Wade in the River
By Louis J. Fagan
Ideas roamed naked and freely through the fertile valley of Palucid. Wade had encountered plenty and they were harmless enough when he saw them walking through farmers’ fields or encountered them in town. Most of the time, they were simply vague rods of pale yellow light, almost pretty. Sometimes they were dark like faded tar caked on a tin roof, almost ugly. Either way, they, for the most part, resembled humans and really weren’t much different than the farmers and townsfolk that populated the small community.
They took up little counter space at Fritz’s Diner, ordering a cup of joe and a slice of Fritz’s famed watermelon pie, same as any Palucidian who frequented the town’s only restaurant. They waited in line at the post office, minding their own business, never complaining when the old postmaster Milly Sutlet found some way to charge them extra postage for letters they were sending off to God knows where.
Milly was wary of ideas—Never trusted them, never will, she’d huff under her breath when they would leave. Others in town shared her sentiment. Some did not. Wade had been raised to treat ideas as respectfully as he’d want to be treated. Truth was, he’d never particularly disliked ideas—until he’d given one a spare hat and the idea slowly took over his life.
Sun blazing mid-July, Wade had finished mowing a field of alfalfa, pulled his tractor into the barnyard, and set out for the pasture to run the cows in the barn for afternoon milking. The summer thus far had been a brutal one with little rain and one-hundred degree days. The hot weather had been a blessing for the hay and sweet corn, but whittled away little by little at Wade, who farmed his land alone at the north end of the valley. Summers before may have been just as hot—Wade couldn’t remember or couldn’t bear to remember. Those summers he’d had help with the chores and fieldwork.
He lifted his hat from his head. It was a beat-up old cap, the fabric worn off the bill, the mesh at the opposite end sheer and soft from wear. The bright green family logo, a cursive letter Y, that had been stitched into the hat and once perched regally above the bill now sat tattered and torn.
He brushed his thumb over the Y, tugged at a loose thread. Clenna had done the fancy stitching for him last Christmas. He swiped his forehead with the faded bandana that hung from the back pocket of his jeans. Then he set the hat firmly back on his head, his fingers lingering on the Y, tracing its jagged edges.
After his herd of Guernseys passed through the open gate, Wade glanced to the creek, noticing one more cow lay, head towards him, as if she’d been bowled over and, like a turtle tipped on its shell, was unable to right herself up. Her legs stuck out from her, stiff and straight, and the first thing Wade thought was this: That cow’s got herself into baylock bush, eaten some, and sure as hell, I’ve have to shoot her.
He traipsed over the hardened ground peppered with cow pies until he reached the cow that was anything but poisoned by baylock. She was in labor, and she had an idea knelt down behind her and delivering her calf.
“The calf is breech,” the idea said, one arm reached inside the cow. “I was walking through your pasture and came upon her. I think I’ve nearly got the body turned, nose pointed in the right direction.”
Wade squatted down beside the idea and stroked the cow’s sweaty haunch. “I thank you kindly,” he said, his voice strained and raspy, as he hadn’t spoken to anyone since nearly a week ago when he was in town buying grain at the feed store. “I’m Wade Yorris.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Yorris.”
“Wade, please. It’s Wade.”
The idea nodded. “Pleased to meet you, Wade. I’m Benedict,” he said and shifted his body to reach his arm further in the cow. “I would shake your hand, Wade,” he said, grinning, holding up his other arm, “but as you can see, I’ve been at this with both hands.”
Wade nodded, eying the film and fluid of birth glistening across the naked idea’s arms and body.
The idea wasn’t any shade he’d even seen. Somewhere between yellow and black, he hesitated to call it gray or mustard or green, unsure if the name for its color existed. Conscious his stare was lingering too long, he returned his gaze to the cow and could see the calf’s small, soft hooves emerge beneath the idea’s receding hand.
“I do believe you saved this Guernsey’s life and the one inside her too,” Wade said, getting to his knees, side-to-side with the idea.
Benedict inched over to make room. “Seems we’re almost there,” he said. Taking both his hands and latching onto the hooves, he began to pull.
Wade set his hands next to the idea’s and pulled with him. “She’s more than ready, I do believe,” he said.
When the cow, the man, and the idea had finished, Wade brought the calf to the mother’s front end while Benedict walked to the creek and rolled himself in the shallow water. The cow uprighted herself almost instantly and began fervently licking away the afterbirth from its calf.
When Benedict returned from the creek, he stood with Wade silently and watched the cow. “Amazing they still have the instinct to do that after all these years, isn’t it?” he said.
“It is,” Wade said.
“Ideas operate just the same, I suppose,” Benedict said, looking intently at Wade. “Time hasn’t changed our instinct either. We tend to gravitate toward a human even before that human knows the idea is his.”
The calf attempted to stand, knobby knees, like two crab apples stuck beneath its skin, wobbling this way and that. Its mother sent its rough tongue across its chest, dismissing any notion the calf had of standing and sent it pummeling back to the ground.
A cow bellered from the barn, then another, and Wade peered up the hill at the stable.
“Cows are ready to be fed and milked,” Wade said. “I best get these two up the hill.”
“If you want, you can get up there and tend to them,” Benedict said.
“I’ll bring this one and her young up when she’s finished her business.”
“I would appreciate that,” Wade said. “But I can’t ask you to do that. You’ve done quite enough for me as it is.”
Benedict glanced at the creek, the water rippling gently over the stones protruding from the bed. “Sure. Sure. I understand,” he said and turned to leave.
Wade’s cheeks flushed. “It’s not like that at all. It has nothing to do with you being—”
“Perfectly all right if it is,” Benedict said.
The top of the idea was blistered from the sun. Wade only noticed when Benedict stood at the angle he was standing now, between coming and going.
“You need yourself a hat,” Wade said. “I can’t ask you to bring this cow and calf up unless when you do, I get to the house and grab you a hat. This sun will burn a man or idea blind, if he doesn’t have a hat.”
The idea reached to his head, touched it. “Well, you are right about that,” he said. And then he laughed. “Although—I think I would be the first idea ever to walk this valley with any article of clothing, even if it were just a hat. We’ve always been naked.”
The following week, Benedict was still at the farm, but things hadn’t turned sour for Wade just yet by then. In fact, at that point, Wade had become quite used to Benedict’s presence in the barn, in the garden, in the hayfields.
The idea had very quickly become Wade’s hired hand. Wade wasn’t sure how it had happened, really. The idea brought the cow and calf to the barn. Wade grabbed the hat. The idea stayed.
The hat he had provided to Benedict was Clenna’s hat. Benedict had gratefully accepted it, hadn’t been without it since Wade had given it to him. The idea hoed with the hat on, turned it backwards when he climbed next to the cows in their stalls to milk them. Benedict was a natural farmer and in Wade’s mind he began to equate Benedict’s ability as a farmer with the hat he had given the idea.
Overall, that first week Wade found Benedict’s company pleasant, a welcome relief to the grief that hung like spider webs in the corners of the house, spider webs he’d neglected to knock down with the broom since April when Clenna had done the spring cleaning. He had even found himself telling Benedict about Clenna and the kids, how on the first day of May they had headed to town for groceries, the four of them pressed together in the cab of the truck, Clenna’s hand stuck out the window waving good-bye as she pulled down the long driveway. He told Benedict about the thunderstorm that had come out of the mountains like a stealthy mountain lion pouncing with such a fury on the valley that it crumpled Reachers Bridge over the surging Surry River, swallowing Clenna and the kids as they crossed.
One evening while sitting on the back porch, as fireflies dotted the dark canvas of night and a single cricket chirped languidly, Wade even shared with Benedict how he nearly plunged himself in Surry River when he’d heard the news of his family. Why he hadn’t he would never know. He had never learned to swim and reaching the bottom would have been easy. Perhaps, keeping him from diving in was the pull of the farm, which had been in Clenna’s family for generations. From the riverbed, where the divers had told him the truck lay unreachable under the landslide of silt and bridge rubble, perhaps Clenna whispered for him to persevere, to keep her alive through the land. Still, he dreamt of the river almost nightly, its current pulling him from his bed and sweeping him to the depths of it, where he met not cold, black waters, but light and peace. The river called to him when he mowed hay, milked cows, weeded the garden, he confessed.
Why he’d shared such things with the idea, he wasn’t sure. The idea had revealed little about himself. On that particular summer night, when Wade grew uncomfortable exposing such privacies of his own life, he asked the idea such questions as “Where are you from, Benedict?” or “Do you have any family of your own?” However, Benedict only delicately replied, “Oh, I can’t say, to tell the truth,” leaving Wade rather unsure if Benedict meant he was not capable of sharing the information or that he was truly not sure of the answer.
Toward the end of the week, a Guernsey stomped on the idea’s foot. The idea had climbed in beside the cow to place a milking machine on her bag and had startled her from busily eating the haylage in front of her. The cow lifted its leg and clomped its hoof square on the center of the idea’s foot. The idea sprung from the stall, dropped the milker to the barn floor and hopped around on his other foot in circles, cussing up a blue streak.
Wade brought the idea’s arm across his own back and helped Benedict hobble to a hay bale. “Here. Sit. Are you all right?” Wade said, not sure how the hoof of a Guernsey could bang up a fleshless light rod’s foot. Still, he was certain it must have hurt by the way the idea had danced about.
“I’m all right,” Benedict said, wincing from the apparent pain.
“Wait here,” Wade said. When he returned from the house, he held a faded pair of jeans, a t-shirt, and a pair of work boots. “Clenna bought these boots for me, but they never quite fit right. I never wore them and never returned them. I suppose I was meant to keep them for some reason and you were the reason.”
“And no farmer can wear a pair of boots and a hat and be naked otherwise, right?” he said. “Take these jeans of mine. I’ve plenty of them. And this t-shirt too.”
The idea beamed, quite literally. Wade watched the nameless shade of color change in degrees of brightness.
Benedict stepped in the jeans and tucked his feet in the boots. The jeans proceeded to fall to his knees and both the man and the idea laughed loudly.
“You’ll need a belt, Benedict,” Wade said. “That I don’t have a spare of.” He reached to the back pocket of his own jeans and pulled out the baler twine he’d stuck there earlier in the day when he was out in the hayfield. “Use this for now until we can get into town.”
When Benedict cinched the twine around his waist and laced his boots, Wade handed him the t-shirt, but Benedict hesitated. “What’s wrong?” Wade said.
“You keep the shirt, Wade,” Benedict said, looking down at his attire. He lifted his hat off his head, scratched his neck, and set the hat back on his head. “I’m an idea and I suppose I should leave a little of myself to the world rather than seal myself all off in man’s clothes.”
“Nonsense,” Wade said, attempting a smile but coming up short. “The sun surely depletes an idea, just the same as it depletes any man.” Wade touched his hat and looked down at his boots. “Same as it takes its toll on me.”
“You may be right, thank you,” Benedict said, lifting his hat off his head and pulling the shirt on.
“Good,” Wade said, pulling his hat from his sweaty head and tugging it back on resolutely. “Good.”
Benedict stretched out his arms and looked himself over. “If I weren’t turning into a farmer, I’d say I’m heading that way now.” Then his brows dipped toward the bridge of his nose and he frowned. “Although an idea is always just an idea. Until he isn’t, I suppose.”
Wade nodded, as if he understood but he didn’t. He stepped into the milk house, suddenly uncomfortable to be standing with a fully clothed idea. By the time he returned to the barn, Benedict was squatting next to a cow, milking away as if nothing had happened.
Already, Wade sensed a change in the idea, as if the work boots and clothing had propelled something inexplicable from him, something the hat had only tapped out minutely. Wade couldn’t place it exactly, this change he noticed, as he bent with a warm rag and wiped the dust and dirt from a cow’s bag and placed a milker on the animal’s teats. No, he couldn’t place it exactly, but he was sure it was there. And he was sure this change within the idea had somehow marked a change within himself too. But this shift in himself was no more easily identifiable in him than it was in Benedict. Still, the change in both of them was most certainly there.
August came and with it the first harvest of sweet corn. Wade and Benedict carried burlap sacks through the rows of corn, filling them with the ripe ears. They worked together like a well-oiled machine. They began when the sun was only an orange sliver across the eastern mountain, even before the cows had their morning milking. With the mow full of hay, Wade turned his attention to the acres of sweet corn and selling it in the market square in town.
When he’d planted the corn, he’d questioned whether he could harvest it without the help of Clenna and the kids. Hiring help would be out of the question, as money was always short, and the thought of another working beside him in the cornfield felt like some sort of betrayal to his wife and family. As ridiculous as it was, that was how it felt to Wade. Then the idea had come and because he was an idea and not another human being, Wade’s guilt had been somewhat subsided. Rather than crush the memory of Clenna and the children, Benedict had managed to preserve it in a way that only an idea could.
In July, trips to town were far and few between, but August saw Wade and Benedict loading the pickup with corn daily and heading south to sell the produce. In town, Wade dropped the tailgate and sold dozens upon dozens of corn.
On a late August afternoon drive back to the farm emerged Wade’s desire for the idea to dissipate. That’s what ideas did in Palucid. They often came to fruition, but more likely than not they simply dissipated into thin air, as if they’d never existed at all.
What prompted such a thought was this. Wade had neglected to get a belt for Benedict, not intentionally of course, but they had both been busy with farm work and quite forgotten about it entirely. Benedict had climbed out of the truck that morning and pulled up his jeans and Wade thought, he needs a belt and I have forgotten to get him one. Wade slipped away from the sales shortly after arriving at the market, allowing Benedict to watch over things. He purchased Benedict a thick black leather belt and Benedict was overjoyed. Benedict had immediately shed the twine from his waist and ran the belt through the loops of his jeans. “Thank you,” he said. “I somehow feel complete now.”
All morning, as the corn supply slowly dwindled from the back of the truck, the same nagging feeling Wade had encountered in the barn that day when he’d given Benedict the boots and clothes surfaced again. It had grown so much so, that by the time they headed home, Wade was prepared to send Benedict on his way, but he still wasn’t sure why.
The road north followed the river and Benedict sat in the passenger seat of the truck. He was a content idea, Wade could clearly see. He was harmless and even more so he was helpful. Wade had no reason to want to see him dissipate, still he wanted just that.
“What did you mean?” Wade asked, steering the truck with one hand, carefully tucking tobacco in his pipe and lighting up with the other.
“I’m sorry?” Benedict said and smiled. He too had a pipe now and lifted it off the dashboard from where it had rested with Wade’s and followed suit. “I’m not sure what you mean?”
“What did you mean when you said, ‘I somehow feel complete now’?”
“Oh, that,” Benedict said and returned his eyes to the river. “Ideas are naked beings, meant to be naked always, but the hat, the jeans, the boots, the t-shirt, all those things made me feel less naked, less like an idea. The belt seemed to complete me because it not only worked to hold up these jeans you gave me but also to seal completely what I have become.”
Wade pulled on his pipe and set the sweet smoke about his lungs. And then he exhaled. “And what is it you’ve become?” he said.
“I’ve become you, of course,” Benedict said, pinching his lips around the stem of his pipe and inhaling. “I’ve become you. You’ve noticed it too. You can’t tell me you haven’t.”
Wade watched the smoke leave Benedict’s mouth. He slowed the truck and veered off the road by the river. As he set the truck in Park, he flinched. He had inadvertently parked next to the remnants of the collapsed bridge.
“Say again,” Wade said.
“I’m you now. Don’t take it so hard,” Benedict said, smiling first, then turning his head to peer out his open window at the calm waters of Surry River.
“That’s the way of it? An idea comes and takes over a farmer’s life?”
“Not all ideas. Only me and only you. Ideas come to fruition in all sorts of ways. You brought me to this one.”
Wade and the idea sat quietly.
“River’s beautiful this time a year, isn’t it?” Benedict finally said.
Wade looked across the expanse of the river, its slow ripples catching the light of the sun and unleashing it in lively brushstrokes over the surface. “River’s never beautiful to me anymore,” Wade said.
“That may be so, Wade,” Benedict said. “But we both know what’s next.”
Wade set one hand on the steering wheel, set the other on the corncob bowl of his pipe. Then he removed his hand from the steering wheel and set it on the handle of the truck door.
“You see, Wade,” Benedict said. “You do know.”
Wade looked out at Surry River, wide, deep, calm, and at the rubble left from the bridge that had taken away his family. “You’ve been with me all this time. And you’ve known.”
“Ideas never really know, do we? It’s the other way around, I suppose,” Benedict said. “Ideas are built to operate on instinct, Wade. Right? I tried to tell you that the day we delivered that calf. You could have let me go that day, but somehow you knew.”
“Even still, you’ve been a very purposeful idea, haven’t you?”
“I was to become you, so you could have the very two things you wanted, Wade. With your knowing and my instinct, we’ve brought me to fruition. With me, you’ll keep Clenna and the children’s memory alive through the land, and as I tend to the farm and their memories, you’ll lie with them in peace in Surry River. I was your idea all along.”
“You have betrayed me,” Wade said, tapping the spent tobacco from his pipe out the open window of the truck and onto the road.
“Not at all,” Benedict said, puffing on his pipe and then emptying its chamber, as well, in the same fashion Wade had just emptied his. “You betrayed yourself when you took a naked idea and dressed him up. You set your plan in motion.”
“Take off those boots, then. Take off those clothes. Take off the belt. Give me back Clenna’s hat.”
“I rather like being a man,” Benedict said. “A naked idea is scary. I see that now from a man’s clothes. I no longer wish to be naked.”
Wade lunged across the seat and began wrestling with the idea. “How dare you,” he yelled at Benedict. “How dare you.”
Benedict, the rod of light that he was, slipped from Wade’s hold easily enough. “Why the change of heart now, Wade,” he said, “when we are so close to what is meant to be?”
“Get out of here,” Wade yelled. “Leave me alone.”
“Alone is no place you want to be. That’s what has led us here to begin with.”
Wade released Benedict, shoved himself off the idea, and slid back to his side of the truck. He sighed. And he sighed again. “You’re right,” he said, bobbing his head in agreement to the resolution that had festered in his thoughts for so long now. Then he nodded to Benedict. “See to the rest of that sweet corn crop. See to the cows and the farm,” he said and stepped out of the truck. When he turned to close the truck door, Benedict was already in the driver’s seat.
“You can count on it,” Benedict said.
Wade climbed down the riverbank, easing his way across the smooth stones. The water, warm and inviting much like a bath, enveloped his boots, then the cuff of his workpants. Waist high now in the water, he rested his hand on the abutment of the fallen bridge and glanced over his shoulder.
Benedict watched from the truck. He nodded to Wade.
Stepping further in Surry River, Wade leaned out, letting the soft current pull him into the deeper central waters. Immediately, he sunk, and immediately, much to his surprise, he flailed his arms, kicked his legs, as he sucked in air to breathe but only filled his lungs with water. Drowning wasn’t as easy as he’d imagined. In fact, as he struggled beneath the surface of the river, he distinctly noticed, when he flung his arms this way and that, his hands swept not at just water but at the air above it.
His head began to bob above and below the water. His hat floated nearby, the tattered letter Y waving at him.
“Why?” he yelled, tasting the river in the back of his throat. He thrashed at the water, craning his head to the riverbank. “Why?” he yelled again.
Benedict stood now outside the truck, hat in hand, eyes locked on Wade. He extended his arm to Wade, bidding him farewell.
But Wade couldn’t quite drown. And choking on water, spewing it from his mouth, he grasped on a new idea—that the farewell Benedict waved was not for him at all, but for the idea himself because he was going. Wade propelled his feet, heavy as they were in his sodden boots, and sliced his arms through the water. His head remained above the current, his gaze fixed on the idea.
As each second slipped by, as Wade failed to drown, he watched Benedict flicker and flicker until only a pile of clothes lay on the shore of Surry River.