After he died, his body bloated and blue, I went back to the river to try to understand. And standing on that soft, muddy bank in a chorus of cool air, I knew immediately how wrong it had been to burn him, whatever his parents said. Fire was hot and the river was cool. Ash dry, and the river wet. He should have been left face-down, buoyant and serene, floating away forever.
People say that he would have sunk eventually, or been eaten by foxes, or found by a trembling, pig-tailed girl. But never mind all that: the girl would only have made the appendix. The real epilogue would have been the river, ambling below that purple sun. And his body, suspended on sparkling waves, led over the horizon into an ocean of light.
It was wrong to pull him out and burn him. It was just the wrong epilogue.
But I'm not really angry for him. I'm angry at him. So, so angry to think that he never told me what he was going to do. Did he not realise the cost? Did he not measure the hole he would leave behind?
The mud sticks to my feet as I approach the river, squelching and sighing between my bare toes. I plunge them through the crisp, gurgling water; the spray jumps up and flecks my face with tears. The flow is cold and fast here – it prickles my skin and gasps with me as it envelops my chest.
I remember winter, he and I stark naked amidst the frost. Snowflakes on the river's skin, and ours, and Fuck! Fuck! It's cold! as we drifted and swam amidst the frosted fields. We always waited for the sunset, waited even longer for the icy darkness and frozen silence, so that only our cheeks still glowed as we spiralled downstream and huddled together for warmth.
And now it's only autumn, not even night, and the silence is thawed by a distant train. Yet already the water is too cold to bear.
I plough on regardless, pushing fast through the flow, refusing to let it dictate my pace. This was never the way: the speed of the river was the speed of our lives. Glacial one day, frenetic the next, it was our god and we let it rule. Well no more.
Our beloved copse is ahead in the shadows, the thin trees already melting into the end-of-day haze. And just before it, the banks rise as always, flanks of mud on either side that hid our intimacy from prying eyes. It was here, in this deep hollow, that he would share with me a coldness that had nothing to do with the water. Here where the river was sunken and our world contained by walls of soil and dirt, this was the place I feared.
And now I'm not angry at him, but angry at myself. Perhaps he did tell me what he was going to do. In his stories, and in his pain, and in his far-off, vacant gaze. Perhaps he told me all the time.
My feet recoil at the sharp rocks beneath. The smooth sand has gone now, and every step cuts away at my soles. The tall mud cliffs fall behind; the forest looms with an immediacy that scares me.
This was always the catharsis, the shedding of grief. We would step out of the river and leave our fears behind, turning our backs as they were washed away. And the ecstasy that followed was always the better for it, more honest and complex and real. Every touch would be electric, every movement bittersweet and laced with pain, and sometimes it would be hours before our bodies could bear to be apart.
Well no more. Now the forest reminds me that I'm alone. So I stand quite firm amidst the flow, my head craned towards the sky. I think perhaps that if I can stand perfectly motionless, every muscle coiled and quiet, then time will relent and stop beside me. Then all I have to do is turn around and wade uphill, dragging time with me, forging against the current until the clocks unwind and death splutters back to life.
I think of the good times: picnics and sex and talks through the night. Reading by torchlight, or candlelight, or firelight – and a memorable dawn chasing feathers with the breeze. But none of it's real any more, none of it exists outside my head. Memory has no more truth than a story or a lie, and it won't be long before I can't tell them apart.
His body should have been left as a shrine; now that it's burned, he's been wiped from the world. All his being, all his meaning, totally and utterly gone. Maybe he didn't exist; maybe I made him up. There's really no difference. What does it matter, whether he was real or not? And how could I ever be sure?
He didn't just take his own meaning with him when he died – he took most of mine as well. Now that he's subtracted himself from my life, I'm an incorrect equation. I'll always be askew, sideways, forever rearranging things without finding balance.
You go with the flow, or you fight it, but ultimately it doesn't care. One day you'll be gone, and soon after, it'll be as if you were never there at all. All trace of you will sink, or be torn apart for food. And the river will move on, forging new paths you'll never see, weaving wearily towards a horizon that's always on the retreat.
The river is made up of water, and the water of molecules, and the molecules of atoms. And I suppose in those countless trillions of atoms, there are some that caressed us as we kissed upstream. Some that danced with us in silky mud. Some that watched as we traced comets through the sky. Even some that listened as we talked about death, and agreed that life was empty, and feared both equally for ourselves. But now those atoms are scattered through eternity, and you could spend a thousand lifetimes piecing them back together and still they would know nothing of who we were.
I stand, watching the trees under a purple sky. The dusk is waiting for my answers. Will I follow his memory into that bleak, empty forest? Or stand my ground, as if to hold back time? Or will I lead the amber current into the monolithic night, and duel with monsters, and fill the darkness with nervous song, and prove us both wrong?