Elizabeth O’Brien

AP Wire: September 24, 2010: River Disappears Overnight

Call me a vengeful God.

Just once.

That’s what you thought isn’t it, when you woke to the sound not of water crashing in tight foaming downward ribbons, but instead to the dry clack-snap of writhing fish on silt as the river stones steamed in the morning sun? A vengeful God with insatiable thirst, a lightning-and-pitchfork man from a thunderclap, thirsting up every last drop in one earthroiling slake?

The river didn’t disappear, you fools—poof, gone—I took it. I whisked it away. I sweet-talked every last innocent drop to come hither with me, leave your greedy interloping mills dry, and I relished the sound as your water wheel scudded halting to a stop on the silt.

I got your river, and all it took was compromise. Compromise! What my old man and his team, good working men all, begged for years ago. Shorter hours, better pay. Remember? Not to be sold upriver by automation, or turned out by unliveable wages. Compromise, see, is just holes here and there in hollow ground.

But you didn’t know compromise, you didn’t understand trickle down, and my old man’s gone sixteen hours every day the last sixteen years, all the years I’ve been alive. I hardly know him. He never had time to buckle me down or keep me on the straight and narrow, which left me plenty time to teach myself about rivers and water and compromise.

Did you know eighteen thousand tons of water trickles down fast when there’s somewhere it wants to go? That all there is to making water want to go somewhere is introducing the idea of down? And did you know the old mineshaft you sealed for good, never bothering with where it leads, it goes actually straight to the old potash mines ringing for hollow miles, just big enough for eighteen thousand tons of water?

Shimmy in and close the sluices: one sixteen year old boy is enough for that. Compromise the shaft cover and work the sluices open again: sing Hallelujah boys, a vengeful God couldn’t do better! The sound of water punching earth, scraping salt from the walls, was a clarion song to my almighty ears. I took the river. I, Alfred A. Reed, four foot nine and straight C student, barely squeaking average. Except that this very early morning I swept an entire river from its sleepy bed, and you came out of your high shuttered houses, you riverbaronning finks, asking, What happened to the river?

I happened to the river.

I swept it like the greatest tablecloth trick of all time, and all the fish and snails and crabs and scalers lay floundering and clattering like a gasping three course meal. I helped myself to a few trout, breakfast well-earned by good work. Whistled past that fast-drying wheel and waterless bed on my way home. God, yes.

Elizabeth O’Brien writes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The New England Review, decomP, PANK, Swink, Versal, Juked, A capella Zoo, The Leveler, Slice, The Emerson Review, Flashquake, The Found Poetry Review, Glide Magazine, and other places. She lives in Minneapolis, MN, and can be found online at

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