Self-Portrait with Headwaters

— Geffrey Davis

My father failed to let our family eat and yet, for years, remained beautiful and resilient to me. Some call it addiction. So now I fear and feign what’s spring-fed about hunger, what’s dark about my thirst. Run-off watersheds go low and deadly warm for fish, according to shifts in season, but the numbed vein of a spring will bless a river’s biota with refuge only the cold can provide.

*

Like Carbon Glacier, sometimes what sustains us looks more dingy than dangerous up close. A dirty discharge carves for miles before becoming the scenic Carbon River with its sediment-rich current and chrome salmon fortified through their passage back from the deep obscurity of the Pacific. During my most reckless autumn, I escaped the city and ascended an icy trail to its headwaters, coatless. When I arrived neither cold nor hungry and found an ugliness that did little to quiet my stubborn search for a myth to solve for worry, I returned to the river’s singular direction—: everything altered, but nothing complete.

*

I am the only member of my clan to kill something from the Mississippi, to dangle a barbed question into that legacy:—What portion of this do I wish to be true? With a drainage that begins in northern Minnesota, the River snakes thousands of miles between Rocky and Appalachian Mountains, growing by gathering a part of its fluid force from more than half the US states, before muddying into the delta South. I know: the water that school told me to equate with a low-down, dirty terror has long since been divided and dispelled by the Gulf—so why then, while fishing shores of the Mississippi, do I feel and fear hooking a diaspora of drowned faces?

*

As a child I would climb into the warm mouth of my parents’ bed, trembled by the Sunday sermon, ready to beg away a short life of going left:—sins of the curious son, desires of the greedy goat, accidents of the forgetful brother. By sixteen, after sex, I had discovered too many appetites for which to atone. What could I choose but call the spirit of that first prayer—“Keep me with You”—a false course. Anyway, weren’t we designed for dispersal, to be diminished by the grave thirst of the fields that lie below? And who would deny the fertility of some absences? I do, however, love the glamor of an eddy, its unresolved meander, its agile queering of the current’s dumb flow. And I confess my gluttony for the immediate, so give me a break—or a gentler gradient—: a little more time to soak in all this contact falling away. How much worse should I be at confluence? How many blues must be banished to the bleary basin of memory? So it goes. So we go. And we go.

*

Sundown, with maps and flow charts spread around the living-room floor, I’m trying to distinguish the river’s source from its parts—which should show me how best to approach tomorrow’s fishing. From the couch, L smiles with more permission than gentle teasing, so I continue: For instance, the Sol Duc collects numerous tributaries before merging with the Bogachiel to become the Quileute—: and then, near La Push, all that gathering loses itself inside the vast Pacific. L leans over my shoulder, her hair smelling slightly of the lavender wash she uses to bathe our boy’s body before bed, her practiced hmm buoyed lovingly in the bay of my curiosity. And although it originates up in the Olympic Mountains, north of the High Divide, a lack of glaciers at stream headwaters keeps its habitat consistent:—and so the Sol Duc is one of few rivers on the Peninsula to support all major species of migratory fish. Though not an angler herself, L knows how I long most to hold the elusive steelhead in these coastal hands. Time and again I perform this ceremony—part memory, part prayer—and against what light remains, it occurs to me, I don’t understand the why of my craving to locate certain corridors through which the right water passes—to make contact less impossible between bodies otherwise drifting apart. Once more, I’ve lingered long beyond the body’s deep bell for sleep, so L rises into the dark’s soft extinction, and I follow—: the comfort of her tired steps sounding within my blind but promised reach.


Read more from Issue No. 12 or share on Facebook and Twitter.