Someone hung a rope from one of the trees along the river. One afternoon, last summer I took hold of that rope and swung from it, screaming as the rope moaned. My body must have been a comic display as it slapped the water, back first. I was only in the water for an instant, before clambering back on land. I sat in the sun to dry for a while, and watched the river move.
This river has seen all kinds of theater. A hundred years upstream from here and eight miles away, John Brown mounted the abolitionist assault that left his body a’ moulderin’ in the grave. A man claimed to invent the steamboat, years before Fulton, right where my rope-swing was. Thomas Jefferson stood on a nearby rock and said that the view in front of me was the most beautiful he had ever seen. (If he could only smell the water now.)
I was startled to find an old man in camouflage, fishing from a nearby log. He had been watching me disturb his fish.
“You’re done with that now, aren’t you son,” he spoke to me, without shifting his eyes from the river. “Don’t think I didn’t hear you scream the way you did. I can tell by the look of you that you’re not the type for jumpin’ out of trees.” I wondered how long he had been looking at me, and the ghosts of the army of the Potomac marched out of my mind. The man motioned me over to him with his free hand, still without looking. He moved over on the log and growled “If you’re just gonna sit, you might as well make up for the damage you’ve done. You fish?”
As I stood to walk toward the man, he laughed briefly and said. “Well, you do now. There’s an extra pole by your feet somewhere. Pick it up and do like I do.”
His fishing line flicked out over the water. The reel made sounds like singing. The man stretched toward the water a little. I watched him, and it was then that I noticed that he only had one leg. Next to him, glistening in the late afternoon sun, was a silvery wheelchair. He must have wheeled himself all the way from the boat ramp and along the sand toward his log. I quit gawking and tried to cast my line. It flew, and landed on the water more gracefully than I did.
The man said, “you, call me Mister Zeke Stephens. What do I call you?”
I introduced myself. Zeke cocked his head slightly and grunted. “Do you see that Cambodian man over there, the man in that canoe? He’s here every day at dawn, catching fish for his family. He only stays all day on weekends, but when I see him, every time I see him, he catches more fish than me. He’s gonna do it again, too. Thanks to you. Your little circus act spooked the fish over to his side of the river.” Zeke brought his line out of the water, empty. He cast again.
“What do you do with the fish?” I inquired. Zeke stared at the water and mumbled “I fish for fish. Hardly catch any these days. But if I did I reckon I wouldn’t feed them to my family!” He made a face, as if he’d just eaten something nasty. I couldn’t help but notice the stub where his leg had been. It was moving as if to dismiss the fish. “Besides,” he continued, “I have plenty of food stored up: canned goods, vegetables, dried fruit, a surplus of beer, a heap of munitions, shotguns… You know, contingencies for the millennium.”
Having read about the kind of man that stockpiles for the coming apocalypse, I braced myself for a fire and brimstone sermon. Zeke cackled at himself.
“Well, you know. You can never be too careful. They say that computer glitch is going to throw everything off. The banks could go bad. Foodstuffs might run short, riots in the street, all hell could break loose. So I bought myself a few extra things. Did you know that you can get nearly everything you need from goats? They’re good to have around. They mow your grass for you, eat your garbage, and their milk is good. You can even make cheese from goats’ milk.”
My fishing line hadn’t moved in a while. I brought it in. Zeke kept talking.
“I’ve got canned goods, bottled water, flashlights and batteries. Oh, and plenty of beer. I’ve got all that stuff now, so that I won’t have to fight for it later, and in case I do, I’ve got shotguns. No telling who’s gonna get jealous because I saved up and they didn’t. Did you ever hear the one about the grasshopper and the ant when you were little?”
“Yeah,” I snapped. “For some reason, the ant thought this winter would be worse than any other winter, so he over-prepared for it. The grasshopper called the ant crazy.” I toyed with the bait on my line a little, to make sure it was still on the hook. “Luckily for the ant,” Zeke cackled “the winter was harsh.”
Zeke sighed, “It might matter someday, who’s a grasshopper and who’s an ant. After all, the millennium is coming. The times they are a’ changin’.”
I flung my line back at the river, while Zeke let the slack out of his own line. Silence settled down between us. A myriad of eddies and swirls lived their entire lifetimes in the current. A fish gulped at the surface of the water somewhere.
I thought about time. Every day is the turn of a century. The millennium begins today, and tomorrow, and every day after that. Every day begins a period that will end in a thousand years, just as each day is the end of an age that began that long ago. Why make distinctions? Time is not against us, it is only our perception of its impending end that fills us with dread. It is only an inaccurate conception of time that has sickened our machines.
Zeke was still intent on the water. I asked him, “won’t you feel let down? I mean, what if there isn’t any chaos, pandemonium, or any of that. What are you going to do with all that stuff?”
Zeke looked at me, thought for a moment, and said “I’ll drink the beer, and shoot the goats!”