The Man by the River

(A short story, done for a creative writing class exercise)

I used to walk past a river on my way to and from work. One summer day, I noticed an old man near the riverbank. I ignored him. The next day, I saw him again. He seemed to be collecting items. After a week of seeing him, I decided to stop and find out what he was up to on my way home after work.

“Do you have any coins in your pocket?” He called out as I approached.

I told him I did, and he said not to stand near the pile of sticks he had.

“If you were wise, you would stand by the riverwash.” He pointed to a pile of pebbles and driftwood. I found this strange, but I did not want to agitate him, so I walked over to the pile and stood.

There were a lot of little piles near his feet, some on the ground and others on a sheet. In each, there seemed to be an item or two that seemed out of place, and it was usually those that he re-arranged. He took a dark brown stone from near my feet and put it with the sticks.

“Why don’t you put this driftwood with the other sticks?”

He shook his head and continued arranging. I watched for a bit, and then shrugged and left to go home. I thought about the piles. The didn’t make sense. With the sticks were other objects, leaves and feathers, even a blue eggshell. With the pebbles was the driftwood. He also had a pile of dirt and stones, but they weren’t with the pebbles. Nonsense. A madman or hermit or something, I decided. I wasn’t going to bother with him again. That’s what I thought, but that night it was all I could think about. I resolved to go again and test something, and after that, I was able to sleep.

The next day, I detoured on my way home again. The area was nice, near the river, and under a tree. When he asked about coins, I told him I only had one, and then I gave it to him. I wanted to see where he would put it. He looked at it for a while, and then put it on its own, on the grass. Then he thought about it and put it in his pocket. I guessed I just donated to his cause.

“Will you be able to rearrange the sticks if you have a coin on your person?” I asked.

“The pomba can take a little bit of stress. It is worse for a relational object to be with the ground objects, so it must be in my pocket.”

“A relational object?”

“Because you gave it to me. It is no longer just metal. You have added a property to its categorization. It is closer to the pomba.”

“What’s a pomba?” I asked.

“The pomba is the property, that exists in all the categories. You must be careful to avoid causing a pomba category by accident.”

“Oh. And why do all of your piles have rocks? Shouldn’t they all be together?”

“I found out a few days ago that stone is not a category. That’s why I have been moving them around since.” At this I shrugged, watched him, and then went home again.

The next day, I came without any coins. I noticed the piles were more mixed than before. I asked him if he ruined the categories, or if he found out that there were fewer again, like with stone. He said, “No, there are only five categories. If you imagined more piles, that is your mistake.”

“Well, what are the categories?” I asked.

“There is, from the water,” He pointed to the driftwood and pebbles, “from the land” he pointed to the ground where he had put the coin yesterday, to the grass, and a flower that he must have added today. “From above,” he motioned to the pile of sticks with the feather, eggshell and the odd leaf. “And, from below,” he finished, pointing to the pile of dirt and rocks.

So the categories were directional, or at least based on where the object was sourced.

I asked, “And the fifth is relational?”

“That is a part of it. I am unsure as to the exact nature of the fifth element. I think it is a human element.”

I laughed, but then tried to be serious. “Well then how do you know about the pomba?”

“I only partially accessed the pomba once, and by accident, but I am trying to do it again.”

“I thought you said we shouldn’t.”

“No,” The old man shook his head gravely, “I said you shouldn’t.”

I shrugged, still not quite sure what a pomba was. I said, “Well, if the fifth element is human, could you cause a pomba by eating one object of each category? That would mix them, right?” When he shook his head, I added, “No? How do you know?”

“You don’t cause a pomba, you access the pomba supercategory. And, I have tried.”

After that day, I visited him every other day and helped with organization, then with tossing much of it into his sheet so he could take it with him when he left. There was one week where there was a rainstorm. It rained for four days, and I didn’t see him. After the rain, I waved to him on my way to work. He raised his hand slowly and returned to his task. After, I visited the bank and saw that our area was washed out, most of it was now river. The old man was gone. I looked around and saw that the driftwood was stuck into the new riverbank, and he had dug a hole nearby too. It was filled with new dirt and stones. The other piles were nearby too. Then, nearby, I saw a note weighed down by a coin, but not mine.

It read, “I have discovered how to access the pomba. Each category corresponds to a limb. I will not go into detail here. I suspect the pomba is something amazing like an atomic realm. Perhaps I will go nuclear or something. I am unsure, as I am not an optometrist, but if you find this note without me, know that I have succeeded.”

I was in a daze. Had he accessed his pomba? Had he become a supercategory somehow? Or had he perhaps just gotten washed downriver? I sat down at the newly enlarged bank and wistfully thought about the last thing he told me.

It was, “The world will have no peace until people are hired and rewarded not based off of status, but based off of length. Not height! Length, from heel to toe, or the back of the head to the forehead, whichever is longer.” I had asked about people with a gut, and he shook his head. “Length only considers substantive elements. The measured part must have bone. This makes it a substantive law; that is its justice.”

Daniel Triumph.

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