The Story of the Dry River
The story of the dry river is the story of stones, like giant turtles –
sun baked, hot to the touch of bare feet, snaking up the mountain like a path leading home.
The story of the path leading home is the story of a little girl
who would never again reach home, would never again take the zig zag path
up from the river and then across the stone church, would never again
stand in front of the door whose threshold she would never cross.
The story of the little girl is the story of her feet, nimble, strong,
skipping along the stones that looked like turtles, like the leftover
shells of some forgotten history. The story of our forgotten histories
is the story of our everyday – how the world keeps ending, over and over
like a chorus. The story of the little girl who never made it home is the story
of her sister who did make it home. Tell me which tragedy is greater –
the one who was carried away, or the one who had to carry the news
The story of the girl who made it home is the story of her mother
standing in the doorway, the open door like a wound, her open mouth
like a wound, the girl who made it home must say the words over and over
like a chorus – dry river come down – dry river come down and wash her weh.
The story of the dry river is the story of our summers – though this isn’t true –
we do not have summers; this is how we translate one landscape
into the language of another. The story of the dry river is the story of the seasons
as I know them. There are only two, though we call them by different names:
dry season or wet season, the time of drought or the time of the hurricane,
the time of the tamarind or the time of the mangos. The story of the dry river
is the story of our dried dams, our dried reservoirs, our pipes without water –
if you do not know such things, you do not know my country. You do not know
of the waterless world – the starving birds – how the hills can set themselves
on fire each night. The story of the dry river is the story of its sister.
The story of the come down river is the story of sudden water. Water so big,
so unnecessarily angry, you did not hear it coming down the mountain.
Water so sudden it can sweep a girl off her feet. The story of the come-down
river is the story of September – how it comes like a cloud, or else it comes
with the clouds, how it breaks over islands – how a season can change in a day,
how a river can rise in a second. The story of the come down river is the story
of the end of the world, just ask the mother still frozen in her doorway, her mouth
still open like a wound. The surface of the story is not unlike the surface of water –
so smooth, so innocent, you do not always see what lies underneath – the stones
like large turtles, the drowned bodies. In my country they tell me the story
of the dry river is the story of a girl who never paid the toll of crossing the river.
They tell me it is the story of her selfishness. They tell me she is the cause of her own dying.
But I think, this is just how we make myths … out of things too hard to understand.
How a river could come down just so, just like that – how the world can come down
on us sometimes – so sudden, not even a warning, or no warning you did know
how to read. The story of the unheard warning is the story of the birds
that had been singing another song, in another key – the dogs who had been barking
a different note – because they felt the change of season in their bones.
And even now – do you hear the birds singing another song, the dogs growling
a new note, the feel of something impending in their bones. How we stand, each one of us,
in our open doorways, like wounds, waiting on the end of the world.
Kei Miller is a poet, novelist, essayist, short story writer and broadcaster. His books include the novel Augustown and poetry collection The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion which won the Forward Prize in 2014. He is a Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Exeter.