In this town, there is an inland river where barges go by late into the night, with moonlight mixing into the barges’ blue and red running lights like an abstract painting in motion on the waters. This is a “working river” and sometimes you cannot tell the sound of the barges from the gigantic compressors at the hospital nearby. The hospital is a complex of medical units and likes to call itself a “campus.” Little shuttle vans will take you around the “campus” if you would like to see how much the hospital has grown from the days in the 1890’s when a group of nuns was stationed there to do charity work. They named the hospital St. Mary’s not only for the image of mothering but out of their respect for virginity. Virginity was holiness, and holiness came as close as possible to heavenly love. The nuns were very invested in heavenly love and prayed in the early mornings and late evenings. They did good work and were rewarded with more nuns sent by train to assist with the growth of the hospital.

      The hospital was not far from the banks of the Manoquassett River, and barges ran day and night in moving coal along many of the inland rivers. The sound of the river itself was seldom heard, but the barges made large metallic sounds that split open even the deepest quiet of the night. Often a nun or two would awaken in the night and pray that heavenly love might touch her soul and make her more accepting of divine will. This part was hard, indeed, for the nuns saw many people suffering and came to know tragic stories and horrific outcomes that broke their hearts. In time, these tragedies called for new prayers for stronger faith and fortitude as many of the nuns, awakened in the night, began to feel their faith slipping from them like a fever passing. When that happened, the nuns pressed on, knowing that they were needed. And if it should be they could not act in faith, they could at least act in compassion for there was more suffering in the world than any of them had imagined, and everywhere there was some way they could contribute.

      On the 100-year anniversary of the hospital, the nuns and other members of the “campus” placed white chrysanthemums into the Manoquassett to honor the years the hospital had survived and had contributed to the world. Everyone watched the chrysanthemums float away and listened to the sounds of the barges moving along. At a point in the river, the chrysanthemums would meet up with the union of the Manoquassett with the Sillaqua and the Vuyandotte rivers. The strength of the currents would move the chrysanthemums into the heartlands and past many banks where people in large cities and small towns did not hear the flowers or the rivers moving but still awakened in the night to wonder where their lives might be headed. What answers to be found echoed in the quiet and the solitude as wistful voices without interpretation. The nights of silence without answers yielded to days of metallic noises—barges, compressors, 18-wheelers—all of it reaching up to the heavens, perhaps heard, perhaps lost, perhaps never and always alone, like the currents of the river’s restless song.

Christina Murphy's writing has been published in Counterexample Poetics, Modern Short Stories, Blue Fifth Review, Crescent Review, Greensboro Review, and  Descant, among others, and has received an Editor's Choice Award and "Special Mention" for a Pushcart Prize.

I was intrigued by the idea of sound and imagined it as a unifying concept for a story in which sounds moved across the external world of a town and also the inner world of the town's inhabitants. The idea of sound in motion generated the image of a river and then the concept of the river and its sounds moving through time as part of the town's history. The idea of these sounds entering into the people s subconscious minds and prompting them to seek deeper meaner in their lives was fascinating to me, too. Just as history and the river are on journeys through time, the people in the town are on inner journeys seeking purpose. The sounds that the people experience from both the town and the river help provide a context for those personal journeys.




Copyright 2009