ESSAY: Elemental

by Melissa Perley

I make my way down the crooked, wooden stairs, arms full of colorful towels, a canvas bag stuffed with sunscreen and snacks and my faded folding chair. My dog beats me to the bottom and darts off toward the water. Barefoot, I hobble awkwardly over the stoney beach looking for the perfect perch. Settling into my chair I survey what is happening in and around the river. Children scurry like ants to the top of the big rock steeply rising at the bend. Imposing and immortal, it welcomes and challenges simultaneously. I watch the children hurl themselves into the moving water with abandon. Sam drops his ball at my feet. Already dripping, he looks up at me, eyes willing my immediate attention to what he considers the reason we have come. I fling the ball, sometimes near, sometimes far. To a border collie, repetition is key. I notice two young girls begin to swim closer to us. Sam tends to have that effect. I have seen them sliding past in their matching bathing suits, colorful minnows dancing under ripples. Soon they are brave enough to stand near us, arms crossed in the universal symbol for “chilly.” Their hair is slicked back and drips onto their shoulders. Hesitantly they ask if they might have a turn at tossing. Gratefully I pass them the plastic thrower. Sam has no shame: if you have the magic green orb, he’s yours.

I watch the girl’s father. One eye on his two daughters, he gathers driftwood into a makeshift pit. Before long he has a small fire crackling. As is the nature of fire, I’m drawn closer. We smile and he tells me that he makes this circle of stones each summer. He and the girls come late in the afternoon and as the sun sets they will often cook dinner or simply enjoy the delicacy of a marshmallow off a skinny branch. I ask him if they live close and he tells me that they are not far and that he grew up on this river. As he pokes the fire he smiles and reveals that he learned to swim in this exact spot and that he, too, has had the summer pleasure of flying off the big rock into the swirl below. He talks about knowing the river bottom. Although there is constant change in the anatomy of moving water, the largest stones remain embedded and he knows them with his feet. We walk toward his dark-haired daughters who pop up from the water. In turn they laugh and bicker about whose turn it is to throw for the dog. I tell him that I think it is wonderful that he brings his girls to where he found enjoyment in the summers of his childhood. He laughs and says that his father grew up here as well and that this place, this water, runs through their veins.

He pulls off his shirt and wades out. He dives under, circumventing the ever-present Sam and reaches the other side pulling himself up onto a boulder. Immediately his girls are beside him and I watch as he patiently mimes the correct position for diving. I feel the sun warm on my skin and realize that in this iPhone universe, where change is never fast enough, the elemental world is a momentary distraction at best: links to our origins are forgotten. That this landscape, imposing and immortal, remains connected to this father and to his father before him, and will be passed to his daughters who are still throwing for Sam, offers hope.

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