The River

by Laurie Efrein Kahalas

(Laurie Efrein, a former member of Peoples Temple, wrote this poem in 1990/1991, shortly before she met the love of her life, Dan Kahalas.

(Laurie is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her previous writings may be found here. She can be reached through dan_laurie44@comcast.net.)

Author’s Note:  In Greek mythology, the Styx was a large, ominous river across which the ferryman Charon transported dead souls towards their final destination.  The river flowed as the boundary between Earth and the Underworld – not Hades, but hardly a highway to Heaven either. The river had powers of its own, in that it supposedly imbued those who bathed in it with invincibility.  This was where the mother of Achilles – who would become a great warrior – dipped her infant child, to make him invulnerable.  But she had to hold him by one of his heels to dip him, which was where an arrow struck him in battle during the Trojan War, causing a fatal wound. Thus “Achilles’ Heel” came to mark a human’s most vulnerable point.  Apt metaphors all round for the trials of profound grief.

The River

Charon, dark father,
Last guardian of this shattered fate!
I tremble…
your shadow…
this darkness…
That they, not I, are thine!

The journey’s end begins.
Stark sounds the clarion call of this
thrice-darkened day.
Your words both quavering and fierce, rendezvous in immeasured beats,
their tangled counterpoint haunts the lone ravens’ cries:
They pick through the ruins, haunting ice caverns of a quarter-light day,
fleeing down the river of a blackened night —
peaceless, senseless, shadowless…

Half priest, half brute, you utter
a benediction of worlds in unremittent pain,
seared now with burnings alien to the human tongue:
the parch of caws, bereft of vowels, choked and dry,
the fierce rattling of crossed swords,
disjointed epitaphs shattering through their dissonant terrain.

This earth has not moved,
Nor you, my dark mentor,
Turned against the bow to
halt this iciest of descents.
Nor can I rail against the grotesque finality.
You sink like quicksand as I cling,
powerless,
to the hull of your over-laden boat,
parched with salt-stung tears and the pale glistening of a lost refrain.

The river winds serpentine,
unyielding in its ceaseless flow,
its currents nevermore inclining to the light of day.
Like choked, steeped bellows,
long, mourning cries precede the wake,
pour down the river’s inky path,
rushing inexorably to be
enfolded by the devouring sea.

The pulsebeat of my heart quickens and dims:
the low undercurrent moans,
the chilling dread.
How I tremble at your inky blackness,
terrified you will not speak,
more terrified still that you will.

The ice salt air, the towering rush of blanketing chill
stills the fragile arbiter of breath I call my heart.
Comfortless, I beseech you turn.
So frail am I, so tenuous,
so adrift amidst the buffeting of your watery siege.

So paralyze too my unuttered song.
Render me numb,
as mercy for the heaving, receding hour,
while I parce the irrevocable bridge between dry land
and the inevitable trespass of your haunted sea,
unrelieved by glints of light, or space, or misty rain.

Lower me slowly.
I cannot see but for you,
the only transport this wanton wanderer can sustain.

I move as one suffused in dreams,
swift in pace, yet devoid of time;
immovable, yet light and fleet;
unseen in motion, yet
dizzied by intensities of power and height.

No one will greet such a statue of untrammeled marble,
frozen gesture.
Mock mourners will dress in white
to line your shore.
Like roses white as shimmering milkweed,
they cling to murky perfumes,
to scorn the scent of slaughtered dreams,
to banish the wicked,
to exile the essence of your charge post haste.

Down this river of haunting smoke and graying afterlives,
your bodies linger.

I travel just a little way with thee.
Then, webbed in distillates of Moon Mother’s harrowing light,
you slide uneasy and frail,
towards an alien embrace.
And the river dost not sing.

I sink….
And my bones shudder….
And my heart shall never rise again.

Originally posted on May 24th, 2022.

Last modified on June 3rd, 2022.
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