The River Cam

Flash Fiction by Robin Wyatt Dunn

Some signalman must have been here—the shape of the table, or perhaps its color—just the ghost or one of its cousins.

The river Cam smells Irish—not to the nose but to the ear and eye. Come from beneath the world to challenge his bright kingdom and swear by our nights how deep and pretty is the light he imprisoned inside his cloak and freed—in some time beyond reckoning—who then returned to his shadowy green body freely and glimmers carefully at the surface and just underneath it.

Its Irishness stems from its indignity—or perhaps from some predecessor or coeval. Although the city of Cambridge is of course very evil, the river is enough to cancel out any kings, universities, priests, daughters, explosions, lambasters or other troublemakers. The trouble of the river is enough—it trumps most else, and Trump and Trumpeter are common names hereabouts—I like to think that they are river names.

Please forgive your “humble narrator” as they say in Japan—I am a student. and know little. It is hoped my friends may benefit from some small detail I manage to dislodge from the edifice of this evil—whatever small part.

I must discount any fears I have of hallucination—concerns that my story might be inordinately colored by some peculiarity in my brain. I do not believe that any story escapes the peculiar brains of their tellers in any meaningful way.

The Cam is, of course, as I say, more ancient than any humans hereabouts. More ancient than its bridge, or boats. No noblemen are necessary to support the river’s own nobility, and its port—in the sky and in the ground—subsumes and supports the mere human edifices who climb onto its back and call themselves permanent. The name itself—either in the sense of ‘came’ or the cam of an engine or waterwheel, are both instances of a sort of charming reversal—where the men and women of the place believe the river has come to them and condescended to be their machine and workhorse, when in fact it is the reverse. The hominids come here, concupiscent and obedient, to shoulder the duties the river dictates—to drink and piss and swim and observe its mysteries. To partake of the holy tide in his shade, kept secret from the world by the mere fact of its patency—its obviousness—and operating according to the occluded principles of its arched destiny, from home to below and back again.

Perhaps even the temporal edifice of this pub and its urgent obsequiousness—pop music and fried potatoes and monied men, come to count the take—even this should be understood as a temple of the river, umbered beneath his mighty back, to partake of the baptismal font of his mitterant stream, obscene and holy.

The blood rite of the green river, whose mouth knows no edge, and whose head distills fright and years into his stony rhythm, arcs calm and serene through every empire slaughter small and large that you can name—whole battlements, turned to dust and bone by the thousand, but also the small, forgotten and casual murder in the alleyways of this medieval city.

Global commerce—offensive and mistrusted—is like the song “Shaft,” playing in his café: a bulbous prick fit to bursting, yet unable to climax, its permanent priapism a form of disability so delirious it is impossible to fully document. In a state far past arousal into an enduring, tortured pleasure, trade in the broadest sense should be understood as an orgy whose limitations are in the imaginations of the participants, who stand compelled as thralls before the wizards of this city to witness the river ignore them completely. No thrashing spasms nor furious bloodlettings can much occupy the river, except as little splashes against its bank.

Perhaps the river is kinder than I imagine her—they say water remembers everything. Perhaps, as proper river gods might have been, or are, she invites us to participate openly and freely—and with her kind interest—in whatever occupies our minds and bodies. But if she is interested in our affairs—especially those which come into contact with her—does she mind what sacrifices we perform, dark or light, along her banks?

The university here, and its famous Masons, disguise within their geography and architecture their Egyptian fixation upon human sacrifice in all its forms—ritual murder, assassination, involuntary miscarriage, gladiatorial combat, leechings, poisonings, suicides and war. All proper colleges double as bunkers, which double as altars—stone protection and weaponized shelter, stark naked and decorated in the manner of their ancestors, multiflorous incandescent ashamed—the living glimpse of their gods dwelling beneath the earth.

Should the domestic deity of the river, by contrast, stand ashamed of the college masters’ hungers? No, it is not shame. For her pearls dwell deep as well, touching against the edges of the magma from which some of the masters’ demons emerge. Rather she observes and carries the weight of their decisions and failures on her back, a great barge of crime, barge of hatred and delight, the barge ungracious and unafraid, barreling at great speed down a lockless course between the rocks—not really English, since they were here long before Ing—a swift and unstoppable delivery of messages uncountable, a Sanskrit script writ tight into matter like a glossary of god, sacred initiation of the weathering imprint awaiting our many crimes and expiations: the sea.

I am an American pilgrim—an absurdity, but it may be there are more absurd things on this Earth—and so my report must of necessity contain the tribal obeisances we owe our island kingdom, however inadequate or crass. Ing is fire and so the rain stone keep who strides across this latitude called England, Fire Land, is a coal kept in the hand of the bearers here—the men and women slow and unworried who police the edges of the river and its many branches—its dull glowy warmth the prison-shrine I am come to honor.

Burn with fire, burial palace! Glimmer auburn and unafraid the dignity-delight in your weapons, cutting out my heart.

Robin Wyatt Dunn was born in Wyoming in 1979. You can read more of his work at

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