A package tied with twine is thrown off the bridge. A leather satchel full of letters is flung into the river. Shirts, sweaters, hats, gloves are tossed off in fits of joy and fall to the river to be taken away by the current. A handful of paper is sent flying from the bridge walkway. A gold band is taken off and given up to the water below. A woman at night screams down to the water. A man at dawn screams down to the water. The ironwork is formidable in its construction, a barrier of crossbeams. But the river is there below, and voices barely audible, call out.
She walked along the riverbank and jumped from rock to rock. The landscape there was both smooth and treacherous. Her friends had gone to drive the park road near the river. The road was circular, making the park an island marooned inside concrete and exhaust. She was down near the rip-rap because she hated driving around. Driving was boring and there was nothing else to do but go down to the cool, muddy water and let its damp fingers soak your clothes and skin.
The cars were beginning to disperse for the park curfew. At midnight the city locked the gates to the park so that no one could get inside. She wasn’t paying attention to the time and was sitting on a boulder watching the headlights on the bridge that was almost directly above her. A large beetle sauntered on the sand near her feet. She wanted to kick it into the river and watch its legs try to gain ground. She stood and as she did a flashlight beam hit her across the face. Her body twisted around and her foot got caught between the boulder on which she was sitting and another rock. She fell.
The river was in motion at the passing of a motorboat whose driver wasn’t paying attention to the no-wake zone near the park. She was dragged into the undertow and tugged out from shore.
She had never learned to swim. She tried to move but breathed water. She tried to open her eyes but was blinded by silt and mud.
When she opened her eyes she was back on shore and covered in the sticky sludge that the river was full of. A bright light shone into her eyes, someone was tugging at her clothes, she heard slow, low voices.
Sad emerald new and lost. The sky broken, I returned. I was a body churning and into moving I shone. It was out of necessity, these practical beliefs a protection of cold iron, running water, bells, the special power of bread. The statues that preside over the fountains, the ladies of the forests, the secret spirits between the forest and the river. Wrecked and heavy, I return and return and return and return and return.
If they could see her, they would feel something sharp between the eyes. A bright blue light emanating from what could be her face. If they could see her, they would see a dripping costume of wings. She is covered in mud, surrounded by air. She is surrounded yet invisible. If she is invisible, she hovers and spins and moves towards the river. If she is not invisible, she will walk to the river slowly.
I took my first breath in a room made of metal. Everything echoed and the noise was deafening. I could not believe how loud. When the oxygen hit my lungs it was sharp and knifelike. I cried out only once.
I was sifted through various hands and placed upon a table. They left me there alone to gather myself slowly. The silence was deafening. I could not believe how quiet. I saw light through a small window and thick gray shapes moved calmly up and down the wall. Occasionally, there was the faint sound of scratching, voices.
I was half in and half out. I was a coin slipping from a pocket. I was enclosed in glass and felt like water. I became aware of the world and hesitated. There was too much.
Later, several sets of eyes were upon me. Beautiful, blinking, all different colors. Flowers were left, stairs descended. I return to this moment over and over. I can still see them and their revolving. I understood their movements, this vortex into which I was pulled.
Should a call from far away be heard through glass. To be struck ringing. A person is a church and heard on the day of prayer. When the body is a ringing sound, someone is expected. A river claims everyone. Human, demon, or a hole. Something needs to be offered. If doomed to float, if fortunate, the brink. The body bright with lies. A light will appear. Drowning as a cure for water. Until she plunged she remained whole. She who has gone there. What it requires.
She has a dream where she is followed by several small snails. At first, she doesn’t notice them because they are so small. Their tiny shells barely make a noise when she accidentally steps on one of them. Soon, though, they grow bigger and she cannot help but notice that no matter how fast she walks there is always a large snail, the size of a potato, at her heels. Eventually, these snails become foxes. These foxes are a luminous, solid red. They freeze into statues when she turns to notice them. She does believe, for a while, that they are indeed statues. Solid red foxes frozen in midstride, jumping over a fountain, landing on a table, stealing food from a plate. Then she sees one of them blink and she knows.
Place a loaf of bread with a quantity of quicksilver within. Place a loaf of bread with a lit candle embedded within it. Place a shirt there. Listen for the change in the sound of the drumbeat. Float chips of wood. Wear an earring. Row in a boat with a rooster. Place a straw or bundle of straw. Insert a paper with the name written upon it. Throw a lamb or goat there. Fire a cannon. Ring the bell. You’ll hear her voice before a storm: a crier who returns as a bird. Use a fetish of fishbone, wear a ring of coffin nail, wear a ring of seahorse teeth, a fillet of green rushes tied to the calf. Carry a knee bone, a black key. Come into the world at the rising of the dog star. To appease, to make sure, throw salt into the river.
In the grove on the other side of the river, she lingered near a spread of heavy walnut trees. She shivered in the shade although the sun came through the leaves in sharp fragments. Her ladies followed far behind her, completely unprepared for a walk. They wore black high heels with ankle straps and thin dresses with short sleeves that flapped in the wind. They should have been wearing coats, scarves, and gloves. They laughed as they always did, walking fast in the breeze, pushing each other playfully.
She stopped and stared at one of the ancient trees. It was so old. Who else had walked here when the grove was just a tangle of saplings? Who were those people? She became exhausted at the thought and sat on the dirty ground and made shapes in the dirt with a stick: a spiral, a triangle, a flower, the letters of a name. She was trying to remember something for which she was not present. She wrote a name over and over and over in the dirt. She pictured a person with that name. She felt she could become this person, someone sitting there among young trees, alone in the damp and chill. Someone just like herself but before.
Her ladies had been quietly moving towards her taking tiptoe steps. They were playing a game. Whoever startled her first would run several feet away and then run twice in a large circle. After that, she would jump on one foot until she was caught. It was a less effective version of tag. But the ladies seemed to find it hilarious so they played often. This time they were all “It” and soon, three long index fingers poked her shoulder. They ran away screeching and she was brought out of her trance, a trance that couldn’t have worked.
The first stage of life equals water. Once she reaches air she is different.
She is not a tree or tall grass or the underside of a bridge. Her wings have always been there. She sends the water away. There is a waterway in the distance and she has flown from it.
If dull wings, a predator. There is a search for shelter. The beginning of clasping. Divided eyes that are wings. A body into another body and vulnerable to wind. Time only lasts hours. It is what gives order.
She is considered wings, a single claw, an abdomen, legs. She has others who look like her. In several stages, she articulates motion. She is in water, she is in air, she is no longer.
A sheep is slaughtered, a nail is hammered into a hand, several bodies lie still beneath sheets. A young woman is in bed reading. She considers herself a hero of her time, for herself only. She holds her hand out to someone walking past her door, a blur she cannot see.
She is silent, shakes her head no or yes when anyone asks her a question. Each night she dreams the hopeless dream to be. It is summer. She is in the summerhouse at the seaside. Her ladies bring in fruit, a sandwich, something cold to drink. The windows are open and the wind blows everything around.
She writes a letter, she reads someone else’s letters. Another woman is there with her. She is the same. They are the same woman, but only one of them speaks. What follows are several days and nights where the speaking woman tells the silent woman everything about her life. The silent woman remains silent.
What follows is a summer at the sea. They collect shells on the beach, they wade at low tide. They take their breakfast outdoors and gaze long at the soft sun. Her ladies take photographs of each other in their bathing costumes. They lounge and pose on the shiny black rocks that surround the cove where the summer house sits.
The silent woman narrates the past days in her head, makes lists of events. Her hands are folded primly on her lap. There is a photograph of the two women that has fallen to the floor. It is a picture where the two women verge on becoming one woman, but it is incomplete. They will leave the island as if nothing happened.
In the dream I am in an old mansion with ornate tapestries and tile floors. The mansion is surrounded by heavy iron gates and fences. Someone walks through a space in the fence and disappears. I see this from where I stand at a large window on the top floor. I watch this figure dressed in a military uniform bend low to the ground and go through the fence. I wait for what seems like hours to see whether this man will come back through, but grow impatient and leave the window. I hear running water but I cannot find it nor escape from the sound. I climb up and down the stairs, open every door and look in every room, trying to find where this water sound is coming from. In the middle of a dark room there is a dark stream that rushes through it, and an overgrowth of ivy, ferns. This stream begins at one end of the room, splashes out the window and continues along a gravel pathway that leads away from the mansion and into a beech grove. I leave the house through the window to follow the stream. I follow it as far as I can. In my peripheral vision I see the person in the military uniform walking parallel to me. I lift a hand and call out but I cannot speak. I wake choking.
Mornings, they come to wake her, eyes dim from a long night of dreaming. They are in nightgowns, barefoot, their long red hair brushed smooth over their shoulders. Three cool hands are placed in turn upon her forehead. They whisper, Get up now, it’s morning.
Afternoons, they spend time chattering amongst themselves, sewing purple spangles on dresses, or making costumes for an evening amusement. The costumes are elaborate and identical. They only make costumes of insects or nobility: three grasshoppers, three knaves, three queens, three mayflies.
These ladies, as great as cities, gather their private nations and take flight. Arbitresses of east and west, they wander softly. They are of water, of any river or sea.
“Don’t you know it’s bad luck to compare hands?”
We are sitting on the strand, our legs bare, our sunhats low over our eyes. The woman who looks like me has taken my hand and placed it next to her own to compare. I pull my hand away.
My ladies are there with us. They have begun a game with shells. One makes a pattern in the sand with them and the others have to try to guess what the pattern means. Before they make their guess, they perform a kind of jitterbug. Then they sit down, rather hard, and place a finger to lips, ponder, then look up brightly and give their answer. They don’t often guess correctly, it seems, as they usually stomp off with a pout and frown.
The light begins to fade and the clouds roll in and we gather our things. It has been another afternoon that was both pleasant and uncomfortable.
They have heard of the woman who walks the riverbeds, who paces the bridge. Some say they have seen her with other women who wear long flowing gowns. Some say they do not believe she is real, say she’s made up, that her feet have never touched solid ground. They say she’s a vision, a shade, an appearance, unknowable. Believers are thought to be deluding themselves, wasting their time by the river, but superstitions always arise from truth. The ones who believe are affected. They make pilgrimages to the water. They bring jars in which to put the river. A river of their own to keep them safe. They believe she keeps them safe.
I do not know what it is I am waiting for, if I am waiting for anything. It seems I am. I have been here so long. There was a time I was elsewhere, my dwelling a private district of gravel. Solid ground. A frame house. Windows and curtains. Eggs and tea. I appeared alone in the meadow, ran reckless through the prospect. My outlook was extensive and naïve. At night, the river whispered and I was its likely customer. Whichever direction I faced was water. It was inevitable.