Matthew Muller’s “The Man in the River”
A new piece of flash fiction by alumni Matthew Muller (fiction, ’10) appears in Stone Highway Review:
The small family takes a road trip, husband wife and daughter. The husband drives, full of vigor, the road before him. The wife wears a serene expression and wind blows through her hair. If you had to, you might say that they were an archetype of man and woman, at least this is what he tells himself, this is what the set-up of a family on a trip in a car suggests. Man. Woman. Child. The open window shows low green mountains and yellow fields passing. Later, he pulls the car up by a gravelly bend in the river, the water deep, a swimming hole. The husband grabs the rope, extends out, drops in yelling and comes up blowing water. Among them, he is the big wild one, the man. The small child giggles and screams “Daddy!” But he feels strangely fraudulent in the water, knowing others who are in fact, more wild than him. The wife laughs too, and with a kind of heaviness in his chest he grabs and lifts the water in a grand gesture up into the air where it becomes a glistening sheet distending drops. At night, when there is a sound from outside the tent, he is first to jump up with his flashlight to see what is there. He knows it is not bravery really that makes him do it, it is more his duty as man, a role he is playing. Unthinkingly he zips open the tent door. Realistically, he knows there will always be men in the darkness stronger than him. His wife often calls him brave and says he is the best of this, of that, insistently, even though they both know it isn’t really true. Right? Does she know she is lying? There have always been better men than him, stronger men, smarter men, men more sensitive, this is true no matter how hard he tries to make it otherwise, and in her smile, when she tells him the opposite, she knows it too, she has seen them. As he stands outside the tent, staring into a darkness he cannot truly parse, he is beginning to feel that he doesn’t actually care about the dark trees surrounding them, their constant threat, and the kind of insecurity and rebellion they foster in him, trees rushing in a night wind with a tremulous and ominous peace all their own, a peace that is age old and seems to both frame him individually and erase him simultaneously, trees all down the valley, all up the mountainsides, endless prairies of trees, and the small family among them, the dim ray of the flashlight moving from trunk to trunk.