At dawn, starlings fall from the sky like fat feathered raindrops. After flying low over the river, they forget to flap their wings and they plummet downward. Some splash into the black water. Others hit the ground near me, making little furrows in the bare earth. Those that survive are stunned and twitching. Before they can recover and fly away, I twist their necks with practiced ease.
The prince trembles in his sleep but does not wake, despite a broken-winged starling scrabbling in the dust near him. He must be dreaming of a full belly and a warm bed, of life on the other side of the dark river.
I only call him prince for lack of a better name. He claims a disloyal vizier must have seized his realm and exiled him. More likely, he’s a slave who came here to flee a cruel master. That would explain the scars on his back.
Who can say for sure? Like all three of us, he’s forgotten his name and everything else about the other side of the river. He calls me ‘greybeard,’ which at least is accurate. I’ve been here the longest.
The warrior emerges from his hut—a pitiful structure of sticks and grass—and roars for his breakfast. His strength and brutality make him the unquestioned tyrant of our little group. We know he’s a warrior because he was wearing a bronze helmet when he washed up on the riverbank years ago. Thus he’s not a runaway slave or fugitive criminal. A deserter, I think, though I never say it aloud.
The warrior kicks the prince awake and orders him to fetch water. Our camp lies by a stream that flows into the river. Water from the stream is unclouded and does not bring oblivion.
The prince stumbles to his feet in time to avoid another kick. While I gather up starlings into dark feathery piles, he dips the battered helmet into the stream. We’ll use it as a pot to cook starling stew. Once the warrior has eaten his fill, there may be some left over for the prince and me.
I pluck the birds as the prince gathers brush for the fire. The brush burns poorly, but it’s all we have. Wood is scarce here, as if the trees themselves don’t remember how to grow straight and tall.
The prince cries out. He’s found a large wooden object at the water’s edge. The thing is at least ten feet long, with a pole sticking up from the middle.
It’s a sailboat, I say. Sailboat. The word emerges from my mind like a bloated corpse rising from murky depths.
The warrior stares at the boat, which is tangled in the reeds. We’ve never seen a vessel on the river before. The black water has no fish, and who’d want to travel here?
There’s no reason for anyone to visit our empty scrubland. Civilization, comfort, memory: these must all be on the opposite bank. On this side lies only madness. Nature itself here is unnatural. Ants sometimes fly in the air. The prince says that of course ants fly. On the other side of the river, he claims, his golden carriage was pulled by swarms of winged ants. I remember none of this.
The warrior approaches the boat warily. Lying inside is a dead man wearing a blue robe. Perhaps his heart forgot to beat. The river sometimes kills men this way. For others, drinking the black water, or breathing its vapors, leaves body unscathed but mind empty. When the prince first arrived, he drooled and babbled for days before regaining the power of speech.
I scan the opposite shore of the wide river for any sign of human activity, for the people who sent the boat. As always, I see only a forest of pine trees. The prince sometimes sees gleaming battlements and distant towers, but I’ve never caught a glimpse of them.
The warrior drags the corpse ashore. He strips the clothes from it. It’s been two years since the last body washed up, and we’re all dressed in tatters.
When I look at the boat, words flood into my head. Square rigged sail. Flat bottom. Steering oar. Perhaps I’m a shipwright. The large black eyes painted on the bow look familiar. Am I a painter?
The warrior, now dressed in the blue robe, tosses aside the filthy rags he used to wear. The prince looks at me, and when I remain still, scrambles to retrieve them.
The warrior hauls the boat onto land. Summoning my courage, I protest. I tell him we should sail across the river. We must have survived the crossing once before. We can again. The boat is big enough for three.
He laughs and says a crossing is too dangerous. He starts searching inside the boat.
I point at the nude stranger lying in the dirt. Look, I say. The wind is shifting. See how it ruffles his hair. If we raise the sail, the wind will blow us to the opposite shore.
The warrior growls and shakes his head.
I ask him why he doesn’t want to rejoin his army. Won’t your comrades-in-arms be overjoyed at your safe return? He cuffs me, too busy rummaging through the boat to give me a proper beating. He finds bread and wolfs it down but tosses aside the purse of silver coins.
The prince examines a coin. He tells me that it bears an excellent portrait of him. In truth, it looks nothing like him.
The warrior finds a wineskin. He gulps down wine and sticks an oar upright in the ground. He says here you shall build me a new hut with the boat’s wooden planks. Start now.
I ask why live in a hut when you could live in a barracks on the other shore. Or perhaps a fine house. You may be a general.
He raises his fist, but I’m prudently out of range. We both suspect that if he ever returns, he’ll be executed for desertion.
The warrior pours wine down his throat. When it’s gone, he dances drunkenly around the oar before falling asleep.
The prince and I walk to the river. Now’s our chance, I say. We can take the boat and return to our homes.
He looks at me without comprehension.
Come, I say. Let’s leave this place and return to your realm.
He refuses. He says his subjects are not ready for his return.
I point at the pale body on the ground. Do you want to end up like him? The prince averts his gaze.
I lean my shoulder against the boat and push it towards the river. I’m no longer young. It’s difficult.
Don’t leave me, says the prince.
Again I urge him to come, but he shakes his head.
Once the boat is in the water, I return for the oar, but the prince is shaking the warrior awake. I take the oar and run back to the boat. The warrior bellows and chases me.
At the water’s edge, I turn to face him. He trips over the naked corpse and I swing the oar at him. He’s too drunk to dodge my clumsy blow, and it thumps into his head. He falls to the ground, eyes open and unseeing.
The act of murder feels strange and new. This unfamiliarity comforts me. Perhaps I’m not a criminal who fled across the river. Perhaps I’m a good man with a family on the other side.
The prince falls to his knees and sobs silently.
I tear a strip of cloth from the warrior’s blue robe and tie it over my nose and mouth. It might keep out the river’s vapors.
The prince says nothing as I climb into the boat. It feels natural to unfurl the sail. Perhaps I’m a fisherman.
The prince stands between the two dead bodies, watching. He rushes forward and for a moment I think he’ll join me. But instead he drinks from the river like an animal.
He won’t miss me.
I steer towards the opposite shore, holding my breath as long as I can. If I get up enough speed before I forget to steer, the boat may reach the other side. Whatever waits for me there, I want to see it before I die.
Halfway across the river, my lungs betray me and I gasp for air. Fortunately, the cloth on my face seems to work. I can still remember the starlings trembling in my hands. I can still remember the sound of the oar hitting the warrior’s head. The boat remains on course.
When I reach the other side, I clamber ashore and rip the cloth away from my face. I breathe deeply. Will my memories come flooding back?
I look behind me. The boat is slowly drifting downstream. On the far shore, the prince stares at me.
He does not wave.