A man discovers the meaning of life by meeting different people down by a river.
When a gang showed up on his property one night, it caught John Caton and his family by surprise. They set his barn on fire with he and his wife’s horses inside. They shot the dog when it began barking to alert its masters of the intruders’ presence. They destroyed the truck and set the cornfields, which were about to be harvested, ablaze.
They didn’t touch the house. Yet. The leader knocked on the door, prompting John to answer with a shotgun in his hands. He opened the inside door, leaving the screen door to separate himself from the thieves. The leader did not wear a mask, but his face was covered with what appeared to be black chalk. The leader’s expression was stern, but not vicious. He asked John to gather all the money, jewelry, and other valuables he had in the house and hand them over.
John stood his ground, shotgun in hand, and ordered the thief to leave. John’s wife had called the police already and John informed the thieves of this. The leader told John he was in a hurry and brandished a sickle in one hand. John pointed his shotgun directly at the leader’s face. Once he did, a shot was heard and one of the kitchen windows shattered. John turned around and saw that a bullet had come through the window and struck his wife directly in her cheek. She collapsed where she had stood, the wall phone now dangling from its cord.
Before John could do anything else, he was out cold. The leader had opened the screen door in a flash and hit him with the butt of his sickle. It was some time before John woke up. When he did he was still lying on the kitchen floor. He felt his head stick to the floor momentarily when he tried to sit up. The back of his head had been bleeding and there were some traces of blood on the floor proving this. He looked across the room and saw his wife lying there in a puddle of blood, her lifeless eyes still seeming to stare back at him.
These were the first things John noticed. He realized that he had been unconscious all night long and it was now dawn. There was no sign of his young son, who had been frozen in terror underneath the dining room table while the previous night’s events transpired. John searched the entire house and couldn’t find any trace of him. Outside, he saw what remained of his barn. It was mostly an ash heap, still smoldering with a couple uncollapsed beams as the only reminder of order.
John’s truck had been heavily damaged. He wasn’t sure if it would ever run again. All the glass on it, the windows, lights, and mirrors had been shattered. The seats had been burned and the bed had massive holes in it. The hood was open and appeared as if someone had tossed a molotov cocktail in it.
John couldn’t understand what had happened. A gang of thieves had appeared out of nowhere like anarchial demons while his family ate dinner. They pillaged and destroyed everything but the house yet when they came to the house, their approach changed slightly. The leader came calmly and politely to the door and gave his request. When John threatened him, however, they returned to the state in which they had come. His life was now ruined. His wife was dead, his son missing, his entire property destroyed, his crops still burning in the distance.
John felt exhausted despite having been unconscious all night, his heart beat slower than it ever had before as it sank lower and lower within him. He had a sickening feeling in his stomach and his mind was racing. Thoughts flashed through his head. Thoughts spanning the gambit of every human emotion. He thought about love for his wife, and despair at her demise. He thought about love for his son, and anger at the thieves that took him. He felt compassion for his horses, which had no doubt suffered horrible deaths. He felt fear, fear that the thieves would return to finish him off. He felt confusion that they had left him alive but destroyed so much else. He felt a certain emptiness because he now had nothing. Nothing to cherish. Nothing to love. Nothing to hold. Nothing to care for. Nothing to work on. Nothing to own. All he had was his aging farmhouse that now had two less occupants.
John hadn’t realized it, but as he was thinking he began wandering into one of the burnt corn fields. The corn was scorched in a path towards the woods. John walked down the middle of the path the flames had made, stepping over the ashes of his livelihood. His life’s work. When he reached the treeline he went further, into the woods. He knew of a small river not far from the edge of the woods. He needed to be alone and collect his thoughts.
He went to the riverbank and found a fallen tree. He sat down on the tree and looked at his reflection in the dead-still water. He looked different. He wasn’t his usual joyous self. His hair was a mess, his eyes bloodshot, his heart heavy, and his soul in despair. He felt like he had aged many years in just one night.
He watched as a leaf fell from a nearby tree. As it struck the still water it sent out endless ripples, each one smaller and less dramatic than the last. Now that the water had been touched it would never be so still again it seemed. When another leaf hit, it rippled slightly but didn’t seem to cause as much chaos. Its effects were small compared to the first one.
Nature couldn’t cure the dagger that had been pierced through John’s heart. Peace and harmony weren’t what John found there like he used to. He remembered how he had brought his wife there many times before. They sat on the beach and put their feet in the water. The autumn scene there was beautiful. But now, all the bright beautiful colors just seemed like multiple hues of gray.
As John was sitting there he heard the leaves ruffle as someone approached. A man in his mid-30’s came and stood next to the log. He asked John what was wrong and John told him all about last night’s horrendous turn for the worse, crying through some parts as he was unable and unwilling to hold back the tears.
The man didn’t mention his name but he began to tell John all about his life. He too had a wife once. He described her as being the most beautiful thing in all of creation. But something unfortunate happened to her. She cheated on the man and left him one day without any warning. It hurt him so bad that he didn’t leave his house for nearly a week. But he also said that he continued to “fight”.
“Fighting” was all the man had left. Not physically fighting, but mentally. He grappled every day and night with why there was evil in the world. Why bad things happened to good people. Most of all, why was it that beautiful things could be there amidst the evil and the carnage of the world.
The man left John with that thought. When John turned around to see where the man was going, he had vanished. It wasn’t long before John received another visitor there by the river. This time it was an old woman, she must have been in her 80’s or maybe even 90’s. She sat down on the log next to John and began to talk to him like the man had. She didn’t ask what had happened to John, but it felt as if she already knew. She mentioned how things of a similar nature had happened to people around her, to her dearest friends and family. But those things never happened to her. She had never been robbed, beaten, threatened, assaulted, or even lied to.
John asked her how she could be sure that nobody had ever lied to her. Her response confused him. She said that evil had no desire to be in her presence. That nothing bad was allowed to be in her presence. She detested violence and shunned evil so that it would never invade her life. She said that vice was for those weaker than her. She said that she had never done any wrong in her entire life.
When John finally asked her why she was there in the woods by the river, she said that her husband had fallen ill and died thay very morning. She had always walked with him in the early morning in the woods. As she stood up and walked away John could hear her saying to herself “what am I to do”. She disappeared in a moment just as the man had.
John thought that both the visitors were very strange and he began to wonder if he was dillusional. Just then he received a third visitor. A young boy came and stood on the beach near the log. John asked the boy if he came to give him a message. The boy picked up a rock and threw it into the river. The rock made a splash and sent out ripples bigger than all the falling leaves had made.
He said to John that he did bring him a message, although it would be easier to show him. He said that the firsy leaf that had fallen onto the still water sent out waves from the spot in which it had landed. It was a shock to the water and the ripples never seemed to end.
The second leaf caused ripples, although the water was used to it and its effects didn’t last long. Leaves had fallen a lot more since those two and it had become routine for them to fall. The water was filled with ripples now.
When he threw the rock into the water, it shook it all up worse than anything had before. Massive ripples were sent out after a spout of water had sprung up in the spot where the rock hit. The ripples eventually died down and the water went back to its normal state.
The boy said that although the water would be disturbed for a long time, if John returned the next morning it would be as calm as it had been when he first found it. While it was rippled not much could be seen in it, but when things calmed down the entire world came into focus. It would be easy for John to just give up now and accept how things were. But with patience he could soon see the beauty of the world and see the sky painted in the water below him, well within reach.
The boy picked up another rock but didn’t throw it. This one he put in his pocket as he turned and walked away. John sat still for a moment trying to process what he had just been told. He quickly stood up and turned around to catch up to the boy, but he had vanished like the other two. They had shared what they knew and gone. John Caton looked at the river and then back at his old farmhous past the scorched cornfields. He walked back the way he had come, through the one path open to him, over the evil and among the good.