Over the past 12 years I've written 16 short stories. They are finally nearing complete completion. That is, I'm almost done tweaking them. I wish to share one of them with you now. I can say that this particular story is (finally) 99.99% done - ready for the press. Done. Done done. Unless I see something that needs tweaking. The stories are bound together under the title: Tales of Old Russia. Short Stories of Small Miracles.
On a wide river, flowing through boundless forest (July, 1890)...
Alex pulled his sinking boat out of the river and turned it over to empty it. He stripped down to his trunks, wringing out each piece of clothing and placing it flat on the upturned hull. He stretched out alongside the boat and together they dried in the lazy, noonday sun. Shouts from the river awoke him with a start! Mad splashing told him what was happening and he moved, faster than a bullet from a gun (or so it seemed), to pull a gray, old man from the water. The two lay side-by-side heaving for breath.
“You fool!” exclaimed Alex.” It’s obvious that you can’t swim. What were you doing in the river?”
“I went in to save you,” the old man said, in all seriousness.
Alex jumped to his feet. “To save me? To save me? I saved you! If it weren't for me you'd be...” his words trailed off as he realized that the old man was smiling oddly, quietly amused.
“What's going on here? What's the joke?” cried Alex. “Who put you up to this?”
“Are you planning to fix the boat and continue on your way?” the old man asked as he got up.
“Of course I am.”
“Then I'm here to save you from drowning.”
Alex's jaw dropped. “Drown? Drown? You're a cracked pot! Be off with you!” he commanded, and he went to examine the boat. Looking back over his shoulder, he added, “And I know how to fix a boat!” The old man walked off a ways and watched silently as the boat was patched up. The summer sun was still high in the sky when Alex set the boat on the water, climbed in and began to row. The old man started to run along the bank after him - he was surprisingly fast! But when the boat was pulled midstream into the swift current, the old man was left behind.
Alex soon forgot about the old man. Instead, he began his usual litany of worries. Did I make the right choice? Am I on the right path? How will I get what I need? He was always either replaying the past in his head or imagining what the future might bring. In other words, he was never really present in the moment. For a long time now, the unfortunate fellow had had the feeling that he was simply drifting, aimlessly, through life; and the fact that for the last two days he actually was adrift on a boat (with no particular place to go) fairly confirmed the feeling, adding still more weight to his burdensome worries. Time passed as Alex brooded and the boat drifted on the wide, flat river, silent, immeasurable forest on either side. It was only when he became hungry that he realized his satchel of food was missing. It must have been lost when the boat began to sink - in his hurry to get the boat aground he didn’t notice that it floated away. Or was it stolen by the old man? The thought enraged him! Not only was the old man an idiot, he was also a thief. A clever thief to have tricked me in such a way, he thought.
Alex thrust his fist into the air and shouted, “A curse on him!” Just as he did this, something on the distant bank caught his eye. It appeared to him that someone was running between the trees keeping the same pace that he was on. Impossible! It can't be the old man! He took a long hard look. Seeing nothing, he shrugged it off as being a trick of the light on the water (the sun was getting lower). He traveled and worried for another hour, then brought the boat to shore. In the remaining twilight he quickly set two animal traps, which he fashioned with his ax using pliant saplings bent back and tied to nearby trees with long, strong strips of bark. He had nothing to bait the traps – he only considered the odd chance that something, a rabbit or game bird, might stray into one of them. A million stars emerged to light the sky, as he laid down in a quiet glade. Tired as he was, he could not fall asleep for quite some time – the worries, the past, the future, clamored in his head.
A close crash of thunder awoke Alex. He ran to the boat and turned it over for shelter just as a tremendous storm broke out. Rain poured! Lightning struck so often and so near that the earth shook constantly. Fierce wind thrashed the tall trees, snapping off large branches, hurling them in all directions. One struck the boat with an astounding whack! Alex lay beneath the boat fighting the wind for possession; for a terrifying moment they were lifted together off the ground! There was no doubt in his mind that the wind could easily blow over an entire tree, several standing ominously nearby. Alex's prayers were mixed in with the terrible din, “...but if my soul is required of me tonight, dear Lord, remember me in thy kingdom.” He had not prayed in years, so he felt guilty and undeserving. How could his prayers be answered? But he was immediately comforted when he recalled the parable of the hired laborers and an explanation of its meaning that he had heard in a homily as a child: that the men who came to work in the vineyard at the eleventh hour were received by the Lord, Jesus Christ, just as if they had joined Him much earlier. So he, too, still had a chance! Alex's prayers became praises as tears of joy rolled off his face, falling into the swift current of rainwater that swept all around him. Many such currents were forming throughout the valley, channeling the rain to the river, swelling it over its banks.
When daylight finally came, a thick, gray fog covered everything. Alex was wet, tired, and very hungry. He found only disappointment at the traps - one had been tripped by a fallen branch, the other still stood ready. As he slashed the bark string to release it, he was surprised to hear himself curse the old man again! But what does he have to do with anything? he thought, regretfully. I brought myself to this point. There's no one else to blame. To start a fire would be difficult, everything was so wet; and what’s more, there was nothing to cook, so he pushed off onto the swollen river. It was a big mistake. Immediately, the boat was seized by an incredibly strong current. As it gathered speed and disappeared into the impenetrable fog, Alex quickly crouched down in the back with an oar to use as a rudder, his tight, tired muscles braced to take on the hidden dangers ahead; the first of which came in an instant as the craft met with raging rapids. It plunged uncontrollably this way and that, striking large rocks, scraping bottom, bouncing, twisting and nearly turning over. Then the words of the old man came into his head. Can he possibly save me from this? wondered Alex. No. It's impossible! came his own quick reply. And just as quickly, a great tree limb was upon him, grabbing and tearing his shirt, scratching his shoulder, almost pulling him into the water. Was the tree by the riverbank, or was it driftwood trapped in the center of the stream? But what did it matter now? He missed catching hold of it.
Gliding along, seemingly safe for the moment, he touched the sore spot and looked at the blood on his hand. Looking past his hand he saw water in the boat! He pulled in the oar and started bailing frantically, hoping that the water had come in over the sides during the wild ride. But it wasn't so - the boat had sprung a leak. Alex began to pray again, and soon his bailing took on a steady, calm, one could say soothing tempo, not unlike the gentle, yet purposeful to-and-fro of a deacon's censor - the splashing sounds the water made as the bucket dipped and poured resembled the trill of the censor's bells. For now, navigation of the boat was in God's hands as Alex kept it afloat. They were working together. Then, ahead in the far-off, invisible distance, Alex heard a call. Hoy! Hoy! Someone was calling! He grabbed the oar and tried to steer towards it. The call sounded again, closer this time. Hoy!
“Where are you?” called Alex.
“Over here. I'm over here,” was the reply.
It's the old man! marveled Alex, as he steered with all his strength towards the sound. But within moments the boat and its rider were stopped outright, entangled by another enormous tree limb. The boat sank quickly as Alex grabbed hold and climbed up.
“Where are you?” he called out again. He was startled to hear the reply. How close it was!
“I'm in a fallen tree.”
“I've just joined you, my friend,” said Alex. “Thank you, for calling out.”
“Oh no, thank God for reaching out,” the old man called back.
The tree was huge. The fog revealed only a fraction of it, swallowing up the rest, the old man with it. “And give Him all your worries, or they will drown you,” the old man added, his words coming from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Alex was exhausted. He leaned forward and wrapped his arms around the tree, his legs dangling off to either side. Soon his eyes closed.
Gradually, the sun burned off the fog to reveal that only half of the fallen tree was in the river. Alex awoke to its warmth.
“Old man, where are you?” he called out as he climbed off. “Where are you?”
There was no reply.