Riverboats and Bone Yards IV

By Stu Whitley
Bio

This is fourth in a five-part series.


The end of anything must be at least as interesting as the beginning of
it, even if we think it’s not a particularly happy ending. As a
novelist, the end of a story I’m writing doesn’t always present itself
to me initially, and even if I think I’m working toward a particular
conclusion, the climax consistently turns out to be quite different
than that which I have conceived somewhere along the way. Oddly, I’m as
interested in the outcome as I hope a reader might be.

The point is not that every story ends: it is that every story has a surprise ending that has everything to do with the way a life has been lived.

As
I contemplate the decline of those once-grand and now-ancient
paddlewheel steamers on the Yukon River, it occurs to me that, in not
many more years, they will be gone almost completely, leaving only a
few rusted pieces of machinery to mark their passing. I wish there was
some way they could be preserved for future generations to see. But it
surely cannot be that the pleasure I experienced in seeing them as they
were, literally in the middle of nowhere, was conditional upon what I
thought should be a better result than their ultimate decay. As Pascal
teaches us, “He who found the secret of rejoicing in the good without
troubling himself with its contrary evil would have hit the mark”.

I
found myself perseverating/obsessing over the disappearance of these
boats. I was living in the future, fearful and worried that there were
no reasonable options for their maintenance and protection. Their end
was inevitable. And I regretted that quite profoundly, thinking that my
sons might never experience this same moment, see the same things I was
seeing now, and marvel at these icons of another time.

I
realized then that worry is always for the future about things that
have captured our imagination in a manner that oppresses our present
existence. Yet it seems equally apparent that what is to come lies
completely outside our small garrisons. It is only possible for us to
experience the present moment, no matter how much we might wish it
otherwise.

the Aztecs, like those who went before,

and those who followed


were certain of their lives,


if all the rules were followed.


every 52 years – the span of a man’s life then –


permission of the gods was sought to continue life


a smouldering fire was set in the chest


of a carefully chosen sacrifice


whose beating heart had been torn away


only moments before


then runners carrying torches lit


with new life fire, spread out


in the four sacred directions


and one of them, running hard to the east


collided with the steel’d men of Cortez


emerging silently from the tumbling surf


with their rust-pitted girdments, and their foul breath


the gods, it seems, after centuries beyond counting


had declined the plea for succour in the smoky supplications


for the Aztecs had claim to their place, and each other,


only of a time


certainties are still anchored by ceremony and incantation;


we have our temples, our proffered hearts


and flame-engulfed breasts


and we still ask the gods, in our own way


with sacrifice and effort expended


for life to continue as it is


yet the future stands wholly outside our gates


knowing nothing of itself, or seldom of matters


that by and by may come to pass,


until we assign judgment


like the Aztecs, we cannot know the future


only ourselves

Turning in the stern of our canoe one
last time as those hulks disappeared from view, I recall feeling a
sense of disappointment that our schedule did not permit us to linger
among them. And yet, my visit there was no more endlessly sustainable
than my capacity to remember.

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