The Riverbank | Teen Ink

The Riverbank

July 16, 2021
By Lydiaq ELITE, Somonauk, Illinois
Lydiaq ELITE, Somonauk, Illinois
148 articles 41 photos 1014 comments

Favorite Quote:
The universe must be a teenage girl. So much darkness, so many stars.

Miss Althea McIntyre is one hundred four, weighs eighty pounds, is four-foot seven, has long and freakishly red hair, a face full of freckles and wrinkles, deep dimples, floppy hands and arms, nervous and giggly ways, fake purple eyelashes, and great hoop earrings. She is a frequent guest at nightclubs with names like the Crippled Raven, Tyrannosaurus’s Bride, Dirty Ballerina, Hip Hop Hippo Stop, Leviathan’s Bells, and the Burning Palm Tree. Moreover, she has joined a band called Boiled Baby Goats in Mama’s Milk. People see her slay the drums like a man, and they are cast under her spell.

She travels on a motor-scooter, a moped, and a riding lawnmower. She smokes sixteen cigars a day and gets drunk while watching My Little Pony. She spends her days collecting nickels in an umbrella, on the porch of her daughter’s house. Occasional fits of craziness overtake her, so that she goes hollering down the lane on her lawnmower, determined to run people down. “You hurt the baby!” she shrieks, although there is no baby. “You hurt the baby, and now he’ll never get better!” The people who throw nickels at her assume that they are being charitable, but they are just fueling her drinking problem. She loves to chase her shadow at noon with her long, red hair flying out like a cape behind her. She has always said that she was sure to cheat death and live past one hundred, so she could have a free ticket to doing whatever she pleased.

The first time Miss Althea cheated death, she was only ten. She and her brother had been hunting squirrels in the woods when she got bit up by one that was mad. Miss Althea got mad and bared her teeth at her brother and raved for hours, only her family dragged her into a tent revival—where a good dunking in the river healed her one hundred percent of madness, which had been sure to kill her. Many people would protest that Miss Althea was mad as a coot all her life, but Miss Althea declared, “That thar tent revival preacher done washed my sins away, and I’ll never be the same, no Lordy!” She kept a tambourine to remember the miracle.

“That thar preacher saved me a life of misery,” said Miss Althea. “Now I got me a fine houseful and a family!”

Miss Althea lived in a cabin that looked as though a beaver had made it. She lived on the banks of the river which had saved her life. It was the Mississippi, but she claimed it was the Jordan River.

When she was a young girl-bride, Miss Althea confided to her husband, “Let’s have us twenty-six children and let them all be girls. I’m fixing to have a name starting with each letter o’ the alphabet.” She only ended up with two children, Paulie and Mildred. Paulie couldn’t stand life with his mama, and he took off rafting downriver to the Gulf when he was only four. It is believed that crocodiles ate him.

“Mildred Crosby McIntyre,” Miss Althea told her only daughter, her only child, “choose wisely the man you marry.”

“I don’t care for men, Mommy,” said Mildred, in a peculiar, sweet voice, with luminous dark eyes. “Mommy, I think deeper thoughts than you ever did—about why the moon breathes on the water and the ancient sky and the call of birds. I do not have words for the feelings in me. I fear I was born into the wrong family, and I must run off as my dear brother Paulie did.”

Mildred was as different from Miss Althea as night is from day. She had wise, dark eyes and sharp ears, and she gazed at the moonlit river in rapture, listening for the calls of barges with all her might. She refused to wear shoes or attend school. Mildred was intense, thirsty, nature-loving and very, very wild.

Miss Althea’s husband ran off soon after little Paulie’s death. It is believed that he wanted to join his son with the crocodiles, rather than spend one more day with the erratic, eccentric, Miss Althea and her vivid, difficult little girl.

As for the rest of Miss Althea’s life, and all her brushes with death, it would be extremely foolish to dig deep into details. We will only conclude with the barest facts as to her fate, which is much whispered about on the banks of the Mississippi, but is little known—

Miss Althea loved her daughter Mildred with the double fierceness of a mother bear. She loved her with every sentence they spoke, with every ounce of her being. Her only comfort on storm-tossed nights, when she fell asleep crying about her husband and son, her only comfort was Mildred’s soft and peaceful young breathing. Her breathing hummed on and on and soothed her. That dear girl had only to look at her, to cry, “Mother! Mother!” in that wild, peculiar way, before Miss Althea wrapped her arms around her like she would fade. They had long, intimate dinners of freshly caught fish by candlelight, and they told each other everything they thought.

“Promise you will never leave Mommy,” said Miss Althea. “Promise you will always call me Mommy. Promise. Promise you will hold me in your arms when I die. My child, you are the wind and sun to me—I cannot live without you.”

Unconsciously, Miss Althea, a confirmed redneck, adopted her daughter’s peculiar, gushy, refined way of speaking. Nobody could tell their voices apart. Nobody could tell their clothes apart, for Miss Althea traded her typical overalls so she could dress in the same sailor-suits as her young daughter. Soon, townspeople would refer to Miss Althea and Mildred as “Al and Mil,” as though…as though they had meshed and melted and become one in a mystical way.

Miss Althea was a prime hunter; she was as sharp and sneaky as a coyote. She sold her animal-hides to buy jewels, chocolates, and valentines for her daughter, her precious one, the light of her life. She feared and could not rest when Mildred was off by herself, and only when her daughter rested in her arms did her wildly pounding heart slow comfortably down.

“Mommy,” said Mildred, one day, when she was thirty-three, “Mommy, I fear I must go away for a while.”

“What? Go away from Mommy? Abandon the restaurant?” said Miss Althea.

For the two had opened a small riverside eatery that served fried fish and beer. It was a joint endeavor—they equally divided the profits, never quarreled, and were as happy as two crawdads. Mildred had hung beautiful pieces of moth and woodwork to decorate the place. They loved their business and loved each other. Why Mildred would want to go away was a mystery to Miss Althea.

“I am restless, Mommy.” The poppy-red lips were earnest. “I have always been quite restless. I want to know the world, know other people, and more than that, I want to know myself. I want to tune my spirit to the sunlight and moonrise of eternal waters and see the peace of dragonflies and laughing children.”

Thus, Mildred left Miss Althea. She trotted off barefoot down the riverbank and didn’t even say goodbye. Miss Althea was inconsolable and wept and screamed by turns. It was during the week when Mildred was gone that Miss Althea took up drinking, gambling, and partying. She was too drunk even to fry up the catfish properly, and she made the customers sick. On the seventh day, Miss Althea took to her bed and vowed that she would never get out of it unless Mildred came home to her.

She awoke as from a dark nightmare, to see her beautiful daughter bending over her. A rush of disbelieving joy collided with horror, when the nightcapped Miss Althea saw that Mildred was no longer hers entirely. She had brought a stringy sham of a young fisherman. He was probably named Marvin or Tom or Bob or Mike—it made no sense. To Miss Althea, he was an intruder, and he must leave them alone. Speak of love! Nonsense!

“Mommy, I changed my mind about men. I met Leo, and I can tell you, I never knew ecstasy or pure Heaven until I stared into Leo’s eyes. Leo, shake hands with Mommy.”

Mildred seemed embarrassed, as any grown woman might be who calls her mother Mommy.

Damn your hands!” screeched Miss Althea. Let the rest of her speech be blotted out forever in infamy. She flopped back into bed and wept her heart out, slamming her head into the pillows. Why had Mildred forsaken her? Did all her diamonds and jewels and all the junk she was hoarding for Mildred, did it all mean…nothing? She knew nothing of what the girl was talking about. She cared nothing for Mildred except the love they shared, a secret love, poisoned like swamp-lilies. This love was so sacred that Mildred’s breaking it was unforgivable.

Miss Althea’s rage gave way like a soggy ice cream cone to despair. She cared nothing for that young man—she would get Mildred back to her! She immediately went to work on her will and estate. She gave everything she owned to her daughter, called her lawyer, and made it official. She had given all she owned in the world to keep Mildred—

            Would this be enough? If it wasn’t, she’d have to die! She’d have to die!

            “Mommy…I’ve made up my mind. I’m going to marry…”

            “Wretched, insolent child!” Miss Althea shook her daughter till they were both out of breath. Then she prepared a special engagement fish-fry for the young groom in her restaurant. It had enough rat poison to kill the entire US Senate. If by some freakish chance Leo was not hurt, she’d box him in the ears, and if he withstood that, she’d chuck the worm in the river!

            “I hate fish,” said Leo, and with a simple gesture, he daintily declined it.

            “Young ape,” spat Miss Althea. She went to hunt for her husband’s boxing gloves.

            No more talk of this hatred must go on. Facts are facts, and we must state them briefly—

            When poor Mildred saw the torment and anguish her beloved Mommy was causing her squirming fiancé, she went green in the face with sudden realization and revulsion. She felt as though she’d killed someone. She looked into the prison of her mother’s face, and that’s when she knew her mother would never let her escape home.

            She followed her mother into the back room. She spotted her mother’s hunting-rifle hanging on its nail. On a sudden whim, Mildred decided to end her young life. Unfortunately, Mildred was a poor shot and ended up wounding her mother in the arm. The gun’s dropping on the floor, and the women’s shrieks, made Leo come running to investigate the bloody and horrible show. It looked unthinkable, the gates of Hades unfurled. When he called 911, the only sound the police heard was the fiancé hitting the floor in a dead faint.

            Mildred died on the linoleum of her mother’s fish-fry restaurant, weeping softly, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” She was buried in the tiny church cemetery on the windswept river shores where she used to wander.

            Miss Althea used her good arm to sock the undertaker and make him run away squealing. The funeral was dreary. Afterwards, walking outside, her arm in a sling, tearless and blank-faced, she gazed at the grave as though it were nothing. Then she tottered home to her cabin, sat on the doorstep, and muttered to herself to the rhythm of rain, “Millie, won’t you please come home?” Everyone who heard it said it was the loneliest sound in the world, like a mourning seagull.

            The old woman grew older and older and older, losing track of the years, but even now, she refuses to die. “I won’t die till I find what I’m looking for,” she says, though she can’t explain what that is, not for the life of her.

            She lives a crazy and frivolous life and is very godless. Just the other day, while drinking at the Crippled Flamingo, she got a peculiar letter from a man in Louisiana, a man named Paulie McIntyre. The man says he is in search of his long-lost mother. Could it be true? Nobody knows. Miss Althea is not the one to ask if something is true or an illusion. She might well have made up that letter herself. Now she carries it everywhere, and when she sits on the doorstep, she will venture to ask strangers if they’ve seen her long-lost little boy. “Bring him back to me,” she begs. “Tell my boy I’m sorry, desperately sorry.”

Lonely hunter, she stalks in the shadows of trees with her hunting-rifle poised, the river singing in her background. A look like fading embers is sketched onto her withered face.

She still hopes.

She still cries.

She still hunts.

The author's comments:

Heavily drawing upon the ideas of Carson McCullers. Her stories often have a sense of violence, strangness, insanity, and copedency that provide a vivid and unflinching look at the human condition. You can compare this story of mine with my other one about a river, "Dragonfly Island." In "The Riverbank," the river is a symbol of insanity, but in "Dragonfly Island," is about a moment of peace when nobody is around.

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This article has 2 comments.

Lydiaq ELITE said...
on Jul. 20 2021 at 10:15 pm
Lydiaq ELITE, Somonauk, Illinois
148 articles 41 photos 1014 comments

Favorite Quote:
The universe must be a teenage girl. So much darkness, so many stars.

*Shudders with the terror of inevitable time and death*

on Jul. 20 2021 at 9:44 pm
SparrowSun ELITE, X, Vermont
200 articles 23 photos 1053 comments

Favorite Quote:
"It Will Be Good." (complicated semi-spiritual emotional story.)

"Upon his bench the pieces lay
As if an artwork on display
Of gears and hands
And wire-thin bands
That glisten in dim candle play." -Janice T., Clockwork[love that poem, dont know why, im not steampunk]