The Lantern Books Blog: Lantern Books 2005 Essay Contest Runner-Up, Stephen Ausherman
April 17, 2006 8:48am
Floating: An Armada of One
by Stephen Ausherman, Albuquerque, New Mexico
It came to me somewhere between Grinders Ferry and Tomahawk Creek. It bubbled up from the depths until fully exposed to my view and submerged before I could identify what I’d just seen.
I had no witnesses, for I canoed alone on that heat-shimmered morning in early August, deep in the Ozarks on one of our nations last free-flowing streams. Buffalo River runs nearly 150 miles without a single dam. And for the better part of a day traveling that river, I saw no signs of human life outside my canoe.
I had the Buffalo, or nearly six miles of it, all to myself. That may be a trivial segment, but it seemed an enormous space to share with no one else. My dominion spanned from Tyler Bend to Gilbert. I ruled the cool dark pools and the trickle of former rapids, the water snakes twisting in the current and the snappers scuttling like horseshoe crabs, the woodpeckers banging their faces into trees and the vultures lurking on limbs above. All mine.
Sliders lined my route as though waiting for a parade, and they bowed as I passed. I had already seen armadillos, beavers, raccoons, barred owls, bats, elk, possum, fox, and a skeletal coyote stalking a limping fawn. The list goes on, but only now did it occur to me that never before in American parkland had I witnessed so many subjects from the animal kingdom.
So many creatures, and on this day none were of my species.
For nearly six serpentine miles, not another human soul presented a challenge to my sovereignty. Nothing, it seemed, would impede my total conquest of the river. That is, until the water thinned out, the rocks began to glisten like marmalade, and the canoe scraped and ground to a halt on a bending shoal.
I stood in the center of the canoe to even out the water displacement. The rocks released their hold on my stern, allowing me to surf down to the next swimming hole. Without returning to my seat, I paddled to the shade of a limestone bluff. Whirlpools spiraled through my reflection. The water churned with sinister gar. They ignored my offerings of Wonderbread and beef jerky, but stayed close to my boat, prowling like barracuda.
Then something caught the bow. A current I didn’t see or maybe a breeze I couldn’t feel spun the canoe around and pulled me back upriver. I stooped and dug in deep, paddling against it. After one full circle, it let go. My eyes stung with sweat. I straightened up to a slight head rush. The boat seemed to keel. And that’s when it surfaced from the murky depths—a vision fast as a breaching bass and the flash of sunlight on the ripple it left behind. It was there, and it was not there. It was a flicker, a subliminal image spliced into reality, vanishing without evidence, save for its afterglow.
The image, in its brief visitation, presented a lone Indian standing in a canoe, paddling from the hip in placid waters. I might have mistaken it for the apparition of a Cherokee vision quest, certainly not meant for me, except that the colors, dense and saturated, suggested a pattern printed on flannel. Children’s pajamas, maybe. Or the lining of a sleeping bag. It struck me at once as something both haunting and beloved, like the Dutch accent in my grandfather’s voice, rediscovered on an unlabeled cassette a decade after the morning he failed to wake.
This Indian was part of no mystical vision, only an imprint from the deepest well of my memory, raised to the surface for an instant before diving away. But for one fleeting, transcendent moment, I was that Indian.
Or at the very least, the mechanisms of my imagination fired in ways lost to most sane adults. And in that fragment of time, I got a glimpse of something I didn’t know I’d been missing. Something forgotten and otherwise irrecoverable. I got back a sliver of my childhood, and it was priceless.
Every day, in unexpected ways, the Buffalo River gifted a marginal revelation, each by itself enough to make the entire journey worthwhile. But if I had to pick just one, it would be this tenuous recollection of the flannel Indian who once stood in his canoe and near to me, where he could be the last thing I saw before falling asleep in a time now beyond the reaches of my conscious memory, a time when I could fall asleep without fear, without mourning the environments we destroy in the lands we invade. A time when I had the peace to dream up the most incredible things.
For a singular moment while standing on the river, that innocent sense peace came to me. For that I thanked the Buffalo. And in my gratitude, I formally surrendered the small segment I’d conquered and relinquished it back to the free-flowing river. It seemed like a fair trade at the time, but now I’m not so sure. I want to see it again, this time just a little bit longer.
For more writing by Stephen Ausherman, visit his website.