We launched late in September from a point on the Des Moines River southeast of Ottumwa. Two hours in, we’d broken our tiller, lost our anchor, and left one of our life jackets behind. When it got too dark to see, we lashed the raft to the trunk of a fallen tree that was lodged mid-stream. That first night on the river, we were awake to the sound of the water, the scraping and bumping of the raft against the body of the tree; the wind that caught and rattled the tarp we’d tied over the cabin in case of rain. At some point during the night, we were visited by a family of ducks and by the fearful feeling of being adrift.
Our raft was roughly the size of a Coupe DeVille, powered by a small outboard motor and buoyed by slabs of Styrofoam. When we built it in the backyard, neighbors thought it was a shed.
We carried with us canned goods and propane, fishing rods, a gun, sleeping bags, life jackets, oars, a guitar. We carried water and sunscreen, a first-aid kit and matches, flashlights, batteries, binoculars, bug spray, ear plugs, a lantern, a cell phone, Kraft dinner. We kept twenty-three gallons of gasoline onboard, plus a hand-crank radio and The Collected Works of Mark Twain.
We were twenty-five years old. Casting around for some arc to our lives, we decided to follow the route mapped by riverboat pilots and traders and priests down the Mississippi.
“I do not know much about gods,” writes T.S. Eliot, perhaps recalling his native St. Louis, “but I think that the river is a strong brown god.” The Ojibwe called it “The Father of Waters.” Its powers of origination are great. The 35,000 square miles of land from Missouri to Louisiana are the steady, patient work of the river, depositing its sediment load over thousands of years.
The entire continent owes its shape to this body.
For one month in 2006, the Mississippi carried my husband and me south over five hundred miles. Alone, un-housed, we moved with the current, between daybreak and the darkness drawing down each night over the tops of the trees, between two banks, the future suspended like the long lines of a spider’s silk flung loose on the air.
“I wish I could begin to describe what it’s like here,” my husband wrote in a letter to a friend in January 2003. He was looking at the distant gleam of the Nile from the balcony of his Cairo apartment. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
I like to imagine the route he took upriver from Cairo to Luxor—did he call me from the boat?—the palm trees rising from the sandy banks, feluccas skimming the surface of the water and fishermen dragging their nets through shoals of silver tilapia and algae. Maybe he caught a glimpse of the un-sinking past—Victorian explorers, plagued by leeches and fever and rotten teeth, driving forward toward the river’s source.
Or did he conjure some earlier scene: the river spreading over the fertile delta of ancient Egypt, its annual floods honored by the cult of Osiris. That mythical god, his flesh the color of young grass, was murdered by his brother Set. His body parts were scattered abroad but retrieved by his grieving wife. In the story, her tears are the source of the water.
Could my husband see, from the deck of that cruise ship, any hint of what waited upstream? There’s nothing in his letters about that trip.
On the Des Moines River, outside the town of Bonaparte, Iowa, a set of rapids wrecked our motor and sent us spinning past the boat ramp onto a narrow embankment where we camped for three days while waiting for a new prop to arrive by mail. In town, a pair of retired boaters warned us that on the Mississippi “it’s a whole other ballgame.” Down there, the wake from a passing barge could capsize something our size. Steer straight into the wake, they told us. That’s the only safe place.
In Farmington, we spent the night in the home of a Navy veteran who’d lost a pair of fingers—not to the Japanese, but to some more common household misfortune. He wanted to know if I’d ever smoked pot and insisted that I try out the shotgun leaning against the wall near the door. “That gun is silent,” he told me. “Absolutely silent.”
Late in the day, under a low sky, we passed through the last phase of the Des Moines River, its high, narrow banks cutting S-curves in the sandy plain.
I did worry, and I often felt fear.
On the wide body of the Mississippi, the wind picked up and the water turned from the color of soil to an oily, impenetrable black. Ski boats and cruisers trafficked beside barges moving Kentucky coal and grain from the Farm Belt, and my husband hollered from the back of the raft that I should put on my life jacket.
“And then you have the shining river,” writes Twain in Life on the Mississippi, “winding here and there and yonder, its sweep interrupted at intervals by clusters of wooded islands threaded by silver channels; and you have glimpses of distant villages, asleep upon capes; and of stealthy rafts slipping along in the shade of the forest walls; and of white steamers vanishing around remote points. And it is all as tranquil and reposeful as dreamland, and has nothing this-worldly about it—nothing to hang a fret or a worry upon.”
I did worry, and I often felt fear.
When we woke that first morning on the Fox Island Bar, we found the raft beached—stuck in the sand like a massive piece of driftwood. We’d dropped anchor in the shallows the night before, but the river, governed by some hidden logic, had retreated.
It was because of the locks, we learned. Between Minneapolis and St. Louis, twenty-nine locks control the flow of water, helping barges and boats gradually descend the steep drop in elevation along the river’s upper half. Boats entering a lock pass through a steel gate into a large, watery chamber: picture an elevator shaft slick with grime. When the gate closes, the lockmaster opens a valve to release water from the chamber, lowering the boat several feet before it leaves the lock.
At night, when the locks shut down, the water level falls downstream. We were camped eight miles below Keokuk, Iowa, where the largest of the locks lowers traffic down a thirty-eight-foot drop. That first morning on the Mississippi, we dug our heels into the sand and pressed our weight against the raft to shove it down the beach and into the water. By late morning we were back on the river, racing the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad south, its plume of exhaust waving in the blue air like a flag.
“Two or three days and nights went by; I reckon I might say they swum by, they slid along so quiet and smooth and lovely. Here is the way we put in the time,” says Huck during a rare moment of calm. “We slid into the river and had a swim, so as to freshen up and cool off; then we set down on the sandy bottom where the water was about knee deep, and watched the daylight come. Not a sound, anywhere—perfectly still—just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bull-frogs a-cluttering, maybe.”
I like what the scholar Ilja Wachs notices about time in Twain’s novel. On the river, says Huck, time swims by. Elsewhere, he detects the passage of time with his nose: “It looked late, and smelt late.” In this way, time takes on a concrete, tactile form—a corrective for the increasing rationalization and abstractions of industrialized life.
Those evenings on the river, we cooked our supper in a single pot on a propane stove. We wound the hand crank of the radio and listened to what reached us on the night air: cooking shows, sermons, Diane Rehm, campaign ads for the midterm elections.
Darkness came early and sent us to our cabin, our sleep interrupted by barges passing in the night. Their wake rocked us in the shallow water where we’d anchored the raft.
Another feature of most nineteenth-century novels, says Ilja Wachs: they end badly.
In Hannibal, Missouri, we met Rick in the marina. He invited us to join him for a burger on his houseboat, a secondhand outfit called the Winnie-the-Pooh that he shared with his dog, Gus. Rick was making his way downriver from Minnesota, he told us, getting work where he could and dodging a DUI. He was headed for Kentucky Lake by way of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers. Down there, a guy could spend the winter on his boat, he said, maybe find a lady to share it.
He told us to think twice about heading down the lower portion of the river. South of St. Louis, beyond the last of the locks, the river runs fast. The levies rise high. From the river, there’s no access to towns. The barges get bigger, their wakes are two or three times the size of anything here. They could swamp a raft like ours.
Rick warned us, too, about the guy who came through earlier in the week on a homemade raft like a pirate’s lair, menaced by severed mannequin heads, its portside labeled something vulgar. A bum, said Rick. Bumming his way downriver, taking gas vouchers from charities and churches. He told us to look out downriver, to steer clear of that guy.
In the morning, we were out of our slip and moving through the channel.
It was a Sunday. I remember that. I remember the flat Sabbath calm of the water, the way the river lay like a broad road between the bluffs rising steeply to the west and to the east, the high grasses of the plains bending softly. The light was so bright it was blinding.
In Life on the Mississippi, Twain describes a man named Murel whose gang of horse thieves, slave traders, and murderers roamed the river in the 1830s, plotting a full-scale revolt of blacks against whites in New Orleans in order to capture and plunder the city. River lore is filled with this kind of thing: the vagrants and tramps, swindlers and con men, preachers, thieves, hustlers, bandits, orphans, and lost boys that rock critic Greil Marcus calls “the old, weird America.”
Inside the lock at Winfield, Missouri, we met Matt Bullard, who we recognized from Rick’s description. Bullard was about our age, with long dreadlocks and a swarm of tattoos worked into his arms. His raft was a marvel of ingenuity and insolence—a two-story chimera hammered together from whatever he could get his hands on.
He’d rigged an elaborate system of pulleys that allowed him to steer from the roof of the cabin. There was a porch swing and a small garden growing spinach and tomatoes. He kept a bicycle and a canoe lashed to the outer wall of the cabin, and a collection of mannequin heads that he’d salvaged from a beauty school dumpster. In swirling, violent script, he’d labeled the portside Port of Uranus. Elsewhere, he’d written: SS Circle of Death.
Years later, I learned that the Circle of Death is a nautical term. When a speedboat operator hits a rough wave or loses his grip on the tiller, he can sometimes be tossed overboard by the tiller as it kicks to one side. The unmanned boat will then circle around and return to the defenseless pilot, running him down with the massive propeller.
Bullard wasn’t playing the part of a vagrant. Something of that old weird America sloshed around in the bottom of the fifty-five gallon drums—twenty-three of them swiped from a chemical plant—that kept his outfit afloat. He’d already been on the river for a couple of months and planned to meet up with friends in Cairo, Illinois, who would join him for the last leg of the trip. He hoped to hit New Orleans by January, he said.
Surely he saw us as tourists. Equipped with trail mix and neon Gore-Tex, our trip was only a brief reprieve from cramped civilization, an excursion sanctioned by our parents and tested in the backyard swimming pool.
Bullard was polite, though I didn’t have much to say to him that day in the lock. I may not have said anything at all. While we rode the falling meniscus of water as it drained from the echoing chamber, it was my husband who did all the talking.
How many times do I have to tell you that I was afraid?
Years later, during a season of loss and the long convalescence of grief, I read an essay by the journalist Matthew Power called “Mississippi Drift.” Here again was Matthew Bullard, a drifter whose “anarcho-punk lifestyle”—hopping cross-country trains, scamming food and supplies from vending machines and big-box stores, squatting, sometimes seeking seasonal work—set him down in the murk between horse thief and Huck Finn.
Bullard built his raft in Minneapolis from stuff he salvaged or stole. Hoping to dodge corporate bondage and suburban ennui in the dropout margins of the river, he assembled a small crew of “boat punks”—three heavily pierced comrades in their early twenties, plus Matthew Power. By the time we met him at Winfield, Bullard, who captained the ship like a petty tyrant, was alone. When he reached St. Louis, his raft was pinned between a barge and two tugboats in the heavy traffic of the city’s waters. There, the Circle of Death was swamped by the wake of a third passing tug and sank swiftly to the bottom of the river. Bullard escaped just barely, by swimming.
Witnesses saw first one, then the other, go over the spillway.
I’m going to tell you, now, about another river: the Brandywine, which originates in Chester County, Pennsylvania, and flows southeast for seventeen miles before emptying into the Delaware. It’s a scenic stream dotted with defunct textile mills, Revolutionary War relics, and recreational sites for school groups and families.
In June of 2009, my husband drove from our home in Yonkers, New York, to Wilmington, Delaware, to visit his brother. On a Tuesday morning, after a night of heavy rain, the two of them borrowed a pair of kayaks and dropped them into the Brandywine.
A quarter-mile downstream, according to newspaper reports, the two of them went over a low-head dam. Witnesses saw first one, then the other, go over the spillway. My husband’s body was recovered immediately. A group of picnickers found his brother’s body four days later, lodged against a tree.
At the memorial service, held at the Presbyterian Church where my brother-in-law was a minister, we heard a eulogy from the Reverend Dr. Jones. He spoke about a world governed and shaped by human choice. He said that at the moment the young men died, God’s heart was the first to break. I don’t know if this is true—whether the torrent of water did, in fact, batter and burst the divine heart. I’m acquainted only with the human heart, with the way that a single rift might swiftly branch and fan and work its way through the whole organ.
Afterward, when I returned to the house, I found the arugula growing in brown spindles like prairie grass. The tomato plants had shrunk under the sun and bent themselves around the wind—we never found the time to stake them. I found the green shoot of a pepper plant growing in the pail of compost.
In your absence, the seeds you’ve planted spoil. Other seeds let down their roots in spite of neglect and where you’ve been all this time, putting other things in the earth.
I found the marks of his pen in this passage in Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind: “And it is after all possible and seems to me likely, that the strange survival of great works, their relative permanence throughout thousands of years, is due to their having been born in the small, inconspicuous track of non-time which their authors’ thought had beaten between an infinite past and an infinite future by accepting past and future as directed, aimed, as it were, at themselves.”
We build the present from what is not ours and in this way—by assaulting the orientation of time, raiding someone else’s olio of loss—we assure ourselves of a future.
That fall, I watched a squirrel build a nest from leaves looted from the pin oak molting in the yard. I wondered would it pluck the old oak clean? After that, my reports from the porch were all weather.
At some point, I began to drift. In five years, I rented a dozen rooms in basements, attics, at the end of the train line—places no one else would choose. I crossed the continent from east to west and back again, as though by flinging myself at the horizon, feeling for the edge of the land, I might finally reach the limit of things.
I tried to hold onto the stuff—the objects that anchored our life together. More and more, I’ve had to discard it: the furniture, secondhand or built from a kit; bank statements, Post-its, the mattress we shared; hefty bags filled with Hanes t-shirts, the suit we decided not to bury him in; a single setting of Blue Willow china, which was given to me by the minister’s wife. The electric toaster, the block of knives, bags of his socks. I’ve abandoned his tools. I’ve scrapped reams of paper, photocopies, folders, the stacks of it shoved into the attic crawl space.
I’ve saved samples of his handwriting. In the college-ruled notebook he carried in Egypt, I find my name written in Arabic script, I find him tallying expenses for a wedding and ring, I find him practicing words for human longing: I think, I need, I remember.
And what should I do with this—a single typed phrase, this scrap from an incomplete graduate thesis: any attempt to transform oneself into a better sort of person by changing one’s sense of what matters most. A grocery list follows: Emotions, Visceral Register, Somatic Markers, Affective States, Feelings, Passions, Desire.
I’ve saved the maps: the swirling, ropy river charts that we carried with us on the raft. I’ve saved the 1997 copy of Quimby’s Cruising Guide that was given to us by a couple south of Winfield, who kept jet skis by the dock and peacocks in their yard. I’ve held onto these things through each displacement as though hoping to find my way back there again, to retrace the route or reassure myself that it exists.
But the river pivots and shifts. It doubles back on itself, boils up, convulses, bends the land around its body. The river redraws the map.
I read an account of a series of earthquakes along the New Madrid fault line in 1811 and 1812, which vaulted the Mississippi out of its banks and reversed the direction of the current. One flatboat captain was swept upstream for more than a mile. Veering south, the river picked up the Missouri border and moved it like a child might move a piece of string. Between Missouri and Tennessee, it orphaned a portion of Kentucky, which, to this day, remains cut off by the river from the rest of the state.
Mark Twain tells us that the river can move thirty miles in a single leap: “Nearly the whole of that one thousand three hundred miles of old Mississippi River which La Salle floated down in his canoes, two hundred years ago, is good solid dry ground now.”
I have the habit now of consulting the cards, and when I draw Isis from the deck, Egyptian goddess of marriage and guardian of the dead, the Nile begins to spill over its banks. In Egyptian funerary texts, Isis is pictured as a falcon or kite—a bird seeking its carrion prey, scouring the shallows and dredging the depths for the severed limbs of her husband, Osiris. She gathers all the parts where they lie scattered and restores her lover to wholeness.
But there’s the difficulty of knowing where to begin when you find yourself midstream. There’s the trouble of assigning an order, assembling the thing in its proper form. What shape was the husband’s body? I got it wrong once. In Cairo, he’d had a small Coptic cross tattooed on his right wrist—the right. Years later, in an act of misplaced devotion, I had a matching cross drawn on the wrong wrist—a botched reproduction—my left.
This is how I see him now: turning his astonished gaze to the world, finding in it such cause for glee as would threaten to unhinge his jaw.
And this passage in his journal describing a village on the Mediterranean coast: the cactus blooms, the flowers dot the green hills with their purples, yellows, and reds. Beside the sea stands a line of white houses trimmed with blue. A boy runs under a clothesline, and a man sitting on his heels in the shade lifts his voice in a chant. The passage in the journal concludes, “It is difficult to say just what life is.”
I’ve changed only the order. Call it, no, a translation.
Here is a picture of my husband: he’s laughing and pointing his camera phone at something outside the photo’s frame. His mouth is open as wide as it’s possible to open your mouth without unlatching the clasp of your skull.
This is how I see him now: turning his astonished gaze to the world, finding in it such cause for glee as would threaten to unhinge his jaw. His love of the spectacle around him turned him into a spectacle himself.
He laughed too loudly. His questions were too eager, too insistent, too many; he stayed up too late; he drank too much coffee; he stayed too long on the phone with his brother. He wanted too many hugs, too much sex. He needed, always, more time.
He married a woman whose interest in the world was slim, who gave her attention only meanly, by half; whose love was infrequent; whose affections were stingy; whose demands were many; whose gifts were few. Even so, he aimed his gaze at me as though I was the world and he was steadying his lens to seize it.
It’s easy to miss the town of Cairo (in Illinois, it’s pronounced Kay-ro) as Huck and Jim do in the book. At the mouth of the Ohio River where it pours into the Mississippi, the town marks the entrance to the river’s lower half. Huck and Jim are aiming for Cairo, where they plan to sell the raft and head north into the free states. Moving down the channel in the fog of night, they shoot past the town and learn only later that they’ve missed their mark.
It isn’t hard to see why: Cairo isn’t on the Mississippi at all, but a sharp dogleg up the Ohio, visible from the Mississippi only by turning to look over your shoulder. You could forgive Huck for failing to find a place that exists only in hindsight.
He told me once he had one regret. While studying in Cairo, he turned down the offer of a plane ticket to the West Bank to work with a peacekeeping group. The trip would’ve extended his stay in the region—two weeks? A month? I don’t remember now. At the time, he only mentioned it on the phone over a crackling connection.
I do remember that I was sick of those long-distance phone calls. I was waiting for a diamond ring.
And which of us was it, do you think, who made the call to scrap the raft where we did, in Memphis on the bank of Mud Island?
There were long bouts of darkness, the whine of the barges, the scream of the railroad, the rocking sound of the water. We woke to the flapping tarp, the wind in the trees, the rustling outside that might be a thief or the whoop and howl of coyotes on the ridge where they’d cornered a deer. Aie! Aie! Aie!
The days had turned cold.
In the Church of the Immaculate Conception in New Madrid, Missouri, we sat in a pew in the empty nave, where a red light burned on the altar. The glass-paneled saints in the windows glowed darkly. It was raining and had been for days. The Baptist Church in town and the Presbyterian Church and the Church of Christ were all locked.
I remember the feel of the latch turning in my hand at the Church of the Immaculate Conception. Inside, it was chilly where we sat together watching the last of the light. I remember how lonely we felt.
We spent the night on the floor of a room with a radiator and a single kneeler—the Reconciliation Room. In the morning, we slipped out the way we came, and when I tried the handle again from the outside—wanting, I guess, to feel the give of the latch in my hand; to confirm the method of entry or catch the magic in the act; to prove that the way was still open to us—the door of the church was locked.
I can’t tell you why we quit. It was late in the year and the river was cold. If we fell in the drink, we’d have three-to-five minutes, a friend told us, before hypothermia set in. That’s if we were wearing our life jackets.
There were other considerations: we’d twice replaced the prop on the motor. We’d spent more money and taken longer to reach Memphis than we’d planned. I wanted to go to grad school.
It wouldn’t have been his choice.
In the notebook he kept in Cairo, he jots this note, which he attributes to Rumi:
– a duck that was hatched and raised by chickens
– God is the deep sea of wonder
– our mother wants to keep us on land, but we deeply recognize and desire water
– the question is who is brave enough to venture out into the sea
In 1842, a young man named James Eads, operating a salvage business in St. Louis, signed a contract for some lead lying at the bottom of the river. He built a diving bell of his own design from a forty-gallon whiskey barrel, and, because none of his men was willing to risk his own life, he climbed into the barrel himself. Dropping into the swift current, he descended sixty-five feet below the surface. “The sand was drifting like a dense snowstorm at the bottom,” he wrote. Inside the diving bell, he found the riverbed “a moving mass and so unstable that, in endeavoring to find a footing on it beneath my bell, my feet penetrated through it until I could feel, although standing erect, the sand rushing past my hands, driven by a current apparently as rapid as that on the surface.”
Now: Consider the sinuous force of time in its relentless course toward the past. Consider the mind with its sediment load, running swift as the current over the shifting plain of mud and sand, colliding with the earth, scouring out the riverbed as it races toward the sea.