The Water Way
Aqua Vitae—A Tale From Another Time
By Tamia Nelson
May 27, 2008
A Note to the Reader
We’re paddlers. Water is vital to our sport. But water does more than float our boats. Water captivates us. It can be tranquil or terrifying, healing or destructive. It soothes us and frightens us by turns. But whatever its mood, water is always fascinating—and mysterious. It carries us along with it, and the destination isn’t always one of our own choosing. This is the Water Way. It’s a journey open to us all.
A white-throated sparrow greeted the dawn. My old canoe drifted gently on a northern lake, while the rising sun slowly infused color into the skirting forest. I sat motionless, staring out over the sparkling water. The air was cool and wet and clinging. It smelled of damp earth and rotting wood. A freshening breeze shook droplets of water from the needles of the pines, mimicking the patter of the soft rain just ended. In the far distance, a solitary loon called.
The canoe drifted with the breeze, and I drifted too. And then… I woke to a new day. Not to the green, well-watered land of my dream, but to a dry hilltop, its red soil furrowed and creased and cratered. The shattered trunks of trees rose around me, all of them now leafless and barren. The air held scant promise of relief. It had the stifling heat and choking stink of a forge. From time to time, a distant popping broke the stillness, erratic and seemingly aimless. Soon that, too, was gone. Then all was quiet. No birds sang.
No birds sang… Suddenly I realized that I could hear again. The awful, ringing silence of the past weeks had ended. (How long had that silence endured? I asked myself. How many days? How many weeks? But no answer came. It was as if the same ringing silence had now invaded my brain.) Still, I could hear again, and that was good. I kicked out with one foot and heard the rasp of my boot sole scraping across the hard earth. I brushed my hand across my chest and heard—heard!—small stones rattle to the ground. Now move the other hand, I commanded, and my body responded. And the other foot. That foot, too, did as it was told. OK, I thought, it’s time to go. I rolled onto my side, struggled to my knees, stood. The hot sun beat down on my helmetless head. I ran my fingers over my scalp, discovering a sticky plaque of matted hair and blood. The movement reopened a long gash in my forearm. It dripped more blood on my face, and the blood coursed down my cheek until it seeped between my cracked lips, stinging furiously and awakening a raging thirst. I felt no pain, but my tongue seemed to have grown impossibly large. Too large for my mouth. My throat was intolerably dry. I tried to speak, to ask the ravaged land to tell me where I was and why and how long I’d lain under the hot sun, half-buried in red earth and stones, dreaming of water and pines. But all I could manage was a strangled, inarticulate croak. I groped belatedly for the canteen at my waist. It was empty.
It’s time to go, I told myself again. And I headed off, stumbling unsteadily down the blasted, sun-struck hill, moving with painful slowness toward a distant wall of green that promised relief from my terrible thirst. Ten yards on, I saw a rifle lying at my feet. This is my rifle… The words came unbidden to my brain. I stooped, nearly falling, and picked my rifle up. Without needing to think, I cleared the weapon, then stripped the magazine and counted the rounds: four from the magazine, one from the chamber, five in all. And the magazine pouches on my belt? Empty. My pack? Gone. Just five rounds. No more. Still… It is the hits that count… I tapped the magazine home with my palm. Released the bolt. Thumbed the selector. And then I walked on, walked toward the promise of the green wall at the foot of the devastated hill. The sun beat down on my unprotected head. The red earth radiated heat. My vision shimmered and danced. I stumbled. Fell. Climbed to my feet. Fell again. Climbed to my feet again. Walked on.
And then I was there. Trees—living trees—rose above me. I pushed through the green wall and entered the forest. Vines snatched at the barrel of my rifle. A humid murk enfolded me. In the sudden, cathedral-like dark, solitary shafts of light illuminated massive, ribbed trunks. Myriad noises now assailed my ears. Unknown birds called from every point of the compass. Leaves rustled with the movements of unseen creatures. Giant ferns towered over my head. Each step that I took released a spicy bubble of decay. I stumbled on, pushing through the ferns and creepers. I was completely possessed by thirst. I sucked droplets from leaf-tips, ignoring the leaflets’ stinging spines. Yet my swollen tongue grew more swollen still, and the droplets I harvested did nothing to relieve my raging water hunger.
So when a narrow trail opened before me, I dismissed all fears of pit traps and mines, and followed it without a second’s hesitation, glad of the chance to walk more or less unencumbered. Before I’d gone more than a couple of hundred yards, however, I began to have second thoughts. A pungent, feral musk scented the still air in the leafy tunnel, and once I nearly stepped in a plate-sized mound of stinking scat. Even in the half-light, it glistened blood-black, and it was garnished with unmistakable shards of bone, reduced to splinters by powerful jaws and shearing teeth. To make matters worse, a deep, guttural cough rang out from somewhere ahead of me, momentarily quieting all the birds. Fear now competed with thirst for control of my body.
Then I smelled water. I heard frogs croaking. Or at least I thought I did. That was enough. My uncertain steps took on a new vigor, and before long I’d broken into a shambling trot. Water! Heedless of any danger, I ran toward the sound of the frogs. And suddenly there it was—a rock-girt grotto with a clear pool at its center. A spring issued from high on the living rock, spilling life into the pool and sending ripples dancing across the surface. It was achingly beautiful.
I dropped my rifle, fell to my knees, and bent down to drink my fill.
Only then, with my lips almost touching the surface of the pool, did I realize I wasn’t alone. Another figure knelt directly across from me. He too paused, lips almost but not quite touching the water. His face was hidden in shadow, but I could see that a filthy rag encircled his head—and I could see the rifle that lay on the rock beside him, too. It had a bayonet folded beneath the barrel and a heavy stock shaped from some dark wood. It looked nothing at all like my rifle.
My companion at the spring was my enemy.
He came to the same conclusion, at just about the same time. Each of us reached out for his weapon. Then, still kneeling, with our hands resting on the stocks of our rifles, we froze in place. The frogs continued their chorus. The ripples danced endlessly across the water. In the seconds that followed, my enemy and I stared at each other. The seconds became minutes, but neither of us moved—until, without a single word having been spoken, our hands left our weapons. As if by mutual agreement, we bent forward together. And each drank his fill.
When I looked up, my enemy had gone, taking his rifle with him. The frogs were still singing as before. But I didn’t share their boundless energy. Exhaustion overwhelmed me. I leaned back against the rock wall of the grotto, closed my eyes, and slept, once more revisiting the piney lake of my earlier dreams. Later, when I awoke, I drank my fill again. Then I retraced my path, stepping out onto the blasted slope not far from the place where I’d first breached the green wall. I’d come full circle.
The thud of choppers echoed in the distance. I now knew where I was, and why. But I could no longer hear the frogs.