A NATURAL HISTORY OF RIVERS
You wake up, it's still dark out, and the river's there behind you, back in your sleep, quiet as stone, flowing the opposite direction of your eyes. You name the river the same name you once named your daughter. Or perhaps the river was already named what you once named your daughter. You call to the river. You call to it by name. The river won't stop moving and answers only with a snake that's floating along its surface. But the snake disappears. The river encourages such disappearance.
You wake up, it's still dark out. In front of you the river is climbing the bedroom wall. On the river's bank, there is a little boy riding a bicycle. He stops to regard the river by watching it, but instead sees something in himself he doesn't like. The river has made a second moon. The boy grabs a stone to throw into the river, but you say Stop! The boy sinks stone after stone into the water. You tell him to look at what he's doing, and he says he can see what he's doing, that's why he does it. Then you tell him not to see. You tell him to try listening.
You wake up, and you call out Charlotte! You imagine a dry riverbed glimpsed by lightning. You splash water on your face, and in the mirror, there's a dry riverbed. Through the window, a dry riverbed. On your wall, a dry riverbed framed as a painting. There, in the painting, the sun's out. A bald eagle roosts in a tree. A little boy rides a bicycle along the bank. Agnes! you call out. Simone! You can't remember the name you gave your daughter. Are you there, Lethe? Gertrude! From your bookshelf, you find the book about riverbeds. It's called A Natural History of Rivers. You open the book. Each page looks the same. Wait, Sam, is that you?
You can't sleep, so you start the documentary on rivers. It's called Snakes and Clouds. The only light in the living room is the aura your television makes. Your curtains are drawn, but anyone walking outside at that hour would see the opposite of sleep. The film never shows the narrator, but you hear his voice. It is the voice of a submerged stone. On the television, a man is in a wooden boat. A single torch lights the way. The man sends a cormorant into the black water to fetch a fish. The flame feeds off the lack of wind. On the television, a boy skips stones along the surface, wishing to stand on the opposite shore. There is talk on the television, talk about how to channel a river. You recognize the sound of the submerged stone. The voice is familiar because it is your voice, a voice you have not heard in some time. The voice tells of the naming of rivers. That's when the doorbell rings. On either side of the curtains, the only light that glows is from the documentary.
You open the door, and there is your daughter. You remember the faint moon weaving itself along the water's surface. You can barely make out the distant shore. You invite the river in. Have you missed me? she says. You point to the television screen. You point to the sudden moon. All you want is to say your daughter's name, but your mouth won't open. With both of your hands, you hold out a blue quilt.
In the documentary, the narrator speaks of damming rivers. The narrator explains the ecosystem, the narrator explains displacement, and then the documentary cuts to a montage of men shouting about floods and electricity. The straighter the river's course, the more speed. The river's right there in your living room. She's beside you on the couch, cuddling a blue quilt. You've made popcorn to share, and you each take turns monotonously placing piece after piece in your mouths. It looks like you are eating tiny clouds.
You wake up, and it's light out. You put the kettle on for some tea. The sun shines like a far-off television. Through the window, you can make out even the trees on the river's opposite bank. A linden, a birch. A bald eagle nesting in a cottonwood. Someone's fishing, his body shortened by the water. In a letter, you write Dear Agnes. You cross it out and write Dear Simone. You have forgotten the kettle until it trills like a flute. You seal the envelope and carefully write the address for the moon.
In the stage play, there are two rivers, and the two rivers share the same name. You play one river. Your daughter plays the other. A stagehand pulls the curtain, and the audience is quiet as a cave. You say your lines perfectly. A committee of faceless men wearing gray suits stands on stage, and you are telling them about what happens under your surface. You are telling them about how you smooth stones like the wind. Your daughter stands next to you. She has somehow crafted a windowless room. The room surrounds her. It is invisible. But she can't see past the transparent walls. She sings a song she's spontaneously making up, and to ensure she's happy with each word, she keeps starting again from the beginning. She sings of the moon resting in the sky like an unbroken egg. She sings of growing tall enough to touch it. The song is called "The Cormorant." At the end of the scene, you're supposed to submit to the committee a photograph of your daughter's name. That's when your daughter will stop singing. In your wallet, you find a photo that says Lethe. Your daughter continues to sing. On your phone, you find a photo that says Charlotte, but again you hear the song's opening words. You find another that says Gertrude. Another that says Sam. Over and over, how the moon rests unbroken like an egg. Oh, to be tall enough to touch it.
You wake up, and you decide to make a painting of a river. For texture, you apply heavy brush strokes, and there are many blues, greens, browns, light grays. In the foreground, you paint yourself, and the figure of you looks directly back at you, as you paint. In the painting, you have a single right eye and two left eyes, one hovering above the other. The river is behind you, in the background. The river curls around the bluffs like the first letter in the word "snake." In the foreground, you are wearing a red shirt. You are wearing an orange wool cap. All your eyes are open. You worry over what color to paint the wind. You call the painting Simone. From a distance, you could be mistaken for a flame.
The river floods when you aren't looking, and when you are looking, the river also floods. The river washes homes away and swallows bridges. All the while, the river sings a song. It's about the moon hiding behind a cloud. You try singing the song too. The words won't come out right. When you try saying moon, what leaves your mouth is stone. You keep saying thunder, though that word is nowhere in the song. You feel like the smallest bird. The smallest bird fallen from the nest onto a sidewalk. The smallest bird suddenly surprised by air.
You open your eyes, and you're on the top floor of a natural history museum. Charlotte is on display. You know this because the label tells you. The diorama shows the depths of Charlotte's waters, the flora and fauna forever suspended underneath. While viewing the model river, you and your daughter hold hands. The caption on the other side says Agnes, and you hear a nearby docent saying Sam this and Gertrude that. In the gift shop, you buy your daughter an enamel pin of a river. Eating ice cream in the sun on a bench, you ask your daughter about the exhibit. What did she like the most. She says she liked the thing that swallows a coin after spiraling in seemingly endless circles. Eating ice cream, she wears the river pinned to her red shirt.
You wake up, it's still dark. You realize your daughter has climbed into bed alongside you. She groans, complaining of growing pains. You switch on the lamp to softly read aloud from a book called A Natural History of Stone. Your daughter loves this book. Her eyes are closed. She is half asleep. Your daughter doesn't understand the book, which is why she loves it so. You read quietly. In the beginning, there was a river. The river was blue as an indigo quilt. The river shaped the stone with its voice. The shape is always changing. The river has a single name. This part your daughter especially loves. Her eyes are closed, but she tells you to read it again. So you read that part again.
FAIRY TALE IN WHICH WOLVES ARE HOUSED IN SHELLS
Then the villagers heard the howls only when holding the shells to their ears. So they dug from the wet sand greeting the sea as many opaque chambers as their fingers could find, small geometries of rock stuck beneath their nails afterward for weeks. Nights the moon felt heavy outside their homes, the villagers passed around the newfound shells, taking turns to feel each distinct howl within their ears, for no logic foretold what volume or pitch a shape would make. Sometimes a whimper emerged from a conch. Sometimes a roar erupted from a clamshell. This evolved into a game said to speak to the listener's remaining length of life. Years passed like wind against a mountain. Babies were born, and elders grew back into the ground. Generations later, after playing the shell game one milky night, a young boy never woke again. It was said his abalone shell made no sound. Eventually the tradition wore off. Children began playing with sticks while their parents slid cards across tables. On moonful evenings, the villagers looked inland toward the forest, noting the fat absence of wolf howls they had read about in tales passed down. So one night when the moon turned mostly dark, they buried the shells below the trees so deep they needed their heaviest shovels. Then they slept like unexplored caves. They woke like waves, and fried potatoes with bread in butter. When the moon again became a bone-colored bulb, the villagers heard a wail through the windows. They walked outside in silence to see that everyone had walked outside. The sound didn't cease. What they heard was a child crying. They explored the forest but couldn't find wolf or child or shell. The cries were coming from a tree. The villagers eventually tried to sleep. The child cried all night. When later generations spoke of that evening, they said the wail was the sound a wolf makes without a shell. But they no longer knew which tree that night was weeping. Their children grew up enough to know this tale was one real thing that wasn't true. Their children grew up looking at the wood that shaped their walls as though it had something to say. But the wood never said a thing. The wood only spoke in circles.
On the Natural History of Destruction, W.G. Sebald. The Book of Symbols. Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer. Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, Krzysztof Penderecki. Playing for the Monkey, Julie Speed. The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard: "Wolves in shells are crueler than stray ones."