SWIMMER IN A MISTY RIVER
It was strange, he thought, how only the willow was green. None of the other trees along the
riverbank were in leaf, not one. He'd always liked willows. There was something graceful
about them, poetic, as though words, heavy with their weight of meaning, had rained down
on them and the slender branches draped under the force of time and tears.
Ah, Hamilton, he chuckled, you should have majored in literature rather than journalism.
But he hadn't. Now here he was smack in the middle of...wait a minute. Where...?
It was cool, though he didn't feel cold, only...not hot...and somehow that was good, the fact
it was not hot. Mist lay everywhere and he lifted his lightly-bearded face up into it, liking
the feel of it against his skin. Inhaling deeply, he felt the mist enter him, slide down into his
lungs and moisten them as well. Good, yes, very good. He looked down the quiet river,
silvery gray, its surface mirror-like and calm. It was moving slowly, if it were moving at all.
He decided it had to be moving as there was nothing about it that gave him the sense of
stagnation. Alive, yes, it was alive in its silvery calmness. Not far away it curved to the left
and was lost to sight, it's silvered waters merging with the silvered mist.
For a while he stood quietly, studying the tree reflections it spread before him, a visual
offering that should not be ignored. To the left were the leafless traceries made by those not
yet in the garb of spring. The willow occupied the right, its delicate greenness doubled by the
willing water. Just as he was thinking that it might be nice if the wands dipped themselves
into the wetness, completing the connection of tree and river, a sudden ripple broke the
surface and an arm appeared, a slender feminine arm, curved up then down as a hand
reached forward in a swimmer's stroke.
Odd, he hadn't seen her coming down the river. He waited, expecting to see her head rise
up, the familiar gulp of air a swimmer takes...but there was nothing... the little disturbance
she had made was gone and the river lay flat once more. He peered very hard, leaning forward,
wondering if he should, perhaps, be concerned.
"Ha-looo!" he called, as though his voice would penetrate down to some drowning soul. He
wondered that his voice did not echo in his own ears, and waited more, but there was such a sense of calmness everywhere and the very thought of a death struggle beneath the silvered surface seemed so out of place, that he sat down beside the willow, leaning his back against it, encompassed in a blanket of peace and gentle quietness. He did keep an eye on the river, though...just in case.
Everything around him was so very different from...from what? He knew it was different from
something, but he couldn't think of it at the moment and it didn't, truly it didn't, seem all that
important. What was important was how the mist formed a layer of wetness on the willow
wands and when it grew heavy enough, it dripped from their tips, some of it falling on his
legs, some into the river. It was soundless, no mundane plop plopping sounds. That's when he
became aware that there was no sound. The world was overtly visual and that was enough.
Sound would have been extraneous. Quiet. He liked the quiet. It was opposite...of something.
Did he sleep? He wasn't certain, but when he opened his eyes, not even remembering having
closed them, it was somewhat darker, the mist thicker. Rising to his feet he followed a little
path that led away from the back of the willow.
He followed it with the looseness of expectation a man carries when it doesn't matter where
he's going. The path turned back on itself, wound and rewound its way through the mist-draped
wood until it devolved into a walled garden. Stopping at its edge, he looked around. The
path had ended in a bed of sedum and iris, beyond which lay an untamed rose garden whose
gardener had long since moved on. The wall was high, too high to see beyond, and made of
concrete divided by brick columns. Once it had been white washed, but much of that was
faded now, red plainly evident on the bricks. In the center of each panel was a sculptured
bust, Greek or Roman he wasn't quite sure and it didn't really matter. The roses needed
pruning, or would if this were some public garden where women in white straw hats wandered
of a Sunday afternoon. But his garden had gone wild, as was its destiny and pruning shears
had no business here.
He didn't stop to smell a rose as he walked through the weedy grass. It wasn't necessary to
stop as the misty air was filled with their scent, holding it up, holding it there for him to
pass through. Weren't roses supposed to share their scent more fully in the warming of the
sun? No, these were mist roses, sweet yet delicate, almost intoxicatingly subtle in their
penetration of his soul.
When he reached the further end of the garden he found the path again, his path, as he now
thought of it. He walked for a while, his footsteps soundless, no watch to interrupt and force
its minutes into unnecessary awareness, even the seasons...loose...as some trees were in
autumn's leaf. Rounding a bend, he came upon a cottage, the most rustic of its kind he'd
ever seen, something from a half-remembered storybook. It walls were made from slabs
of trees, gnarled bark still on and that mostly coated with thirsty moss that drank the mist
and sucked its moistness inward to some satisfied core.
It wasn't that he was actually tired, but some desire to go inside and sit himself down for a
while took his fancy and he went to the little door, putting his hand out to grasp its handle,
but pausing before he touched it for it was, in itself, so appealing that it nigh required a
pause for appreciation to rise and show itself by lighting up the eyes.
Inside, was only a bed, piled in layers of eiderdown quilts and he lay upon them, sighing
gratefully, for gratitude was strong in him. Embraced in cloud-like feathered arms, he
closed his eyes and smiled.
"Hamilton! Oh, God, Hamilton!"
"Who is it, Captain?" He genuinely could not tell.
"Hamilton Grace, Sir, embedded journalist for the Times."
"He shouldn't have been here. I know they get permission for themselves, but the man should
not have been this far forward...not today."
Lightning struck the cottage, soundless but magnificent in its strength, and it jolted through
him, disturbing his rest. His back arched, his body stiffened, but he willed it to go away...and
it did. He rested again, undisturbed, refusing to be disturbed.
In the morning he was refreshed and left the cottage, glad to set his feet once again on his
path. The path wasn't straight, not in the least, and he liked that about it. There was a
freedom about the path, yes, that was it. The path was free and it wandered over little
hills, alongside small streams, through woodlands and across meadows as it willed with
no one taming it with edging bricks or paving stones that tried to tell it where to go.
He could see the river again now, through the thinning woodlands and thought he might go
and sit along its bank, possibly swimming in its silver waters. He wasn't sure. He'd just wait
and see what he did when he got there. Almost up to its edge, he stopped because someone
was lying there across his path. It was someone, yet it was not. The woman was made of
stone, lying nearly face down, but slightly more on her left side. Except for her face, she was
entirely covered in moss and that seemed right for it blended her with the land, made her a
part of it.
She'd been there a long while for the moss to grow so thickly, and her hair was a thatch of
grasses that partially draped over one eye like the plume of some long-ago lady's hat. She
loved the earth. That much he could easily see. Half of her was in it, part of it, and the rest
hugged into it with an almost tender caress of form. Something in the way the arm was bent,
the hand stretched out, brought to mind the swimmer in the misty river.
Sitting on a tree stump, he talked with her a while, telling her about the wild garden and
the little house. He didn't mention the swimmer for he presumed she already knew of her.
He talked to her a long time. He guessed it was a long time. He didn't know. But he looked
away toward the river after...what?...after. After was all. And the river was almost invisible
in the thickening mist. When he looked back at the earth woman, for he'd come to think of her
as such, she'd changed and the moss was gone from her shoulder and hip, replaced by darker
ivy. She lay more deeply in the ground, her hand completely covered, and moss now rested on her cheek and her hairgrass was shorter, as if a season or two had passed and he had not noticed and now spring was beginning again.
Blinking, he rose from the stump, walked to the river's edge...and kept walking. The water
was cool around his legs, and good. Further he went then leaned forward and began swimming in the silver water and in the mist.
He swam through the delicate traceries of the leafless trees and under the willows where
their mists dripped down upon him. It was effortless and so cool, so delightfully cool after...
after something, something that had been hot and uncomfortable but no longer mattered
enough to be remembered.
The Army medic in the evac copter taking him to the base near Kabul shook his head. "Too
much, Sir. IED just damaged his head too much. That and all the burns. Doesn't look good.
Doesn't look good at all."
He swam alone downstream. Was it downstream? Without a current he wasn't really sure.
It didn't matter. It was cool and he liked the calm silver colors. He treaded water for a
while, tipping his face into the mist again, then something moved him to turn in the water
and swim back the way he'd come. He didn't know why. It didn't matter why. But as he
neared the willow, he began to hear the mist dripping from the slender, tapered leaves into
into the river's waters, just a small sound but almost like children laughing in a distant room,
down some long, untraversed hall. It made him smile, the sound, and then he saw her again,
sure, steady, swimming in the mist directly toward him.
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