with waterwings.”
“It would be difficult to put on the stage.”
“Then put the audience in the river.”
“A waterpark would be better. The spectators would stand at the poolside.”
“Yes, it would entertain kids waiting to go down one of those slides. They could paint our faces and make us wear silly hats.”

They both fall silent for a while. Then Waldemar cranes his neck forward and starts to bob up and down.

“Sorry, I just realized how dehydrated I am. This sun is really beating down.” Waldemar is trying to splash water into his mouth. The life preserver means his mouth is inconveniently, if safely, above the water level. As he splashes, he sees similar blue flowers to those he saw before. He stops bobbing and looks at them more intently. They are pretty. After a while, he realizes that Adam is not moving. He starts to shake him.
“What?” asks Adam, curtly.
“I wanted to see if you were alright.”
“I was alright. I was sleeping. I was dreaming.”
“What were you dreaming about?”
“I don’t remember. I never remember dreams. Wait a moment…”

Adam is facing forwards, in the direction the river flows. The river bends to the left, and he peers past the overhanging trees from that bank, to discern a man-made structure in the distance. Waldemar twists his head around, in both directions, but is initially unable to see what Adam is looking at. This time he exerts himself until he has turned the both of them around, meaning both Adam and Waldemar can see the bridge ahead.

“It’s another bridge,” states Waldemar.
“No, it’s the same bridge as before.”
“That’s impossible.”
“Maybe so, but it’s the same bridge even so. It’s pointless to try to stop, like last time. Just shout and hope somebody arrives to go over it at the right time.”

The two men start shouting. Waldemar intersperses his shouts with loud, piercing whistles. Their wild exertions contrast with their stately pace, meandering gently down the river. As they reach the bridge they hear the echoes of their calls from its underside, bouncing back at them, taunting them. They pass through, and under. Of the two, Waldemar looks a little more desperately at the bridge as he passes beyond it, slowly leaving it behind. Adam is unruffled. He just shouts and shouts, making himself increasingly hoarse. As the bridge recedes into the distance, a delivery van drives over it. They shout at it. The van does not stop.

“That was the same truck. It was the same bridge and then the same truck.” Adam goes quiet.
“Don’t be ridiculous. Maybe it was the same truck, that’s possible I suppose, but it can’t be the same bridge. It just looks similar.”
Adam gives no answer.
“It just looks similar.”
Adam does not answer.
“It can’t be the same bridge. Rivers don’t go round in circles.”
Adam says nothing.

The sun is setting. Waldemar starts to yawn. He is tired and can think of nothing to say. After a long period where he refused to acknowledge Waldemar’s attempts to initiate smalltalk, Adam says: “don’t let me go to sleep again. I’m afraid that if I sleep I will forget.”
“What’s to forget?”
“Where should I start to answer that question?”
“What do you remember?”
“I don’t remember the rules of this game.”
“Statement. You lose.”
“No, repetition. I lose.”
“You lose either way.”
“Losing is better than playing forever.”
“Nobody plays for ever.”
“Then there has to be an end. But what is this end?”
“I don’t know. We have not reached it yet.”
“Will we recognize it when we do reach it?”
“I suppose not. Only if we already saw it before.”

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