The river doesn’t care.
It doesn’t care about the crystalline, perfect Spring day’s sunshine pouring down. It doesn’t care about me, or my older brother who is home from Uni, or my mother who has made a rare visit back as well and has taken us out fishing for the day. The river doesn’t care about any of that.
We haven’t been all together for a day’s fishing in years, though nothing’s changed. Not for them at least. For me, much has changed. I’ve had to learn how to navigate high school and my father’s moods all alone, just he and I in that big, empty house. She is still mostly-oblivious to the dynamics of her sons, the power struggles for her love. My brother is six years older and will do everything in his power to remain the centre of attention, trying his best to shine bright but belittling me if needed.
We stand on the gravel bank of a bend in the river, rods in hand. The sunshine and water are something out of a poem. They are perfect. She digs her camera out and tells us to pose, her boys. I have not been taciturn, but I have not been boisterous, obnoxious, or interruptive while he performs. I’ve been waiting for them to see anything that’s changed about me and when my brother goes to put his arm around my shoulders, always an act of domination rather than affection, he has to reach up for the first time ever.
Something has changed, and I wait for them to notice. I don’t want to dominate him, I never have. I don’t want to own or defeat him. I just want to be and I want to be seen. But I know his ego won’t allow that unless it’s suitably assuaged. She’s never realised this, and blurts out that by the next time we all get together I’ll have outgrown him. He stiffens next to me, and I brace myself for what he’ll need to do to bring the focus back to him.
He’s smart enough to know that conspicuously taking me down without elevating himself only brings him down too, he smiles as if all is well. Both of us stand there brandishing our fishing rods, posing. A split-second before the shutter snaps, he turns in a flash, grips my head and plants a cartoonishly sloppy kiss on my cheek. My mother roars with laughter and goes on about how funny he is.
The moment leaves smiles on all our faces as we hike up the river past the big bend, leading to whatever spot they think is best. They are the more experienced, more successful, fishers after all. For them, nothing has changed. I trail along behind them for a bit before I stop. I realise they’ll just continue on through the grass and brush without me, so I call out that I’ll be trying my luck at this particular spot.
Both look with confusion at me and then the water. It’s not a good spot, and he feels the need to tell me as such. I shrug and throw together some words that placate and show some river knowledge, anything that doesn’t betray my desire to be away from them. Something about working my way downstream toward the massive logjam at the bend. I turn to gesture to it to confirm but they are both already walking away.
I cast into the swift water, knowing nothing will happen but feeling the need to do something. I realise I need to be on the other side of the river for the best angle at the logjam, but the water here is hip-deep, and fast. I should try upstream for slower water. But they are up there, talking and laughing as they fish. I could go down, cross below the logjam and then walk back up, but there’s too much brush. I’ve forded the river before, so in I go.
The river is so strong that every step is a struggle, every solid footing its own success. I’m ever-aware of the river’s power, keeping my footing and my focus. As I near the middle where it’s fastest and deepest, I turn and look at them. I don’t know what I’m looking for. I don’t have time to ponder though, as my foot slips and down I go.
At first, the river is gentle. Not too cold or rough. But I am moving fast, too fast. A strong swimmer, I’ve never been afraid of the water. But that logjam is dangerous, deadly, and I am headed straight for it. The river bends away from it and I expect the current to bend with it, like the letter “J”. I am not swimming hard yet as one hand still grips my fishing rod, until I realise that the river doesn’t bend gracefully, it rams into a corner before continuing on like the letter “L” instead.
I’m not aware of losing my pole or my favourite hat, I only know I am swimming as hard as I ever have in my life. I am fighting the power of the river, but I am losing. I don’t panic but my thoughts cease to be thoughts and are now pure reflex. I stop fighting and try to protect myself as I am slammed into the logjam, the immense mass of tangled and broken trees having any number of sharp, broken-off branches in it. Then I am under.
The force is the biggest shock. My body isn’t mine now. Like an amusement park ride or under a dogpile of enthusiastic teammates, I am helpless. I don’t even register relief at not being skewered as I am pinned against the underside of the logjam. My thoughts return as I look up at the water splashing around on the logs above and start thinking of something, anything, that I can do to get out.
Pushing out against the river isn’t an option, as I’m barely able to move my arms. I angle one forward into the current and my hand slides along the surface of a massive log above me. Bubbles dance along the underside of it as I reach for something on it to grab as I couldn’t wrap my arms halfway around it. I find a limb’s remnant that fits my hand perfectly and brace myself, knowing that I am strong enough to pull myself up and out, to fight against this river and win. I pull with all my strength and I can feel movement.
But it is the log moving, all I’ve done is roll it over, and now my handhold is underwater with me. The reward for my efforts is to be pinned helpless again. I watch more bubbles dancing up to the logs above and realise I am running out of options as well as time. There’s no room for more mistakes.
I stop fighting. Because this isn’t a battle. The river doesn’t care about me and my struggles. It’s not something to be battled, to be victorious over. The river doesn’t care about winning. It’s not something I can fight anyway, it is too powerful to be fought. I am pinned, helpless, but I can move my arms upward along the rough bank I am pinned against. I won’t fight the river any more, I will work with it.
If I was able to pull one of the logs over before, there’s a chance I can push up between them. Gradually, I force my fingers up through the mass of timber wedged above me. The logs are heavy and the river strong, but I push steady and I don’t stop. Suddenly my hand is through and then the rest of my arm as well.
The logs resist, the hammering of the current pressing them painfully against my arm and I worry that it will be crushed. Or worse, that I’ll get my head in-between them and the relentless force of the river will squish me. My hand finds purchase on the riverbank, my fingers grasping a clump of tough grass, and I push my other arm up to grab hold as well. Then I pull with all I am.
And I am free. I slither onto the bank, gasping and heaving. I stand unsteadily and walk from the trees onto the gravel bank to that perfect sunshine. I feel like something should be different, like I should feel triumphant over the river in the battle for my life. Like I should have seen a light in a tunnel or a showreel of my exploits roll by, but nothing has changed. The logjam sits innocuously, water lapping up and around the leafless branches of long-dead trees before it rolls out the side and smooths out into the slower, wider, riffly and less-deadly, gravel-banked shallows.
I am shaking but I don’t feel cold. I am calm but feel like I shouldn’t be. My mother bursts through the brush, her normally passive face panic-stricken, her mouth a worried half-cry. My brother is a step behind her, in a breathless hurry while his eyes scan coolly across me and the riverbank, assessing the situation. My mother pulls me forcefully into her arms and makes both panicked and relieved noises. I don’t feel the comfort in her grip that I wanted. She is grasping me like something that she has nearly lost.
My brother glibly comments on how they had both seen me crossing and worried until they realised I wasn’t there any more. He accidentally admits it was only when they saw me climbing free from the logjam that they came running. He’s absently smiling and nodding at me as if all is well now that he’s arrived. My mother still holds me firm. Though I am calm, I remember shaking moments before and I try to manufacture a shudder, something to give her to make her feel like she’s needed, like she’s calming me. Instead she steps back, holding me at arm’s length and commenting on how cold I must be before turning me fully into the sun.
We hear his footsteps on the gravel before seeing my brother splash roughly into the river, swimming with a rescue stride out into the easy water. For a split-second I am confused, thinking he’s trying to valiantly rescue me, and I wonder if I’ve actually died in that logjam and I am now watching him attempt to recover my body.
He comes back, his smirk never fading as he gracefully returns to shore, strutting back to me, dripping wet and smugly handing me my favourite fishing hat. He makes some comment about how he couldn’t let our favourite team’s hat go floating down the river and I stand there wondering how he’s missed that this hat is for an entirely different team, their colours a slightly lighter shade of red than his favourite team. I see it for what it is. He needed something to bring the spotlight back to himself, so I put my hand over the hat’s logo and nod at him, thanking him as if he swam like that to save me.
She goes on about how impressed she was that he threw himself into the dangerous water to rescue his younger brother’s favourite fishing hat, and I see both of them. I turn to look at the river, feeling like I should feel poetic, roused to some beautiful articulation about the contrast of the violence and unrelenting force of the water against the logjam that then peters out into a peaceful and gentle flow that meanders across the gravel. I’m sure there should be some sort of comparative reviewing of my own life, some sort of analogous duality I can draw from this moment following my own struggle against this power for my very survival.
But the river doesn’t care. The sun shines on me and I am drying out and warming and, in that moment, neither do I.
The river doesn’t care.