It was the fullness of day and the walk down the road, half a mile or so, was dusty and hot. Cars and trucks, seeing the three children lined up beside me, slowed down as they passed and the people inside waved silently from their closed windows. Their tires, black and sooty, kicked up a haze of brown dust. Finally advancing past the last house on our rural road, Pema, Ada, Francis and I took a quick look at the water tumbling down the acequia before it slipped into the culvert beneath our feet, gurgling, and exited the other side. We turned off the road, stepping lightly through the cactus and litter, and disappeared into the folds of the earth.
“Ksshshsshhhshshsh…” the sound was formidable. Though only an eight foot drop, the waterfall lapped at our ears to the exclusion of everything else, save our shouts to each other.
“Francis is nakey!” followed by giggles.
“Can I take my shoes off, Joe?”
“Dada, where’s my swimsuit?”
Within minutes, the children’s clothes were strewn about the carpet of orange-brown juniper needles, scattered over monoliths of stone. Their bodies, not altogether naked, jostled for position under the cascading water. Turning to each other with wide grins, they tightened their muscles against the cold crispness of the water. Feet and knees fidgeted. Arms pressed to chests. Skin rumpled in goose flesh. We were here. We were gloriously and fully here.
Satisfied with the smallness of their environment, the children began arranging themselves into the landscape. Shoes in the puddle over here. Mud on the stone walls over there. Dry dirt scattered onto the surface of the deepest pool. And rocks. Placing them carefully, the children began to form a U-shaped wall in the central channel of the stream, behind which formed a sort of harbor. Shoreside, I tidied each child’s clothes into a small pile in the sun, released the burden of my backpack to the earth, and climbed into the shadow.
Place is such a powerful consciousness. Just minutes ago we had been surrounded by the enduring emptiness of New Mexico. Now, three children and I inhabited a small precipice in the rock, no more than a hundred square feet, with just enough boundaries - the rock wall, the canopy of the juniper above, the sound of falling water, the narrowing gaps in the ledge - to give us place. We were sheltered, carved into the earth by sound and shadow. I sat and looked at the kids, feeling the coolness of the water on my ankles, the dry scales of the juniper branches under my palms. Shifting my hips to accommodate the uneven ground, I felt the soft crunch of twigs and smelled the subtle perfume. Decades. Centuries.
“I need a boat,” said Francis, looking for his shoes. Pema, filling her pink sandals with rocks and mud, was holding forth in officious detail on an elaborate series of causes and effects that led to why her boats needed so much ballast. Ada, who couldn’t have agreed more, had gathered rocks and mud from the shore and was busy, as Pema held the sandal open wide, cramming as much in as possible.
“I want a boat too,” Francis said again, this time raising his chin, circling his lips into an O on the final word, and producing the bending notes of a two-syllable diphthong. “Francis, you can get your own,” Pema said, not missing a beat. Pondering his options, Francis stood there for a second then called out “Joe?” Then, looking left and right, “Joe?” He, like all the children, knew I was nearby, but in the consumption of their play they had lost track of my precise location. His eyes finally landed on my smooth, dun-colored shirt behind the craggy, gray branches of the juniper. Looking up into my face, he said, over the roar of the waterfall, “Joe, I need a boat.” He is so matter of fact.
I smiled and looked at Francis, then Pema and Ada. I hesitated for one last moment, reluctant to let go of my prize possession - observation - and slowly rocked my weight toward my right ankle, the stronger of the two.
Ducking under the stiff branches, I made my way along the carpet of juniper, over the hot, smooth stone, three footsteps into the cold water, and out the other side. A bank of mud lay moist and ready, and as I crouched down to a squat, hugging my knees to my chest, I noticed the slight adjustments, flexors and tensors, keeping my center of gravity over my ankles. The soles of my feet, covered in loops and spirals, gripped tentatively to the wet mud, and as I set about searching for materials I questioned whether my grip would hold, or whether some child, climbing onto my back, would tip the scales and the two of us would tumble into the water’s edge. We were going to town later.
I dug my fingers into the moist earth, forming a crude ball, thinking about boats and the fact that these are the kinds of things I think about, and treasure, when Ada slopped her muddy hands around my neck and leaned her weight onto my back. Her legs kicked up joyfully, my collar was smeared with an alkaline-smelling paste, and, lo and behold, toes flexed reflexively, my feet kept their grip. My ankles, the crux of the equation, kept their pliable rigidity. I nuzzled my neck into Ada’s skull. I am a remarkable creature.
“Hey!” I shouted to Ada, bobbing my head forward, a typical comment, by which I meant to imply that I was upset, and by which she knew that I was happy. “Silly Joe Joe,” she shouted in my left ear, a bit louder than my liking, as we craned our necks in that curious sort of intimacy, skull to skull, but not face to face. “Joe, I need a boat,” said Francis.
It might have been that a car drove by at that exact moment. We were, after all, only thirty or forty feet away from the dusty road. But I can’t really say. The height of the stone ledge, over which the waterfall poured, blocked our view. The juniper branches held us close. The modest trickle of water, diverted several miles up from the same river which now ran a couple hundred feet below, was all our attention required. But most of all, the sound. The sound of that waterfall filled our space on earth so completely that no one else dared approach. We were magnificently alone.
I dropped the mud ball in my hands, surely no boat, and scanned for more materials. Francis, staring blankly, keenly followed the direction of my face, but not the movement of my eyes. How do you see the same thing? Even a piece of bark has multiple surfaces and underneaths. Ada released her grip on my neck, followed by the sound of two muddy footprints, four receding splashes. Francis leaned closer, his elbow grazing my shoulder. Within the three-foot radius of my wingspan, I spied a small white piece of litter, picked it up with the pincer movement of my fingertips, and brought it into to my focal range. Francis leaned in. The softened crust of an egg carton, the piece of Styrofoam was hardly distinguishable from the shape and dry-weight of driftwood. I turned to Francis and smiled.
A small leaf was growing nearby and I plucked it from the mud. Anchoring its stem into the surface of the litter, the broad leaf unfurled like a wide, green sail. Featherweight, such a craft, I mused, would be unsinkable. I held my small creation up to Francis, who, not missing a beat, sneered, “No, I mean a real boat.” Like a shoe.
I placed the Styrofoam boat in the water and watched as the current, taking it quickly from my hands, soon veered and dawdled along the U-shaped harbor. The water was only an inch deep. The little boat bobbed slowly and for a moment I wondered if it would remain stuck amongst the rocks, but then, just as suddenly as it sprung from my hand, it tumbled back into the central current and rocketed over the ledge into the next pool. Francis and I looked on curiously. The boat, its tiny sail now drooping a bit sadly, reappeared a couple feet downstream. Idling quietly through the deep pool under the canopy of juniper branches, it slowly passed underneath a small root, which arced from the shore and disappeared below the pool of water. Approaching the next ledge, it finally tumbled over, gone forever. Goodbye.
“AghhmmMMMhhh…” Francis said, the pitch of his noise rising to the excitement in his heart. I agreed with my eyes. Moments like this help explain why time and space are, as Einstein famously declared, really the same thing. To observe a space properly, one has to see something move through it, or form it, like clouds in the sky, or the way a cathedral’s vaulted ceiling somehow conveys a grandness that the blue sky, ever more vast, does not. Space contains itself. Or the way a lost balloon, released from a child’s grip, suddenly gives one the moment to ponder all that space above one’s head. In any event, that little boat floated placidly under the small arch of the tree root, one moment in the endless progression of time, and suddenly it was not only the space that existed, but us too. Francis and I, lucky ducks. Who knew? We turned to each other and smiled.
Content with his discovery, and not immune to the shouts and splashes coming from Ada and Pema, Francis peeled his attention away from me and moved into the orbit of the other children, no boat in hand. Alone once again, I searched about for more boats, something a bit larger, a bit more palpable. I picked up a long, thin stick and rubbed it carefully over my palm as my eyes poured over its surface and texture. Suddenly, like scent on the wind, Silke arrived, giving shape to my mind. I snapped the twig in my hand, and, to my delight, spied plenty of grass on the opposite shore. Shifting my weight, once again, onto my right ankle, I stood up with what felt like even effort, but what I’ve come to know is the dominance of my right-handed body. The weight of my adult frame, now at the full majesty of my height, draped over my shoulders, down the east face of my central spine, bearing slightly heavier on my right hip, the cotton sturdiness of my right knee, ankle, metatarsals, tiny swirling patterns of skin. Easing my left foot into the creek, coupling the muscles in my abdomen against those in my lower back, I ducked under the branches and made my way, slick, grimy stones, back to the other side.
Reaching down, left hand on the earth, I pivoted on my ankle, arranging my body so that the children were in my view. I came to rest. The shore, this shore, was much drier than the other, and as I adjusted my shoulders and neck between two sloping branches, crunching the twigs under my hand and hip, I smelled once again the sun-drenched perfume of desiccated juniper berries and slow-rotting branches. I slipped my feet into the cool water. Selecting twigs for straight segments, I set about snapping them into finger-sized lengths, making a modest pile of them at my side. Then, recalling Silke’s woven-grass crowns, I placed my hand on a stem of grass, felt the joyful rasp of its grainy texture, and plucked.
I placed two twigs in my left hand, watching through the branches in my periphery as the children walked out of the stream and advanced some distance into the sun on the opposite shore. I could hear their noises, but not discern their speech. Holding the twigs in my left hand at cross angles, I began to wrap the corner joint with the leaves and stem of the grass in my right. Passing over and through the joint several times, I wrapped the remaining length of grass over the twig closest to my right hand, advancing like a spiral down its length, then reached for another twig. Weaving a second piece of grass into the first, I began wrapping the second joint, a third, a fourth. After a few minutes, I had a basic square frame, about the size of my hand, which, twisting gently at each corner, seemed to bear some weight. Grabbing one more piece of grass, then another, I proceeded to stitch in twigs along the mid-length of the craft. The grass, much to my liking, was bulky and frolicsome, so that the dead ends of the leaves and seed heads protruded here and there. The entire creation was visceral and rather untidy, wooden and leafy. “Is that for me?” Pema asked. I had caught the children’s attention.
It had taken me ten minutes or so to make the small boat, and, knowing the children’s proclivity to possessiveness, I hesitated. “Okay, here’s what I’ll do,” I began, setting the boat in the grass at my side. “I will make one for each of you. But it takes me time. So, give me a minute and then I will share two with you. For now, this one stays with me. Then I’ll make a third and you will each have one. Sound good?” They nodded approvingly. They were not impatient. Grasping another thin branch in my hand, I set about snapping it into finger-sized lengths.
By now I was having about as much fun as a man can withstand. The children, playing contentedly nearby, were engaged creatively. Harmony was amongst us. The sun, dappling easily through the canopy of juniper, was warm and not too hot. My feet, cool and liquid in the gentle stream of water, were tickled lightly about the ankles. I engaged the muscles of my stomach and lower back, and leaned back, peering up at the sky through the gray-green foliage. All the way.
Stories, that is - words, have an inherently linear quality. But life, in its greatest moments, is like the texture of children along a creek bed, rotten, wet, dry and alive. Time inhabits space, like we do, giving it shape and form, forward and back, anchored in our palms, unfixed like balloons.
My mind reeled like the lens of a camera, receding to wider and wider frames. The ledge, the waterfall. Just a few feet away, the next ledge, then another, the long face of a rocky cliff that descended hundreds of feet past dozens more waterfalls, each unique, to the riverbed below. The canyon, the mountains in the distance, the irrigated fields of our neighbors. The miles and miles and miles of sagebrush. Underneath one of those sage plants, a darkling beetle climbed over the dirt and rocks. A cactus bloomed, slick and oily with red. It was just another day.
Ada, perhaps mocking my reverie, walked up and slid a moist, cold handful of mud down my shin, over my ankle, and onto my foot underneath the water. Pulling myself back up, I smiled and waved my head, then watched her turn and run off. Fingering, gently at first, a piece of grass at my side, I allowing my hand to slip over the smooth texture of the stem, the coarseness of the leaves, the spotty contours of the seed head. I looked about. The children were spreading thick, wet mud over sun-baked stones. Resetting my grip at the base of the grass stem, I held firm, and plucked.