I grew up on the river. It wasn’t much to behold for an out of towner with our faded wood house and overgrown poison ivy, but the stories Papa told me wove it into a place of beauty. He would wade out with me into the shallows and point out all the little things his father had showed him when he was a kid too. Papa always called it a right of passage to know our land, to know the texture of the river bottom against our feet, but I was the first girl that got to know these things. Micah was only a toddler at three years old, but that wasn’t what kept Papa from telling him the river’s truths. My brother was special. Papa said he communicated and understood the world in his own way. Micah couldn’t come close to the river. He couldn’t talk either. I didn’t mind much, even though Ma focused all her attention and loving on him. It meant I was the one Papa told all of the wonders of the riverland, because I could share them when he was gone and because I could be surrounded by the water’s power while Micah couldn’t.
Me and Papa’s feet stuck deep within the mud, warm and soft, as the river pooled around my stomach.
“Every year, Maya, right around the time the bush in our yard makes those pretty purple flowers-”
“The hyacinth bush, right Papa?”
He laughed and the water rippled around us. “Yes, honey. At the same time it starts to bloom, the steelhead trout come up the river.” He pointed along the trees on the other side of the bank. “Right over there, ten feet off the shore, a big cut in the river flow is where all those fish swim up.” I followed his gaze, transfixed as I imagined all those little fishes swimming up from the ocean.
“Can we go see, Papa?” I started pushing off to swim to the other side when he grabbed the back of my life jacket.
“Maya, don’t you go swimming off!” Ma yelled from the bank. “You know I can barely keep Micah from jumping in after you when you’re right there, if you go off any deeper he’ll dive right in after you!” I didn’t see why Mic couldn’t come swimming or why Ma never let him come in the river. Whenever me and Papa waded out to watch the molluscs be flipped around in shallows, she was always holding him up, never close enough to let his toes graze the water.
~ ~ ~ ~
From the time my brother was born, he was always with me. Papa said that siblings are always a part of us, but because Micah was special, he needed me more than most baby brothers would need their big sisters. I wanted him to feel the currents and watch how the moon phases guided the change of the tadpoles under the rocks, but I told him as much as I could while standing on the shore. I spoke of the ways of the forest and told him about the lifecycle of the hawk moth so much so that, even though he couldn't say the words, I knew Mic knew them by heart.
His favorite flowers were dandelions. I tried to tell him that the yellow bulbs were not even flowers at all, that they were weeds, but to Micah they were something to cherish, not to pull out by the roots. He learned all on his own that if he ran through the far corner of the field keeping the game trail right next to him, that the soft seeds of the dandelions would rise up in a tide of white around him. The whole field would be covered in the florets as the wind whipped them up and around the trees.
His favorite color was the rust of the underside of shagbark hickory’s thick trunk. The tree sat in the meadow with a bare ring in it’s bark just at the height which Micah's hands could reach. He was fascinated with the stuff. He was fascinated with everything. And I was the one who told him about the trees, the bugs, the plants, the dirt. He made me take him down to the river banks whenever it was exceptionally warm and sit in the dry grass until the sun faded and the lightning bugs came out. He would shriek with delight as my arm lit up with glowing freckles of june bugs, and chase around whichever blinking insect last caught his attention. He was at home outside, between the wooden house and the river. It was all his even though Papa never told him all the secrets of the land.
~ ~ ~ ~
Ma always made blackberry jam with Mic when Papa took me out to the river at dawn. We would go swimming off the back dock and I would revel in the feel of the gritty water around my legs. Each time we went out, Papa would send me down to the river bed to grab a handful of rocks and shells so that once I dove through the deep drop of cold at the bottom of the river, he would tell me about the smooth pebbles in my hand. Where they came from, what they were made of, where they were going. Ma had to keep all the windows in the house shut when me and Papa went swimming so that Micah wouldn’t see. The one time she forgot, he saw me dive into the river and managed to get one leg over the railing before Ma caught him. Having the windows closed made the sweet-scent of the jam take days to leave the house but it kept Micah out of the river.
As soon as Papa had dried off and headed back up to the house for a breakfast of toast and hot jam, Micah would charge straight back to my side. His brown head would bob along the top of the cattails before he would pull on my arm and take me back to the dandelion patch to make up for lost time outside. The smell of blackberries still clung to him those mornings, but it was always replaced by the sweet pollen of the gold weed as he picked all the new heads to bring back for Papa. Everyday he would do this, run through the field and stir up the dandelion seeds until they mingled with the green grass, before picking the flowers that had grown overnight. Everyday he brought Papa a handful of blooms he had spread the day before and everyday Papa gave him a big smile. But it was never what Micah wanted; he never traded the flowers for the secrets of the river, and all the pretty yellow blossoms in the world wouldn’t make Papa let him go swimming.
~ ~ ~ ~
“You just pick the stem of the flower and slowly pull,” I directed over his shoulder.
The honeysuckles had come in after the first perennial storm and the whole bank was alight with their soft golds and whites. Micah’s fingers wobbled at the task and slowly, ever slowly, he pulled the stem through- only for the drop of nectar to fall to the ground below him.
I could see his lips turn down at the dark soil where his sweet prize had gone and was quick to console him, “It’s okay, I’ll go get some more, alright?”.
I ran down to the bush closest to the river’s bank where the flowers were sweeter, a deeper gold color than the other blossoms. I filled up two handfuls and headed back up to the field when a young fawn went jogging past me. I looked for the telltale broken left antler of Dawn, the leader of our land’s deer herd. When I had tried to tell Micah that antlers on a deer meant it was a male, he insisted on naming the big buck Dawn, pointing to the rising sun cresting over the river the first morning he’d seen them out with me. I told him all about the tawny coloring of their fur and the sharp whites of their bellies, how that flash of color confused any mountain lion or wolf that tried to chase them away.
I heard the fawn snort to my right, and looked for him play sparring with some of his brothers and sisters from the season. But instead, when I turned, it was Micah he was playing with, whom he was telling he loved. Mic’s small outstretched hand met the deer’s wet nose and a smile immediately came across his face. He looked up at me as the young fawn nudged his side, trying to get him to run around, and the look of joy in my brother’s eyes running his hand along the deer’s back made me wonder if he just might know a bit more about everything than I did.
~ ~ ~ ~
Ma always was up before me and Micah. She would just stand out on the dock, real quiet, and look at the water. Sometimes, if I woke up when the sun was still low, I could see her outline through the rays coming off the water as she went down to the end of the dock. Whenever she looked back up at the house over her shoulder, I would duck back down under my covers. It always felt like I was intruding on her.
Papa would eventually make his way outside, his hair permanently ruffled from the river’s breeze. He would take her hand and sink down to his knees to dip his bare feet into the morning current. They would sit there, hands clasped and toes in the water, until the moon had fully set and the sky lost its bursts of orange.
Papa always picked persimmons from the tree that sat by the dock as they walked back, and me and Mic would eat our full before racing outside. Ma always stared after Micah as he stepped off the porch towards the river, her eyes drifting up to mine and holding my gaze before I went to follow after him.
~ ~ ~ ~
Micah ran unbridled over the big roots cracking through the earth. The maple tree’s leaves flipped to their white backs high up in the trees, but we had already come too far down to get back to the house before the storm would be here.
Mic didn’t stop running until he hit the bank, eyes wide with anticipation. He was never scared of the thunder or the pouring rain. He would point to the sharp bolts of lightning for me to count the time until he heard the thunder, then make me tell him how far away the storm was from those handful of seconds.
On that day, the river was swollen to the point of bursting. Mic was fascinated with the new pools the storm had created in the earth. He peered down at them with wonder as the bits of rock and bark twisted around in the swirling currents. His eyes were intent on the river as it cleared trees and shaped the earth.
The roar of the water was loud. It was so loud.
A huge tree across the river bed was ripped out of the ground and into the gobbling mouth of the river. It’s roots cut jagged scores into the ground as it was torn away from the only place it had ever known. It resisted the pull of the current for a few moments before its bark turned dark with the weight of the water and slipped under the river, only to pop back up a second later, further down the bend.
Micah wasn’t anywhere on the bank when I looked back.
“Mic?” I couldn’t hear myself over the rain or the wind or the growing silence. The sun shifted and the river swelled to a deep gray, and now I couldn’t see or hear, the river was merging with the falling sky and he wasn’t there. “Micah,” the back of my throat went raw with the sound, though it was no more than a whisper to my ears.
~ ~ ~ ~
The first time I’d gone down to the river alone, was two days later. I kept thinking he would come down at any second, rushing along the bank with the cool breeze. I sat in a dry patch of grass for hours, just waiting. I thought back to the time Ma had braiding blue speedwell into my hair, when I had asked Papa about his father. I never met him before he died, but I didn’t understand how Papa never cried when he talked about him.
He just smiled and said, “He’s not gone, honey. That day after my Papa died, I was sat in this exact spot on the bank, when, on the water, I saw his spirit rise from the water, fresh and beading.” I remember giggling back at Papa, who broke my gaze from the river with a tickle under my chin. “Don’t worry, honey. Your pappy had a good, long life. He loved the river with all he was, it was a part of him, and now he’s a part of it too.”
I started waiting for Micah’s own spirit. I stared at the water’s surface until my eyes hurt. I wanted Papa and Ma out with me, helping me find his soul, making sure he was alright, but they didn’t come that day or any other day I came out for the six months after that storm on the river. They didn’t leave the house anymore.
Ma didn’t have anything to take care of now. The small body we lost that summer day weighed enough to take the rest of our three lives along with it. Her hair no longer shined like river reeds as it had when she held Micah on her hip. Her skin, once as coarse and dark as the pebbled sand, had smoothed and paled to match the white of her sheets. She couldn’t be a mother to him anymore and the sight of me, alone, hurt her too much to be one to me. So she just stopped trying. Papa stopped going to work about three months ago. He never told me stories of the river anymore; just the hint of its must flowing in through my cracked window was enough to keep him with Ma in bed.
~ ~ ~ ~
One morning, I followed the slight stream the night’s rain had left on the bank until I was wading into the river. The pull against my legs was strong and the sediment was so heavy in the water that my fingertips were brown when I lifted them out. I thought back to the time Micah had rolled around in a puddle one day after we had watched a wolf spider make its thready nest. He had splashed in the small pool until his whole body was covered in the solid light brown of the clay.
“Ma’s gonna kill you”, I told him. “Look at yourself, Mic, you look like a pig!”
He looked down with shining eyes at his grubby hands and started snorting like a pig. He crawled over the sopping ground to where I was and nudged my leg with his head, still making pig noises.
“Okay, okay” I said through a laugh. I lowered down to my hands and knees and immediately felt the coolness of the mud through my worn jeans. A big clump of the stuff hit my shoulder from behind me and I turned to see Micah, laughing on his back at his handiwork.
“You think this is funny?” I started crawling over to him as he kept laughing at the brown clay slumping off my arm, “Fine. You mess with the pig, you get the horns!”
We stayed in the mud, chucking piles of it at each other and choking on the dirt and our laughter until Ma found us, wondering why we were taking so long to get back. When she looked at me and Mic, completely covered in mud except for our shining eyes, she didn’t yell at me for the mess on our clothes but surprised me by bursting out into laughter too. That night we got to eat dinner out on the front porch, letting ourselves stay covered in mud, dirty and carefree, for just a little longer.
Now, the harsh bite of January wind pounding down the river had the bank half frozen and cracking slightly under my feet. It would be months before it loosened up again, before the spring rains came and turned it into back to thick mud. Right at that moment, it felt like forever.
~ ~ ~ ~
No matter how early I woke up, I never saw Ma out on the dock anymore. Papa hadn’t seen the river now in over nine months; I no longer heard his voice and the stories of the great cottonwood that he and my uncle would camp out under when they were little, and jump off of when they were supposed to be sleeping.
I wanted those stories of Papa and the river back more than anything as I watched the stalks of young onions sprout up against the earth and saw the whirporwhills drink softly from upturned leaves after a fresh rainfall. I found the white cloth of caterpillar nests covering the blackberry bush, and watched the copperheads slip out of the bank’s undercuts into the water to hunt, but I had no one to tell. I laughed by myself as the cranky old heron Mic always use to chase after tried to show her fledgling how to fish, and cried alone as I found the decomposing body of the fox with the gray patch behind its ear that he always fed the fallen persimmons.
~ ~ ~ ~
I came home with my clothes sticky from the dew blowing off the river. I tiptoed quietly past my parents room; the door was open and it was black inside but I doubted they were actually asleep. When they were just sitting in there together in the darkness, awake, I tried even harder to go unnoticed. I fell back onto my bed and the pressure of the loneliness I tried to keep at bay throughout the day consumed me. With each passing month, Micah felt further and further away, even when I moved from the bank to wade out into the water. It was so hard to feel him now. My eyes closed against the rush of tears and I must have fallen asleep, gripping the cool comforter under me.
I woke up seemingly seconds later. I was down in the meadow, but it was daytime now. The sun was whiter than it had been in the entire six months Mic had been gone. That was the first time I had been able to think his name without a deep pang going through my heart. I was sat in a pride of dandelions and the flowers made me smile. Before he could walk, Micah would always make me blow the tufts off the stem whenever we saw one. I carefully pulled one out of the soil and held it up to my mouth, thinking of his laugh, and then watched them float up. When they had all risen into the breeze, they didn’t shower back down as they usually did. The wisps stayed in the air and massed together to form into a ball of white. It swayed in the breeze, jostling around until the petals gathered into shape; a flowery silhouette waited in the middle of the field. It started walking towards another, smaller figure that had emerged in the field.
“Micah!” I called to my brother, but no sound could be heard. His footsteps were soft as he approached the white silhouette willowing in the breeze. A gust of wind rustled his dark curls and he giggled as the white dandelion puffs cupped his cheek and were swept off into the breeze. As soon as the last tuft faded, I was pulled from the meadow, back in my bed with sore fingers gripping the sheets and nothing but my dreams to hold onto.
~ ~ ~ ~
I didn’t say anything the next morning as I crept past my parent’s bedroom. I just let the storm door fall closed softly behind me and followed the thinning trail down to the river. My footprints along the bank were drowned out by the water as it lapped up in small waves. The whispers of the dried reeds along the bank hitting together were the closest thing I had to Micah’s presence in that moment. I always imagined they were what he would sound like if he spoke--light, twinkling, alive.
My toes caked up with the drying mud and I reached down to smooth it from my skin. The heat of it against my palm, so subtle and real, filled me up with an old warmth. I looked up to see the sun just kissing the water and noticed some movement along the bank. A group of newborn spotted fawns were kicking up the water with their back hooves, stumbling around in the mud. I looked further up onto the grass until I caught sight of Dawn grazing calmly with the fawns in his vision. He looked up at the sound of one baby doe mewing for her mother and our eyes met for several seconds before, accepting my presence with the herd, he continued chewing on the clovers in a dried patch of weeds. The fawns kept playing around me, one coming so close to me, that her side brushed against my arm with a warmth different than that from the rising sun.
I thought back to the morning Micah first watched Dawn’s herd. I remembered the awe in his eyes as he watched how they moved as one through the forest. I thought of all the bird songs I had whistled for him on the way back home from a day on the river, of the way his small lips could never get a sound out before cracking into a smile.
I looked back down to the river. I knew it wouldn’t be long until I’d be able to tell him about the small warren of rabbits I’d found in the meadow and see his eyes grow large again with excitement and wonder. I stepped into the river and the fawns tried to catch the tiny waves that lapped onto the shore on their tongues. The water covered my clothes and the initial chill soon faded to a growing warmth.
The birds sang for me. The trees glistened with all their dew colored leaves. The water swirled up to my chin. All of the sounds grew and blossomed and spread and deepened and never died until they gave way to the sound of fresh mud being splashed in and the plucking of golden dandelions, along with that contented laugh of a small boy who knows all the secret beautiful things in the world.