The Great River

by Robert S. Phillips

“Old mother, can you walk?” my daughter-in-law asked with a sneer that suggested she hoped I could not.

“Of course.” And I proceed to demonstrate it. Not fast, perhaps, but adequate for the journey ahead. Odd that Gerta should ask. She herself could no longer keep up with her grandchildren as she chased them around the campfire. So many great-grandchildren, too many names. Now just boy or girl.

I remember the names of the eight children I bore and the secret names for the four little ones who died in the year before their naming day, names I have never divulged. Of my three daughters, only Sinda remains to care for me. I lost one to the agony of childbirth and another to the coughing sickness. I still have two sons, brave Gothic warriors both. Of the others, one died years ago on the tusks of a boar; the other two fell only ten days ago to the swords and arrows of the merciless horsemen from the east, the Huns.

My husband of countless years, Hathus, led my boys and the other men of our village to its defense. Sinda says many were killed including Hathus, but I know this cannot be true. Since the battle—just a skirmish, really—he comes most evenings to my bedside, and we talk. My eyes are cloudy now, but when he sits and puts his cold hand in mine, he looks no older than when we first met by the fishing stream.

I’d had my first blood just a few months earlier, and my breasts were small and high. Hathus, the son of a nearby village headman, was lean, strong, and already as tall as my father. He showed me a quiet pool where tall trees hid the trout from the afternoon sun. We lay together there, and afterward, we talked. We conspired about how he would come to my hut in the dead of night and steal me for his bride. I told my father, who approved and arranged for Hathus to be welcomed with a feast, not weapons. We lived through many years, endless days of plenty or hardship, joy or grief—and countless nights of comfort and pleasure. And so it went until the Huns arrived.

Sinda says we must move. The horsemen are gone for now, but they will return. Our wooden palisade is damaged, and even were it whole, we no longer have enough warriors to man the walls. When they attack again, they will breach our defenses and slaughter us all. That is their way.

Hathus told me last night that we must move south to the Great River, which the Romans call Danubius. Once we cross it into Roman territory, the Huns will not follow, being as fearful of the Romans as we are of them. This morning Sinda told me the exact same plan. When I asked if she’d learned of it from Hathus, she said, “Don’t be ridiculous.”

I find walking more and more difficult. We have been on the road for a week, and my hips hurt. I am slow, and the others see it. Yesterday, I overheard Gerta saying I should be left behind. “She has had a good life. Her years have exceeded the number Jesus allots to each human. She is using years that should have gone to Atto.” Atto was her husband, my son. His body lies in a grave back in our village, mutilated by a horseman’s sword. I do not resent Gerta’s words. I understand grief. I will struggle harder to keep up.

Hathus tells me that we are making good progress. The Danubius River is only another week or two away, and the Huns are not pursuing us closely.

Every day the road becomes more crowded. People join the throng walking to the river. Some come as individuals, others as entire villages, all fleeing the horsemen. There are more women than men and grievous wounds often afflict the men. I help rebind wounds, one of the few things I can still manage.

We meet a young man who, Sinda says, comes from a village near our own. I do not recognize him. But his sword hand is badly wounded and smells of rot. I tell him the limb must come off, or he will die. He says he’d rather die.

The land here along the road is no different from our home. It is flat and featureless, though, in the far distance, we can see the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. Spring is arriving quickly. The snow has melted, but the runoff has nowhere to go because the ground is still frozen. It covers the road deeply in mud. Because we knew it would be so, we did not bring any wagons or carts. Other folk were less wise. We find their carts abandoned, mired up to the hubs in gray, sticky clay.

Though it still freezes every night, the early flowers have bloomed. First, the crocuses appeared almost overnight, their purple blossoms providing a splash of color in a bleak landscape. Within a few days, they were followed by wild daffodils and tulips. While colorful, they don’t compare with the ones I grew by my hut, flowers I will never see again. Bushes line the road. The tips of their branches show a splinter of green. I expect to see new growth and leaves within the next few days.

We were fortunate enough to bring provisions for several weeks. Other families were less lucky. I see little children crying for food. I feel very sad, but have lived through hard times and watched youngsters starve to death. Once you witness it, you grow a callus on your heart. Sinda has no callus. She insists we must share the food we have with the small ones. Gerta has not witnessed what I’ve seen, but she was born with a callus on her heart and says we have little enough remaining for ourselves and nothing to share with others. She watches me as I eat. I do not eat very much, but I can tell she begrudges me my small portion.

Some people are dying. The very old and young are most affected. The ground is still too frozen to bury them. Regardless, people reserve their energy for walking, not digging. The dead are gently, reverently laid beside the road. Reverence is no protection against the scavenging of foxes and birds. We see them feed and avert our eyes.

Finally, after weeks of walking, we arrive at the Great River. It is wide and flows swiftly. There is no boat traffic across it. We had expected to see ferries moving our people to the far bank. And there are many, many people wishing to cross. My family cannot get closer to the river than a hundred paces, a distance filled with the people of our tribe who have preceded us here. As I look up and down the river, I see the same disorder everywhere: thousands of people milling about, a makeshift tent city, the endless buzz of people talking, weeping, shouting, and the unimaginable smell of crowded unwashed humanity. The ground is a churned mixture of soil and human feces. There are no animals; they have all been eaten.

Where are the Romans? I look across the river to a great fortress, which I’m told is called Durostorum. There are red and green pennants flying from the battlements. A neighbor, who is camped near us, says the Romans are still negotiating with our leaders to allow us to cross. The negotiations have been going on for a month, waiting for them to grant us asylum.

As I look at this squalid mass of humanity, I wonder how anyone could survive here for a month. If the emperor waits longer, we will all starve. Or perhaps the Huns will catch up to us. At some point, that might be a preferable death.

Last night as I lay down to sleep, Hathus came to me. He said he has crossed the river, and it is good. The land is green and fertile. Summer is further advanced there than here. New leaves of bright green adorn the maple and walnut trees. The forsythia bushes are blossoming a brilliant yellow.

I asked about the plum trees and whether any of my favorite fruit is ripe yet. Hathus laughed, saying it is far too early. There are many plum trees, but they are still adorned with their early dark red leaves, leaves that are only beginning to unfurl and turn green.

He is building me a hut like the one we made together when we were young. Next to it is a field of winter wheat, ready to be harvested. He does not say who planted the crop, but it is there for the taking. He has found a stream where we can fish together. He says I should hurry. There is so much he wants to show me.

My neighbor has returned, saying the emperor has finally given us leave to cross, and the Roman rivercraft will begin ferrying people tomorrow. Some men, while waiting for permission, have built rafts. They are not waiting for tomorrow. They load their rafts and push off. The rafts are crudely constructed, and the men overload them with their families and possessions. I watch many cross halfway to where the current is strongest before they capsize. There is no way to help the passengers as they are swept away.

Sinda says we will find room on a safe Roman boat and cross tomorrow at dawn. I lie down to sleep, feeling very happy. This journey has been far too long and hard on an old woman like me.

But I don’t have to wait for dawn. Hathus comes to me. He takes my hand and helps me to my feet. Together we walk past all the sleeping people to the water’s edge, where he has arranged a private boat for us. The crew of two, a beautiful man and woman dressed in white robes, lift their paddles, and we push off from shore. As we reach the river’s center, the water becomes calm, and we finish our passage easily.

Hathus helps me from the rivercraft, and we walk hand-in-hand to the hut he has prepared for me. It is all as he promised.

Robert S. Phillips is an avid reader and history buff, especially of the ancient past. He writes short stories based on whatever weird thing wakes him at 2 am. His first novel, “Elodia’s Knife,” set in the 4th century, features a young Gothic woman who defies enslavement by the Romans. It will be published this year.

Born in Vancouver, BC, Robert has lived in many places in North America, only returning to the Pacific Northwest in the last decade. Home is Bellingham, WA. His three grown children all live in Washington; two in the State and one in D.C.

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