I still cannot believe that it was a dream, or that it was not. Every day, I could see the man clearly, pitiably struggling to hold on to his dear life. I do not know how he got there or why. All I know is that on a lovely dark night, I saw a man drown. In a river so beautiful you’d think it cannot hurt a fly, let alone take a human life. It is a half-hour drive from my home, this river, if I go there deep into the night, as I do every weekend. I have been doing this for three years, it was always secluded but never this way. This night, two weeks ago, I drove there with a friend, and we stood on the bridge under which the water flows, watching the way the waters flow, and it was all calm and cold until he left. He left because he had to go say Hi to his girlfriend whose parents were fast asleep. I waited there alone because I loved that: being with myself on a chilly winter night, watching a pristine river shimmer magnificently under milky moonlight. Soon after he left though, as I was rubbing my hands together and blowing on them, I noticed a little churning in the waters. Was it a small boat? An animal? Hell, it was a person. A grown man, bobbing up and down far, far away into the distance, at what looked like equal distance from both the edges of the river, moving violently but in rhythmic motions, as if he was performing a set of squats, only too quickly. My first instinct was to stare harder, move closer, until I realised I was perched too precariously over the bridge parapet. Next, I looked around on the bridge, to stop some commuter and tell him or her what I just saw, to see if we could do something about it, although in retrospect there was nothing three as one could do about it. There was nobody. Not a single vehicle moving anywhere around — not even on the roads running alongside the bridge. Was I stunned? I am not sure — I felt heavy in my feet though.
I turned around towards the river and presently I don’t see him, or her, it’s hard to tell, but the figure was more masculine than feminine. The figure, now, isn’t there. I feel thoroughly relieved – it was just an illusion – but as I reach the parapet again and peer, it feels like dread became a soul and dived right into my lungs. He is there, or she is, but the person is still there, bobbing, and all I could think of was how this is not how it is supposed to be. Life, nobody told us, would be this hard. I come to my senses in a moment and check my pockets for my phone – the nearest police station is a two-km walk and my friend would be able to come back here in just as much time as the police would take to respond – five minutes, maybe ten? I call my friend first, but the call doesn’t go, and so I call again, and again, and as I get increasingly frustrated I notice something that hurts my chest – there is no network in both of my sim cards. This doesn’t happen, it just hasn’t happened before. Either of them always works, even if I’m in an elevator. I restart the phone, restart the networks, but it doesn’t work – nothing is working – and I turn to look at the man with the desperate hope that somehow, someone from somewhere has come to rescue him. But he is alone, still fighting the river, still alive and still staring at death. I stand still, my vision is blurred, I feel dizzy, and I am not sure if I am breathing. I see her face now, as if it has appeared in the infinite space between the white river and the black sky — clear, beautiful, crying but not sobbing, resolute but unflinchingly unsmiling. That was the only time I had seen her like that, two years ago now, after eight years of watching her smile widely at the smallest of reasons, a smile that always gave a glint to her large, perfectly lovely eyes. That was the only other day I was shadowed by this feeling — a feeling of sinking, of drowning, and of being able to do absolutely nothing about my own impending, premature death. Of being completely chained by helplessness. Why didn’t they tell us before? Why did the parents, the teachers, the well-wishers, the friends and the foes; why didn’t the movies, books or paintings tell us? That this is life, that it just hurts, and that there’s nothing you can do about it. How hard could it have been to prepare us? ‘Look, son, you will break one day, into small pieces, and if you can find the strength to sew the pieces back together, do it, but you won’t recognise yourself thereafter, because you won’t be the same anymore.’ How hard? Why don’t they ever tell us that you will drown one day, and even though someone standing far away on a bridge yearns to save you, he cannot. Nobody can, nobody will. You will drown, and die, and it will be a sore catastrophe, and people will grieve, but there’s nothing you can do to defer your sorry death. The death of your emotions, the death of your beliefs. Of your self-esteem, self-confidence, ego, pride and faith. The inevitable death awaits you, son, and all you can do is walk right into it and hope to limp out, somehow alive. Why don’t they tell us?
“Dude, why are you crying?”
The jolt of the voice hit me like a sharp slap. I could feel a whole person walk out of me that instant. I felt relieved, but I was still shaking. It was my friend, and I was blankly staring at him, and wiping my cheeks and looking at my wet palms, as if questioning the very truth of my own thick tears.
“I, I, there’s a man there, there, he’s drowning, come, see…”
He and I perched over the parapet now, peering, our eyes narrowed, bodies bent, searching the calm waters, he confounded by me, I confounded by the absence of my nightmare.
“He was there, right in the middle of the river, there, and he was drowning…”
I couldn’t believe he had drowned in such a short while as I was lost in the tempest of my tears. Was his body floating right under our feet now?
“Dude, it’s okay, you’re unwell, let’s go home, there’s nobody here,” he said, his voice also shaking a little now, but lacking the pain of my voice.
“No, no, you don’t understand. There was this one man or woman in the river, trying not to drown, and I couldn’t reach him, and there was nobody here except me. I tried calling you, there is no network, look…”
And as I showed him my phone, we both stared at it silently. How was this possible? Both networks were showing full signal now.
“Bro, there’s network, and there are enough people around here, look at the cars passing by. It will be morning in a while, and we should get some sleep. I’ll give you a pill that will help you sleep well. Come on, now, come,” he said, and dragged my heavy feet into his car.