Alek Dunahew hit the river at a slant and came up spewing a brown spray. The river tasted of sickness and rot and he swallowed plenty. He beat at the surface, coughing, sinking. The river pulled him from the shallows to the channel. The old bridge cast a shadow over the river ahead and he went through the dimness and back into light.
A tug was abreast of him, but far away. Two men on the deck stared and waved their arms. They were going upriver and he was going down, soon to be dead. They couldn’t help, but they watched, shouting something to him that the wind muffled. He tried to stroke the surface the way he’d seen everybody else stroke water, but it didn’t work for him, keep him afloat or move him closer to the bank. Cars going to and from St Louis made the bridge hum indifferently with their tyres and speed. He saw the sun up there, shining the surface a brighter brown as he sank, and his prayer was continuous now as he drifted in the sick river and swallowed. He stuck his arms forward in panic and pulled to his chest, pulled like a frog, pulled again and again. It felt like he was moving some, underwater, swimming like a frog, and when he came up next the trees seemed closer. The river was brute and strong and he was new to this, swimming, but he kept doing it, going under and remembering how frogs did it, how they pulled through water and didn’t drown, didn’t drown, until he felt muck under his sneakers and stood trembling in shallows looking up the mud bank. Butter held a long stick down.
“Grab hold ’n’ I’ll pull.”
“I thought I was dead.”
“You shouldn’t’ve lipped off.”
The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell is out now (Sceptre)