Fiction and Poetry Contest
“The Sound of Moving Water”
Fiction, Second Place
Published: December 1, 2010
The river provides the din of the story. Not just the violence, but every action I describe, every step that we take from the end of this long driveway to the valley by 117. It is the noise that plays through every moment I revisit. If it weren’t important it wouldn’t endlessly run through my memory. Trust that it wouldn’t.
When I was 8 years old, my mother crashed our car into a telephone pole. She was going fast and she wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, which makes sense for the sad woman I remember. When we returned from the coroner’s, my father took my hand and walked us to the river. He helped me down along the bank, and then set me on the driest boulder—where I had seen him sit many times. He sat beside me, down in the loose pebbles and mud, and had himself a quiet cry, feeling good and hidden underneath the tumult of the water. “This has been here for a long time,” he said. “Thousands of years. Tens of thousands, maybe. I don’t know. A long time.” Sometimes it’s nicest to feel small and insignificant and the river could do that for you. It could do the other too. It could render you beholden with all the bigness and smallness it contained. I spent my weekends and summers unsupervised, unparented, and gleaning wisdom that spilled forth from the rocks.
The river took from me twice, making it hard to remember whether it’s something I loved or hated—making my memories a murky mess, with the steady sound of crashing water barreling perpetually through. The first time, there was a tree. A maple. It hugged so close to that river, each year creeping closer and closer. I would climb through the branches and jump into the deepest well of the river, allowing the water—mercilessly cold even on the hottest day—to surround me. Really, each year the river tore a bit more of the bank away. It was the river that moved closer to the tree, and there it stayed, miserably rooted.
My father and me went to the river to be alone. Sometimes we were and sometimes we found each other. Sometimes that was enough to diminish any feeling of sacredness, but other time it was nice. It was there that my father made his first attempt to advise me on matters of love and support. I was 10 maybe, and I said something about the river taking the tree. It had dug a considerable cave out from underneath it, and roots pitifully dangled from the podium of dirt.
He said, “The river provides what it takes away. The force of the water digs away at the tree and then it keeps it held up.” He wasn’t drinking at this time, I don’t think. “Like how we do to each other,” he said. “I barely have enough money to feed just me. But everything you take you give back to me in other ways. Dependency is what it is, and it’s not a dirty word, it’s just a way of living.” The wax poetics of a father can shake the world of a 10-year-old boy, and it did to me. I tried to look at the tree and understand that the water held it up. I convinced myself that it could—that my father was wise.
The bank continued to disappear, and I watched it happen fearfully, saying to myself whatever the river takes away, it will provide. And when one night the mountains shook with thunder, when the sound of rainfall nearly drowned out the increasing rumble of rushing water, I stayed awake in my bed. I knew the storm was too much for the tenuous relationship between tree and river. I walked outside in my underpants and rain jacket, trying to demonstrate bravery in the face of absolute terror. The river shook right along the edge of our lawn, barreling through and over the tall grass. And I watched it happen, as if the river had been waiting for me the whole time. The river wasn’t supporting the tree. It surrounded it; it clawed higher and higher at the bark, reaching tirelessly for the lowest branches. The tree shifted and slipped, just like a person going carefully down too steep and wet of an incline. The river swallowed it, as if they had known no time together, as if the river had never thought of the tree as part of itself (as I had), as if it were mean and personal. I watched. I cried and I felt small and insignificant in the worst way, in a way that made me want to be away from the river and nowhere at all and just somewhere where for once it was absolutely quiet.
The second time the river took from me I was in high school. Kids at school had learned that I didn’t have much, but I did have a river; they took to spending their afternoons along with me on the muddy banks. Now and then I could hear my father open the back door. I would turn my head to look at him. But he would stay in the shadow, having realized that we were there, and after another moment or two he would gently shut the door back closed—so as not to make a noise. He was drinking at that point, I think.
I sat with my friend Matt along a jagged rock and he said, “You probably have everything you would ever need right here by this river. Think about it,” he held up his hand and counted off with his fingers, “You have your drinking water, you have fish, berries, leisure,” he waved his hand at the trees, “firewood.”
“Yeah maybe,” I said.
We had taken to chasing after the greatest thrills. We took increasingly long dives from the edge of the banks into the safety of deep water. The distance and speed, along with the stinging slaps that accompanied a poor landing, were terrifying. It was my river, though, and I embraced it. It gave me a sense of self, and a sense of being no one, like nothing else ever has.
Matt slipped on a particularly daring dive, from the distant edge of the opposite bank. The ground was damp. We had made the leaves wet with our coming and going and all of our theatrics. Lewis and I watched from behind, where we ourselves had been preparing for that same dive. Greg was dangling his feet in the water. When Matt’s foot shifted on the wet leaves, he lost all momentum and his jump was cut short. His body was already thrown forward, ready to dive. His face was dashed open on the rock platform 20 feet below.
As if someone had thrown a bucket of food coloring into the churning water. As if someone had ripped the lungs from my chest. And the water, the unchanging roar of the river.
Can you understand the chasm that has been created through my mind? I didn’t know it was happening until I stepped away. The water had such an effect, forever pushing out at the edge of my consciousness, that I now often can’t connect one thought to the next. It is the wind that channels through my head now, whistling on past and away. It is not the same. It is the feeling of forever falling, which you can get used to, which feels normal except when you stop to inspect it.
Greg pulled Matt’s body through the water toward us. We lifted his body and laid it out on the same rock that had done this to him. I mean just what I say—he had no face. There was only flesh and hair. It looked as if someone had taken a wedge and a sledgehammer and crafted a deep ravine down the front center of his head.
I wanted to run; I wanted to push the body back where it had come from. The same river that had taken and dragged away my tree had spit out my dead friend. The blood streamed into pools around our feet. And we stayed because we knew that was what we had to do. Because we were already there.
I found the tree the next day, stuck on a shallower bend fifty yards down the river. Its limbs were bent and cracked under its own weight. It looked pitiful in its waterlogged state. The river seemed to be digesting it. And when I came back, I found my father, toeing the edge where the tree once stood. He saw me, scratched his unshaven face, and said, “Tree’s gone. Nothing to keep this from eroding now,” he waved his hand at the ground. “It’ll swallow up the yard if we let it.”
I wanted to ask what it meant that the river had done this to the tree, when each of us had looked at them for so long as one and the same. But I could tell from where I was standing that my father was just doing what he could to reconcile his own loss, to look himself over and figure out how to proceed from there. “The tree hasn’t been here long,” he said. “Trees live a long time but not that long. The river’s been here forever.” One learns to go on without the other, or just goes on.
Then he woke up. I hesitate to say “Matt.” Matt had eyes and a nose and lips. This person at our feet had none of those. My father had heard our screams and he was running across the yard, toward us. He saw the body and the blood, and he came barreling, awkwardly through the water. I had never seen my father in the river until then. He was graceless.
He lifted himself onto the rock, breathless and horrified. His clothes clung to his wiry frame. He went to his knees, letting himself be wet with blood. “Who is this?” he asked. “Who is this boy?”
The body was writhing on the ground, and whining I think, a high-pitched gurgle that will never leave my mind. Matt kept trying to lift his hands to his face, and my father kept pushing them back down. “What do I do?” he asked. The rest of us had our hands to our own faces, as if suddenly recognizing the masks that kept all that pain and horror from spilling out. “What do I do?” he said, pushing Matt’s hands back down to his sides. “What do I do?” You would think the river would stay quiet for just a second, you would think for a moment I might forget the sound, but it’s forever there. It doesn’t stop.
“Remember the tree?” my father said to me the last time. We spent so long trying, so long struggling to occupy the holes that we had carved from each other.
“Yes,” I said. “What about it?”
My father had spent four years at the Northeast Regional Correctional Facility. Because of bad luck. Because of alcohol on his breath. Because you don’t ever see violence like that, not ever, and it would be more terrifying to think that no one was to blame. That something like that could just happen.
“I loved that beautiful tree and there was nothing I could do for it,” he said. “I just watched the river keep coming.”
I was with a foster family until I was 18. Then I rented a room by the rail yard. It was cheap and noisy, and I was left alone.
“You said the water would hold it up,” I said to him.
“I know, but it couldn’t,” he said. “I wanted that to be true.”
When I was away from the river, I felt crazy with the silence—it was like living without the affirmation of a heartbeat. But then, when I sat there with my father at the kitchen table, I wanted to cover my ears. My head vibrated painfully.
“It’s my fault your mother killed herself,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of time to think and I know that’s true.”
I had such a headache. We had taken so much and we had nothing to give each other, me and my father.
“I couldn’t help her. I want to lift up the whole goddamn world sometimes, and as soon as I touch it, it turns rotten,” he said.
“Nah, Pop,” I said.
“It feels that way,” he said. He looked up and asked, “Is there anything I can do?” He reached across the table and tried to grab my hand.
“No, nothing,” I said.
“I might have a little money,” he said. “You can stay here and save on rent.”
But the noise, the noise would drive me crazy.
“I better go,” I said.
You know that feeling when everything’s on the point of collapse, like at the top of a rollercoaster when just in anticipation your gut bumps up against your lungs? It is what I have felt for years now, and I have only a vague memory of anything else.
I walked out the door half certain that my father would kill himself, and I felt that any word I could utter would only make him less certain of what he would decide to do. I knew that any comfort I might provide would be fleeting and imperfect, and inevitably disappointing. I knew that death was different than the life with which we had grown so familiar, and probably luckier.
I don’t know if this rumble in my memory should console me. Should drown out the dreadful things I have seen. Should remind me that the water is constant and uncaring. Maybe it’s just the prelude of what it will do for thousands of more years. Longer than you and I will ever be able to know or see. The blood washes away, the skeleton of the tree disappears, and the water flows forever on. It will surely console whoever next sits on the bank. The sound of moving water.