In the River
Sitting with Farah was a Korean beauty with thick black hair flowing over young shoulders, just enough meat riding the bones to lend strength to every part of her. The gorgeous woman was talking, and Farah was listening carefully. Nobody else sat near them, and neither woman looked at Quentin. Farah smiled, offering one word and a quick laugh, and her friend spoke, and suddenly there were no smiles. They weren’t speaking, each staring at the same empty portion of the table. Quentin wanted to interrupt. Ignorant of propriety and hoping to break taboos, he walked across the temple, staring at two women that he didn’t know. Neither seemed to notice. Then the one he hadn’t married lifted her gaze, knowing where he was all along, and with the most minimal shake of the head, she warned him to go elsewhere.
A bucket filled with tired cement had been used to prop open one of the temple’s back doors. Beyond stood a massive platform and the ancient machinery once used to load and unload river barges. Two signs warned him not to walk farther. But other men stood on the platform. Every stranger watched him even when he looked at them, and some smiled and others used empty eyes, and he nodded at nobody in particular, stopping at the brink of the river.
The river had its own sound, massive and steady and pleasant. Quentin listened to the water and birds and studied an island of brown foam hugging the bank, and inside a little eddy, behind the next arm of riprap, rested a gray swollen mass that looked human at first, and when he looked again, still human.
The quick heartbeat was a pleasure, a blessing. The body was a large, long-rotted catfish. Quentin smiled, uncertain why, and then a man behind him cleared his throat.
Joseph Whitehawk stood with his hands together and feet apart, watching him as if some puzzle were inscribed on his face.
Quentin said, “Hello.”
“Your first Kurosh,” Joseph said.
“How do you find it?”
The man hadn’t asked the question. The words came from him, but they were nothing but convenient reflex, a series of proven sounds.
“It has been,” Quentin began. “Surprising.”
That earned a silent nod.
Aiming for polite chatter: “How many Kuroshes you seen?”
Quentin nodded as well, conversational skills exhausted.
Joseph approached. He wanted Quentin’s eyes, and when their gazes meshed, he said, “It isn’t fair, you know.”
“Nothing is,” the man assured. “Nature demands, and the even hand is the mistake.”
Quentin did nothing but listen.
“I sound foolish.” Lakota men were stoic and strong and would sooner cut off their limbs than show weakness to another man. But Joseph was beginning to cry, repeating the word, “Foolish,” while wiping at his sorry wet eyes. “You don’t know. I can tell. I thought you’d have realized by now…I hoped maybe I could ask for your help…”
“Help with what?”
“Exactly,” he said. And with a cold envious voice, he told me, “Keep your ignorance, Mr. Maurus. As long as possible, fight for it.”
Quentin leaned against a wobbly rail.
Then Joseph saw the dead fish, and another thought came to him. A sad, morbid little laugh underscored the bleak mood. “If you understand what’s happening,” he began. Two fingers pointed at the river. “Listen to me. Listen. If you ever learn what’s really going on, you’ll envy our brother floating over there.”