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  • They told us not to go into the river, but we dipped our toes in anyways. The riverman watched us wade in the waters from the stern of his narrow bamboo boat.

    That night I improvised a bedtime story and told it to one of my friends:

    Once upon a time there were four young students trying to find themselves in China. After a long, strenuous day they decided to go walk down by the riverside. River was full of life and activity: children swimming through the gentle waves, fishermen fighting for the day’s catch, women chatting and soaking up the warm waters. But the students were tired, so all they did was sit on the shore and dip their feet into the river.

    Out of the corners of their eyes they saw a boat pass through the riverbend. It was an old, ancient gondola carved from the darkest of woods and engraved with the most intricate designs. In the back of the stern the students saw an ancient man with a weathered face but strong, muscular arms. They stared at the sight of this spectacular man, and the man, aware of their curiosity, steered his boat towards the bank.

    The students waded into the water. “Come,” the man beckoned. “I am the Riverman. Let me show you the way down this river.” The students, eager to find themselves on an adventure, clamored into the shallow boat. “Perhaps we will be able to show you something in return,” one of the students mentioned. The old riverman smiled and steered the boat forward, and the students all wondered what knowledge they were about to behold.

    The Riverman steered them through cities and forest, farm and wilderness. The landscape changed before their eyes. All the while the Riverman paid attention to their needs. He fed them food around dinner time. He gave them water when they were thirsty. But the students were uneasy—“Where was he taking us?” they asked. “And why is he silent?” The Riverman attended to the students but stayed quiet, never speaking a word but silently guiding the boat through the gentle waters. Was this the right decision?

    Finally, as the sun dipped low over the dark horizon, the Riverman steered ashore to the riverbank. It was his house. The Riverman lived alone, but he had room for the guests. He started a fire and made tea for the students. Sitting down by the jovial flames, the Riverman began his tale:

    “I was once a boy who thought he could be free.

    “I was once young—like you—and unsure of of myself. I was once full of life. I was once hopeful. But that naïveté has long since passed. I know now that I can never be free.

    “But that is not cause for a loss of all hope. No—there are still joys to be felt. There are still excitements, and there are still loves. Yes, there are still things to love.

    “I was born here, on this very land by the river. My mother, just a teenager, gave birth to me in these waters. She had run away from her home, afraid of the anger of her parents. She was afraid for her life. And so she escaped town, leaving behind all she knew, and ran off with my father in the dead of night. But my father was dishonest and scared of the possibilities of a new life. And so he travelled back to their village on the third night of their escape, as my mother slept vulnerable on the wilderness floor. But my mother trekked on, and eventually found herself under the care of a an old peasant man living in this house. She was able to live under his generosity, and eventually she gave birth to me, a baby whose health belied her struggle.

    “I grew up under her care and the care of the old man, who fished in the river from sunrise until sunset. But hardship came early—a storm knocked over his boat one day and drowned the old man. But mysteriously the boat drifted back to its home, on the dock right out here.

    "I have lived as the Riverman ever since. I steer by boat up and down the river every day. I am alone out here. I have no one to share my bounty with, no one to give my attention to."

    "I have nothing to give to the world, not even happiness," he concluded.

    The students looked at the fire in front of them. "Perhaps we could make you happy," one of the girls chimed.

    "Perhaps you could. It is late, though. I must wake up at dawn to take my boat out for the day. If you wish to make me happy, stay the night and sleep here by the fire. Keep me company in the darkness, that is all I ask." The Riverman brought out blankets and set them on the ground. The students, exhausted with the weight of the Riverman's story, slept soundly.

    Just before dawn two of the students found themselves awake. "I am afraid," one told the other, "I want to get away from here." The second concurred. The two, careful not to disturb the others, got up and went away the only way they knew how: by stealing the Riverman's boat.

    At dawn the rays of the sun illuminated the black waters. The remaining two students woke up and saw that the boat had gone. Rushing in to the Riverman's house, they found the Riverman lying on his bed, the blood drained from his face. The Riverman had passed, but a smile remained on his cadaver's mouth.

    The two students looked at one another, stupefied. Suddenly, as the rays of the sun poked through the window, the Riverman's body began to dissipate into dust. As his entire body crumbled, the dust formed a cloud and moved outside. The students ran after it.

    The boat returned to the dock, empty.

    "Mere trust has made me happy," a voice rang out, "for that I cannot thank you enough."
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