It was there, in the creek. We had been walking through the forest, along the path of an ambling creek, down hills and over roots, sidestepping rocks and circling round old tree trunks. There were seven of us, two adults and five children (ages three to six). Each of us had a hand on a long strip of rope that we variously used as a swing, a jump rope, or a snake. Now we were a dragon, trailing through the forest, visiting the trees and leaves and bending our awkward bodies into their shapes. And then there it was, as if it had always been there, the jewel in the creek.
“Tell me children,” said Silke, “how does the water flow in the creek?” Various shouts and responses. None of them were paying much attention. No matter. “Do you see, children? Take a look.”
The creek was small, even by New Mexico standards. In most places a young adult could easily cross it with a nimble hop. The flow, at this time of year, was little more than a trickle. But a torrent of old trees and branches and rocks crisscrossed its path, creating a series of pools and roundabouts and cascades that made for joyful variety, and sound.
Here, where we had stopped, the water tumbled out of a thicket of small branches, over the course of a large stone, and into a small circular pool not more than three wide. It created a most delicious trickling sound. At the far end, amidst another thicket of branches, the water seeped out almost unnoticeably. It has probably been like that for years, or at least since last spring when the snow-melt brought a refreshing plunge of water through the creek, breaking the old dams and re-pitching the limbs and branches for another season.
The magic of this pool was that the water, trickling in from above, created a gentle circular motion, a gyre, that was breathtaking. On most occasions, one would not have had the opportunity to notice it, but it being fall, the pool was now littered with leaves - roseate, yellow and cream-brown. Subtle varieties of color and shape. They turned slowly in the pool, as if clockwork, each leaf distinct, moving in unison. Smooth, laminar flow.
It would go on like this, it was evident, until something disturbed this near miracle of balance. It would turn effortlessly into the night, the next day, perhaps into the new year. Until, that is, someone steps timidly on the thicket of branches, or a mother deer, stealing silently through the night, dislodges a stone with her hoof. It might just take one leaf after another, tumbling down from the branches above till the surface is crowded in a thick, wet mosaic of color. Maybe it will stop.
But not today. Today, the gyre was a jewel of a thing to watch, a perfect harmony of color and motion, slowly turning each leaf yellow, cinnamon and strawberry blonde. In front and back, above and below, and in every direction this clockwork jewel was surrounded by the multitude and crisscrossing layers of wilderness and humanity. The branches and microbes and mosses, the discarded cups and shiny foil of candy bar wrappers. The glossy green glass of beer bottles mixing into the soft, muted greens of the junipers and sage. A thick bed of pine needles was underfoot, and the discarded leaves of a thousand generations of summers and winters. It was all here, circling this jewel, the wind and the clouds, the voices of birds, and us.
Of course, the children had little patience for this sort of idle romancing. The language of the forest speaks differently to them. One word is enough. Breaking my reverie, one of the boys, Griffin, spurt further down the trail with telltale clomps of his feet. A wild horse, that one. He stopped after a short distance. “A fish! A fish!” he shouted, and of course we followed.
Fish, king of the mythical water underworld, the sort of beast that is always presumed, nearly sighted, often hidden - pretended, magical, gross and sublime. And real. There we stood, next to a much larger pool of water, all seven of us eagerly searching…and then there it was, quick as a black flash, a fish as large as my hand. We had all seen it, clear as day, darting from one dark corner to the next. There was no need for posturing, or doubt. The look of joy on each child’s face, and on my face, was immeasurable. We turned, each of us looking into each other’s eyes as if to nod our assent. It was real.
We spent the next half hour - a half hour! - sitting on the bank of that creek, anticipating the fish’s next move.
“Over there!” one of the children would shout.
“No, that’s just a shadow.”
“No, it’s a rock!”
“I’m going to stab it with my stick.”
“Come here, fishy fishy fish.”
Now the posturing began. The pool was quite large, large enough for an adult to take a plunge and even kick and spread one’s arms. On the upstream side was a massive collection of old tree trunks with branches and roots dangling into the water, creating a large shelf of impenetrable density under which a shadow realm of fish and possibility thrived.
Perched along the bank, each of us had taken up our positions, some sitting idly near the top, others hanging precipitously over the edge. Several had sticks, or were floating boats of leaves or bark. There was a sense of anticipation, and also that timeless eternity of perfection. There was nothing to do but wait and listen to each others waiting.
“There it is!” Griffin shouted, always eager. His eyes are keen, and his movements are quick and nimble. He turned and looked at me, eye to eye, as if to prove he saw the fish. He pointed vigorously with his hand, and pierced each of us in turn with his glance. If I believed him, if we believed him, would it be fair to say that he had seen the fish? I wore an expression of doubt. But who’s to say?
Griffin anticipates and overshoots reality vigorously, so that it’s hard to take him at face value sometimes. But there’s no question that he is almost always the first to sight something, to reach something, to climb up, to discover. He is the proverbial handful, but I have fallen in love with his indefatigable and fierce curiosity. He tests everything for himself, doubts everything I say, pushes every limit. And yet, he does it all within a container of respect. He is, socially, one of the most graceful and inclusive of all the children, favoring no one in particular and excluding no one else. He is wild and passionate, and to my tastes, quite alive.
He’s also exhausting. While Griffin was shouting and posturing with the other children to establish the truth of “seeing” the fish, a process involving lots of shouting, turns and twists and flung arms, I observed a calm, undulating movement seep between the slats of sunlight and the dappled curtain of roots over the water. The fish. Unmistakable.
“Shhh…look,” I said, trying to calm the energy down. “Do you see? There. Under the roots. Moving slowly. It’s headed for the shadows.” My hands and the motions of my body imitated the calm manner of the fish, unconsciously at first - the perspective, perhaps, with which we might see it. But the current of voices was too much. Observation, this time, required the patient patterning of black on black, movement, slow and steady.
We were a gaggle of noise. Apes, after all. And the fish swam through us, as through the shadows, as if we weren’t there at all.