by Jonathan DeCoteau
“That was what the living did: they died” –Kevin Brockmeier, The Brief History of the Dead
ADISA HAD SEEN THE SOULS melt like butter across the jagged edge of ugali before they vanished, like puffs of powdered sugar, into the teeth of the sky. He had fished the same dank hole, right by a jetty that swirled souls like minnows, for so long that he had lost track of time, if it still existed at all. Adisa had come close to capturing a soul or two with his elongated bamboo pole with the shiny rock. He had been told by wise fisherman, those he had patterned himself after, who had waited thousands of years, that young souls thought the shiny rock resembled the great point of light at the end of a tunnel, that they would gravitate towards the mica and pull their energies into the rock. This, they had told Adisa, was why they were so old. And so Adisa waited with his pole, yet he knew not for what.
Most of the souls swirling in the river told stories of their passing, and each passing was a fluttering of musical notes that fell into the river like mackerel feasting on flies. Every person who passed into this world of two-dimensional mountains and half-melted suns, this Daliesque place that was not heaven, not hell, not Purgatory, not Earth, this place that was and was not—each one of these souls had its own song. One soul, the soul of his friend’s great-grandson, Omar, was full of discordant notes that were Jazz and instrumental competing for their own sound. Others, the ones that resonated with Adisa’s own song, were lost notes from Bach-like symphonies, the kind that were thunderous and sad in one and the same note. It took Adisa at least one-hundred of our years to figure out what those sounds might be—the shattering of souls. Adisa was convinced that just as the great river purged itself of silt with every great storm that this world of the dead purged itself from its own gluttony—that once a soul was forgotten in the world beyond the river, that soul shattered to pieces against the river rocks like the tortoise shells eagles dropped against stones. And so Adisa kept at it, always hoping to catch at least one soul before the currents brought it out.
Originally, Adisa fished for the soul of his wife, whose song, one of slow crescendos, he almost recognized right before the notes fell into a pelican’s beak. He struggled in that moment to remember the woman in the white shawl, with her barnacle-like teeth that reminded him of a reef in the South Atlantic Ocean, beautiful and ugly, white and not white, all at once. When the pelican greedily ate the notes, emitting its own cruel sound, Adisa remembered her no more and so he fished for the soul of his son. The boy was not like his father, the prominent captain of the Ivory Coasts. Adisa vaguely remembered the waves, treacherous friends, lifting up his prize memory, only to crush it beneath liquid mountains. The drowning of memory was quick, yet ponderous—one moment stretched out, too thin, really, like runny blots of morose paint along a darkened palette. It was then that Adisa heard his own song, that of a flute playing slow, undulating notes. This song stood around him now, as he fought, bit by bit, to remember the embrace of the boy who would leave his family for Port Elizabeth. But the boy, his emerald eyes, his silt black hair, left Adisa’s memory, one jewel at a time, until again Adisa was but the shell of a man, still on the endless river, still with only a stick of sodden wood.
Continuously, Adisa wondered: what keeps me from shattering against the clouds or the rocks or even the waves? Continuously, there was only the melancholy throb of the flute, but no answer. Adisa half-expected a deity to peer from behind the sun like a giant orangutan rising to munch on ripening grapes. But whatever God was, God was in the song, and not at all like the god of his fathers. Sitting patiently, so as not to disturb the souls, Adisa felt that he had come upon his answer: the souls, the fish, everything, even the pelicans, melted with the mountains and with the sun. Souls fell into God or whatever was in God’s place, joining all Creation, Randomness, whatever you might call it, the way a cherry stem strikes sand—whirring just a bit, then crashing into the great below. And Adisa knew, felt, from his two-dimensionality, that whatever did or did not bite, death was always there, past a few rocks or streams, the most patient fisherman of all.
ADISA SCRAMBLED ACROSS THE SHALE, seeking out another shiny stone, when a soul came up out of the river, shook off the musical notes, shooed a pelican away, and then stared right at him.
Adisa looked a long while at the soul, which was still new and smelled like sun-bleached seaweed, the touch of death still fresh upon its translucent skin. It was male, but it was not young. Adisa could tell that much. But it still glowed too much for Adisa to make out much else, even the eyes.
“Where am I?” the soul asked.
“The river,” Adisa said.
After Adisa chiseled away a piece of sapphire from the cliffs of light, he returned to his bamboo raft and to his pole. The souls below fluttered about like gossamer, some even through the stone.
“Excuse me,” the soul called. “You see, I’ve walked for days.”
“Impossible. Time doesn’t exist.”
“Neither does civilization, apparently. There’s nothing out there.”
“Then you should try another path,” Adisa called back.
“Might I spend some time on your raft? I’m tired.”
Adisa shook his head. “Stop talking. You’re scaring away the souls.”
“But I must tell you…I must tell someone—”
Adisa shook his head. Though he hadn’t seen a soul pass his way recently, the other, ancient fishermen had warned him of this. Every soul that passes by feels the need to explain how it died. The dead exchanged their death songs the way old Northern trappers showed off the scabs of their claw-marked skins.
“—How I think I died.”
Adisa listened to the notes the soul had still not shaken off, the ones that attracted a few African fish eagles overhead.
“You were a false prophet,” Adisa said. “You were abusive. And so you hanged yourself when you were drunk. It’s all there, in your song.”
Suddenly, the skies bled silvery rains, bleating the light of the waters, the soul orbs, and the rocks. The soul stood there, drenched in notes, staring at the raft as if it were a drier shore.
Adisa shook his gray-speckled head. The dead always brought storms with them, at least until they settled down. There’d be no fishing until this stranger calmed himself.
“Tell your story quickly,” Adisa said. “I have much fishing to do.”
“But you never catch anything,” the soul said.
“Precisely why I must fish.”
The soul climbed aboard the raft, teetering as it did so. Adisa joined him and headed out to the waters, watching the sky as it turned from silver and black and gold to a beating red like a sunset spilled upon darkening clouds.
“Have your say quickly,” Adisa said. “I’m a busy man.”
“I died drunk,” the soul said. “I realize that now. My name. I think it was Stephen Sampson, but it’s difficult to remember anything on these waters. I think I died alone.”
“We all die alone.”
“I think I was alone in life, all alone. I feel like I’m not so new to death,” the soul said. “Just to this river—and to you.”
Adisa thought for a moment. The idea that there might be more than one river, more than one afterlife, had never occurred to him.
“I beat my son,” the soul said out of nowhere. “I remember that most of all. Horrible beatings. I grew up in the royal navy before I took up the ministry and became a drunk. I expected my son to live a disciplined life, even when I didn’t.”
“You were English?”
The soul nodded. It had resembled some of its earthly form now, with grizzled cheeks, translucent white eyes, and hair the color of cobwebs upon oak.
“What do you remember?” the soul asked Adisa.
The whites of eyes under skies not unlike the one that hovered red above now took Adisa’s memories. “Nothing,” he said. “Now, if you’re quite done, I’ll return you to where I found you.”
Adisa started paddling his raft closer to the shore but even as he pulled alongside it, the soul made no gesture to get up.
“I’ve listened to your song,” Adisa said. “Now leave me in peace.”
The soul shook its head. “I don’t know quite what I am, but I do know this—I am not leaving for a very, very long time.”
WHAT MIGHT BE CALLED DAYS of fishing went by, silent and empty as the adjacent desert. Adisa stopped speaking to the soul, concentrating instead on the stone. But the edges of sapphire were their own elixir, conjuring up memories Adisa would rather forget.
In that sense, Adisa was unusual. The dead held memories like the living held dreams—as strange, otherworldly images that played by their own set of mystifying rules. Every so often, when Adisa sailed near ancient fishermen, they’d tell him of an Earth memory as if it were a pearl in the hand, with all of its smooth, spherical edges and all of the hardness of life that lie in between. One fisherman remembered placing clay-bonded limestones along Hadrian’s wall and feeling the earthen texture of soot and stone. Another had a memory a hummingbird smothering the long, pink petals of a water lillow. Adisa’s memories were not so sweet, but no less poignant.
There was water and a boat. Adisa remembered that much. It must have been the ocean ages ago, before things like motors and petroleum and a river of light. And there were eyes, the whites of endless eyes, always upturned, contrasting with black skin with blackening scars that stretched vine-like across otherwise barren expanses of skin. And then there were the cries, the baby cries most of all, shrieks that pierced the wood of the ship like they did his skin, the cries he never forgot, even when he slept.
“How did you die?” the soul asked him as they rafted together.
Adisa looked ahead, seeing ripples not too dissimilar from those he had seen in life.
“I have nothing more to say to you,” Adisa said. “Find your own raft, and leave mine.”
“Just tell me, and you’ll never see me again.”
“Do you promise—upon your soul?”
“What else do I have left?”
“If my song is to be believed, I was a deck hand. I rose in rank. I became a captain.”
“In the Royal Navy?”
Adisa shook his head, keeping his eye on the souls swarming past his stone, as he said: “On a slave ship. One bound for America.”
“You enslaved others?”
Adisa let the words stand as his judgement. “I whipped the insolent. I separated the families at the ports. Thousands of lives changed when we raided the west African coasts. Yet I never lost a night of sleep, even as I heard the cries—always, the cries.”
“It makes sense now,” the soul said.
“What of this life makes sense?”
“Why we can’t reach hell.”
Adisa grew quiet for a long time. Finally, he added, “On this raft, I cried for eternities. Yet there is no recompense in tears. The suffering I visited on the world on the other side of this river goes on until this day, and so I cannot die. My sins are bloodier than this sky. I can never be forgiven. All I want to be is forgotten, but who can forget a bleeding wound? Slavery bleeds always.”
“What if I told you that I think I know why I am here?”
Adisa shook his head. “That would imply purpose. A land of melted suns has none.”
“But my memory fits your memory. I’m fairly certain that the boy I was beating was you. And the reason I beat the boy was the ruin he caused my reputation when it was discovered that, though light-skinned, he was actually black.”
Adisa froze in the colorful winds. “Are you telling me that I enslaved my own people?”
“Don’t you see,” the soul said. “We are all one people, from this vantage point. My sin led to your sin. That is why it is time for me to sit on this raft, and it is time for you to go. You’ll never find the souls you’re fishing for. You’ll never put their lives back together again.”
Adisa looked at the soul. “But what I’ve done—”
The soul reached out, grabbed Adisa by the shoulders. “I was a poor minister,” the soul said. “I treated my son poorly. I swindled congregations out of money. I bought and owned and impregnated slaves. But my only hope is in you. You must move on.”
“You just want the raft.”
The soul smirked as it shook its head. “No one wants your raft. And no one wants these waters. Just journey for a while. Return and I’ll give your raft to you, if I’m still here.”
Adisa mused it over. “The souls aren’t biting anyway. What is a little time away?”
Adisa rose and headed off.
“Goodbye,” the soul called after him. “May we never meet again.”
Adisa walked until he realized that walking was a sin. The land was not his to walk over any more than the sky was his to breathe in. He let the cries, the blood, the fear wash off him with the pouring of his notes until he reached a patch of shale. Then, all sound vanished. As the memories of being human washed away, Adisa thought of a huge, single heartbeat that went throughout all of creation, as in the myths of the Aborigines. In their tales, everywhere the gods walked was sacred—be it a rock, a river, or a tree. Adisa listened to the heart that sounded like a ripened gourd rattling against hollow stone. He joined with that heartbeat and its rhythms, walking more slowly until the wind carried his name from his shoulders and a shattering fell upon his soul.