Apr/May 2012  •   Fiction

The Dead Falls

by Andy James

"Alcoholism" is a word/condition coined by one Magnus Huss. Born in 1755, Magnus Huss lived a life invisible but for its bequest, as if history was waiting impatiently for him to die, so it could get on with the business of his legacy: a money-spinning one for some people—for the right people. It came to roll one day that he was charged to oversee the digging of a neck from Ragunda Lake to the Indälsalven River that would bypass the Great Waterfall, or Storforsen as the locals here would say (we are in Sweden), so farmers above the level of the falls could safely transport their timber to the sawmills on the coast. There would be money in it.

Magnus Huss got to work. And what work! Digging, digging, and more digging. A team of diggers. Huss hated the water, had no aquatic affinity, but he hated digging more. The first few weeks, the work was pale, indistinct, almost aimless; then it gradually solidified, like the ink beginning to flow in a new pen. Huss, who was site manager, architect, foreman, and laborer all rolled into one, had words with some of his employees over their liberal uses of alcohol as a thermal measure, but it is not known whether he himself drank at this time. He would perhaps have been entitled to the odd glass every now and again, as his channel was being carved out, day by day, through the crackling frost, across the valley. Villagers, farmers, and the like came, observed, made encouraging noises.

The cymbals of the falls, rustling earth, arguing shovels—these are what the days were filled with, and they were long days in Ragunda at that time of year.

June sixth, the sun was in Gemini. The characteristics of a sun sign are future characteristics, a sign of where you are going, of what is to happen. Adjectives associated with Gemini include restless, lively, agile, changeable, communicative—one who gathers and conveys information. An air sign, Gemini is also especially attracted to water. Well, whatever. But Gemini it was. The disaster was a Gemini.

It began with the spring thaw. It ended with an empty Ragunda Lake and a silent waterfall, a forest swimming in the new flood, and the dead animals piled like bruises on a face. Somehow, no humans were killed. When the water burst through a sand ridge in Magnus Huss' new channel, the Ragunda Lake emptied in a tidal wave into the valley below. It left nothing—literally. A waterfall with no water, the Dead Falls. The valley gleaming like a rockpool. Lapping waves. Pine needles floating and drowned mallards.

Magnus Huss survived. For a period. His Dead Falls became a tourist attraction, but Huss saw no money. He remained in the area, trading, carrying out works, but he did not command respect. A year later, he found himself in a boat on the Indälsalven River. Many things had happened since the Ragunda tidal wave. Again, the frost was breaking, dissolving like music when the band is under-rehearsed, but this time it would herald no natural disaster. The sun underwrote the ripples, bright morse code into the yolky horizon.

Huss was about to die. He was about to drown in the river he had humiliated himself to reach. Excluding suicides, most people do not generally grasp the importance of such moments. Huss was no exception. He did not experience or understand the extraordinary beauty of his life, and after the crash and the horrible wetness and an endless bursting feeling actually lasting no more than a few minutes, Huss came instead to believe he had lived the wrong life, at the wrong time. His intended existence he saw drunkenly, in a whirlwind, ten years hence—that he was a world-renowned doctor, physician to the Kings of Europe, and author of a paper discussing a condition of which no one had then heard. Dropped into history like loose change behind a sofa, Huss did not even own his name—cloudy, his face, becoming the new. He reached out to the other, he thought, and he was arriving, but broken, like bread between the hands.