Our father went against our mother that day.
Because of his promise to us. This happened
years ago. The long carriage of the station
wagon hurtled along Highway 99 in August,
windows cranked down to flystrewn dusty
fields. Madame Rosa's neon hand appeared
beside the roadway long before we could
make out the red letters: Psychic Readings.
And then beneath in smaller script: Past
Present Future. The inner tubes were
inflated in the back because he'd promised
upcanyon there'd be a stop. It started
there in that promise—waiting for the river.
In the little knot of that promise it all began,
the station wagon rolling across seams
in the bridge over the Kings River and the
children clamoring for water. I never said
what I wanted, but for a moment I wanted
to step inside Madame Rosa's house, to see
beyond the parlor into the kitchen where she
might stand when there were no customers,
staring maybe at the cottonwood that line
the riverbank or the dotted Swiss of her curtains,
not thinking exactly, just letting her mind run,
but the children begged for water
and our father pulled off the road. Our mother
saw the barbed wire and the sign that said Private
Property. She saw doom everywhere and said so.
It was not our way to break the law, to trespass
onto farmlands, fields left fallow in long
grass with channels of the Kings cutting through,
marked by tiny canopies of scrub willow which
always means water. We stopped in spite of
our mother and all of us went against her. Madame
Rosa was impossible because strangers were not allowed
to touch us, we must not open our hands to them,
fingers spidering, palms moist in the lines they would trace,
heart line, fate line. I never believed I would die then.
Madame Rosa was out of the question.
That was not our way. My mind likes impossible
thoughts, likes to hold the barbed wire wide
and slide carefully through.
I held the wire for them all, led them through
the razor grass to the soggy banks.
Our mother sat silent about breaking the law
in a hot car on a seething day while we entered
the bower of the river and were permitted
one by one to launch ourselves.
It's all green light inside the riverchamber,
the water moss-brown, a little more persistent
than we expected. We were happy
at first, talking, negotiating the snags, calling
back & forth, and then happy quietly
because our father had given in,
our mother had been bested, over-ruled,
and that's unseemly to speak of,
yet joyous, the heart drowning in joy,
the way love must be, as the world
goes greener and all the trees kneel down,
sweeping their long arms down in greeness,
light shafted wafer-thin, filtered bottle-green,
water persistent—oh, the water
was going somewhere; it had a destination
which meant so did we, because all do.
Madame Rosa can see this, each with a destiny
and an end, though we only thought then
of the beautiful world, our hands open,
the lines rippling across like water, we were going
where the river was going, maybe the green room
where the fairies live at the base of the rushes.
That seemed true because the channel was twisting
smaller, we too might be shrinking to match
this narrow space, as small as any one of us
ever wanted to be, and up ahead, there was
something in the water, a snag, or a rock.
Something I came up against and tried to push off.
When I pushed it was spongy, not sharp
and anchored like a rock, not twisted like limbs
or branches, spongy and huge, blocking the channel,
not knowing, I pushed again, and this thing,
not sprung free, not dislodged,
but a vastness floating, lifted up, and I touched
thin hair and bone, extension and bloat, lank
wet hide, I touched death,
the current was pushing me, pushing
my body against the hide, and I saw the head suddenly,
the dead head with its open eyes and doe ears
on the great body, sprawled legs snagged
and held in place, a cow that had wandered into the stream
and drowned, held now where I was held up against her.
A cow who had come down to the banks for the last time
and light poured through the willows and beat its wings
in the poplars and maybe she lifted her head, hooves in the mire,
and saw what I saw, light passing through spires
of reeds, her life running into the river, at first
without knowledge, and then knowing. Silence
and then sound. A voice coming from a tin box
shouting, a dead cow, a dead cow,
so that we would not all come to this place,
one child after another boxed in and wedged
up against the wall of floating death
with her darkwater eyes. How small her head
beneath the water, but her body had grown in death
and I couldn't get around it.
So I had to slide into the water and
push against her swimming for the side.
I'm not allowed to touch death.
My hands paddled against the stomach wall
of the creature, against slickness, the spongy
way it gave, and yet held me. Death is not quiet.
Madame Rosa knows this. You can hear it
when you stop your thrashing.
A sound will come then, a kind of crooning
rising from the water, brown as blood, a song like oil,
insinuating. We were promised water.
The children clamored. That summer
we went into the river the day was seething.
The water promised one thing, our mother another.
I kicked away from the slippery hide
hoping everything was held inside,
but it wasn’t. Death was leaching
out, oozing onto me. Stumbling finally
to shore, the others did not even tease me
because they saw I was covered in death,
that I had to walk that way back to our mother,
and for an instant she would be glad.