In my memory of the moment, a few brief seconds from a distant late summer afternoon, I never see the wave coming. I don’t feel its impact or have time to gasp in fear. I simply open my eyes and understand that I am submerged, held paralyzed to the bottom of the softly churning ocean floor by a force dumb, cold, and utterly indifferent to human life.
The awareness is instant and numbing: I cannot be here; I cannot move or even fathom if I’m facing sky or earth. I open my mouth in panic to the murky brine and in that moment I am released, thrown sputtering and senseless onto the shore. And no one comes, not my parents, not the other family members who have joined us for our day at the beach, not a single kind stranger runs to comfort me. No one saw; no one understood.
But I knew. The ocean was not my friend.
At some point in our lives we each have to define our own personal relationship with water. At an early age, I found that I belonged to the rivers, not the oceans. I grew up at the confluence of two rivers, the Neuse and the Trent in New Bern, and spent many childhood summers playing in or near a third, the Pamlico, in Oriental. During those years, I developed a kind of secret fascination with their sly, enigmatic characters, their personable yet mystic natures so different from the vast, alien hostility of the Atlantic and other oceans. There were early morning and midnight fishing excursions with my father and uncles, the moon on the water, mist rising over the pier, and I would fall asleep on the beach, dreaming, to the rhythmic, murmurous tide.
Along the rivers, there was no shortage of details to fascinate a young mind: the dried out husks of old fishing vessels abandoned to weeds and time; translucent jellyfish like pale spirits of pain and wonder; red and blue crab pots strewn in the waters around the homes of the “river people,” the eccentrics, dreamers and misanthropes that are inevitably drawn to the ramshackle edges of human society. And there was, always, the smell, a mixture of decay and newborn life, of creatures abandoned on the shore with the receding tide, storm debris and sulfurous mud mingled beneath the turbid surface.
But I was also aware, as I grew older, that the rivers had another face, deceptive and deadly. Like oceans, rivers also claim their victims and demand their sacrifices. But what the rivers take, they often give back as well.
I worked for six years as a journalist in Halifax County, a part of the state known for the bass fishing along the Roanoke River and the popular tourist getaways of Roanoke Rapids Lake and Lake Gaston. Every year, as regularly as house fires, murders, or the wrecks along nearby Interstate 95, the water would take someone: a child, a careless adult, an inattentive motorist.
One night during my time there, a man driving two young teens to a basketball game turned down a road he believed led back to town, a road that terminated in a dimly-lit boat ramp. It was early winter, and there were no signs along the road indicating that just past the dull amber street light of the cul-de-sac and a low wall of rocks, only the black frigid water remained.
I tried to imagine their confusion, their terror as they found themselves enveloped in a cold darkness deeper than night, only a few yards from shore, but lost, irrevocably.
I was there when rescue workers pulled the empty car to the surface and searched for the boys’ with spotlights and diving gear beneath the river’s surface. And I was there several weeks later, when they pulled the youngest one’s body from the water a few miles away, placed him in a boat and brought him back to shore.
A cop told me that the boy, almost miraculously, was able to use his cell phone to place a call to his parents after he freed himself from the car that night, as he struggled to swim, to understand where he was and why this was happening. His parents were out, and so their answering machine picked up, recording the last words they would hear from their son, a message they would find days later. “I’m dying. I’m dying.”
There were others: the homeless man who washed up behind the residence of one of the wealthier families in the county, one arm gnawed away and his flesh like curdled milk; the jet skier that crashed into a buoy; others that have simply faded from memory.
Since I returned home to New Bern five years ago, the rivers of my youth have claimed their own casualties, their placid surfaces lulling the inexperienced into a false, and deadly, tranquility.
I know their moods, these rivers. I’ve seen them, like fickle children, sooth and then lash out unexpectedly.
And I know other things now, since I took up kayaking along the Bay River with my wife last summer. I know how the water can turn on you, in league with the wind, to set a thin, metallic note of terror coursing through your chest; how time on the river bends and ebbs like the current, receding from its landlocked counterpart faster and faster with each turn down another unmapped channel; how sound, a dog’s yelp, a drunkard’s cackle, doesn’t so much travel across the water as simply materialize in the brain, a pure ghost twin of its original source.
And I’ve learned to accept that the river cares not a damn for me, just another of its wayward spawn who lavishes it in myth and romance, even as it ravishes our homes, carries off our pets and children, and makes a sad joke of our pretensions of dominion. It would gladly suck us all down and seal us over, eternal, implacable, without a trace.
But I still love it out there.
I still come, again and again.
Like my father, grandfather and uncles before me, I still belong to the rivers.