Come We Now to the River Ishcabob ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
I was ill but I recovered. When I awoke, I was in a place I had never been before and found myself purchasing a house. A large house it was, many-windowed, a hundred yards or so up the hill from a river. The river, with its protruding rocks and swift current, provided a scenic background to the setting.
I didn’t remember choosing the house out of other houses but, here I was, turning over a fat envelope full of cash to the owner and seller of the house, a woman named Mrs. Goldoni. She had platinum blond hair like a Hollywood starlet and a thin, lipless mouth. Her face was shriveled like a Mayan mummy and, due to an arthritic condition (she said), she didn’t always walk upright, but parallel to the floor like an insect, which is to say a cockroach or cricket. I’m not sure how many legs she had, but I’d say at least six.
As soon as the house was transferred over to me, I thought Mrs. Goldoni, the bug woman, would clear out and leave me to it, but she seemed reluctant to leave. Her husband was dead, she said, and her many children scattered to the four winds.
“I don’t have any place else to go,” she said pitifully.
“Why did you sell your house then?” I asked.
I agreed to keep her on as housekeeper, at least until one of her innumerable daughters could arrange to take her in. I pictured her children and I wondered what form they had taken, if they were insects like their mother or something else entirely. I was probably better off not knowing.
The day after I moved in, I was in one of the upstairs rooms putting things away, when I stopped what I was doing and looked out the window at the river. I heard Mrs. Goldoni’s rapid, tapping little footsteps come up behind me and I turned and spoke to her.
“What is the name of that river?” I asked.
“What river, sir?”
“There’s only one river out there, Mrs. Goldoni!”
“It’s the River Ishcabob, sir.”
“Ishcabob? I haven’t ever seen it on a map. Does it ever flood?”
“Oh, no, sir!” she said. “I’ve never heard of it flooding. Why ever would it flood?”
“Where I come from, rivers sometimes flood and cause a lot of trouble and damage.”
“Well, rivers may flood, but I’ve never known the River Ishcabob to flood.”
While I was watching the river, I saw a person, a man, floating along on the current. I could distinctly see his face and head and his struggling, flailing arms. In a few seconds there was another man and then another one.
“Oh, I my Lord!” I said. “Somebody has fallen into the river and is being swept away on the current! Not just one but three! I saw three different men! They were naked and they were struggling to keep their heads above the water. We should try to get them some help for them before they drown!”
“Oh, bless my soul, sir!” Mrs. Goldoni said. “It’s nothing to be alarmed about. It happens all the time.”
“People in the river. Those are the Transgressors.”
“You have to understand. Some poor souls are brought to the river.”
“What do you mean, brought to the river?”
“Is that the telephone phone ringing?” she asked.
“We don’t have a phone,” I said.
Mrs. Goldoni dropped to her tiny feet and skittered out of the room. I was left with the distinct impression she was evading my question.
“What kind of arthritis makes you grow extra legs and walk like a bug?” I asked, but of course she was gone and didn’t hear me.
While I was eating lunch, I noticed a small crowd of people standing in the doorway looking at me.
“Who are those people?” I asked Mrs. Goldoni, who was serving.
“Oh, they’re always here,” she said. “They won’t bother you.”
“Now, look here!” I said. “My privacy is important to me. I don’t want lots of strange people hanging around.”
“You usually have to be here a lot longer before you see them.”
“Who are they?”
“Don’t worry yourself about them, sir. After a while you’ll forget they’re here.”
“I still want to know who they are and why they’re here!”
“They’re always here,” she said. “We just don’t always see them!”
“Tell them to leave!”
After lunch I took a walk down the hill. It was the first time I had seen the river up close. I stood for a while close to the edge and looked down at its churning, blue-green depths. It was beautiful and mesmerizing but also frightening in a way because I had the feeling it (the river) had a will of its own and would suck me under if it could. I didn’t relish the thought of drowning—which I certainly would do if I ever fell in—or of being in uncontrollable water over my head. I suppose I had always had a fear of water. I would stay as far back from the river as I could.
While I was walking back up the hill, I noticed movement over to my left and turned and looked in that direction. What I saw was a clown dressed in a billowing red suit with a tremendous ruffled collar and enormous shoes. I was going to say something to the clown or at least wish him a good morning, but he was juggling a series of balls so fast while walking that they (the balls) were only a blur. He was the best juggler I had ever seen.
When I got back home, Mrs. Goldoni met me at the door. She was entertaining her good friend in the kitchen, Baby Estelle. Baby Estelle was not a baby but was instead a tiny, doll-like woman with flaming red hair and a twinkling smile. She curtsied and smiled demurely.
“Would you like to see me dance?” Baby Estelle asked.
“Um, I guess so,” I said.
She stood up and in the space between the table and the kitchen sink twisted and turned, jumped and dived, sashayed and pirouetted with absolute abandon. In five minutes she was out of breath and so completed her performance with an elaborate bow to the floor.
Mrs. Goldoni applauded enthusiastically. “Isn’t she a wonderful dancer?” she said. “I just don’t know how she does it!”
“I haven’t ever seen anything like that before,” I said.
“I was trained at the Sore Bone Academy,” Baby Estelle said.
“Isn’t that in Paris, France?” I asked.
“Of course not, silly!” Baby Estelle said. “It’s right here!”
“Right under your nose, Mr. Smarty Pants.”
I didn’t know what she was talking about, but I didn’t care to pursue it any further.
“And that’s not all!” Mrs. Goldoni gushed. “Baby Estelle’s husband is a clown!”
“I think I just saw him!” I said.
“Where?” Baby Estelle asked.
“I walked down to the river and as I was walking back up the hill I saw a clown dressed in red off in the distance. I was going to speak to him, but he was juggling balls and he didn’t even know I was there.”
“That’s him!” Baby Estelle said. “The very one! That’s the clown in question! That’s Mr. Winklebottom!”
“Mr. Winklebottom is so handsome!” Mrs. Goldoni said. “So distinguished!”
“You must come and see us perform some night!” Baby Estelle said.
“I look forward to it.” I said.
Baby Estelle curtsied again and danced her way out the door.
“Baby Estelle is such a doll!” Mrs. Goldoni said. “I just love her to pieces!”
“I’m going to take a little nap,” I said. “Call me when dinner is ready.”
A couple of nights later I was sleeping soundly when Mrs. Goldoni knocked on my door and woke me up.
“Sir!” she called. “Sir! Wake up! I thought you would want to know!”
“Know what?” I asked. “There’s not a fire, is there?”
“No, sir, there’s no fire. Your wife is giving birth!”
I jumped out of the bed and opened the door. I didn’t mind her seeing me only partially dressed after such an absurd statement.
“What did you say?”
“I said your wife is giving birth!”
“Very funny!” I said. “You know I don’t have a wife.”
“Come with me!”
I followed her into a part of the house I hadn’t seen before, down some stairs and into a dark corridor to a doorway. Standing around the doorway were several women I didn’t recognize. As Mrs. Goldoni and I approached the doorway, the women stood aside to let me enter.
The room was dark with only a couple of candles burning. There was a large, high bed, and in the middle of the bed was a human-sized female doll. The doll’s face was turned toward the candle. She had painted circles on each cheek. Her eyes were large and expressive and her eyelashes long and curved like spider’s legs.
“What is all this?” I asked. I still wasn’t happy about being woke up at such an hour.
“Why, don’t you recognize her, sir!” Mrs. Goldoni asked. “It’s your wife, Curlicue. She’s about to give birth.”
“How many times do I have to tell you I don’t have a wife? And even if I had a wife, I wouldn’t have a doll for a wife!”
“You don’t have to worry, sir. She’s in a good hands. All will be well.”
“I’ll wake up in a minute and discover I’m having a nightmare.”
“Why don’t you go back to bed, sir? I’ll call you as soon as the baby is safely delivered.”
“Call me for when breakfast is ready and, other than that, don’t call me at all!”
“Just as you wish, sir, but what shall we do about the baby?”
“Give it to Baby Estelle and Mr. Winklebottom! I’m sure they can make it part of their act!”
“Yes, sir, but I think you’ll change your mind when see you the little darling little thing!”
Despite my instructions to the contrary, Mrs. Goldoni came to my bedroom again at eight o’clock to tell me the news that Curlicue had been safely delivered of a baby at four o’clock in the morning.
“A baby what?” I asked.
“You’re going to want to see it, sir!”
I wasn’t dressed yet, but I pulled on my robe and followed Mrs. Goldoni again, down the same stairs and the same dark corridor to the same doorway to the same room where I had seen Curlicue lying in the middle of the big bed the night before.
Curlicue looked no different. She had the same half smile on her lips and the same dreamy, expressionless eyes of a doll.
“Very funny!” I said. “I don’t see a baby at all.”
With a pleased smiled, Mrs. Goldoni pulled out from under the covers a fully formed dodo bird. She held it up so I could get a good look at it. It gave out with a couple of pitiful peeps and flapped its flightless wings. I heard people behind me gasp in wonder.
“That can’t be a dodo bird!” I said. “They lived on the island of Madagascar and they’ve been extinct for hundreds of years!”
“It’s your very own son. Wouldn’t you like to hold him?”
Not waiting for an answer, Mrs. Goldoni thrust the dodo bird into my arms and I had no other choice but to hold him. He looked into my eyes and made little cooing sounds.
“Oh, he knows his daddy!” Mrs. Goldoni said. “Isn’t he the smartest boy? And already just as cute as a bug!”
While I was still holding the dodo bird, Mrs. Goldoni leaned over the bed and put her ear to Curlicue’s mouth.
“She’s wants to name him Sheridan and she wants to know if the name meets with your approval, sir.”
“I can’t think of a better name for a dodo bird,” I said. “Now, can I get some breakfast, please?”
By the time I was finished with breakfast, I was already thinking of the dodo bird as Sheridan, as a unique individual. Of course, I wasn’t his father—and I didn’t want anybody to entertain the notion that I was—but I felt a certain amount of pride and proprietary interest in him. I recognized the significance of having the rarest of rare birds in my possession: a bird that had been extinct for hundreds of years, a bird that no living person had ever laid eyes on, and it was in my very own house!
It occurred to me that nobody was going to believe that I had a real, living, extinct-no-longer dodo bird in my possession. People would think I was a dangerous lunatic if I tried to tell them. I had to have photographic proof! I wasn’t in possession of a workable camera at the moment, but I was a mile or so from the good-sized town of New Garland and was sure there would be a store there where I could buy one, no matter the cost.
I changed clothes and put on my walking shoes and told Mrs. Goldoni I was going to be gone for a while and not to await luncheon on my account. Then I set out walking. Still within sight of the house, I was passing the River Ishcabob over to my left, intent on the long walk ahead of me, when I saw a sight in the middle of the river that stopped me in my tracks.
On one of the large rocks protruding from the water, Sheridan the dodo bird was perched at a perilous angle, struggling to keep from sliding into the raging water. How did he get out of the house and down to the river? Wasn’t anybody watching him? I couldn’t let him be swept away on the current!
I couldn’t swim a stroke but, without concern for my own safety, I started trying to make my way from one rock to another over to the rock where Sheridan was sitting. He looked at me pitifully and squawked and I knew he recognized and remembered me. He would come to me if only he wasn’t paralyzed by fear.
I was within five feet of Sheridan when he gave a couple of surprising hops away from me, until he was all the way across the river to the other side. He was safe, but I couldn’t say the same for myself.
It became impossible for me to hang onto my rock any longer and I found myself in the river, being carried away on the current like an insignificant piece of flotsam. I flailed my arms and legs, but I knew it was no use. As I was swept away, I clearly saw Mrs. Goldoni standing on the bank of the river looking at me, along with Baby Estelle and the juggling Mr. Winklebottom. Sitting in a wheelchair in front of Mrs. Goldoni was Curlicue the human-sized doll, her alarming eyes with their spidery lashes turned in my direction. None of them did anything to help me.
The current carried me away and away. I had the sensation of drowning over and over until I could drown no more. All went dark and I was lost.
But I would wake again.
When next I came to myself, I was in a large cage and hundreds people, it seemed, were looking at me. I knew, somehow, that hundreds more were lined up outside waiting to look at me. To express my indignation, I squawked at a large woman in a disgusting hat and flapped my flightless wings. When I didn’t get the response I hoped for, I turned around backwards and tucked my head under my barely adequate wing and hid my face the best I could.
Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp