Beasts Of The Orinoco
by William G. Schweizer
Betty was not made to endure tragedy. Perhaps few people are, but especially not Betty. So when misery came to earth in human form, appearing on her doorstep in a blue uniform with a memo pad, she had no inkling of how to react except to let the unbidden emotion, the grief of a mother for a lost child, wash over her like the ocean over a stone.
She had never planned even to be married, no less be a mother.
As a girl she was adventurous and strong willed and planned constantly for the day she would leave New England never to return. At the age of ten she thought she had discovered she was adopted. That was not exactly the case but she learned for certain that her parents were not her "real" parents. She had no particular desire to delve into this mystery, but the discovery brought everything into focus. She had been treated well, all her basic needs satisfied, but her parents were disengaged. It was as though she were a visitor in a boarding house who was respected for paying on time but not particularly liked. The absence of blood connection seemed to her the obvious explanation.
At first she frequently baited them asking provocative questions about which grandparent she took after most and what her first days were like. Physically she looked different from her parents who were pale and fair-haired. Betty was dark haired and perennially tanned. Her hair, which most of her life, she wore short with bangs flapper style, was almost black.
Her parents, if not particularly smart, were nimble enough to evade a ten-year old, and out of boredom more than lack of progress she abandoned the issue. She fantasized from time to time that she might be the daughter of a princess or an explorer or, her favorite choice, an aviator, but, ultimately, she knew that whatever were the true facts they had to be ugly and were better left buried.
Even so, with this knowledge she felt a certain freedom to choose the identity that she would wear in life and even who she might be day to day.
Her heroes were women of action, the suffragettes, Amelia Earheart, Sacagawea, Maid Marian, and Joan of Arc. Among men she admired pilots who she thought enjoyed the pinnacle of freedom and had the utmost of nerve. Even though Lindbergh had gone into eclipse as the War began, his picture hung on her wall next to Amelia Earheart and Wiley Post.
She was forever assuming the identity of one of her heroes and playing the game of going through the whole day, even school days, staying perfectly within the character of her stars. Like Amelia Earheart she would leave for school thanking her mother and father as though they were well wishers seeing her off on a round the world flight. If she were late for school she would tell the teacher there had been thunderstorms over Joplin. Once, acting secretly the part of Rebecca from Ivanhoe, her favorite book, when asked her father’s name by a new teacher she responded, "Isaac of York".
Her mother was aloof and wasted little time on Betty. She spent most of her time reading magazines and smoking cigarettes. Her father was kind but only slightly more involved. He did fuel her imagination unintentionally by bringing her books from the bindery where he worked as shipping agent. He never read himself.
Betty’s mother died when Betty was thirteen, and Betty always felt vaguely guilty in later life to realize that she hadn’t paid particular attention when it happened. It was something like when her cousin Marthe from Rhode Island had come to stay for a month and then returned home. A photograph of Marthe and Betty standing on the porch was the only evidence of the visit.
So it seemed with her mother. She had stayed longer and there were more photographs, but beyond that it seemed as though she was a visitor from the very beginning. For a time she consciously tried to miss her mother but one day woke up to realize she had not even thought of her in years.
As she grew older she still hero-worshipped the great women, but her interest turned toward the intellectuals Georges Sand, George Eliot, Madame Curie, Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Parker, and the actress, Greta Garbo.
She swallowed books whole and decided her destiny, after retiring as a pilot, was to become an author. She pecked out poems, stories, and journals essays by the boxful.
When she turned eighteen her father passed out of her life as noiselessly as her mother, never having an explanation as to why they had been together at all. She did miss him at first, but as time went by less and less, and then not at all.
She imagined her life as being on a raft in the middle of a great river like Huckleberry Finn drifting on the Mississippi and her mother and father as people standing on the shore who became smaller and smaller as the river current carried her downstream toward the sea. She had been drifting all her life and now she was on her own, in her mind flying solo, ready to take the tiller or the stick, wrapped in her silk scarf, wearing her aviator’s cap and poised to circumnavigate the world.
Her first tentative steps took her to the university where she enrolled as a lit major. She moved through the classes, the buildings, and the clubs as if in a new country. Her only obligation to anyone, which was to read and to think and to read more and think again, seemed to her almost frivolous.
Campus life was to her an awakening. Even with the War going on she felt the doors to the world had been opened for her. She worked like the other students on war support, collecting silk and scrap and tending a Victory garden. She even cut her hair, which she had allowed to grow long for the first time, and donated it for some essential war purpose she did not understand. But the War was, at first, an abstraction, a temporary obstacle between her and her future.
When she first saw James the reality of the War became immediate. She first saw him standing beneath an elm tree jotting something in memo pad. Sandy haired, tall, slender and looking athletic, she wondered, why such a healthy boy was not in the army or the navy as were most of the young men she had known in high school.
When finally he moved her question was answered. He walked away with a pronounced limp and less than twenty steps down the path had to stop as though to rest and regain strength.
She was overwhelmed with pity, which she mistook for love at first sight.
In her mind he immediately became Tristan or another brave knight, this one wounded in pursuit of a gallant quest or, more likely, a pilot wounded in a flaming crash over some corner of a foreign field. Knowing nothing more about him other than what her heart and her imaginings told her she decided they were meant to be together.
The next week when she met him at the same spot, she introduced herself and reverting to her girlhood habit, identified herself as Isolde. She continued in this innocent deception, and it was a week before she told him her real name was Elizabeth.
Their romance, if it could be called that, proceeded with a quiet inevitability.
As she had guessed and wished, James was a pilot and as she had nearly guessed he had survived an explosion and fire but the details were slightly less romantic than she had imagined. Interrupting his studies at Columbia, James had joined the Navy with his crowd of college friends and been accepted for pilot training in Florida. Shortly after the completion of training some recruits had been taking target practice in a field at what they thought were empty fuel drums. One exploded almost three hundred yards away and a piece of the fuel drum had nearly cut off James right leg. At first they thought he would bleed to death and then they thought he would never walk again. They were right when they said he would never fly again at least not in this war.
The War had ended for James with the explosion and after recuperating at home with his mother he came home to Massachusetts to complete his final year hoping still to become a doctor but resigned to the fact that his injury had cost him the necessary stamina.
Betty saw him in her mind as the conquering hero and in that view she was not alone. On campus, James was in fact regarded as a hero but, being too quiet to fulfill the expectations placed on him by the other students, now including more and more females, they left him alone.
If not exactly Tristan and Isolde, the two were compatible and caring of one another and quietly in love. They shared an interest in aviation, if only as onlookers, and both loved to read.
When James graduated they married.
Soon after, when they moved into the house with James’ mother it was the River and the sight of it that enchanted Betty. The house was a large Victorian in perfect repair set on a slight elevation above the Connecticut River. The view of the river was alternately dazzling and peaceful, and Betty entered her new home as though invited as a new princess consort to a castle on the Rhine.
From the parlor window she could see to the northeast about a mile distant to the bridge. Two lanes of concrete supported by eight concrete pilings, the bridge reminded her of pictures she had seen of a bridge over the River Seine and the sight of automobile lights moving across it in the evening became a constant pleasure of evening.
The River became the focal point of her life, symbolic of all she dreamed of doing and seeing in the world. It was the Amazon, the Mississippi, the Orinoco, the Seine and the Danube all together.
She watched it, studied it and, in summer, painted some experimental watercolors. Its beauty enthralled her in all seasons and it became for her like a precious painting hanging on the wall of a museum or a stained glass window in Church, calming, beautiful and profound.
James’ mother, was cheerful and pleasant but unobtrusive, and, at most times, invisible. They lived together for a short time, but James’ mother craved the companionship of a contemporary, and, after a year, moved to share a bungalow with another widow in Longmeadow. They paid a nominal rent and when her mother-in-law died the house became their house.
In early marriage her life quickly settled into a peaceful routine. Weekends she and James would visit his mother and then after she was gone they would take excursions to New York City, New Haven or Providence. Summertime they tended their garden and enjoyed the view of the River. Her imaginings of where the River led and what destiny it might lead took the place of actual adventure and she became content in the tepid existence that seemed to have evolved without decision-making or conflict or danger.
James’ flyer’s wings had been pinned to a square of brown linen, framed and hung on the wall over the mantel. This would be the closest she would ever come to her own ambitions to fly.
James was sometimes sought out as an inspirational speaker, but he disliked being before the public and even declined a position on the draft board offered to him shortly before the War’s end. Betty tutored at the High School and James took a job with the Travelers in Hartford. They socialized with James’ co-workers at company functions but preferred to stay at home rather than leave.
Betty assumed responsibility for the garden and James dabbled in a woodshop he made in the garage where he turned out picture frames mostly and now and then a table or bench. In warm weather they enjoyed watching the river quietly from chairs on the lawn and in cold weather from the window seat in the parlor.
When Betty realized she was going to have a baby it was as though a flashbulb had gone off in her brain. Everything was changed. The world shimmered and then came back in crisper focus than it had ever been before. Her happiness was multiplied and all remnants of regret and disappointment she put behind her with the onset of the feeling of new life inside her body. She knew from the first moment it was going to be a boy. This was not her preference or wishful thinking just something that she knew.
This new responsibility she took on with no reservations. The school year was about to finish and she decided she would not return. Always moderate in her habits she resolved to be even more careful for the sake of her son. She gave up eating candy and drinking coffee. She made herself rest on schedule even when not tired.
She devoured the few books the library offered on childbirth and she aggressively chased down other mothers in the neighborhood cross-examining them like a country lawyer on every subject from feeding and bathing a baby to choosing wallpaper for the nursery.
She had begun an approach to motherhood that intended to leave no room for neglect and certainly no inattention or lack of love. In that regard there was no danger. She loved the baby in her womb as she had loved nothing else in all her life. She promised inwardly to always act out that love through care and protection and self-sacrifice. At the same time she promised also not to be smothering but to let her boy follow his natural inclinations, which she was sure he would have to fly around the world the way James took the bus to Hartford. Her child’s destiny would be the conduit between her dreams, now long set aside, and the future. He would ascend perilous mountain peaks, trace the sources of mysterious rivers, explore impenetrable jungles, and fly faster and farther and higher than anyone before him. He would enter those strange and wonderful places whose doors open only to the pure in heart and there would be more, which she could not even begin to imagine.
Sometime during the pregnancy while gazing at the River and the Bridge one evening she had the strongest premonition that utterly reversed her previous delight in the River outside her home. What she had always thought of as a magic carpet ready to carry her to new experience she now saw as a monster poised to swallow her baby. She had frequent nightmares about drowning, not her but her son, that would plague her for years. If she closed her eyes she saw her son swept away by floodwaters or falling out of a canoe or wading in at the banks until his head disappeared below the surface of the River. When she read the newspaper there seemed every day to be stories of infant drowning and skaters falling through thin ice.
Daniel was born the mirror image of his father except for inheriting his mother’s dark hair. In her happiness, Betty felt herself and her family protected by an impervious bubble, but over time the threat of the river claiming her son became a constant fear.
Taking all possible precautions, she made Daniel begin swimming lessons at the YMCA at the age of six and by his teens he was a tireless swimmer.
She took to warning him each time he would leave the house. To seem less of a nagger she nicknamed the River "The Wolf" and to her it really was a wolf, a savage beast lying in wait ready to pounce on her young cub and devour him.
When he would leave the house, instead of goodbye she would remind him, "Don’t let the Wolf eat you."
"Don’t worry, Mama, it would take a bear to eat me." This would be the way they always said goodbye to one another.
As much as she feared the river as a monster waiting to take her son away, Daniel loved it.
From his earliest years he begged to go down to the river. He loved fishing, built rafts, traded for a canoe and then a skiff with a motor. Betty forbade him ever to go on the river without a life ring or alone, and, so far as she knew, he obeyed.
He was an obedient son, the perfect son, a diligent student, a natural athlete, loved and accepted by his friends and teachers. Kind, generous, honest he was her Ivanhoe, her Sir Galahad reincarnated.
His goodness made her all the more fearful for his future. Of that future she expected, of course, that he would someday be a pilot like his father and her heroes. She computed the odds against two aviation disasters occurring in one family as being astronomical, and she believed Dan would be invulnerable as a flier. As easily as she imagined him drowning she could envision him being awarded pilot’s wings.
As much as she saw the future in her son, she was careful not to impose her expectations on him. She would have loved to spend every waking moment watching him grow, but knew that a father’s example was essential and she stepped into the background of male pursuits. James and Daniel were close and Betty was grateful for the times she shared. She went to the school plays and the concerts of the school chorale but let James mostly go to the football and basketball practices and games.
Whenever his friends would call for him to play baseball or basketball she breathed an inner sigh of relief. Impossible to drown on a ball field.
As he became older his fascination with the river lessened and her fears did also. Fall would be football, winter basketball and spring track season. Summers were spent on Long Island and although their chief activities were swimming and sailing, the ocean was not the River, not the wolf waiting to pounce.
James rode the bus each day to Hartford until the war ended and then drove a new Chevrolet. Daniel drove the car up and down the long driveway and sometimes onto the road to his mother’s secret delight and his father’s irritation.
In all her imaginings of a perfect life Betty had neglected to include her inexpressible delight in the sight of her son coming home from school slamming the screen door open then shut and heading for the ice box or her husband and son packing the car with camping equipment and shouting goodbye from the driveway. There would be one other image more vivid than any other that she had failed to anticipate.
The clock showed 4:19 when she heard the knock. There might have been more than one rap but the first sound told her everything. It told her that her child, the baby she thought was safe in bed, was not safe in bed, that the son she had expected to wake up tomorrow and ask for breakfast would not ever wake up. It told her that the life in which she had felt so smug and satisfied and safe and secure and hopeful was over.
She hurried to the door without waking James and opened it to the police she knew would be standing outside. She listened to them explain exactly how her heart had been broken. An initiation they said. Not drunken partying, not vandalism, just a simple test of brotherhood and courage. It was ritual that even the policeman had gone through in his high school days, a test that had been passed many times without casualties until this night.
The senior football players were giving the new members of the football team their game jerseys. To get them the boys walked to the middle of the Bridge where they stood on the rail and one after another jumped into the river then swam toward a lantern on the bank to meet their teammates and receive a handshake and their game shirts. Two boys jumped in succession each with a loud splash. Daniel was third to go. He jumped without hesitation but in the quiet September night there was no splash. At the point where he had jumped the bridge base extended outward above the water almost four feet almost like a table. He had jumped feet first landed on the concrete table and then, apparently falling back, had struck his head on the piling. He was lifeless when the other boys shined the light on him.
"If only he had hit the water, hit the river, he would have been alright." The officer said. "A freak accident. Nobody’s fault."
She had guessed wrong. The river hadn’t taken him. The river had waited to embrace him, to cushion him and carry him safely to shore, but he had avoided the river as she had always made him promise and chose instead the flat slab of concrete.
What did they say? A falling object travels thirty-two feet per second. Her mind did the rudimentary mathematics. A ten-meter bridge meant a fall of just slightly more than a second.
She involuntarily imagined the unimaginable, the sight of Daniel standing on the bridge preparing to become a memory, his body perfect, senses alert, eyes clear as gems and conscience as spotless as the day he was born. The prospect of disappointing or being disappointed would exist for just a few dozen more heartbeats, and as he stepped forward into the night air inhaling the last breath of Indian summer, he would age only another second and then be always seventeen.
In the weeks and months that followed, she made a promise to herself not to be punished twice. To outsiders her reaction seemed cold and uncaring. Daniel alive had been the future. Now gone there was no place for him in time. She cleansed the house of photographs and gave away all Daniel’s clothes and possessions. At the same time she secretly nurtured her private grief tending it like a rare orchid. Her fear now was that she might at some time feel her loss less and her goal was to keep her memories of Daniel crisp and clear and unfiltered.
She believed photographs and mementos were distractions, things she knew in time would distort the reality of the life she had shared with her son everyday they were together. Talking, sharing, all were dangers to the precision of remembering and reliving she craved. She was successful, and even months later if she opened her eyes in the middle of the night, as she did often, she could hear that awful rap on the door and feel exactly as she felt at that moment and in a perverse way she felt comforted.
All this ignored James and hurt him deeply but at the same time his wife’s calmness and attentiveness to him made him decide to let her have her own way. She understood the loss was also James’ loss and she did her selfish and miserable best to comfort and soothe his pain. As the months passed her husband came to a state of acceptance while in her own heart she tightened her secret grip on the senseless injustice that had fallen from the sky.
She returned to school intending to teach perhaps, and, in her spare time, began writing again, nothing personal or grievous, just poems and complimentary sketches of people she encountered during the day. Still she moved ahead without hesitation, kept up her friendships, traveled to the city now and then and even did a couple of pictures of the river, which in her mind she still called the wolf but feared no longer.
Time passed and on her 43rd birthday she awoke to the familiar but thoroughly unexpected sensation of being again pregnant. As a matter of duty and without her prior enthusiasm she again visited the library, cross-questioned the neighborhood mothers, and went to the doctor religiously.
Bess was born the day before Christmas.
Very unlike Daniel, Bess was a fussy, uncomfortable baby.
Despite a greater natural distance between her and Bess, possibly due to her age, she approached her second motherhood with energy and attention and the resolve that Bess would be loved and raised as a separate individual not a replacement and not to be compared to Daniel.
She still had great hopes for her daughter but this time no premonitions of doom. This time she had no fear having experienced already the worst that could happen.
Bess was unlike her in every respect except in name. Willful and heedless she was constantly getting into mischief, and, infinitely curious, she asked a million questions.
One winter afternoon Bess came to her with a picture she had found which had miraculously escaped the purge of reminders. It was Daniel at ten years old with Betty standing on the porch.
"I know that’s you Mama. Who is that boy with you?"
"Daniel." she answered.
"Who is Daniel?"
"You mean who was Daniel."
"Alright Mama, who was Daniel?"
"He was a boy who came here to stay here for a while, but he left. He must have left that picture."
"Whatever happened to him?" Bess wanted to know.
Betty stood up. She walked to the window and looked out at the river in the distance flowing slowly toward the Connecticut border before responding.
"A bear ate him."
Bio:Bill Schweizer has resided in Southern California almost long enough to pass for a native despite the occasional pang of nostalgia for snow falling on steam grates, pizza by the slice, and Jones Beach. Always much given to blurting out implausible and irritating statements, he’s lately taken to scribbling them down and adding implausible plots and irritating characters. Enjoyments are movies (Manhattan locales - caper flicks - film noir), California history, Linda’s biscotti, Linda, Saturday football, the ocean (either one), and, once in a while, serene travel. His fiction has been published in the Los Angeles Times, Thieves Jargon, River Walk Journal, Bewildering Stories, Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine, Skive, and Static Movement Online. A new offering will appear in the Spring 2007 Issue of Mysterical E.