Lately I’ve had a feeling of walking around with the wind knocked out of me. Maybe it’s the proximity to my birthday and the usual self-absorption when all my faults and failings gang up to beat the hell of me, but I like to think it’s something else, something new, and not the same old tired routine. A collapsed lung would certainly account for it but the financial burden of repairing it would be prohibitive as I’m one of the nearly 47 million Americans without health insurance. I could drag myself off to die in a thicket like some wounded beast but for now I see no other option than to carry on. I’ve inhabited this 54-year-old carcass long enough to know that my problem isn’t physical but mental, which is a polite way of referring to an unsound heart without explicitly saying so.
It’s always tough when you realize life isn’t what you thought it would be, or should be, for that matter. The hard thing to swallow is the knowledge that few people living in America have a right to feel this way when conditions in Darfur, Ethiopia, Iraq, and the slums of Nigeria or Rio de Janeiro, where landfills constitute the primary residence for thousands of unfortunate families, are so savagely unimaginable. Knowing this and still trying to wallow in self-pity is silly indeed because guilt robs whatever dubious pleasure one can summon forth.
So what’s left to do? Down a high blood pressure pill and count the things that make this life bearable. Hit the road and try to outdistance yourself, or barring that find some moving water and ponder it long enough to become absorbed in its ebb and flow. If I lived closer to the ocean I’d collapse on the beach and let the sun, sand and pulsing waves take me away, but since this is Kansas the best I can do is rivers or lakes, and lakes have never done much for me. They’re just big puddles, static and lifeless other than at dawn and dusk when reflectivity and shadows transform them into a palette of color. But moving water fires my imagination.
Drainages are the roots of oceans, delving their fibrous tentacles to the highest reaches of land and linking us metaphorically if not physically to the tides. The sum of their numbers equals the Pacific, the Atlantic, the turquoise Caribbean, the landless Southern Sea. I’ve never been good at math but this is math I understand. All the little things adding up to something bigger, the process called confluence.
With a very rare day off from work and a map I did the arithmetic: Corndodger Creek, DeShazer, Clear and Cedar creeks, the Johnson Fork, Robidoux Creek—itself comprised of Snipe, Skeeter and Dog Walk creeks—the Little Timber, Irish and Weyer Creeks, flowing together in two major forks that converge near the small town of Vliets to become the Black Vermillion River, and the combined amalgamation of waterways rolling into the larger Blue Earth River a mile south of the Black Vermillion Marsh. It was as good a destination as any and far better than rotting away inside four walls where a computer terminal perpetually radiated an indictive form of arithmancy.
I was in for a surprise when Jim Mayhew, my shamanistic codgernaut partner, showed up as I was leaving. The last time we’d met he was shaved, groomed and dressed in a dark suit, the model of propriety so proper I almost didn’t recognize him. Now he was dressed for the outdoors, his craggy face grizzled with a thatch of graying whiskers, his pale eyes almost hidden beneath the bill of a baseball cap. His smile infectious, as always.
He didn’t need to be asked twice. We piled our things into the truck and headed east and then south, descending through narrow drainages into the broad valley of the Black Vermillion, where the sky opened up into a clear blue vault and the rounded green hills withdrew as if shrinking away. Crossing the bridge we saw the river for the first time, a sluggish brown current disappearing around a willow-lined bend studded with the imploring arms of dead cottonwoods. Nebraska rains had filled the banks, with flecks of foam indicating water levels were still rising.
A narrow road splintered off toward the convergence through fields of soybeans and locusts but I didn’t trust it, having seen this selfsame area inundated under floodwaters not long ago. And anyway walking seemed a better method of losing myself into the intricacies of nature, the hue of sky, a curling tendril of vine ending in a lone white blossom nodding in the breeze, a mockingbird’s indecipherable ramble, the mad scramble of toads fleeing a shallow rut. Jim and I hopscotched one another as we stopped to photograph minutiae that caught our attention, or paced in tandem where muddy pools allowed, and never did we glimpse the river until we broke from a shallow fringe of woods into a treeless scrape where the remains of past parties huddled around a broken fire ring. Just beyond a strip of weeds the river rolled past, viscous, more earth than water, a perfect storm of silt bearing down on the embankment to the south.
To our right the waters of the Black Vermillion converged with the Blue Earth River. The demarcation of their currents was visible in a paler chocolate hue that hugged the bank and eddied and swirled around unseen obstacles. It was uncannily quiet, with neither birdsong nor drone of crickets, our voices muted as if we stood in some holy place. Upstream a johnboat with two fishermen drifted until it, too, passed our location and was lost around a bend.
I want to lie and say I wished the river would bear me away, or baptize me into a new existence, one more successful and courageous, less tainted with moodiness and indecision, but I realize it could never have been otherwise. The rivers wed into a larger whole, eternally mated on their way to the sea, and I stepped back alone into a life I no longer understand.