At first he thought the weather had turned – the sky glowering down to the dull, horizon-wide mica-shine that meant storm. Then he saw that his bright boat (Tequila Sunrise, the sticker had said) had lost color. The river, too, was black as burned oil, the foam on the standing waves as dull and lightless as mortar mix. He was as absent of color as his granddad’s ancient television. Dashing his face with the inky river didn’t help. He closed his eyes, opened them, rubbed them. The world stayed the same flat monochrome.
What could he do but paddle through? He tried, but in grayscale the river’s eddyline disappeared: the current grounded and spun him. The dimness felt malevolent. As he passed under the first of two bridges, the span against the flat chalk sky was a long, black shadow, an underbelly alive with the chittering of bats he could perceive only as a faint, teeming seethe. He knew they must be bank swallows, not bats, but couldn’t convince himself. He saw what he saw. When two dozen swarmed from their unseen mud nests above him it was all he could do not to panic. Against a glaring patch of sky the veering wings appeared and disappeared like ghosts.
Just past the second bridge, at the take-out, he pulled the spray skirt and saw his legs, gray as a dead man’s, the hair stark as black wire. The pallid sand of the shallows made a soft sucking sound against his keel. Again he shut his eyes. He beached, got out. He slung his head side-to-side, up and down, went to his knees like a Muslim pray-er, forehead to the damp riverbank. Nothing worked. He thought of whacking himself with the paddle.
Is you hurt?
The voice came out of the yawning darkness under the end of the bridge.
Nobody. Just me fishing.
Hey. You eyes – they failing on you?
I hit my head.
You not seeing me?
You’re under the bridge. I can’t see anything under there.
A shadow moved against shadow, its edges indistinct until a pair of black rubber boots became clear, stepping down the sapped granite rip-rap that shelved down from the bridge. First he saw the knee-high boots, then knees and thighs, carrying wide, round hips. A woman. A stick or cane helped hold her up.
You seeing me now?
I see most of you. Not your face.
She came further until she stood ten feet away.
This close as I’m coming, mister.
That’s fine. I see you, ma’am. Her eyes were black as two cliff-face caves.
What ail you?
I can’t see right. Everything is black and white.
Everthing is. Sure enough.
Now that he’d said it he realized there was no white, only the bleached gray of dry bone.
Everything’s shadows. No color.
Two hours, maybe. Seems like forever.
What you hit?
A rock. In that rapid below the old ferry.
You laid down yet?
You lay down, then. Lay down with that same rock as your pillow.
It was in a rapid.
Then find one like it.
What good would that do?
Rock took your sight. Rock can turn it back.
I thought of hitting myself already, if that’s what you mean.
I said what I mean. You lay down.
So he did. He was on his knees still, a flat slab of granite within reach of his head. He stretched out, putting his temple to the stone, freckled and shot with graininess – dark and light specks and every colorless gradation between from pencil lead to pen ink. Charcoal, soot, ash-tipped reed -- every medium hands had ever scribbled in. He rested his head on the hardness.
The woman’s face above him was a black hole against the sky. For the first time he feared something other than this dead world he had crossed into. He closed his eyes.
In the dream his stone pillow was brought to him on a wooden paddle. It was rounder – almost spherical, the size of a large orange – but it was his pillow. The surface, too, was like an orange’s, minutely pebbled, glossy. He lay still looking at it, his eye entering the crevices of its roundness until a translucent leathery wing was spread over his sight. He blinked. The stone had become an orange, halved -- a ruby wheel, white-spoked, its colors muted but there. His waking heart lurched at the redness and accelerated, as if a lost heat had rekindled his blood.
When he woke, a weight held his eyes shut – the woman’s warm hand, rough with dirt, smelling of snuff, earthworms, Jergen’s hand lotion. Her long middle finger spanned his eyes, her other fingers his brow and upper cheeks. The calloused ridge of her palm draped his temple, as soft on that side of his head as the rock was hard on the other.
You keep them eyes shut, she said.
She drew her hand away. He heard riprap shift as she withdrew up the bank – heard her call from under the bridge Look now. Look at old muddy first.
He cracked open his eyes. He saw first the river -- clod-colored, flowing under a still, dim reflection of the sky -- then the gray-mottled sycamore trunks of the far side, then the brown-shot, green-and-yellow spatter of their leaves. Beyond, the blue sky.
Thank you, he said, to the clouds, the trees, the water, the woman. He was too glad to cry.