Continued from April 3…
I don’t know how to clean a fish, and there’s no one here to teach me. I don’t even have a knife to gut it with, so I release the little, slick-backed trout into the river. Here is the river, and here is the fisherman.
Today, it rained: high and heaving, emptying its waters into the forest and the river below. We awoke to its sound, and, remembering my father’s soporific words on fishing before a rainstorm, I returned to the basement for my rod and tackle box. By the time I descended, through sloping sides of the valley and to the bank, the rain had slipped into a downpour, but the fish still bit.
I will re-emerge from this valley when I have finished. I don’t want to unpack today. It’s the sixth day at our river house, and I am resting. I must speak with the river for this one moment; you would understand. I will return with dinner if someone teaches me how to clean a fish.
My spot, selected only from a vague understanding of fishing mechanics, is grounded atop a large slab of granodiorite lunging into the stream, which the rain has rendered brown and frothing. I am in the middle of the rain. The current has picked up such that it now carries things down its length: splintered logs, rubbish and shredded tires, little girl’s clothing. Through all this motion, the fish still bite, and I still rest.
Soon, a man dressed in blue winds his way along the trail by the river, and because of my near divinely selected spot, I can see him coming from a while away. When I see his face, he is older than I expected: a flat face and sheer like my granodiorite slab. You should know that he comes in the direction of the river current. He’s wearing a nice rain jacket, and he’s old enough to be either of our fathers. He smells of river mud.
He stops and asks what kind of fly I’ve got. I can’t answer because I don’t know.
He says that there are rivers no one has ever fished or even touched, but this one is not like them. People have fished this river since before memory. Of course they have.
He points to the walls of the valley, which still crumble, gouged and gutted. The opposite side of the bank has been disemboweled by the steady line of a railway, but that too has been abandoned for decades, its hardwood ties rotting. It was bigger then, he says, before memory. Things often were.
I shrug and turn my shoulders to the unceasing brown stream; it carries a child’s ball and maybe ceases sometimes. He speaks as if he has a personal familiarity with the river: its current, its million denizens, its sorrow. He asks if I live up the hill, and I nod. He asks if I like it up there, and I nod again. He asks what I did before we arrived at the river house. When I tell him we lived in the city, he wedges some tobacco between his gums and asks which city. The answer doesn’t come as easy as it should. Here I am, cursing this man for his relentlessness.
I say that he’s scaring away the fish. Spitting some ruddy spit, he says, “Nothing in this river scares too easily.” He says, “You be careful, now. Worry too much, and you’ll get sick.”
When he leaves, continuing down the length of the river, I reimmerse myself in the act of fishing. Discontentment fills the water. I think about how I love her so much that it’s difficult to fully conceive of what I did before meeting her, and that has a hollow humor to it.
When I return to the house, I am wet, hopeful, and increasingly cold, and she sits on the porch. “Who was the man?” she asks. I offer, instead, a collection of three fossils I found along the bed of the river. I lug the cooler in front of the porch step. My lover tries to hide it, but she is holding the fish knife before I even show her the shining trout I had caught.
As we eat dinner, I tell her the story of when I was lost in the woods. I’ve been remembering things again, and it comes to me like a dream. We eat tomatoes, butter lettuce, and sweet corn from the farmers’ market, slabs of trout, and all this with good olive oil and beer.
I say, “As a child, I would go out with my dog to the old-growth stands lining the sides of the mountains. At one time, I knew the names of all the trees, but now, I could only tell you about the red spruce and Fraser firs because they were like husband and wife there. I was a guest. I believed that, under these trees, elves or some little folk lived in those sloping hills. Because how else would you explain violets growing where they aren’t supposed to, or trails turning a way they didn’t on the way out. In time, I realized nothing actually inhabited those woods; the forest itself exacted this mischief. It doesn’t need any elves. So I would go out with my dog into those old-growth stands. This was early spring: snowmelt fattening the mountain cricks, snowdrops coming through the last planes of ice. I couldn’t tell you why, but, at some point, I left the little parcel of land my family owns, maybe looking for something. I should tell you, my mother, at the time, owned a small bit of land carved from the base of this mountain whose name was High Knob. We never hunted it. We never farmed it. It was just our land. My dog and I vault over the little brook that marks the property, and almost immediately, my dog runs off into those spruces and firs. Anyways, I go after him. I’m sure the two of us are trespassing into something. Chasing after a dog is hard, and it’s harder through the hills. It’s harder when you’re just a boy. Of course, as the sun begins sitting lower up there, I find my dog and realize I’m entirely lost. And the forest begins enacting its mischief, making sounds and all. Things seem smaller, closer. It gets much windier than earlier in the day. I’m afraid, and my dog is afraid.”
“Were you actually?” she asks.
“Was I what?”
“Were you actually afraid?”
“Yes,” I shake my head and take a drink, “Yes.”
“So the forest is doing things that it shouldn’t, but I have my dog with me, and we are just throwing ourselves at the nearly impossible task of finding our way back to my home. I forgot to say that it was cold, early spring, and piercing. It was dark.”
“How did you do it?” she asks again.
“Something unintelligible happened, which now I couldn’t exactly explain. This was when the forest was still ancient and powerful. I find myself in an old mountain graveyard, slung high so rain doesn’t wash out the graves on its path to the valley. My fingers are curled around my dog’s collar, and they begin to ache. I sit down with my back against a gravestone and start crying. The wind, which sent the trees leaning and creaking, seemed to stop, or at least slow into an indiscernible respiration. It was very quiet. I was resting. Then, I hear something like a scream, from the other side of the hill. It was horrible, and I ran, revitalized, powerful again. I can’t exactly remember what happened next; I was a child. I must have seen some landmark because, suddenly, as if I was the dog and could smell my way home, I knew the way back. Maybe it was the elves, or the forest. I get to the front door, all covered in the frosty, early spring mud; my mother is clearing away dinner. I had been lost for hours even though it had felt like days.”
“Maybe you weren’t as lost as you had thought,” she says after I finished my story.
“It was a good story.”
“I was lost enough that it felt like I too could become a part of the forest, like it would have been easy.”
“How would that have worked.”
“You’re right.” I smile. “It’s trite to become part of the forest. It’s too convenient.” I pause for a moment and realize that I have become drunker than I had anticipated. “It was more like I could speak with it, I guess, like I could ask for directions.”
“It’s a good thing you can’t get lost here, with the river. You can just follow it to the house.”
“Do you have any stories of being lost?”
“You’ve never been lost?” I lean back and open another beer with the bottle-opener from a swiss army knife.
“Not lost like that.”
“Lost in other ways?”
“Tell me one of those.” This is almost a demand. Our river house fills with sound when a fox or maybe an infant screams from the woodline. The noise swells, collapses, and palpitates. It goes on for longer than it seems reasonable to. At some point, the noise becomes so low that it barely seems audible, and then it picks up again into its melancholy discord. You’d hate it, but it never becomes whining or grating: just hard, ululating, like sorrow. It’s rushing water; it’s falling rain; it’s ten thousand soft-pelted rabbits descending the hills to the river. For a moment, I think the damselfly will come knocking on our door.
Before we go to sleep, I tell her again that I love her, really.
Fingers of rain have already dragged through the gravel driveway, when we wind our way up it the first time. The river house is clapboard, pale green from algal bloom, and shuddering in the vacant wind. The bowed slats of the porch have a familiar creak.
I open the screen door, then the front door, and on the back of it, someone has painted the rules of this place. They tell me how to live here. I learn how to read my dreams, how to speak with strangers I meet on the river, how to cook fish without getting sick. There is nothing on how to stop feeling this way, dissonant. I have not violated any of these rules. I say, mostly to myself, “How can I stop feeling this way?” If this was a real story, I would have wronged the river, or my lover, or the low mountains in which I was born. If this was a good story, there would be some discernible cause for these dreams and the dissonance that follows them. There would be wrongdoing and also repentance. I become angry.
When I’ve had enough of the rules of this river house in their crude writing on the back of the door, I sit on the porch for a little while, resisting the river house proper. The wind asks if I still love her, but this time, it isn’t screaming. My dog yelps from over the ridge.
The damselfly emerges from the house. It has come from the bedroom and holds a bottle of wine unfamiliarly, like it’s a house-warming present. For this next part of the story, it begins, I will answer your remaining questions.
“Why?” I ask.
The damselfly gestures vaguely. Do you have anything else you’d like to do here? I survey the crabgrass lawn, the black cherry trees now more overtaken by mile-a-minute than I remembered, the dogwood. You have unpacked everything.
“I’ve had enough.”
“This is your home.”
“I wouldn’t say home. There’s so much emptiness, in this house that has never been occupied, on the banks of this river that has never been fished.”
Tell me more about emptiness.
“It’s like all this discontentment is supposed to amount to something. I stumble my way through so much everyday. There’s supposed to be a release; something has to happen. The river should stop moving. Something has to change. Because you can’t tell me that people have lived this way since the beginning, whatever you said earlier, before memory.”
Do you feel more empty than those people, because the river won’t stop moving?
“Make no mistake, river, I am not empty. Nothing happens in this story, except for this convenient little ending, and nothing lives in this river house, but these things aren’t indicative of any emptiness inside myself. I am full and hot and vivid. I am the center of this story.”
This conversation, it feels too convenient. Maybe it would feel more engaging, or gripping, or substantial if it happened a few days ago, but this story where nothing occurs has dragged on too long. This little talk wraps things up too well. I mean, I’ve been trying to talk to you all week. You are small, river, and I will not be worn down by you.
There’s no convenience here. The damselfly becomes increasingly indignant, and maybe a little scared. You know, this story doesn’t end with you receiving a little baby boy.
Is she going to kill me?
Is she cheating on me? Has she been horrible? Am I to be again rebuked by a lover’s history, to return to my doggish ways?
I hope this has all been helpful
It’s been a nice week here.
River, I am going to kill you tomorrow. I will stop your movement
It’s not really how it works.
Can we open that bottle at least?
Quiet. Look. She is coming now, from the river.
She limps her way up the trail, her belly full and bloated with river water.
When I awake on this seventh day in our river house, I feel truly sick. I am sick enough that I can’t do anything. She has already left the bed, and as I haul myself from our bed, as I disgorge just endless vomit into our toilet, I reason that this is the first time I’ve been alone in the house. Then, I think that this can’t possibly be true, but it is. Inexplicably, I have not been in this house without her. There was a time she cleaned spiderwebs from the porch while I prepared breakfast, but even then, the window was open. I fall asleep again on the cool tile of the bathroom, thinking about how I have spent such an incredible amount of time with her. Soon though, I pull myself to the bed because I realize that no one is here to carry me back to it. I have become needy. On my staggering way to our bed, where she should be sleeping, I stub my toe on the bedside table because we have finally unpacked it.
I’m staring idly at the house we have finally assembled. From here, I can see the viburnum, wagging through the open window of the kitchen. I can see a sliver of light from the screen door that leads to our porch. I notice, for almost the first time, that her paints are gone from the cabinet.
The city’s current broke us on the rocks of our little apartment months before we pulled ourselves into that little car and drove through the rush of green valleys that led us here. It was February, and we were discontent. The night before we fled, we attended the final night of her gallery showing. She had titled it ‘Dogbone,’ and I could never figure the whole thing out. We just couldn’t find parking anywhere. I took the fifth of gin in a plastic bottle that she hides in the glove compartment because I didn’t own a flask, and we made a promise. She said, “I need a change of scenery,” but she really meant I can’t paint you anymore. I agreed. We sealed it with a swallow from the bottle: her after me.
We took some more drinks, and walked into the brightness of the gallery like it was a dream. I think they knew she was a little drunk, but reduced it to artistic eccentricity. I don’t know what they thought about me. We floated through the gallery, looking at her pictures that we had seen before.
The critics said that her flight to the river was strange for a number of reasons. First, they said that her previous collections, including ‘Dogbone,’ were stark, brutal, industrial.
I tended to agree. The liquor finally began permeating our stringy, real bodies when we reached the seminal painting in this series. She titled it “John.” The gallery workers hadn’t set it up very well because the lights casted a cruel glare across the oils.
The first time she had taken me to ‘Dogbone,’ it took me a moment to realize that the painting was me, with my knees drawn up into my chest and bloodied, lying in a cardboard box. He appeared to be screaming. The boy, who is me, looked pitiful, and I wondered about how much I am an object of pity, and I wondered about how much she is an object of my affection. I imagined her finishing this painting: brush in hand like a fish knife.
My mouth was open. I turned to her, and she looked like she already knew what I wanted.