The river

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We moved to the river because of the river. The wide, rolling waterway sits 100 yards from the porch yet so much lower in elevation that the house (surprisingly) is not within flood plain. In our entire house-searching process throughout the summer of 2010 we’d never seen anything comparable. We’d hoped for a property with water but had mostly viewed land with small pasture cricks; a river that was swimmable, boatable, fishable was unbelievably deluxe.

I drove slowly, though no other person was there. Finally, the road meandered to a site on the river, not too different from mine 5 miles north.

Our home sits on the Pecatonica watershed though most folks around here just refer to it as “The Pec” or, during spring’s thaw and rising waters, “The Mighty Pec.” Pecatonica is an Algonquian word meaning “crooked river”. Indeed it winds a horseshoe shape in front of our window; ours being the female land. By canoe, it takes us roughly 45 minutes to get into town. At one point, the town water tower sits in such plain view you think surely you must be very near. My daughter cried the first time we paddled to town, she was sure we missed our destination and were headed across the Illinois state line. Six wide turns and 25 minutes later, you finally arrive at the boat launch in Argyle, Wisconsin.

Our very home-made boardwalk consists of no official construct except the careful placement of stones. The river rocks that line the edge are flat and large enough that we’ve cobbled a stone platform on which one can stand ankle-deep in the river. From the platform, one can jump off into the middle, a 12 foot deep rut where the current runs fastest. The middle is muddy if you churn up the bottom and fallen leaves float by like cars on a watery highway. A grown person can tread but not touch safely here. Our six year old daughter Finn has ventured out in a life jacket, near enough to an adult to be grabbed, but mostly she stays on the shallow rock pile with her little brother.

As the honeymoon period of our new home wore off, the waters turned dark and the river began to haunt me with visions of drowning. One journal entry from that time reads: River/I come to you as mother, kneeling / I come to you with prayers on lips/ I come to you with devil’s bargains and complete surrender to your benevolence/ Please River, be gentle with us. My dreams played in this realm too, in one I so easily pushed the tiny faces of my children under. Golden angel hair of toddlers sprawled out as they floated around the bend.

As the weather cooled, I became drawn to stories that told of a drowning, like that of a friend-of-a-friend whose child drowned at a birthday party last summer. I replayed the story told to me again and again; the moment of realization, the diving retrieval, and the limp, blue body. I tossed narratives, possibilities, and characters like juggler. Here I am turning my attention for just one moment; here I am swimming frantically through the dark current searching for a body; here I am weeping; here I am burdened with a regret I will never shed.

How could the river be avoided? The bank is deep and has a three-foot blind zone from anywhere but looking over it. The banks do not ease in, after some dark, slippery rocks it deepens to the murky middle. I rethought again about the lifeguard training of my high school days, and we purchased a $45 nautical ring-float that rests on a decorative wishing-well near the shore. We adopted a German-Shepherd mixed dog who, it turns out, has no interest whatsoever in water or herding children away from its dangers.

What sort of fortress does it take to barricade a river? A fence? Chain link or wooden? Could we transplant thorny fairy-tale hedges to deter any wandering child-feet? I longed and quested for a parapet that would insure us against all danger.

I fed the children story-medicine, telling frequently of the Qullupillut, an Inuit legend of icy, underwater people who grab small children under the waves if they get too close. The children were captivated with the tale and repeatedly watched a college-art project youtube video of the Qullupilluts again and again. I cupped my hands around my 3 year-olds face, “The river will give, but the river will take it. It will swallow you if you go near. Always wait for me.” I gave myself similar pep-talks, Communities gather on water banks, whole civilizations around the source, I reasoned. I rationalized, Children can be taught to be safe, to be respectful. I prayed.

One day, while driving past a tiny wooden-sign for the umpteenth time, I paused and followed its arrow. “Site of Pecatonica Blackhawk War”. The arrows continued at intersections for about two miles until I was led to a ruddy and narrow road through a county campground. I drove slowly, though no other person was there. Finally, the road meandered to a site on the river, not too different from mine 5 miles north.

A fading, chipped granite stone marked the memorial.

AT THIS PLACE ON JUNE 16, 1832 BETWEEN WISCONSIN PIONEERS AND A BAND OF BLACK HAWK SACS WAS FOUGHT THE BATTLE OF THE PECATONICA. SEVENTEEN INDIANS WERE SLAIN THUS WAS OUR LAND MADE SAFE FOR SETTLEMENT/ ERECTED BY THE DAUGHTERS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION, 1922.

My body felt numb and I went to sit on a nearby park bench. Bloodshed into the Pec; my Pec. How had I not known this before? My heart beat wildly as the imaginary tragedy I had been carrying made room for this true story. Mothers before me had come to this riverbed with sobs and brokenness.

As the leaves darkened and the water grew frigid, I returned again and again to this lonely site. The local library had crumbs of the story: while the Calvary rounded up the native people to trudge them westward, a rambunctious group of teenaged Meskwaki boys determined among themselves to fight the militia. The Meskwaki leader, Blackhawk, had tried peaceful negotiating but with the adolescents’ constant agitating of the white settlers, he sighed and submitted to a battle. But the natives knew not of horse-ridden scouts who spotted their ambush from afar. They knew not the velocity of weapons and brutality that the white pioneers prepared as the seventeen young men waited, quietly, in the lapping of the Pecatonica’s shores.

I’ve never encountered another soul at the battleground though I’ve visited in rain, snow and sun. My friend counseled me to burn sage, release myself from whatever grips the river and these spirits now held over me. But at first I was not yet ready to smudge the heaviness away. The heaviness of the battle history covered my own and it felt comforting. Sitting on the bank where the carnage had long-ago flowed towards the Mississippi, I was finally able to let my own dark fantasies wash away too.

Alice Walker says, Now that I understand/ That Grief, emotionally speaking/ Is the same as gold/I do not despair. How can I put myself in the same camp as the mourning mothers 180 years ago? The hole of their dead children was very real; mine imagined. And yet this neighborly kinship I feel clearly transcends centuries; the horrors of mothers both universal and timeless. Story-medicine.

The long winter finally ended, we got outdoors. Both my son and daughter are older, more comprehending, better swimmers. In the crisp and sunny afternoons that are distinctly Wisconsin’s, I stand at the edge of the river bend. The sun reflects on the water and sends sparkling ripples in my direction. Hands stretched outward, face to the sky, I feel at peace. The fear has run its course but the river continues its never-ending flow.