Monday, October 17, 2005

Not a leaf

Part 4 of 4

So. It was an autumn creek now, damp from recent rains, patined with fallen leaves and walnut husks gone black, and stubbled with stones worn smooth by time and water. It was not the Pecos River, not 900 miles of waterway traversing two states, and I was not the young dreamer, but someone else, older, perhaps wiser, cognizant that dreams can die, or fade from neglect, or reduct to manageable levels. By which, if successful, we are ennobled to stare back at our mirrored selves and not turn away.

As is increasingly difficult for me. I am fading even as my dreams fade. I am passing away. So: it was an autumn creek now, and I an autumnal man, and the last leg of this journey was before me.

Down I went, and down, the declination less, the bed wide and deep, with fewer feeder creeks adjoining, and those narrow and grassy-banked. The only sound that of my footsteps in the dried leaves and the toc-toc of my hiking stick as it glanced off stones. A half-buried metal drum signaled the sad and sorry spectacle of the disrespect mankind affords the natural world.

My way was barred by a downed tree. Beyond it the stream cut sharply westward past heaps of riprap. I balanced on a tree bole and walked down carefully. Maneuvering around a tangle of limbs, I peered around the bend and saw another severe turn to the right, deeply grooved, mucky, an accretion of trash and sticks and concrete slabs tilting up like ancient monoliths from a forgotten race. As I stepped down from the log a sharp-shinned hawk appeared like an apparition and flared in my face with a burst of wingnoise and golden eyes and I heard a snap and something tore into my right knee.

The hawk was gone. A blink, no more. The pain continued. A stick was wedged through a hole in my jeans, and as I extricated it I checked for damage. Some skin missing, a trickle of blood, nothing debilitating. I suspected it was a snare but found no indication of it. But wariness intruded on my solitude, and as I approached the first houses and heard the hammering of metal echoing through the trees I stepped lighter and kept to the deeper shadows.

Someone was above me on the bank. Something was being dragged, something heavy and metallic, and I forced my way through saplings and ragweed as silently as thought, hunkered down, moving fast. The first bridge came into view and I slipped into the darkness beneath it. A car rumbled overhead. The air itself seemed to vibrate.

I didn’t pause but hurried on. The stream narrowed into a brush-choked gulley, hiding me from bordering houses, and soon I came to the bridge over Highway 77. A fishing spider guarded the entrance but let me pass. Like ancient petroglyphs, the walls were patterned with a series of muddy handprints sequential to a heart now capped with a representation of hair. Letters within the heart were indecipherable, but farther on, near the north entrance, were more inscriptions of lovers long gone. I wondered if their loves had been true.

For a hundred yards now I felt exposed, hastening down a stream now treeless as it entered the fairgrounds. I wanted to be hidden from the eyes of men. Only when I bulled through a copse of weeds and sunflowers did I feel safe, and then kept the pace past the scattered buildings and beneath the latticed footbridges and out the far side, where the bottom opened up and water pooled in low places and the whistle of a tree frog sounded through the woods. Towering cottonwoods jutted through the canopy. So massive were the trunks that it seemed I had entered an old-growth forest, a remnant from the dawn of time.

Shadows deepened; minnows flitted through the pools; yellow butterflies wove the air. There was current now, a true stream, and each step triggered a leap from tiny chorus frogs. I ranged the stream, picking the easiest course, slowing now to relish the shade.

I broke into the open near the levee. The stream wended into twin rectangular culverts twice my height. Under the ground I went, my footsteps echoing, accompanied by a whisper of moving water. Near the outlet was a stretch of muck that swallowed my boots, but I was near the end of things and would not be deterred.

The final stretch snaked through high banks of weeds and vines, narrow-bottomed, muddy, so I clawed through the vegetation to gain the high ground and paralleled the stream with the sun hot on my shoulders. The blue river opened up on my left and swung past in an arc and I dropped down a steep bank and stood beside the confluence.

It was so quiet. And so sudden that it took me a moment to catch up with myself. The years melted away and I was a dreamer still. And I knew it was a minor victory but a victory nonetheless. A sharpie flew across the river and back and quartered the sky. A squirrel scolded from the woods. I felt giddy and uncommonly free.

A leaf floated past, spinning slowly on the sluggish current. It bounced over a riffle and purled and bobbed and was carried captive downstream. I thought of how I often felt imprisoned to time and demands not of my own choosing, an inmate without choice or say, and yet I have legs and mobility and spirit and have used them to this conclusion. I have seen the beginning and the end of a creek that might be named Juganine or named nothing at all, and though my imprint upon it will never be the name of my beloved, it bears my footprints from start to finish.

I stood there until the leaf disappeared around the bend. The sharpie crossed the river and flew southward. I watched it go and turned to follow. My legs carried me up the hill. I am not a leaf.

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