They happened upon a dying woman next to a great putrid river with an infant swaddled in a grass woven blanket. They were both badly sunburned. She had all the hope in the world within her heart and mind.She didn’t believe she was dying but the two of them had no doubt in their minds and they communicated it to each other through a sad sideways glance. She was sitting Indian style breastfeeding her child diseased humor.
The child was not unhappy but it hadn’t experienced the loss of its mother yet. Both mother and child were like any other, except the mother coughed blood.
The mother had grown up in an affluent suburb of a nearby formerly great city. Her parents had raised her sheltered from the brutal truths of life. She was too young to believe in her death, she thought she would live forever. She thought that she and her child would not experience a bleak oblivion. She was wrong.
They approached her and she twitched with a start and instinctively drew her child closer to her as if the act itself would protect the child from the two strangers, who may or may not be a danger.
“There is no need to be afraid of us. We are not here to hurt anyone. We are just lost and need water.”
“Go away! Leave us alone! We didn’t do anything to you. God will protect us!”
“You are going to have to trust us and you really don’t have a choice.”
“Well…get your water and leave. This is our place!”
“Where is the baby’s father?”
“He said he would be back for us…I think he is lost too…I haven’t seen him for a week or so.”
Wally took a drink from the river and spat it out immediately, as it tasted quite foul and he said so.
“Have you been drinking this shit?”
“There is nothing wrong with the water.”
“This isn’t even water anymore, toots. This is more or less sludge. Is there a factory around here or anything that would cause this? Is this coming from St. Louis?”
“I don’t know but I saw a beam of light last night. It came from the sky or possibly outer space. The water was fine, maybe the beam polluted the water.”
“Did you notice anything else about his beam?”
“There was a high pitched noise that accompanied it. Satchel screamed for two hours. He is such a good boy he’s never acted like that before, I didn’t know what was wrong with him but he seems okay now. Maybe it is his teeth coming in.”
After she was done speaking she starting coughing again in fits, more and more blood coming out. The baby laughed and giggled as if his mother would be with him forever. She half collapsed onto the grey-grassy river bank.
“How long have you been coughing like this?”
“I’m fine, I believe in mind over matter and this cough will go away. It has been bothering me for three weeks, it is bound to go away soon.”
“I’m no doctor but I think we need to get you to a doctor to have that cough looked at…”
“I hate doctors, I haven’t seen one since I was a little girl.”
They both thought, that could not have been too long ago. She was probably barely out of her teenage years. The injustice and mortality of the situation hit them hard and heavy in the chest. The sadness that hung over the picturesque river bank was thick and humid like the water.
They both began to think about their inevitable deaths, privately in their own heads; for only a few seconds. They both decided action was needed and that dwelling on the inevitable was futile.
They walked down the bank a ways to a small peninsula jutting into the river where they were out of earshot, to discuss what they should do.
“We should just leave her here to die. It seems to be her fate,” whispered Wally looking furtively over his shoulder as if God himself were possibly eavesdropping.
“Maybe it is our fate to save them.”
“I don’t know…I tend to think selfishly when it comes to situations like this…but it always seems you bring your moral high-ground into play and then we end up worse off than we had started.”
“We are here for a reason.”
“I don’t believe in fate. I believe in coincidence. This is a random encounter. During my life I have metaphorically not ran across damsels in distress a million times over. Now I finally have and I choose to walk away and forget about her.”
From down the bank they could hear the mother vomiting more blood from deep inside her body, into the river, adding to the human stain on the natural. A loud and anguished moan followed and then an alarmed shriek from the baby. They glanced over and saw the mother had collapsed and seemed to be choking, Satchel laid facedown in the grass crying loudly and flailing his legs and arms wildly straining to keep his head off the earth.
As they reached the scene, the woman was gasping her last breaths. She asked what was happening and mentioned the beam of light had once again appeared over the water but when they looked nothing was there.
Her last words were, “I can’t sleep. I’ll see you tomorrow, Satchel.” Then her soul, if that is what it was, left her body and shot towards the sky and into outer-space toward a distant string.
The men both cried and picked up the baby.
“This is no world for this child.”
“Unfortunately, I agree.”
They nuzzled the baby into the mother’s dead arms and walked away and did not look back. Satchel’s crying stopped after a minute and they heard a belly laugh emerge from the poor infant’s depths and they heard nothing more as they trudged on through the thick soil of the rivers bank.
“So long Satchel, see you tomorrow.”