I must confess, as the years and The River roll on and on, that from time to time my confidence in my memories of that first world, dead, lost Earth, grows fainter and fainter. I have to accept the fact of its existence, of course. If not at this moment, then at some point in the past, distant though it may be. Too many others know that it was a real place for me to dismiss Earth as a fantasy, a strange and powerful vision of an alien world that I will never see (again) and never really want to (for the most part).
I remember……the buildings, mostly. Huge square towers of stone and metal. I saw an iron sword here, once. A huge Persian was swinging it over his head in a battle. He killed five men, and fell with an arrow in his throat. And twenty men and women from both sides of the conflict threw themselves in a heap onto the Persian's bloody corpse, wriggling like earthworms for that precious, precious sword. But in the Earth world, metal was everywhere in the ground. And the ground was easily dug up. Not like here.
And I remember a woman's face. Probably my mother's face. But I don't remember her very well. Soft hands, brushing the hair from my eyes. A mouth that never smiled. Nothing whole, nothing complete. Just pieces of a memory. Fragments.
I remember that I died when I was six years old. At least, I remember turning six years old, and I don't remember ever seeing a birthday cake with seven candles. I don't know how I died. I just woke up here one morning, with the rest of the world. Years ago I had a dream of smoke, burning smoke in my mouth, and when I awoke and told my lover Anya she said that perhaps I had died in a fire while I slept. The smoke would have killed my long before the flames. Maybe this is what happened. I'm honestly not sure.
Anya died six years ago, at least, from my point of view she did. Raped and hacked apart by those damned savage Gauls. I haven't run into her since then.
I suppose it's like that for us Rivertads, or Riverorphans, as I've heard us called. Death has no sting. We never grew old, we never learned to fear it. It's never been real to us. It's….inconvenient. Nothing more. I miss Anya, of course, miss her terribly. (And Sally, and Iulia, and Georgina, as well. But Anya most.) And it hurt me deeply to witness her horrific death. But really, I didn't understand the rage, the screams and the gnashing of teeth from my fellow travellers as we watched, helpless, in our bamboo cages as the dirty Gauls did their work. It was terrible, but Anya would be fine tomorrow, I told them. They shook their head. It was wrong, they insisted. It would have been worse not to kill her, I argued. At least tomorrow she would be whole, without a scratch on her. The Gauls were bastards, but not monsters. They used her and let her go. But my comrades didn't see it that way.
That night I managed to break off a large splinter of bamboo from the cage, and I pounded it into my carotid artery. Escape was as easy I allowed it to be. The others had mentioned such a thing as the last resort, saying they wanted to remain together if at all possible, but they were terrified. Most of them had died at least once already here by The River, and still they trembled at the thought of it. Amazing!
I just never understood it.
About six or maybe ten years ago…..I confess that I have trouble keeping things straight in my mind, dates and times and that sort of thing…..anyway, it was several years ago, let's split the difference and say eight. Eight years ago. That would have made it 14 A.R., or A.R.D., depending on your preference of course. I know some people who stupidly insist on counting years from the day they died, even after they meet people who lived and died in their far future. Obviously, it can't be 1820 A.D. here if you've got people from 1920 A.D. walking around. But they don't listen…
Rambling, I know. Sorry. I do that from time to time.
14 A.R. I was twenty now, and rafting down The River without really an aim or a purpose to my life. I would drift by and watch The Riverbanks, first the right side, then drifting over to the left, then back to the right. I saw huts, longhouses, earthen mounds and stone temples. I saw people trying to build a bridge across The River at least three different times. There were primitive flotillas of dugouts and warcanoes, graceful schooners, catamarans, three-masted sailboats. I saw a Riverdragon-hide balloon floating over The River, tethered to a wooden tower. It was grand, all of it. No purpose. No troubles.
Oh, I died several times. Arrows and blowgun needles from bored natives. Got cracked in the head with a boomerang once. That hurt. I've been captured and enslaved a few times, but that never lasted long. There's always a way to kill yourself. I had swallow a rock the size of a baby's fist once just to get away from these Japanese slavers. That did the trick, although that was the worst two days that I can remember off the top of my head. And I got sacrificed once. Actually when they told me I wouldn't feel anything, they had some medicine that would paralyze me, I went along with it. I didn't want to offend their religious sensibilities.
One day I met this fellow named Ripley. I was drifting downRiver, and he was marching upRiver, and we had stopped at the same grailstone for dinner. It was a friendly place, Second Chancer and Reformed Baptists for the most part, both groups pacifistic and open-minded. They welcomed travellers because it gave them a chance to compete over saving our souls. I sat with Ripley and some other nomads and recently translated folks during dinnertime. Spaghetti and meatballs, steaming hot and spiced just right.
A Chancer, Frato Paolo, sat with us. He was a Filipino, short and muscular, with long stringy hair and big white teeth, and he had this deep, rolling giant's laugh that did not at all fit his small body. Paolo was a curious and inquisitive sort, he explained, and liked to wander and explore. That was partly what had led him to consider the Chancer doctrine, the chance to wander up and down The River. But his episkopo, a rail-thin Bushman named Kilapo, felt that Paolo needed to stay put and let roots grow, or else the Church's teachings in him would dry up and die, and he would be lost again. Paolo agreed, begrudgingly, but he sat with the wanderers and newcomers every night and pressed them for stories. A story as payment for supper, he would joke, and then laugh that giant's laugh.
I told Paolo about my encounters with slavers, and about the time I got into a fistfight with a man who claimed he was Thomas Jefferson. (I knew that the man was an imposter, of course, but it was still a great story.) Lucius, a Roman citizen from the time of Antoninus Pius, told the story of a great River battle, between his New Rome (one of ten thousand, I am sure) and a ferocious polyglot horde of Comanche, Chickasaw, Visigoth, and Kazakh warriors. He had been slain in the last moments of the engagement, skewered through the liver on a Kazakh spear, and his retelling of the story was vivid and enthralling. A born teller of tales, that Lucius. I wonder what become of him. An American, a former slave, told of his death on Earth, which he managed to make sound tragic, painful, and hilarious all at once. (A story too long to relate here. Another time.) There were others, but their stories weren't worth remembering.
And then there was this fellow Ripley. Robert Ripley, another American. He had sat there around the grailstone with the rest of us, his ears pricked up like a wolf, as we each related stories and tried to keep the interest of the group. He would smile blandly at some, lean in eagerly and absorb others. Ripley, he told us, had been a collector of the odd and mysterious on Earth, and so he was here on The Riverworld as well.
"So you've discovered why we were returned to life, then," said a woman, a Babylonian Second Chancer translated there that morning. Her smooth, bald head only detracted from her rough beauty slightly.
Ripley chuckled. "No, of course not. No one has discovered that. Not in a way that could be proved in a court of law, anyway," he added, with a nod to Frato Paolo. "But this world, paradise though it might be, in many ways, still has its share of anomalies and oddities. The entire world is a miracle, a stupendous miracle beggaring belief, but once you accept it it becomes quite ordinary, almost dull. Everyone is young. Everyone is unaging. Everyone is fed, everyone heals rapidly. Et cetera.
"But…God, or the Gods, or Whomever you believes gave us this world, is not perfect. There are flaws here and there. You have to seek them. You have to hunt them out, but they're there all right."
Paolo shook his head. "You give them paradise, Lord, and they pull out a magnifying glass."
"Oh, don't think me ungrateful, heavens no," Ripley said. "I'm damned glad to be here, young and fit again. I'm Trojan in that respect, I never look a gift horse in the mouth. But…I suppose I'm just a curious creature by nature. I visited 98 countries in my life. I saw the whole world. I had to. It was a….a compulsion, I suppose.
"So perhaps I can be forgiven, Brother, if I choose to resume my calling here. It's habit by this point. Besides, this world was made to be explored. Its very design shows that. If we were meant to be at peace we'd have been put in a meadow."
So this Ripley went on to tell us about the things he'd seen here. He told us about the Egyptian whose grail would prevent a grailstone from firing if it were placed upon it. He told us about the Mexican resurrected with webbed feet, and the Carthaginian with a six-fingered hand, and a Hottentot raised up with bright orange, phosphorescent eyes. He related the curious tale of an Indian fakir who would sit on a raft in the middle of The River and summon Riverdragons by playing his flute, a ghoulish instrument carved from a human femur. He would sit and play a mournful tune, and eventually a huge form would rupture the surface of the water and swim around him until he stopped playing. Then it would sink back down to the depths, leaving the musician in peace.
The strangest tale he told his audience that night was of the Grail Fortress. A rather odd fellow, a Dane, was constructing a castle out of discarded grails. He lived along a particularly brutal stretch of River, and battles between the warring inhabitants were frequent. This Dane (or perhaps he was a Jute, or a Norse; Ripley had heard the tale fifth-hand) would paddle his canoe to the site of a battle and scavenge the grails from the slain, or barter for them from the survivors. He traded cigarettes, dreamgum, liquor, whatever the people wanted. Last the story was heard he had several hundred so far. Using ropes at first, then a primitive form of clay and mortar, he was building himself a towering fortress from these grails, and once it was complete he would conquer the entire Rivervalley from its parapets.
It was a great story. I didn't really care whether or not it was true. But Ripley's words put the hook in me and dragged me after him. I wanted to do what he did. I wanted a purpose to my wanderings. We talked some more that night, and he agreed to let me accompany him on his travels. He seemed an amiable sort.
Three days later he got dragged down by a dragon. We didn't have a flute, and neither of us could play it if we had. Bye, Bob.
So that's what I do now. I wander up and down, here and there, from bank to bank, all across the Riverworld. I've been killed a few more times since then, of course, but what's the big deal anyway? Just a little pain, just a little death. No harm done.
There's a fellow on an island a few hundred miles upRiver from here who kills himself every night, or so they say. He sits and eats his evening meal, gets wildly drunk and high, and hangs himself from a tree branch. Or stabs himself. Or opens his wrists. He's died hundreds of times now, and each and every time he's resurrected the next morning on the same island, next to the same grailstone. He's tried to leave but eventually he dies and finds himself on his island again. Surrounded by hundreds of rotting corpses, the more recent ones all with his face. He's quite mad by this point, of course. Styles himself an emperor, holds court over fields of skeletons and corpses. Props them up in poses. Sits them in bamboo chairs, or oaken canoes tied to a dock, or sitting on tree branches. Quite a hospitable man, they say, so long as his regal status is recognized. He often invites those with strong stomachs to dine with him in his bamboo palace.
Like Bob would have said, "Believe it….or not."
What a great story. That's all that matters. That's all I need to matter. Great stories, great adventures. Wonder and mystery, forever and ever. Or for a while anyway.
I wonder what one wears when dining with an Emperor?