A stone’s throw was all it took, we stumbled over our feet into the murky weeds, laugh-barking like beast children in the twilight of an early Summer evening. It was a Saturday and we had nowhere to be, nowhere except the banks of this practically-home, this comfort-zone, this old friend who knew the feel of our toes buried in his muddy pebbles. How we loved you so, the way you buzzed with dragonflies in the humid afternoons; how you shone with fireflies in the children-come-home-now-it’s-a-weeknight darkness. We were not afraid of the dark back then – we were full of untarnished adventure-dreams, gallivanting into you with haphazard splashing and screeching, glowing with the dramatics of youth. There were canoes and inflated tubes and a whole slew of bruises, cuts, and broken nails. We rough-and-tumbled around on your shores, swung from ropes with screams of “cannonball!” On some days it was easy to forget that we were human, dreaming of Brandybucks and Tooks and Bagginses, convincing ourselves that fairies danced in our sopping-wet-impossibly-tangled hair.
The nymphs played in the river-foam like daughters of the sunlight. I knew this was a holy place the moment I laid eyes on it. The forest loomed all around us, shadows interlocking beneath bended branches and wilted leaves, the greens and golds of late Summer twinkling like so many faceted gems. I broke a bottle of red and cut my hand on the glass, blood mixing with wine, an offering for the spider crawling gracefully across my forgotten sneakers. The rushing cacophony of a waterfall filled our ears, we could barely hear one another speaking as we invoked the powers of root and rock. The place where we stood was unnaturally cool, and I began seeing visions when I squinted into the dancing ripples – a lonely woman in a white dress, a bronze chalice filled with flower petals, the skull of a deer wrapped in black tulle lace. Our very own Kastalia, a place for oracles to be received and for sacrifices to be made, and all the while the smell of freshly turned Earth permeated our nostrils as we breathed in deep.
There are always three angels on the riverbank, trumpets to their baby-pink lips, cheeks flushed with the effort of musical symphony. I roll past them on rubber wheels, reveling in the rush of the crisp Autumn air against my chapped-lipped-grin. The angelic message is a single-wheel’s-rotation-long burst of melody: I thought I saw them bow to me one time as I hurtled toward my destination. When I meet you face-to-face some mornings, serene majesty laid out before my path, I weave through runners, walkers, and strollers, my mind the victorious blank slate of new-beginning-just-woke-up-ready-for-anything mental clarity. This trail was named for you, as I too was named for water – we are sisters in a timeless cycle of 12-miles-there-and-12-miles-back. How alive I feel when I fly by you on wings of aluminum and titanium and unbridled freedom, how bursting-at-the-seams, how emotionally vulnerable and full of gratitude. Sometimes it is almost as if one of the angels has landed on my shoulder, casting a gilded halo around my head.
He crossed you somewhere between past and present, a great king of men, whose vision still haunts us as we stand on your cold, hardened shores. Do the inhabitants of this city remember your glory? Do they know the origin of your name – how fraught with tension and chaos and so many forgotten soldiers? In the winter, your surface ices over with crystalline veins of memory, and I can’t help but wonder if we paid a price for his optimism. I put my feet in the chill-down-spine so-cold-it’s-almost-hot waters and can taste gin on my lips, wondering if we can raise spirits like you raised ours so long ago on the brink of victory – and if we did, who would rise up, anyway? Who still lingers here, who fights for America? The red-white-and-blue sunset bleeds into a solstice night, and as a Yuletide cheer promises a reborn savior so too do we cry out for a brand new nation. Everything comes full circle, history repeats itself, and I want to swim across you, from one state to another, and I want that to mean something because we really need it to – more than ever.
I never did see so many dancing feet, so much enthusiasm on such a raised-up platform-of-a-riverbank, like a stage bathed in moonlight, where the show never ends. Even though there’s music around every corner, there’s a loneliness too – a longing for someone to finally notice that things are not-quite-right-here-and-never-were. How do we mask trauma: by putting on masks of our own, big bright colorful feathered displays of ridiculousness that tell a different story at every turn. We inhaled chicory and powdered sugar, and felt the stirrings of a ceremony in the pits of our stomachs, coffee clasped in sweaty palms and a song of gibberish words rolling off our tongues. Too many people went from one bank to the other in hopes of a new life full of freedom – and still that history weighs so heavily on you, sinks us to the very bottom of you, makes us feel like we can’t possibly escape you. As I walk along the boulevard I feel the brief tingling sensation of cobwebs on bare skin, the fleeting kiss of a forlorn ghost, the ritualistic grave-tending that pervades every inch of this city. I guess that’s why they call it The Blues.
Gazing into your dirty waters, I thought I saw a body floating; it was likely my imagination playing tricks, reminiscing about iconic Victorian mysteries and more-than-a-little-bit wishing they were real. From the top of the ferris wheel you looked like so much molasses, raindrops pounding on looking-glass windows, the smell of bergamot and tobacco smoke mixing with a nostalgic longing for regency and perfect etiquette. We made our way through winding walkways, flipping a coin to a beggar down by the docks, his grizzled features caught between a grimace and a grin. How easy it must be to assume that something lurks beneath the surface of your moody conduit, sea monsters come down from Scotland to pass the time. An older gentleman in a trench coat stands with his nose so close to the water it’s a wonder he hasn’t fallen in yet, as if he’s trying to smell not only the fishy effervescence of your frothing but the very essence of your history – who may have touched you in a moment of revelatory innovation, washed clean of sin and ready to create, and what they might have said.
The smell of incense tickles the tips of our noses as we cleanse our hands in your translucent ripples, listening to the calls of birds careening across a cloudless sky. I feel a twinge of sadness as I look up at the ancient, wizened martyr, wise beyond his years, branches cracked and splitting, new growth a long-forsaken dream. How he’d stood so steadfastly against the thunderclaps and lightning blasts, shielding the castle as a father might protect his child while the water-line rose ever higher with a typhoon-ferocity. So we too remember how to swim across deep waters, how to navigate our boats through storm-tossed seas, how to be everything we need to be for the people who need us. I watch as a leaf floats gracefully down to Earth, count the seconds of its descent, and consider how delicate our daily existence can seem in the face of such stark impermanence. A dog barks somewhere on the mountainside, and a priestess washes her hands at a shrine, whispering incantations in a softer-than-velvet voice that promises to perform miracles. A tear rolls down my cheek and I marvel at the simplicity of a time removed from catastrophe, counting a fist-full of beans in the palm of my hand – to ward away the demons.