Au Revoir, Willow
by Matt Goldberg
If you ever find yourself in what you are sure to be your last breaths, do nothing more than accept your inevitable fate. Be like the wilderness and be like the tree. Fall when gravity pulls you down to her sister soil and expect nothing. For all that can be done when falling is to stay calm and listen for the thump. Acceptance is everything.
Although I carry my shoes at easy access, between the index and forefingers of my left hand, I feel an inherent need to never wear them again. Walking on the surface of thousands of globe-shaped river rock, I feel the heat waving up through the sediment like witch potions, bending the light around me and altering my perceptions of reality. I feel the burning reflective rays of the sun rising in temperature with each step I take towards the muddy soup that is the Trinity River. Along with the roasting sun, walking on the rocky beach of the once called, Hoopa River is like walking on skull-sized sharp metamorphic marbles. Each step is a battle between body and mind. My legs take each step my mind tells it to, but consequently my feet wonder why they trudge through the pain (or why I won’t put shoes on). What keeps me going is the ecstasy that comes from stepping on a rock correctly. When my foot umbrellas a rock head that is curved and sized appropriately to the dimensions of my foot, the result of stepping on a pebble is orgasmic; like the long primal relationship between heel and stone. Toe and soil. Hugging. Footing.
Apart from my shoes, I carry nothing. I need nothing. I like the feeling of nothing. Standing still I can’t feel where my swim trunks touch my legs. I can’t feel the chafing elastic waste band hugging my thighs, I can only feel the still wind caressing my forehead, combing my hair with the clouds. I am mentally naked, my skin toasting slightly in the summer heat as I walk barefoot upriver. Alone and naked… superlatively primitive.
Walking up to the shore of the riverbed, I gaze at the colors from the rocks beneath the roaring current screaming terracotta like pixilated prisoners behind melting glass, resembling pointillism—Vincent Van Gogh, Georges Seurat, 1887. The surface phenomenon known as refraction occurs even with round pebbles. Underneath the water, the rocks, Chert and metamorphic sandstone (known as Sandstone Schists) curve in mysterious ways. Dipping my toes into the water, I find the rocks are much larger and sharper than they appear from brow- view (Chert is a hard, glassy rock that was used by Native Americans to make arrowheads and other sharp tools when they were not able to trade for higher quality Obsidian). From the stabbing sensations occurring at the balls of my feet, I wonder whether the native Hoopa tribe even made arrowheads and didn’t just merely fish them out of the Trinity and fasten them to spears and arrows. My feet ask the same question in pain; they despising me. My only option is to take a shallow dive in and swim my way out of this game of teeter-totter my body is playing with my feet and the rocks beneath them. Looking down I notice a young African Clawed frog ribbiting as he hops his way from the shore to the shallow edge of the river where I stand watching the sparkly amaranthine haze from the sun reflecting off the water; the deep purples and chiseled brick-colored bark of the thousands of century old Redwoods, Madrone and Red and White Alder that line the mouth of the river. Before diving in, I study the frog and take his advice: toss my shoes, spread my legs and leap out as far as I can into the clear water. The heat was eliminated.
Swimming out towards the middle of the flowing water, I find that the current gets stronger and more subversive the further out I swim. A few strokes can keep me afloat, but I spend the majority of the time in ease, floating on my back like an anchored skiff. The sky is cerulean from salmon eyes. The clouds sail by, pirates of the sky. Looking up, the trees wave welcomingly with their hellos and goodbyes. Trees are unaware whether I’m coming or going. Floating down stream, I am not entirely sure which way I’m headed either. I wave in return as if waving to friends I know by name: “Hello Cedar. Goodbye Alder. Cheers Douglas Fir, Au Revoir Willow.” I yearn so deeply to be a tree. I have often sat prostrate on the new life growing out from a fallen Redwood on the forest floor (Spanish moss, sword ferns and wood sorrel) wondering how long I would have to lay still on that dying tree for new life to grow out of me. Perhaps a sloth would be able to point out how long it takes for moss growing out of the armpits to become imperceptible.
Floating in the bubbling murky water as the current parades around me faster and harder I feel a sense of apathy emerging. A sense of priority in setting: stop using my arms and legs for swimming and let the river carry me wherever it’s headed. Slowly and without digression, I lay limp and feel the swelling rolling liquid lift me up off the rock-covered ground and take me down river like a waiter carrying a heavy plate.
The river and I stampede our way out towards a whirlpool at the other side of the river from where I started. What began as something carefree and lively, soon turned into an unsettling fear for survival. I try to stand up but the river floor is out of reach. I try swimming against the river but the current is too strong. Even when swimming at full strength it appears that I am only swimming in place. Trinity’s stair-master. Like so many before me who have perished in the Trinity River, students, hikers, children and parents, I now know the mental feeling of drowning… of dying.
Floating downstream at the mercy of the Trinity, I gaze towards the mirage of spiraling currents that snake and ladder in every direction. Each color slithers among the glassy fresh water above an endless sea of mosaic metamorphic prisms as if I were looking at a kaleidoscopic image of my own inevitable fait, the way broken mirrors reflect distorted splendor. I float at the mercy of this dashing river wondering how on earth I would ever escape such destiny, or if I even wanted to. Surprised with how often I considered giving up, how often I accepted death, came to terms with my fait and myself, I began to appreciate the life I lived and was somewhat eager to trade it for a new: to be reborn with wildness. Never have I considered the notion of death more honestly then in those few minutes, sailing downriver towards the spiraling deathtrap of a drowning whirlpool. I will stay here forever. Forever is my final decision.
Rivers are often associated with having smooth flowing water, except when it comes to some object blocking its path. The water flows around the object and this causes the water to lose its flowing properties and thus creating a whirlpool. For this case, the object is the fallen branch of an old Willow tree that most likely fell some hundred miles from this point at sometime during its hundred and ten year lifespan, probably as a result of heavy wind or lightning strike. Now it lives here: stuck between two granite slates, damning the river like a beaver sculpture.
The whirlpool takes me around the Willow, around again, and around once more like a flushing toilet as my heart sings in fear and serenity. Fear for the uncertainties of death and serenity for the acceptance of such journey. With my eyes closed, I lie submissive, floating in circles around the black hole of death singing the first thing that pops in my head:
“Well I taught that weeping willow how to cry cry cry
Taught the clouds how to cover up a clear blue sky.
Tears I cried for that woman are gonna flood you big river
And I'm a gonna sit right here until I die…”
I will repeat this verse over and over until the breath in my lungs is replaced with water. Only will I give up when my voice is stripped from my mouth and exchanged with liquid, my oxygen, added to twice hydrogen.
Suddenly, everything stopped. I am no longer spinning and turning around the whirlpool. The noise seized, the trampling water is no longer carrying me above its head like Gulliver. Now the water flows around me the way it flows around my fallen Willow companion. Opening my eyes, I notice the edge of my swim trunks are caught on an accumulation of worm-sized Willow roots sticking out from the edge of the branch like an outstretched arm. I tug and tug at my shorts but they won’t budge. I am stuck. Looking out on the precipice of death, I imagine if I stay here long enough a branch will grow out of my legs. Then I too would be a tree. Like this fallen Willow, stuck here in the flowering streams of the Trinity River, slowly growing as I wilt. Knocking on the pearly gates for eternity only to find out nobody is home.
After sitting and pondering the importance of existence, I feel the propensity to live. I am not meant to die here, alone tied to a dead Willow. I need to live for as long as I can. Forever, that is truly my final decision. I unbutton my shorts and pull them carefully off my naked body. I climb to the top of the fallen Willow to whisper thank you and give the tree a proper greeting. I gaze down river for a few moments before diving back into the waves and swimming my naked body to shore. Before I dive, I give out a yell. My final farewell echoes throughout the canyon: “Au Revoir!”