Caleb stands on the deck and the black water swirls hungrily beneath him. He is covered in a filth he at once does not recognize and knows to the core, dripping with it, oozing with it, so that he stands paralyzed, bile rising in his throat, fingers splayed and hands held out away from his body. Frantically, he looks at the shadow of Daniel sleeping, but he cannot call out. If he does, Daniel will see him like this.
He wants to throw himself in the river, to clean himself of the filth, to purify himself. The river is roiling, dark and powerful, but he cannot stand it, cannot stand being like this any longer. His jaw clenches and fear burrows into his bones as he topples forward, plummets, hits the water with an oily splash. The river closes around his face and mouth, tugging at his clothes and sucking him down, down to its tepid depths.
He coughs and desperately tries to wash himself clean, but the warm water pours into his mouth, carrying the filth with it. He claws at his skin, trying to wash the slime away, but the water just wraps around him and presses it in, forces it into his pores. The river curls around his body, calling to him, dragging him down. He whimpers, splashing as he tries to stay afloat, but his clothes are heavy and he coughs as they drag him under.
Strong, sure footsteps sound on the deck above and then Daniel is there, silhouetted against the stars, tall, lean, with long arms and rough hands, staring down with eyes hidden by shadow. He kneels, and reaches a strong brown hand down to the water.
Caleb thrashes away, frantically torn between his terror of the deep and his disgust at the thought of defiling Daniel’s clean, calloused skin with the filth that covers him.
But Daniel doesn’t even seem to see it. He leans out over the water and reaches for him, and just as Caleb feels the river take him he thrusts his hand out of the river and catches Daniel’s hand. Heat like fire and sunlight coils down his arm. The filth there dries and cracks on his skin, flaking off in dusty chunks that leave him clean underneath, and then Daniel begins to haul him out into the clean cool air.
Caleb awoke gasping and covered in sweat, his sheets drenched with it. The world was a tapestry of blacks, and the crowded trees that rose up like beasts from the shores of the great brown river made tangled silhouettes against the stars. The mosquito netting wafted lazy over him. Daniel snored gently beside him.
Moving carefully so as not to wake him, Caleb crept out from under the netting and walked to the back of the riverboat. His fingers trembled as he drew a cigarette out of its crumpled pack and lit it. Fireflies in the swamp blinked in green sparks, and the end of his cigarette flared orange as he inhaled. He let the smoke fill his lungs, rough and biting, and felt his nerves loosen.
The swamp seemed to thrum with some ancient and arcane power and he felt alive and terrified and full of voices. There was nothing out there for a hundred miles, the next port still two days away.
Caleb glanced back at the shadowed outline of the mosquito net and shivered again. A few nights ago they broke into a crate of cheap bourbon from upriver and had a bottle each. He didn’t remember much but he remembered a moment in the dark. The warmth of Daniel’s body next to his as they lay back and watched the stars pass. Daniel drunkenly stumbling to his feet and the dry rough feel of his skin as he tried to help Caleb up, too. The way they’d stay like that just a little longer than they needed to, hands clasped, standing unsteadily in the heavy dark night. Daniel’s eyes in the flickering light of the camp stove while he drunkenly tried to make eggs. Daniel loved eggs, especially when he drank, and that night his eyes were black and full of possibilities, with a question in them Caleb didn’t dare to understand.
A few days before that, when they were flush in a big river town, they cleaned up and went out on the town. Daniel had thrown an arm around Caleb’s shoulder as they walked and laughed and drank, and when the crowds pressed them close together, Daniel had smelled of sandalwood and bay leaves. Later, when they ended up in a brothel, Caleb sat on the stoop with a fifth of whiskey and smoked half a pack, watching the pink dawn creep up the darkened sky. The matron, motherly in silk and lace, gave him a strange kind look before patting him wordlessly on the arm and going in to see to her girls.
Caleb cleared his throat and flicked his cigarette into the river. Watched it die in the brown water. He stood swaying with the rocking of the boat and looked over his shoulder at the bedrolls, not wanting to go back to them. He considered bringing his sheet out here on the deck but the mosquitoes had already found him and so he walked back to the nets and climbed in. He paused, then moved his bedroll closer to the edge, away from Daniel. It felt like lying.
In his dream, he stands at the shore of a vast and timeless sea, toes in the sand, naked in the sun. His skin is dry and clear and the breeze is gentle. Strong brown arms circle him from behind in a caress, and there is warm naked skin against his back. He leans into it, smiling, eyes closing, his fingers rising to run along the arm and feel the downy softness of the hair there. Then the brown hands begin to move, and his nostrils are full of sandalwood and bay leaves.
Caleb opened his eyes to find Daniel watching him, a half smile curling his lips, squatting over the stove, frying eggs and smoking. For a moment, Caleb just looked back. Daniel’s faded eyes were cool and steady, and his hands were calloused and battered from fifteen river-lengths of bar fights, but his fingers were long and subtle, each movement precise and intentional.
“Thinking of a girl?” Daniel asked, and Caleb, flushed with shame, rolled onto his belly to hide his arousal.
“Lola?” Daniel frowned, considering. “Tits like that you just don’t see, outside of pictures. Think she liked you, too.”
Caleb groaned, and Daniel laughed. “Sarah? Evelyn?” He paused a moment, flipped his eggs. “Someone else?”
Caleb lost a fight with himself he didn’t know he was having and said, “Don’t remember.”
Daniel shrugged. “Breakfast’s ready. Coffee’s in the pot.”
“Thanks.” Caleb poured black coffee into his old tin mug and inhaled the steam off of it. Strong as hell, the way Daniel liked it. The way he was starting to like it too.
Daniel was watching him over the rim of his mug, looking at him through unruly strands of sun-bleached hair. Caleb met his eyes for a moment, then looked away. Daniel flicked open his pack with a thumbnail and leaned across the stove to offer it. Caleb nodded and pulled out a cigarette, touched it to the stove to light it, inhaled slowly, his lungs all muddy the way they were every morning.
“My father was a gambler,” Daniel said, lighting a smoke of his own and leaning back on his elbows, regarding Caleb and squinting against the sun, grinning around the cigarette clamped in his teeth. “He used to tell me about this win he had way upriver.” He took a drag, looked off into the swamp sliding by along the shore. “He was five hundred in the hole. Had maybe a hundred in cash and this old watch of my grandfather’s. All gold and silver. Son of a bitch carried it through the whole damn war.” He shook his head. “Prettiest damn thing you ever saw, way he tells it.”
Caleb frowned. “He lost it gambling?”
Daniel shook his head, blowing smoke out through his nostrils. “No.” He paused. “Well, not that time. That’s not the point. Listen.” He took another drag. “He’d just met my mother, see. Wanted to get her something real special, impress her. So he gets dealt this hand. Looks like a shit hand when he first sees it. But there’s an ace and a queen on the table and he’s got a king.”
“So he just says to himself, fuck it, and he goes all in. Everything he’s got left, right, watch on the table, his father’s watch that reminded him of home and family in the war or some shit.”
“Right? So the dealer lays down a card.” Daniel laid an imaginary card down face up next to the camp stove. “Jack.” He laid another one down. “Fucking ten.” His eyebrows raised, and he grinned. “Dad wins back his five hundred, keeps the watch, and ends up taking nine hundred home that night.”
“My point is, Dad always had this saying. Sometimes you got to go all in. Lay it all down and just fucking go.”
Caleb considered this. “Did that end up working for him?”
“Not the point.” Daniel stubbed out his cigarette on the deck and flicked it into the river. “He was right.” He stretched, long and lithe like a cat, and pushed himself up. “Just think about it next time you meet another Lola, is all I’m saying.” He eyed Caleb. “Or whoever. You know.”
He leaned over the edge and peered down into the water, scratched at the bristles on his chin. Daniel never could grow much of a beard. “We’ve got work to do,” he said.
A flood some weeks ago had clogged the river with drift, and during the night it had tangled up around the sides and front. Daniel stripped to the waist, and picked up one of the long pole-hooks, his back corded with tight muscles that caught the sun as he worked. Caleb admired that back. Sometimes, next to Daniel, he felt like a skinny kid, with his thick dark hair and skin that burned too easy. Daniel seemed like he was made for the river, like way back in his ancestry there was some naiad or river god or something. He briefly considered telling Daniel this, but Daniel didn’t read much.
Caleb picked up his own pole hook and got to work, jiggling chunks of wood tangled in weeds until they tore free from the mass and drifted away. It was slow work but it gave his mind some space and so he settled into it. Every so often he’d glance up at Daniel, and once when Caleb looked, Daniel was looking back, those damn cool eyes steady as hell.
By the afternoon, the drift was cleared and the river was widening. There were breaks in the swamp here and there, little rises of earth where shabby farms clung to the damp soil and weathered farmer’s wives watched them pass, impassive.
They made more coffee and laid out in the sun and smoked.
“You glad you went to school?” Daniel asked, after a while.
Caleb shrugged. “Ended up same place as you, didn’t I?”
“I guess.” Daniel frowned, the furrows in his brow shadowing his eyes. “I just …” he shook his head, glanced away. “Sometimes I’m jealous, is all. Seems like you can see more in the world if you go to school. Like you get some idea of how it all works.”
“Fuck if I know how any of it works,” Caleb said. He paused, tangling with words in his head. Something he wanted to say.
“You learn stories, don’t you, though?” Daniel was still looking off.
Caleb grunted. “Sure,” he said. “So do you.”
“Bar fights, whores, and crocodiles,” Daniel said, and lit a cigarette. “Few more trips downriver and you’ll have all those too.” He paused to inhale. “I mean big stories. Stories about kings and generals and shit.”
“Tell me a story, Caleb.”
Caleb tangled some more. Somehow all those stories of kings and generals seemed all dry and dusty next to Daniel’s tales of crocodiles and river-town whores, as dead and desiccated as the men they’d been about. He remembered caring about them once, but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember why. He opened his mouth to speak, then shook his head. “Don’t really know any good ones,” he said.
Daniel snorted softly, then lapsed into silence. Lazy flies crawled on their legs and arms and bellies. Finally, Daniel glanced at him. “Maybe you should start telling them more often then,” he said. He clapped Caleb on the shoulder and stood up to light the stove and make dinner.
They ate and then smoked some more and didn’t say much of nothing at all. The sun sank in a red sky upriver and then the sky turned purple before it turned black. The stars came out like blazing lanterns in a far black field.
When Daniel finally got up to turn in he paused and looked at Caleb. “You coming?”
“Maybe later,” Caleb said, looking away. “Not really tired.”
Daniel ran a hand through his hair, watching him for a long time. Finally, he shrugged. “Free country,” he said, and crawled into bed under the mosquito nets.
Caleb sat up and smoked until well after dark, watching the river pass, until he was sure Daniel must be asleep. Then, silent and soft, he pulled off his trousers and climbed in beside him. He paused, kneeling in his sheets, to look at Daniel.
Daniel moved. Took a long deep breath and rolled over, looked back, that same question in his eyes. Caleb’s breath caught and heat pricked up in his arms and neck and belly and he stopped, frozen.
“Well?” Daniel said, low.
Caleb just looked back, words stuck in his throat like drift on the river, hands trembling.
Daniel looked at him for a long, long time, then snorted softly and rolled back over, and in seconds he was snoring.
Caleb lowered himself shaking into his sheets and stared at Daniel’s back. He wanted to reach out and touch the brown skin there, to say something low and sure and true, to lean close and see if he still smelled of sandalwood under the sweat and river water. But he didn’t. The dark deck between them was a chasm.
Next morning, there were eggs cooling in the pan and Daniel was sitting at the far end of the riverboat, back turned to him, smoking. The outskirts of the port town slid past on shore, and on the morning breeze was the smell of the salt sea. Caleb pulled on his trousers and, for the first time in a week, his shirt. He looked at Daniel sitting there and thought about walking out there and sitting next to him. Maybe coming up with a story to tell about a general or a king. But he didn’t.
They moored up before noon, handing the riverboat off to the crew of men who would unload it and pole it back upriver, red bulging men who eyed them warily as they passed. The mud in the streets squelched up around their boots and clung in clumps to their feet as they walked to the purser’s office. The purser counted their pay, and when they stepped outside Daniel turned to him. He offered his hand. “Wish you’d told me that story,” he said.
Caleb hesitated, then shook. “Wish I had too,” he said, finally.
Daniel squinted up at the sun, then looked off toward the dockyards. “Well,” he said.
“Well,” Caleb said. “Maybe I’ll see you again on another trip down.”
“Maybe so.” Daniel swallowed, then clapped Caleb on the back, hard. “Take care of yourself.”
“You too,” Caleb said, but Daniel had already turned and was walking away. In seconds he was lost in the milling crowds of the dockyards. Caleb just stood there for a moment, watching the place he’d been, feeling the prickle on his skin where Daniel had clapped him, full of something he didn’t quite know how to feel. Like his cards were on the table, but they were all face down. There was a knot in his stomach that, when he touched it, brought to mind brown skin in the sunshine and the faint scent of sandalwood.
It was well late before Caleb found an inn, and well morning before he drifted into uneasy sleep.
In his dream, Caleb is covered in filth and neck deep in the hungry black river, fighting to stay above the surface, and as the water slides up over his face, he screams, hoping that somewhere in the darkness overhead, someone will be there to hear him.
Jacob East is an ex-homeschooler, ex-evangelical, and ex-theist trying to make his way in a world that’s bigger, stranger, and wilder than he ever thought possible.