A story about loosing oneself in love
by Seth Pevey
The summer of the river began with my decision to die.
The wisteria and kudzu vines were reaching their thickest, and a green blanket covered up the world. From the porch swing, I could see every beast in the fields fighting for space beneath these blooming jade canopies, each one hungry to escape the passionate sun. Thoughts of that summer carry my memories into the forest, to spiraling creepers and how they hung from the boughs quietly yearning for some new hold – hypnotizing me as they swayed noose-like with every wind.
But it was not until the grass had dried to a lifeless brown in every unshaded spot and I could smell the bittersweet waft of flowers simmering in the churchyard that I decided to say goodbye to my wonderful life.
I should tell you first about the old man I lived with every summer since kindergarten. This particular year I was in-between semesters at college and, as usual, spent the sultry days watching my grandfather’s pride grow thick with the mud on our boots and sweat on our brows while I helped him make ready for the fall harvest. Life for my grandfather never got complicated until the evening. He lived for work until the sun wound down and the crickets in the hayfield had commenced their chorus in full. Then, together in the lengthening shade of the front porch, our hearts would live for adventure. With every sunset, between pulls on his corncob pipe, my grandfather became the master of story. I would listen, hypnotized as he spun yarns about how some great-great uncle of mine had tricked the king out of his deer or saved some lady from an evil troubling her. But you probably know the rest; you probably know about a million stories, and so you might see why the commercial almost killed me.
Yes, a television commercial instigated my decision to die.
No, I’m not crazy; I was just ignorant.
What I didn’t know yet was that right when you think everything has come to an end is usually the moment the story really starts. That’s how my last day instead became my first.
It was a day when the moisture of the season had stuck the pages of my book together, driving me in from the porch swing. The heat and wet of the air were ponderous enough to crush a man, so for the first time of the summer my grandfather stayed home from the fields and his black-and-white Magnavox came on with a buzz.
I’m sure you've seen the commercial before and just shrugged like most people do at everything that goes on around them, but that’s no way to go about life, or death.
It’s a military recruitment promo – a couple of set-jawed Marines jumping from a plane into the frothing sea below and a burly voice in the background saying:
"If someone wrote a book about your life, would anyone want to read it?"
I remember muting the TV while I sat there on the edge of the bed thinking about this for a long time.
Right then is when I decided to go down to the big oak bottom with my 12-gauge and paint the leaves with my brain. If I wasn’t a good story; after all, I was just taking up space.
* * *
I wrote my grandfather a short note and left, down the porch stoop and out towards the wooded back forty.
Walking towards death I watched the hidden dove of the rye field scattering before me in the midday sun. Through the heat I could hear the locusts in the thorn bushes singing. I’d wasted my life. I remember closing my eyes that day as I walked, wanting to forget about all this splendor I’d squandered for so long. By the time I entered the forest, I couldn’t wait to leave it all behind.
Come to find out, that’s really the only way to find something- first you have to tell it goodbye. Forget about all the beauty in the world, and here it comes chasing after you.
That’s why sometimes, I think the river saved my life.
Because I knew it hadn’t been there before, finding it was the first time I’d ever felt like God could be real. Sometimes, I think it was spring floods that diverted the river into my grandfather’s woods or even that it could have been beavers. Other times I just think it was God. The important thing though, is that it was there, unexpectedly crossing the path between me and the place I was planning to die.
When I think about it now, I know I could have shot myself anywhere. When I remember that day, I know the river saved me in a way that went beyond practicality. The only thing I can tell you about this river is that it made me stop for the first time in my life in that sappy flower-smelling way you usually only read about on hallmark cards.
After all, it wasn’t just a shallow creek winding through the oak and sycamores at its own easy pace; it was beauty flowing there.
The river would have been enough, but splendor has a way of piling up on itself – like a big orgy of wonder that makes your heart want to give up. That’s why sometimes I think it was the river that saved me, and other times I think it was Spring.
Before Spring I never liked girls. I always thought that having all the loveliness they could want at their command made them kind of empty and hollow inside – as if beauty had been wrapped up for them in a nice box such that they couldn’t be bothered to notice how thick it spun around them in every other thing. Like maybe they thought themselves the only beautiful things on earth.
Spring had her box too, she just lived outside it.
That day I found the river, ready to die, shotgun in hand, she was on the other side. She sat on a stump, singing a song in a strange language that would never again leave my mind.
Plaited hair, dark as oil would look on a moonless night in a cypress swamp, a silver wind-chime voice I couldn’t pick out from the trickling of the brook, eyes like the sky after a storm – this was Spring.
I still dream about that moment – how she looked sitting there and how my heart almost burst seeing all this at once, how I almost put a period on the story of my life five minutes before it began.
Life is funny, and for the first time there by the river I decided to stop taking it so seriously.
“Hey!” I yelled as I walked closer to her through the still thick air.
With that, she would bolt in a flurry towards the brush, and I would follow her. Most days I would have been wise enough not to approach a stranger in the woods with a shotgun in my hands, but not that day, and that’s how I first meet Spring.
I tromped through the river after her, and then things went black.
The next thing I remember is waking up in a tent, a real tent. I woke to the smell of meat smoking and a burning lump in my head. For the first time in my life I really woke up.
* * *
The rest of that summer passed with the thoughtlessness that time reserves for someone who falls in love. Spring had saved me on that day we met, as rushing after her I had fallen face-down on top of the stump she’d darted from. From then on, I loved her. Soon, I didn’t need to hear my grandfather’s stories anymore. I was content only to finish my work early and go on crashing though the thickening forest vines to the tent where she lived. By the beginning of July, I was starting to understand some Kickapoo, and we could talk together in a limited Pidgin. She told me about the reservation she was born on miles to the south, about how one day the Gods up and stole her sacred river, then told her to go with it.
Once I tried telling her back that beauty would find her, and that there was no need to follow it around, but I don’t think it translated very well.
She was wild, and not in the stupid way people usually use to describe a girl who drinks a lot or loves fast cars or has sex with too many men. I loved her, and she was wild in the way that a forest fire ignites pine needles while it's still thirty yards away from them or the way you think of kudzu vines being wild as they grow deep over every thing in sight.
At first I thought she was too wild and that I’d take her back to my grandfather's house – try and teach her about all the stuff that normal girls do in the world outside the forest. At first, but then I pictured her walking around like the girls at the college do. I imagined her talking to a cell phone all day about these cute shoes she bought or what that girl was thinking when she wore clothes that didn’t match or how this dude's hot car turns her on.
When I pictured Spring living in her box and pissing away all the beauty in the world, I decided on not trying to teach her a single thing.
Instead, I became wild with her. Instead, she taught me.
The deeper I began following her into the freedom that only comes from being wild, the faster I started trading things. I traded my house for the tent, the country store for traps and guns, microwaves for roaring flames, truck for a canoe, and my grandfather’s stories for my own.
My grandfather was so worried about me he tried to call a doctor from the town to come talk to me. When I walked up onto the porch and saw the doctor sitting with my grandpa on the porch swing, that was the last time I went back to the farm. I didn’t miss a single thing.
Together, Spring and I found peace in the world that summer. Every evening we caught game and fish along the water to bury in the embers of our fire. After we ate, we would make love wrapped up in a soft doeskin blanket and then talk quietly over the cries of owls and coyotes until we heard the whip-o-wills calling for the dawn.
I loved her, and together we were as wild and free as the summer stars we slept under.
“That is my old home.” she said pointing at the National Geographic map insert I’d brought to her one night. It took a while to convince her that a piece of paper could really show all the land she had ever seen. She asked me how men could look down from heaven to draw the earth in such a way.
“Here is the college” I showed her pointing upstate, “there people work for four years to earn a piece of paper that proves they are smart, a dip-lo-ma it’s called.”
“Does it have some great wisdom on it, like the map?” Spring asked me.
I loved her more and more with every day that passed, but as the season wore on, I began to imagine all the things that the fall would bring. I knew that sooner or later I would have to go back to school and would only be able to visit Spring on weekends. Of course, I also knew that this would never be the same. After a while, I began to picture trading back all the love and adventure I’d found that summer for my normal collegiate life. I considered what it would all mean – dorm lights instead of the sun and moon; lust for money instead of beauty; books upon books of other people's stories replacing my own; the co-eds I’d known instead of Spring.
That was when I first thought of leaving down the river.
Because by then, I had become so wild and free that there was no way to take it all back. From then on the desire to go grew in me like storm.
When the leaves started to turn, I’m like the river on the day it saved me and don’t need anything in particular to decide which way I flow.
All I needed was Spring and the river, and every night I would tell her this. I tried for days to describe the adventures that would be ours if we left, the freedom we would have to be moved by nothing but ourselves.
Together, we would have already been that free, if only it wasn’t for Him.
Spring was only moved by one thing in the world, and that was her God. She knew her God had changed the river, made her come to this place, and brought me to her. It was because of God that she would not leave. It was He that anchored her here, and with her, my heart. So, for a while, I did my best to sweep every thought of leaving into the deepest corner of my mind. Love, I decided, love was a good enough way to end any story.
But my forward-feeling never waned, and one dawn its circle came round while Spring and I sat beside the deepening creek,
Before I did anything, I asked Spring the same question I had every morning the past two weeks.
“Why must you stay here?”
“I stay for my God” Spring answered, just as she had done every other dawn.
“Why do you stay here?” she said looking into the water, for the first time turning the question back at me.
“I stay for love,” I said to her in her own language, “and I think that love should go together with us tonight down the river and never come back”
We both stared downstream for a moment in silence until I continued.
“I love you, and we can canoe and trap well enough to make good on the river and on our own.”
“My God has brought me here. He has chosen this spot for me. I stay because I love my God.” Spring said looking into me with her stormy eyes.
All that day I begged and pleaded with Spring to leave with me and never return, but her God was not so easy to move as a river, or as my heart.
As the sun began to lower that evening I went deer hunting alone to try and collect the loose fragments of my mind. I thought hard about the day I had decided to die, about finding Spring and finding the river, both in one spot. I thought about whether it was floods or a beaver dam or God and which God that might have put them there. I thought about what might have happened if the river had never changed it’s course in the first place and if I’d have died that day still being ignorant to so much beauty and love. That night I never even looked for a deer. That night alone in the woods I just thought. I thought hard, and thought long. Soon I decided to walk back along the river bank.
It was only a few moments after the sun had finally finished, rising brilliantly over the tops of the sycamores, that I saw something that would divert the flow of my life forever.
It could have been from a farm somewhere way up river, or from the forest and just washed in by the rain. It could even have been God really there and trying to tell me something like He was always doing for Spring.
It doesn’t really matter.
As I sat in silence that morning, I saw a feather come floating gently around the upriver bend. As I watched it, it spun gracefully around with the swirling eddies, sat stagnant a moment in front of me, and then went sliding around out of sight and gone forever behind the hickory trees downstream.
That day, as I watched the feather turn the corner and disappear into whatever lie ahead, something inside me went with it. I still don’t understand why, and I guess it’s not important. The only thing I know is that as this feather vanished down river, it pulled my heart with it- stretching it out so thin that I could simply no longer resist the urge to follow.
That was when I left.
I realized then that it didn’t really matter who or what put the river in my way or brought Spring and I together in love. What I had seen in the feather was a sign, a sign that the river didn’t have to have a particular reason to go one way or the other, and neither did my heart.
Gods, beaver, floods. It doesn’t really make a difference so long as it keeps you going. I’d leave the same way a hundred times.
If you’re not a good story, after all, you're really just taking up space
That was why I finally left for wherever the river might take me. That is why my story ends in a whole new beginning.
Even though I left, love has never left me. These days, I can see it everywhere the currents take me. It lives in my river and it lives in me- no matter which way it is we flow. It’s in us always regardless of whose path we cross or un-cross; no matter what reasons we have for doing so. Ater all, it’s not what or who you love that counts, just that you do at all. Because once love has found a way in, it will stay inside you forever. When that happens it doesn’t matter anymore where you end up, you just want more.
But yes, I still miss Spring like the summer stars.
Even today I wonder what she might have felt when she found the drag-marked sand where I’d pushed my canoe out into the river. I never told her goodbye, but I think she knew. That dawn when I left, I didn’t have the courage to wake her. The only thing I could think to do was lay a bright red feather beside her where she slept late on our doeskin blanket. I have dreams now and then about how her heart may or may not have been broken, knowing for sure that I left pieces of my own that morning when I floated away.
I’m sure they are still there, lying on the bank.
But, with so much beauty spread all over creation, there isn’t much sense in keeping all those pieces stuck together in one place.
There isn’t much sense in dropping anchor for love when you know it’s floating away right there with you.
And besides, just like love, a river is too fast, too deep and too far stretched to be any use at holding an anchor very long.
And that’s fine by me. Call me crazy.
But then, I could tell you some damn good stories.
After all, It’s true what they say – right when you think that things have all come to an end at last, well, that’s right where they begin.