The river was an onyx mirror. It looked motionless on the surface, yet under the thin-film of visibility hidden currents pushed the water swiftly between the high banks. Like a violent swipe of a pen, heavy with ink, the flow cut through patches of willows and cattails and around bends onwards, always onwards. At one point in time, there was probably a map of the body of water, a highly detailed topographical rendering, showing every turn and varying depth within an inch margin of error. Ben didn’t have that map though, as far as he was concerned, the river went somewhere different.
He knew his obsession with different was unhealthy. It had been that way back home and the ailments only multiplied tenfold when he reached The Rampant Lands. He figured it was this way because something different and new was always so near. New people, new places, new experiences, those were the promises and for the most part the world he had found himself in had kept them faithfully. It was a plague of blessings. Like Thoreau at his lake, Ben had found his escape from the constant threat of homogeneity only to tumble violently into a routine of constant searching.
The realization that he no longer took enjoyment from new things occurred to him in the morning light. He had spent roughly a year living in a small town that shifted population constantly, but only to ensure the necessary roles were filled. As he prepared himself to do the job that no one had assigned to him, but no one complained about him having, it dawned on him that he was truly enjoying himself. For a moment he allowed himself to bask in his epiphany, until he decided that the town he was in, didn’t deserve his newfound outlook.
Ben was aware that what he was most likely experiencing was some sort of Stockholm Syndrome and he really didn’t mind. But, that didn’t mean the people he shared the haphazard, quickly developed roads with should be forced to live next to a person who had come to them desperate to hate them. Someone would eventually take over his job, so the only lasting thing he could really give them was the opportunity to speak poorly of him for abandoning them or forget him completely. He would find a new town, gathering, village, or whatever he came across first and join up with them with an open heart.
A few eyes had spied him leaving his home and heading out into the woods. They would be the first heralds of his departure. He hoped no one would be worried about him, others had passed on with no concern given, he figured he was lucky enough to be one of them. The woods were only called such because they were a group of trees standing together. They were fairly sparse and easy to walk through only thick enough to block the sight of the town completely after a mile walk. It was two miles before Ben came across the river. It was just there, no build-up, no fanfare, there was barely a noise to indicate that the water was moving at all. It looked more like a confused black wall than anything.
It was the first time Ben had seen the winding ribbon and its meager banks. It made sense, since he had never travelled that far into the woods. He wondered why he had never heard about it before though, from the people who were more familiar with the area, the ones in town that had moved on from temporary residents of the town, to full on Overnight Shift status. Ben looked down the river first to his left then his right, trying to see if he could spot some sort of bridge. He wasn’t selective, he would accept a fallen tree, desperately fighting against the decaying effects of running water against its bark. Seeing nothing in sight he decided to walk downstream. There was no philosophical debate about the virtues of up versus down, it was just a direction to walk in. He was certain that either one would bring him the best different he needed to begin living in habit.
Ben walked along the banks of the river, lost in a maze of his own imagination. He wondered what the place he was surely going to find would be like. The place he had left had the perfect balance between old buildings from a time gone by that had been repurposed and new shacks that had been cobbled together in traditional Rampant Lands style. He hoped the new place he found had a similar look, with the same sort of jobs and community makeup. All the differences he thought about were arbitrary and he knew it. More places to sit outside and drink, bigger windows in the old apartment buildings, a few more fish dinners rather than beef.
If it wasn’t for his daydreaming and genetic disposition towards shuffling his feet he may never have tripped over the bundle of logs hiding in a patch of tall weeds. His dream destination broke away in apocalyptic waves as he tumbled towards the ground. First the old buildings of brick blew away as if they were made of paper. Then, the shanties of The Overnight Shift burned blue and white when Ben felt the first tickles of grass against his face. Then, nothing remained of his fantasy, no ground, no sky, it was erased completely and Ben was left with only reality and pain as he crashed into the ground.
Ben pushed himself off the ground and immediately set out to discover what had ripped him from his perfect town. It didn’t take long to discover the logs hiding in the weeds that had sent him to the ground. He pushed away the overgrowth and was surprised to see the color blue beneath the yellow and green of the foliage. The weeds released themselves from the ground easily when Ben pulled at them then tossed them away. After a few minutes of ripping and rending at the plants he had a clear view of what was underneath: A raft, painted blue and tied together with heavy rope. The appearance of the craft somehow didn’t strike him as strange, the color did. Who would take the time to paint a raft made of trees exiled from the ground and why the color of the sky?
It was amazing how well put together the raft was. As much as he tried, Ben couldn’t find a gap between the logs. It wasn’t a pretty boat, regardless of the color. But, there was no doubt that if it bad ever touched the water it did so exceptionally. It was surprising how light it was, its components looked solid yet Ben could lift the raft easily which made him question just why it was abandoned or more appropriately, passed on. It could’ve been taken with, maybe to a new river with no bridges, or maybe somewhere with no water as a memento from the journey.
Ben looked away from the river, wondering where the raft’s owner had gone after ditching it on the banks. He hadn’t heard of any town that would’ve been near where he was by the river, but be also hadn;t known about the river either. The thought of turning away from the river to find whatever the raft’s owner had found was tantalizing, Ben could meet the owner there and they would connect over what Ben believed was a similar journey. Yet, as he thought about the conversations they could have about searching it dawned on him that they would exhaust everything they had in common in just a couple of days and that was only if they spoke sparingly. He just hadn’t gone far enough, he hadn’t even crossed the river.
The decision to push the raft into the river and float on could only really be considered a choice because Ben had decided to move rather than stagnate and die. The truth was that there was nowhere else for Ben to go. The town he loved yet left wasn’t an option, they’d be skeptical of him now that he was sure that they knew he was gone. Wherever the owner of the raft had gone was out of the picture as well, a future of chatting about the weather after the tales of adventure had been used up and discarded was even more terrifying. He had been walking along the bank for too long already and even though he could only see for a couple dozen feet before the river bent out of view, his perfect town was nowhere in sight.
Watered down chocolate sauce, that’s what Ben was reminded of when he saw the first ripples from the raft’s reentry. He hadn’t tasted chocolate since he had arrived in The Rampant Lands, but he was sure that the home he would surely find where the flow ended would have some. The water was cold on his ankles as he waded out towards the patiently awaiting boat and reached its droplet sized fingers up to his thighs after just s couple of steps on the rocky bed. With an amount of effort, Ben hadn’t expected he eventually flailed and flopped his way onto the raft. For the first few minutes he waited to see if the water would find a gap he hadn’t and sink him and his found treasure. He looked at one damp spot to the next trying to see if it emerged from underneath or immigrated with him when he had fought his way topside. After a few minutes, the raft remained on top of the slowly moving abyss and he was on his way towards the town he deserved.
He didn’t expect to be on the raft long enough to need sleep. Around every twist in the river he believed would be his new home. Yet, for that first day all he found was more river. When the sun finally set and night came, Ben thought about paddling over to the shore, but was held still by indecision over whether he should go back to she side he had departed from or over to the side he had never set foot on. In the darkness, both sides looked exactly the same: Dark shadows from the tall grasses against the purple sky with a smattering of fireflies on each side, but the shore he had never stepped on seemed treacherous to Ben, ripe with unknown beasts watching him in the water, waiting for him to make the wrong decision. The banks he had departed from were equally unknown to him at that point, he had floated far enough that he couldn’t comfortably convince himself that he was still from that land, it was now foreign as well, or he was. It didn’t really matter though, the raft, for being made of strong and sturdy logs was comfortable enough for a night’s sleep.
During his sleep Ben had dreams he never wanted to talk about to anyone, ever. Thankfully he was saved from those nocturnal hallucinations by a sliver of sunlight through a willow tree draped across his eyelids. The clearing with a small town was not the trees and reeds Ben was expecting. He rubbed his eyes as he stood up on his raft. There it was, the place he knew was waiting for him. The home he would finally exorcise his need for “different”. The village he could integrate himself into and feel satisfied with his life, hell, he’d even be willing to become an Overnight Shifter if things went well enough.
It was all there, the brick buildings with just enough ruin to make them welcoming. The makeshift repairs and constructions from scrap, exactly what Ben needed to see for him to believe that he could claim the town as a product of his generation. There was even a few people already moving about and accomplishing tasks which made him think that there was a job for him waiting for him somewhere in the streets within. It was even on the side of the river he hadn’t stepped foot on. He plunged his hand into the water and began to paddle his way over.
When he began to see the underwater plants through the ebony liquid he knew he was only a simply hop and trudge away from setting foot on the outskirts of his future home. He looked up one last time before departing and that’s when he noticed what was missing. There were no cafes, no tables set up outside for loungers to enjoy the sun or clouds without the thought of what the weather meant for their assigned tasks. Where would he spend his off hours? Where would he find people to converse with and allow them to affect his opinions on the world and life? Sure there would be the ones he worked with, but in his experience those conversations tended to drift more towards the act of working and all the complaints, theories, and philosophies that were associated with that. He needed something else to keep him level, to keep him engaged in the community he would call his own.
He leaned left and right trying to see if there was something, anything that resembled a place for people to congregate socially. He knew that he could simply go into the town and see for himself. Do all the exploring that a responsible person would do before making a claim on the land. But, he was afraid of falsehoods. He didn’t want to misrepresent himself as a tourist or casual passerby. The moment he set foot in the place he wanted it to be known that he was there to assimilate himself into the existence that those around him had already forged.
The raft continued to drift, uncaring towards the debate raging in Ben’s mind and before long his angle on the town had shifted. Instead of facing the community face on, he was looking at it from an obtuse angle and that was at the risk of becoming a view from afar.
Ben could reach the shore from where he was. He reached out, but hesitated to grab hold of the foliage that lined the thin beach. He had made his decision to leave the place he was so close to residing in for the life he believed he was allowed to live, because of a single reason, was he now willing to banish one of those singular issues to settle on the town in front of him? Before he could make an active decision, the town was already drifting away and before he forged his own destiny the decision was made for him. Within minutes the town was out of sight.
For now, the river, that was a decent enough home. He had indeed, slept better than he had in years while drifting upon the waters.