There was a man, and there was a woman, and they were very much in love. The problem was that they drank a lot. One night they drank too much. One night they drank a lot of cheap champagne and went dancing down by the river, and the woman lost her balance and slipped and tripped, and then she fell in, and drowned.
The man was distraught. He buried himself in bottles. For weeks and weeks he drank. But he never felt better; he only felt worse. So he decided to end his life.
He ran down to the river and threw himself in.
But the river just threw him back out again.
You’re drunk, said the river. We don’t want you.
But you took her, said the man. You took my love!
She was enough—as far as drunks go—for the moment, said the river. Go home and sober up. Then come back—we’ll take you then. I promise. Really, I do.
So the man staggered back up to his apartment, broke his bottles and resolved to sober up.
But sobering up turned out to be a lot harder than the man had expected. Friends and neighbors kept dropping by with bottles of his favorite liquors. They all wanted to make him feel better, of course—they’d heard about the woman. And liquor was the only thing they knew he liked, so that’s what they brought him. His landlord kept knocking on his door offering him vodka all the way from Russia. And when he went out, down into town, storekeepers brought him glasses of port.
No! said the man. No, no! I don’t want to drink—I want to die!
But no one believed him—they knew him so well.
It was a very difficult time.
So finally the man decided to go off on his own. He packed a bag and headed for the desert. He found a nice dune out in the middle of nowhere, and he sat there and waited to get sober.
At first it was hard. He shook a lot. He shook a lot and then his head hurt. And then he saw all kinds of strange insects running up and down his arms.
But after that, things started to get easier.
Soon I’ll get to die, he thought. Soon the river will take me in, and I’ll forget all about my lost love.
And then the man saw something in the distance. It looked like a mirage—like water. But when it came closer, the man started to smile—it wasn’t a mirage at all. It was water—a great big ocean—rolling its way towards him, flooding its way over the dunes, creeping forward, waves waving, straight for him.
It’s coming! said the man, jumping to his feet. It’s coming! It’s coming for me! It must know I’m finally sober! It must know I’m clean!
And the water came all the way to the man’s dune and it stopped there right at his feet.
It’s over at last, the man said.
And he readied himself to jump in.
But then he saw the woman’s body.
She was floating there, face-down. Just a few feet away—it was undoubtedly her—the lost love of the man’s life.
The man cried out, and reached for her. He pulled her from the water. She was cold and still, and very blue, and completely full of water.
I have to get this water out of her, he said, so she can breathe again.
So he laid her out on the sand, and tried to push the water from her lungs.
He pushed and pushed, and pushed some more.
But not a drop came out.
The man turned her over and sat her up. He held her in his arms. He looked into her cold, dead eyes.
I need you to live, he said.
And then the man had an idea. A great idea—and so simple! He lowered his lips onto hers, and drank the water from her.
He drank the water from her mouth, and drank it from her lungs. He drank it all—every last drop—he drained it from his love.
But when the water all was gone—when every last bit was gone—the man frowned as he realized it hadn’t been water at all.
I recognize that taste, he said. What did I just drink?
And then it suddenly came to him:
It was cheap champagne.
No! he cried. What have I done? I’ve broken my promise to the river. Now it’ll never take me away—now I’ll never get to die.
The horror of it all seized the man, and something inside him broke. And then all the liquor he’d ever drunk came flowing out of his mouth. First came all the cheap champagne, and then the beer and wine. And last the liquor—the hard alcohol—the vodka, gin, whiskey and rye.
And when the man’s insides were all poured away, and inside he felt clean and new, he felt something stir in his arms.
He looked down, and the woman opened her eyes.
You came, she said. You came back for me.
No, said the man. You did.
And then she smiled, and the river rose up, and carried them on as they kissed.
Ben Loory lives in Los Angeles, in a house on top of a hill. His fables and tales have appeared online and in print in Barrelhouse, Annalemma, A cappella Zoo, Twelve Stories, Vestal Review, and more. His book Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day is currently seeking a home.