Friends by the Water

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Joseph Ryan/Email: [email protected]
Friends by the Water
He had been dreaming of feeding a lamb down by the stream with his father and the
sky was orange and red and the earth was wet beneath his small feet and the air was
fresh and deep in his lungs. But when he awoke his breathing was not so good and
he was in bed and there was no lamb and his father had been gone for many years.
He had been coughing in his sleep. His chest was sore and he was tired and
tasted blood in his mouth and could not hear the stream but only the sound of the
wind and sea turn outside.
He looked at the curtains milling about the window frame and the grey sky and he
thought about his dream of the lamb which was so soft to touch and the suntanned
face of his father and the deep lines he wore around his eyes and mouth from years
on the sea.
He thought about his father until the dream faded from his mind, then he
thought about heading back to sleep, but he knew that if he did not rise today, he
might not rise again, and so his will to live brought him upright and he pulled the
blankets away.
He moved slowly down the hallway with one arm outstretched for balance against
the wall. The wall was bowed and stained from a leaking pipe and as he felt it he
thought for a moment that it was moving.
It was hard to move now. It was hard like all things were hard now.

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His breathing was worse standing and he turned into the bathroom and
steadied himself on the sink and coughed into it and there was blood in the sink. He
looked at the blood and he coughed some more and felt sad and weak and told
himself he was a fool and that he should have stayed in bed and gone back to sleep.
He took a facecloth and held it to his mouth when he coughed. He tried a
deep breath but when he did it stung and it was awhile before he worked out the
measure of his breath.
The illness had broken him in the last month. It had taken many things from
him. It had started with his will to work and then his will to eat and now it was
finally taking his breath away from him and soon it would take his mind too. He
tried to concentrate on his breathing.
Outside he could hear the tin cans tied over his porch move in the wind. The
sound came in through the bathroom window. He felt like those tin cans. He felt like
something floating in the wind. They rang in the wind and moved and so did he but
they had no life and he felt as if he had no life as well.
He looked at his reflection in the mirror.
I wonder what will become of me, he asked.
Nothing, he answered. Before you were born there was nothing, and when
you cease to be, there will be nothing again.
I will be nothing, he said.
He coughed and coughed until he thought he would fall down and not wake again
and then he moved weakly from the bathroom and towards the kitchen.
His work clothes hung over the side of the kitchen table and he tried to dress
himself, but he only managed his pants and a jacket and his woollen hat before he

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tired, and then he sat and listened to the tin cans move outside.
His father had tied them on the railing of the porch when he was young. His
father told him that the sound was the music of a man at sea and that it was a good
sound to work by. They had sat together for many hours making things together out
of wood and paper and his father had told him the legends of the sea.
He reached up for his coffee can which had rested above the stove for many years
and was covered in grease. It was full of photographs and old letters. He looked
through the letters and found the one that his wife had written to him when they had
first fallen in love. He tried to read the letter but his ability to understand words had
left him and soon he stopped reading and became angry.
Nothing can be done now, he told himself. I should have read the letter a
month ago when my mind still knew words.
He coughed and wiped his mouth with his sleeve and sat awhile and
concentrated on his breathing until his anger started to leave him.
He looked at a photo of his father on the deck of his fishing boat with the crew in the
background rolling up netting. The boat was called Linda’s Rose.
All things on the sea needed a name his father had told him; and there was no
better name than that of a woman you had given your heart to.
He remembered long ago the paper boats he and his father used to make and
sail down the stream. They would follow the boats down to the sea. They had
dropped hundreds of paper boats into the stream, but only one had made it from their
farm and past the waves. It was the one his mother had made.
“If you fold your boat small,” his mother had said; “it will have a better

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chance against the waves.”
He looked at a photo of his mother standing against the side of a car. She had her
arms around him. He was small. He remembered they had driven all day in the hot
sun and then they had stopped by a small river and walked along its edge until they
came to a path that led to the frame of a house overgrown in greenery. It was the
house where his mother had grown up. Behind the house was a flowered clearing
and a leaning oak that shaded a dry pond bed surrounded by boulders and long grass.
His mother told him that long ago the clearing was closed off from the wind
and had once been a butterfly garden.
Ten years later when his mother passed away he had returned to the clearing
and built a high fence to protect it from the wind. He had turned the ground and
planted flowers and spread gravel and planted a wall of hedging and a drain to feed
the pond from the river. He had drunk lemonade in the hot sun and under starlight on
the bonnet of his car and he had thought about his mother.
Many years passed before he saw the garden again.
He had been to war and had made it home alive. He had thought about the
garden in the war and when he was shipped home he drove all day in the hot sun to
find it.
The garden was wild and overgrown and full of milling flowers when he
found it and there were many butterflies and the pond was full of green water and
life. But in one corner of the garden there was a woman sitting on a makeshift bench
in the shade of a hedge. She had looked at him and he had offered her a lemonade
and a sandwich and they had eaten and watched the butterflies mill about the flower

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He looked through the photographs in the coffee can some more but soon he became
tired and he wondered if he should go back to sleep.
He would be a boy if he slept.
He would have good lungs in his dreams. He would run the valley and the
stream and he would visit the sea. He would watch it turn and it would be a clear
day. He might even be able to sit with his wife awhile.
He put the coffee can away above the stove again, and he knew he would not
look at it again.
He walked to his porch and the wind almost pushed him over, but he held strong
with a hand against the house, and when it pushed at him again he was ready.
He flexed his hands to wring the cold from them and steadied himself and
stepped down using the railing where the tin cans flew in the wind, and he looked for
the sun, but the sky was grey and the clouds were moving fast and he could not see
There is a storm coming he thought;
Or maybe a storm leaving . . .
He tried to remember if there was a storm last night. But he could not
The nest of branches he had brought up last winter from the beach were still
resting against the side of the porch and he sat on the step and slowly searched
through them until he found what felt like a good length to lean on, and then he used
it to stand.

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It had a fork at one end and he put his arm over it and lent on it and tested his
Beyond was the bluff where the sea stretched forever.
He did not walk to the bluff. He knew the wind was too strong there. He just
stood at the rail and looked out at the sea.
He told himself that he had done what he wanted and that he should now go
inside. But he did not go. He stood and looked out at the sea and he listened.

He told himself that now that he was outside he should look in on the boat he had
been building in his work shed. He had not seen it in a long time and he wanted to
look at it.
He lent on his crutch and fumbled with the buttons on his jacket and he felt
He slowly started to move and the wind pushed at him from behind, and as
he got to the door of his work shed he fumbled with the lock and tried to remember
the combination. But he could not remember, and soon he became angry at himself
and he swore and coughed and told himself what a fool he had been and how now he
would never see his boat.
He looked at the tin cans move and rattle against the railing. He looked down
the hill and at the grass which moved in a wave, and his anger left him a little.
He should have gone to see his boat a month ago. He would have
remembered the combination a month ago.
He lent on his crutch and looked out across the valley and down at the stream
which lay at the base of the hill. There was something moving down by the stream.
He could see its white body between the long grass.

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If it was a sheep, it must have come up the beach and then followed the
stream to his farm. It could not have come over the hill because of the cliff. The
nearest farm was twenty miles away.
If he went down he knew he may not be able to make it back up.
Maybe if he rested.
He could make it back if he rested.
He would just take it slow.
A man could rebuild the world if he took it slow.
He pushed on his crutch and watched the white shape move by the creek.
He told himself he was a fool if he went down there. He told himself this but
he did not listen. Instead he moved through the long grass and then over the thin dirt
road and eased himself down the steep hill.
The grass was high and thick and hard to move through but he reached the bottom of
the hill and edged himself into the shallow stream. He fell down on one knee. He
breathed shallow and held onto the crutch. He felt the small pebbles in his hand. The
cold water ran into his boots and around his leg.
It started to rain. He adjusted the crutch under him and with all his strength
he pulled himself up and then forward. He walked the edge of the bank looking for
the sheep and wondered if he had really seen it.
Last month he had thought he had seen a seagull land on his roof. But there
was no seagull on the roof ― it was only the shape of his roof against the grey sky.
He stood in the rain and looked at the ripples in the water.
He would not see a sheep today.
He stood for awhile and he was angry, but then he decided he was too tired to

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be angry and told himself not to worry and that he did not need to see a sheep.
His jacket was damp and the cold was in his bones and he started to shiver.
There was a sharp pain in his chest where he had fallen and he rubbed at it.
His house at the top of the hill looked far away now; the rain was on him and
he was tired and needed to rest.
He saw a tree a little way down the stream. He moved through the grass and his
breathing was bad but he told himself that it would get better when he got to the tree,
and when he came to the tree he sat under it and looked in the water. It was deeper
here in the bend. They had launched their paper boats from here.
He looked at the high branches above. They blocked out the grey clouds and
the rain.
He had sat underneath this tree with his wife. They had sat with their feet in
the grass listening to the radio and they had talked on things.
“I wish we could sit right here forever,” she whispered.
“Me too,” he said.
“I love you,” she said. “Do you love me?”
He watched the water and rested.
He lent his crutch against the tree. He shivered and his breathing stung when
he breathed shallow.
He looked at his house at the top of the hill.
He tried to clear his lungs. But he knew he could not clear them. He had to
make do with what his lungs gave him.
Maybe they would let him go home. He would like that.

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He thought about what it would be like to rest in his bed but then the
coughing stopped him from thinking and he looked at the hill and at his house.
He clenched his fists and tried to wring the cold from them, but the cold
would not go.
The cold was inside him now.
He watched the water run and he thought on things.
It would be good if he was home. Then he would be warm at least. He could
watch the storm from his bed.
He put his hand in his pocket and found a small notepad and pencil. It had a
list of measurements pencilled on it. He had forgotten what they were for.
He pulled a page free and let the wind catch it and take it away. He watched
it until his eyes could no longer make it out from the grass.
He tore another page and folded it weakly into a plane and dropped it in his
lap and coughed some more. The wind took it and it bent and fluttered in the grass
and then was taken down the bank and into the stream.
He made another plane. This time he bent the nose like his father had shown
him. He coughed and there were splatters of blood on the wings.
The wind was around him and he threw it and it flew and turned and then
landed in the currents and was taken down the stream. It turned in the ripples from
the rain.
Thunder rolled overhead.
He better start on his way home.
He had rested; now he should go home.
But he didn’t move. He sat and waited and watched the stream some more.

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He hoped to see a fish.
He tore another page and folded a simple boat. He wrote on the side of it
with his pencil. He did not know if the words had come out right.
He opened his hand and it blew away in the wind. It landed in the long grass
on the crest of the stream and fluttered between the blades.
The rain had worked the branches above and now small pellets of water fell and he
put his hand out for one and it washed the blood from his fingers.
He looked at the stream. He could hear the sea in the background.
If he had followed the stream further he could have reached the beach. He
hadn’t been to the beach in a long while. He should have gone two months ago when
he had the legs and lungs to do so.
He watched the grass on the hills. The rain fell and his legs became wet and
his shoulders became damp and the rain wet his woolen hat and sprinkled around his
He breathed hard.
Many parts of him were broken but he was still here. He was still thinking
and seeing the world.
He was alive.
He could sleep out here if he wanted.
Maybe he would wake tomorrow.
He heard a rustling beside him and he turned.
At first he could not see anything. But then two white shapes came into view: