The Thief River is a bastard. A shallow, cloudy, snaking waterway stretching from some one-street town north of here to another forgotten and destitute place at the end of the line. It’s called Thief because it steals. Everything. Shoes and tackle boxes. Hubcaps and underwear. Lives. Once it took someone’s eye. Two years later, it took her glass prosthetic replacement just to prove it could.
Truman swam down it once. All fifty miles, end to end. He thought it might win her back. She told him he had no spine. Everything else was there, she explained on his back porch during their last night. Just no spine. Truman asked her what she thought was there instead. She considered it for a good minute or two, and said, “A chain.”
Then she walked off the porch and into the forest which bordered his backyard. She didn’t go through the front door and down the street like anyone else would have. Truman never figured out why. Just walked off, like she’d rather get lost among the trees than spend another moment with him and his chain backbone.
It’s shaped like a spine seen from the side, the Thief. Like an S that’s been pinched at the ends and pulled somewhat straight. It’s even got that crook at what would be the small of the back, were it a person.
That’s what gave Truman the idea. He was staring at some map in the police station while they were processing the bail he posted for Cannonball. Truman’s friend was in since the night before for something slightly violent but unspecified. He saw the shape of Thief on the district map, its curving length, and thought swimming it was what needed to be done.
“It’s gonna take something of yours,” Cannonball said in the truck on their way back to Truman’s place. It was difficult understand him with his lip and tongue all swollen up like they were. “You know that, right? Strip it right off of your person. You won’t even know it when it happens. It’s seamless like that.”
“I don’t think ‘seamless’ is the word you’re searching for,” Truman said.
“Yes it is. That river is seamless.”
The pair split a bottle of bourbon and Truman watched as Cannonball smoked some of the stuff he got violent about the night before. They didn’t know what was required for a trip like that. Truman owned a big red and white plastic airtight cooler which they filled with canned food and bottles of water. Duct tape. Can opener. A wool blanket. Matches. Cannonball gave him a knife of his. Truman didn’t ask where he got it or what he used it for. A knife that size wasn’t made simply for utility.
They loaded the cooler into the truck at dawn and headed for the Thief. Cannonball asked if Truman talked to her any since that night. Truman said he hadn’t, and they didn’t say anything else until they got to the river. The two watched as the trees lit up in the brightening dawn light. It was October then, and the leaves were just beginning to die. When one would fall onto the windshield, sometimes Truman could see its rib lining silhouetted against the early morning glow. It had to be at the right angle, but when it all matched up – the light, the leaf, the line of vision – it was there.
The sun was starting to clear the horizon when they reached the riverbank. Cannonball took out the cooler and strapped it to Truman’s chest with some bungee cords from the truck bed. They walked to the edge of Thief. Cannonball was still a good bit high from earlier. He took a ring off his index finger and tossed it into the river.
“What was that for?” Truman asked.
“I’m giving it something of mine. Maybe it’ll be kinder to you,” he responded as he looked on downstream.
Truman took a step forward into the water and watched the clay from the riverbed smoke around his feet. Something splashed down ways from them. Truman threw the keys for the truck to Cannonball and thanked him.
“When you have to take a piss, don’t piss in the Thief,” Cannonball said, horrified at even mentioning such an idea. The corners of his mouth twitched.
“What?” Truman said, although he heard him clearly. He could feel the water-grit begin to settle underneath his feet.
“I said, don’t piss in the river when you got to. Go on land. Don’t piss in Thief, or you’ll piss it off.”
“Jesus Christ. Thanks for the tip.”
“I’m serious. Don’t fuck with it.”
Truman took a few more steps forward into the river and turned to face him. He couldn’t think of anything suitable to say, so they just nodded at one another. Then Truman laughed. He wasn’t sure why, but it happened. Not long, not hard, not weird-like or anything. But it was out loud, and then he leaned back into the cold.
Truman floated easily down through the Thief on the first day. He swam a decent amount, although more often than not he would just hold on to the cooler. Truman would try and move as little as possible, except where he steered past the occasional fallen and rotted tree.
There were fireflies that night, even though it was October. At first he thought they were part of some meteor shower, but then he saw them for what they really were. Truman had set up on the river bank about ten miles from his start, and was lying against a tree, trying to dry out in the heat of the fire. There were dozens of them, maybe hundreds. A whole generation of fireflies casting needle points of light on the river water. Just out of reach above him.
Truman met the boys the next day. Mid-afternoon he came upon them in their dirty underwear, swinging into the river from a chain suspended by an overhanging magnolia branch. He swam onto the sand embankment nearest them and then sat on the cooler watching their dives. Preacher’s chairs and jackknives. A pretty decent cannonball. One landed a bellyflop to impress the other boys. The crack of skin on water spooked off a nearby owl in the trees.
They noticed Truman after a few minutes and walked over. At first he thought they were tanned, but then Truman realized they were simply dirty from the river water. Two of them had their hands wrapped up in rags so as not to cut up their palms on the metal swing. The other two’s hands must have calloused up.
“What are you all doing out here?” Truman asked.
“Swimming,” the bellyflopper said. His stomach was blotched up to look like someone frowning, “What are you doing?”
“Heading down the Thief,” Truman answered. He got up and opened the cooler to offer the boys something to drink. None of them took anything.
“From where?” he asked. The bellyflopper did most of the talking.
“From end to end.”
For a moment no one said anything. The smallest boy shuddered. Truman smiled a bit at his reaction, and watched as the crow came back and perched on the same branch as before.
“That ain’t smart at all. Why would you do something stupid like that?” the smallest one asked.
“You talk to adults like that often?”
“We do when they go and try something that dumb,” the bellyflopper said.
“You all are out here and seem to be doing just fine,” Truman told them.
“We got faith in a higher something,” said the small one.
They were quiet again for a time. Truman asked if they were going to pray for him once he went on down the river. The bellyflopper studied him for a little while. He looked at the three other boys as if waiting for one of them to give an answer, but none did.
“I don’t see why not,” he concluded.
They went back to diving into the water close to the riverbank. Truman closed his eyes. There were the sounds of leaves rustling from the branches relieved of the boys’ weights as they splashed into the water below. Truman slept, and when he opened his eyes again they were gone. There was only the swing, lolling in the river wind.
Those hard rains began the next morning. It was hard to breathe, the rain was coming down so tough. Truman carried on for a few more miles until the lightning started, then crawled out and watched as stolen debris dislodged itself from clenching tree roots. The bungee cords had begun to dig into his skin, and Truman massaged his raw shoulders.
Truman soon lost track of the stolen materials that passed down the river during the first hours of rain. Plenty of bottles and newspapers. Children’s plastic toys. A dead thing. Two branches snapped from trees overhead and hit the water. The rumble of rainfall drowned any other sounds.
The lightning slowed, although not completely, and Truman slipped into the river. He adjusted the weight of the cooler and the cords to try and relieve the raw skin. The flow quickened, and the rainfall was deafening. The entirety of Thief was applauding, but not for him. That night he hung his blanket between a few trees on an embankment for cover, and sat shivering for hours, no sleep save a few moments.
Truman dreamt he was on his back porch, and she was there again, near his house, returning from the forest. The sky was a river. For a long time she walked the short distance from the line of trees to where Truman sat. A long time coming.
“Here we are,” she said, and then he woke up painful at dawn.
On the fourth day Truman began again. The rain strengthened the currents, but he was able to steer his way for the first few hours. Then Truman came to the rocks. He saw them, prominent and immense even at a distance in front of him. There was no way around them, and he couldn’t reach the shoreline in time. The first stone knocked the strapped cooler loose from Truman’s chest. He swam after it for a time, finally managing to grab hold of the cooler before it was sucked under a rapid. He hit the second stone headfirst. It jutted from the water like a fractured bone, and even soaked as Truman was, he could discern his blood from the water as it diluted into the Thief. Things darkened. When he came to, Truman and his cooler had washed ashore at a calmer section of the river.
The bleeding had slowed for the most part, but Truman vomited from the pain in his head. When Truman had emptied the half-digested food from his stomach, his body began pushing up muddied river water. More than he thought he had in him.
It was night next Truman could remember. The water was growling, but he couldn’t find it. He had made his way into the woods surrounding the river, into a grove dripping with rain, vibrant in its own peculiar way despite the darkness. Then Truman saw them. Monoliths from a distance, but up close, they were something more out of place.
Near one edge of the grove stood a cluster of industrial dumpsters. Eight feet long and four feet wide. The kind Truman would hide in when playing war as a child. The kind he unloaded at the paper mill outside of town when money was better. Set at various angles, but all the same size, all the same intangible weight. The smell of rancid metal, rust pushing through the green coat of paint.
The one nearest Truman still had its lid attached, and he lifted it to look inside. There were a few grayed and damp papers, animal shit, but nothing else. Truman climbed inside and shut the lid. The rain tapped at the metal, like it wondered where Truman gone to. Like it missed him.
“Who’s there?” Truman said.
Truman woke up on the ground in the morning. He saw none of the dumpsters, and figured he must have wandered off in his sleep. He could see the Thief a little ways off through the trees. Truman hadn’t gone as far into the woods as he imagined.
The rains were a dull mist when Truman began the Thief on the last day. He was weak from his throbbing head all the vomiting he had done. Truman figured he was less than ten miles from the town situated where the Thief emptied into a larger, tamed river. He rolled onto his back, and floated as best he could with one arm around the near-empty cooler. The current was still strong from all the storming, and Truman made decent time.
The snake bit Truman on his right arm. He was still on his back when it happened, eyes closed, trying not to piss off the Thief. The bite made Truman gasp so hard that he thought his chest was about to collapse then and there. He slapped the water around him, but he never properly saw the snake after it vanished into the river.
Truman washed ashore on an eroded slope near a few fishermen. They were sitting on coolers, drinking beer, smoking that violent stuff Cannonball was fond of. Truman heard one laugh when he first saw him. Truman figured he resembled some drunk who fell over while taking a piss in the river.
“Help,” Truman said.
There was an ambulance, and there was a hospital bed. There were doctors, and almost an amputation. There were clear liquids pumped through needles into the arm that wasn’t poisoned. Truman was delirious then, and kept shouting, “I don’t need no more venom. I don’t need no more venom.” There was a reporter, and there was a photographer. There was Cannonball, and Truman remembered him saying some nice things.
Weeks later, as Truman sat on his porch alone, she drove up once more. He didn’t say anything as she walked up and sat next to him. She was silent for a time, as well, and then rose up and walked back to the street.
Truman followed her into her car, and they drove through the night to the river bank. He tried to talk about the things that happened before. The things he wanted to erase or edit or correct. She nodded and stared ahead at the oncoming road.
They reached the river late in the evening, and slid down the decaying leaves to the current’s edge using the boys’ rusted chain swing for support. The Thief waters drifted along, reflecting the moon and the fireflies and the dim starlight. She looked at him again, and nodded.
“Here I am,” she said, and walked into the water, disappearing with a ripple.
And there Truman stood, on the banks of the Thief, under the swaying chain swing of the magnolia tree.
Andrew Paul is a writer living in Oxford, MS, as many writers have, do, and will. Follow him on Twitter: @AnAndyPaul