The River Beautiful
by Caroline Wilkinson
The sign reads “The
River Beautiful,” but the water is contained in what looks like a swimming
pool. Neat rows of some sort of grain
are growing in the water. The plants with their slender leaves resemble rice,
but as I learn when two boys lower themselves into the pool, the stalks are
not as stiff as rice would be. The plants wildly sway next to the boys, who
seem to be in between the ages of seven and ten. The two of them make their way across the pool in parallel
lines, swimming in between the rows of green. Their strokes are surprisingly
controlled and steady in light of their ages. Their father is standing at the edge of the pool, watching them
swim. He is a wealthy man; that much
is evident from the expression on his face, which, with its bland sense of
innocence, speaks of a well-protected life filled with ease and flattery. The land on which Beautiful rests is
well-protected too. The landscaped property is surrounded by a tall
wrought-iron fence and its entrances are guarded. The corporation that owns
the property has strong governmental ties. Of this fact I am fairly certain,
but about the plants in the pool, I know nothing. I am wondering if the crop is some sort of experiment when I
hear a woman’s voice.
is muttering something a few yards behind the man. She looks around thirty-years-old and is sitting crossed-legged
on the concrete with a notebook in front of her. She abruptly falls silent and leans forward to write on a
crowded page of the notebook. I walk
over to find out what she’s working on.
Looking over her shoulder, I see that the page is filled with numbers
and mathematical symbols. The woman
doesn’t appear to notice me, but she does say under her breath so that only I
can hear: “Beautiful is too shallow for adults but too deep for
children—unless you watch them the whole time.”
continues writing. In the distance
past the concrete of the pool, the leaves of the trees start to turn up in
the wind. It is becoming too cold for
swimming, but my attention is not on the boys and their father. It’s on a book that has appeared before
me, open to a page. I sit down next
to the woman and start to read.
The story before me is
about a character called “The Fat Lady,” or as she is also referred to in the
book, “the Lady.” She is made up of
fat that women have lost on diets.
She tends to worry a lot because her existence is a tenuous one. She must return whatever she receives from
dieters the moment they regain the weight.
She lives in terror of the women whose fat she has taken. She worries that these women will make her
disappear by all going off their diets at one time. This fear affects her judgment: she never turns down offerings of fat even when they come from
women who are too thin. In the
passage I am reading now, she is accepting some pounds from a female
mathematician who is gaunt. Once
absorbed into the body, the fat proves to be bothersome. It itches fiercely, and it isn’t long
before the Lady’s irritation turns into panic:
She can’t breathe.
She feels as if she were trapped in overheard secrets, pages torn out
of diaries, blank sheets of condemning silence. She is packed up for shipment and blind to the address on the
other side of the box. How strange,
she thinks in a moment of sudden calm. How strange that after years of
worrying about losing too much weight, she would disappear because of
something she can’t return: the Lady
knows that the mathematician would sooner cut off her own hands than regain
these particular pounds.
The chapter ends with
this passage. The rest of the pages
in the book are blank. When I glance
up, I find that it looks like rain.
I say to the woman with
the notebook, “It looks like rain,” and as soon as I do, the darkness of the
skies becomes more severe. The woman
and I are no more than a yard apart, but I can make out nothing but her
silhouette. She is holding her chin
up and shaking her head from side to side, moving the layers of her short
hair. She is acting as if someone is
admiring her, but the man and his boys must be gone by now. The wind has continued to pick up, and I
feel the first drops of rain. I reach
out to touch the woman.
As soon as I feel her thin arm, I
know she is the mathematician from the book.
When she gives me a pound of her body, I numbly accept it. I lose what’s left of my vision and find
myself sinking in cool water. I am
surrounded by long, sinuous plants and assume that I am in the River
Beautiful. The water seems deep at
first, but I come to realize that I’m shrinking. I am becoming a woman whose existence is nothing but a clever
While I transform into the Lady,
the book that I read beside the “river” changes too. One of the blank pages at the end is
filling up with words. The Fat Lady
is writing her farewell, speaking in the third person, which she says suits
her best. She is private and likes
the distance that the third person provides.
She says she regrets her reticence now that she is coming to the end
of her life. She wishes she had
pursued answers to some of her questions about the River Beautiful: what was that crop in the water? Why did those boys swim with such tense
perfection? And what was the
connection between the mathematician and the man with the boys? The Lady says that she never looked for
answers because she was so blindly focused on one truth: that the weight of what one sees in life
remains no matter what.
one loses weight from the eyes,” she writes, then adds as her last words,
“It’s better not to try.”
Wilkinson’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Memorious, Diagram
lives in upstate New York and writes about small-press
international fiction on her website, www.carolinewilkinson.com/