I am a person of rivers, of earth and reeds and boats from storybooks passing by in a single direction, flowing swiftly through the passing water. I am a person of a river’s direction, from the place where it is birthed by streams and split easily by saplings, to its confluence, a mile wide and choked with whirlpools spinning deeper into themselves and outwards, downstream again, all the way to the delta that reeks amphibious and shimmers with spilled diesel fuel.
There’s poetry in rivers, in the romance of their names. The sigh in the river Ohio, meandering through the corruptions visited upon it by the chemical plants, tire factories, and waste treatment centers that pay money to Appalachian states for the privilege of poisoning their inhabitants. The stalwart breadth of the Missouri, formed by ice ages and forded by pioneers, taking its tribute in their animals, possessions, and children. The silver banner of the Rio Grande, a far more poignant symbol of patriotism and the American dream than any flag-draped high school football stadium in any county of Texas. The twists and turns sung for the mnemonic device of the Mississippi, the biggest, the muddiest, the grandfather of them all that both nestled and laid its fishbelly waste to the city of my birth.
An ocean is deliverance but a river can breathe. It continues to run, to overflow, to laugh at the dams, bridges, and barge captains trusted to control it, and when it heaves up its gifts, washes them up on shores of mangrove tangles or brick slopes slapped into place during drought seasons, it is forgiven. It’s offerings are whole trees hurled downstream after twisters, blind catfish the size of refrigerators, weapons, toys, a piece of a now defunct waterpark slide and sometimes bodies, so many bodies, riddled with bullets or entombed in the trunks of drowned cars or sometimes just soaked through, lungs rotted into sludge become food for mutated crustaceans.
When I was maybe six, my grandmother took me on a riverboat cruise. Standing at the railing near the paddlewheel, I watched white-bellied dead fish float past as I sucked orange soda through a straw and said to her, “Imagine all the dead bodies in there.”
Her reply was non-commital and, looking back, probably a little bit scared.
I am still awed by the grand scale of seas and terrified by the thought of standing atop the crushing height of Victoria Falls, and I admit that there is a cold loveliness to the depth of Puget Sound, a briny waft stealing through downtown streets up from the scalloped bay that drops suddenly into an ink-dark cloak for families of whales.
But it is rivers that I know most intimately, and their loam that I smell when I go home in my dreams. I squeeze their clay through my fists and still worry at their levels in late spring. I am here, alive, and my skin and hair know the sting of saltwater fog, but already, some form of my body rides the river currents, mute and staring, critters nibbling as I drift past.
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