December 18, 2015

Places you know

I'm in this place again. Sitting on the river bank, watching the mist rise from the water, twirl around in the trees before it disappears in the morning light. I only have a few minutes before the kids wake up and my day begins, but every morning I come here and write in my journal small stories that happened the day before. Here are some of them.

Lion is not doing well. I can see it from the dark circles under his eyes. I ask : are you okay ? And he shakes his head no, a violent, absolute no. Then he takes my hand and takes me to the meadow. We sit there and he tells me his girlfriend just left him for his best friend, that it drives him insane to see them together. And I put my arm around his shoulder and tell him to cry, and he does. I remember Lion from a long time ago, but I know nothing about him. Yet his pain washes over me like a wave and I can feel my energy leaving my body, drained by his heartbreak. I stroke his hair and I watch him cry and I tell him it's all going to be okay even though we both know it's a lie. Some wounds just don't close. For a few days, every time I see him, I run to hug him, and he closes his arms on me, and we stand there for a while, in silence.

On our first day on the river, the children learn to tip their kayak and to break free once they fall in the water. At first they are all afraid, but soon we can see them being more confident. At the end of the day, we sit on the banks and suddenly a beaver swims by, so slow it seems like he's dancing a water ballet for us. The kids are extatic and I tell them the river is rewarding them.

Each day, everyday, we pack our bags full of snacks and walk to the river. We get in our boats and start rowing. Often I follow them in a canoe, carrying the gear and towels, and at the end of the day my arms are sore from rowing the boat on my own. Out on the river, the calm of the water lulls me, holds me there like a cradle. I look up and count the vultures circling overhead, up to twenty at once. C teaches them about the rocks, the plants, and the animals. He knows everything there is to know about dragonflies and when we find their chrysalis he's excited like a big kid. At the end of the day we're often starving and cold, so the kids run to their hot shower and I sit at the entrance of the bathroom, waiting for them to come out so I can chat with them and brush their hair, all knotted from the wind and the water.

It's a strange job, that one. Most kids have never left their parents before, and when they arrive here they become our world and we become theirs. At night, I read them stories. One boy is fast asleep, his head on my legs ; I put my arm around the body of another ; a third one is reading over my shoulder, his hand playing with my braid. A blanket over all of us. My tribe of boys. Soon they will be gone but in this moment I am their mama and the trust they give me light a fire in my chest. Everytime one of them falls of the kayak my heart skips a beat and I jump in the water to help them drag the boat to shore.

Day after day we disguise ourselves and we tell them a story about the river and the spirits that live in it. My character wears a long green dress and a crown of reed in her hair – and because she lives in the river, everytime I have to go and meet the kids I ask a friend to empty a bucket of water on my head. Soon everyone is used to see me run through the camp barefoot and dripping wet, and their laughter makes me smile. I love that nothing is ridiculous here, and the adults are often more silly than the children.

Early in the morning, I bring a cup of tea and sit in the meadow while the mist rises. This is the only peaceful place in the chaotic world of children. This place feels like a kingdom out of time, filled with games and shouting and running. Sometimes a few friends join me there and we try to talk about the outside world, but we can never do it for long, and the children fill our conversations like they consume our days.

One day, we tie the kayaks to a tree and we climb up a big cliff overlooking the river. One by one the kids jump, a three meters fall. I'm in awe of how daring they've become. When they've all jumped, C gestures me to keep climbing. At 12 meters, the water looks black and solid. My eyes are drawn to the void and I can't look away, and I feel like my heart is going to burst out of my chest. I'm so afraid, but I turn my head and C is there smiling. Use your arms to balance your fall, he says. And so I jump, and I have the time to think : how long is this going to take ? before I sink into the dark water. I resurface to see C follow me – breaching the surface with a mellow sound. I inhale great draughts of air, and laugh in the face of the sun, my heart still racing.

Our day of kayak is over and the kids are exhausted, which means they are noisier than ever. I try to gather my energy to deal with it, but my friend gestures me to sit down. Then he makes all the kids sit down and ask them to close their eyes, be silent and listen to the river. For a couple of minutes, all you can hear are their breaths, and the wind on the water. I look at my friend in awe and he winks at me – in that moment he looks so beautiful it takes my breath away.

We drive up to the plateau. This is one of my favourite places in the world. This is where I come from. Wild rock, bright stars, the rare trees growing twisted and slender from the lack of sun. Soon the kids are running in the forest, exploring for hours. Here all the rules are forgotten and they can play like nowhere else. Wild souls in a wild place. We cook pasta on the camping stove and we lie down in the glade, reading stories. We make small talismans with branches and leaves, to protect us when we are back on the river.
At night they play with their fears and walk back to the camp alone, in the dark. Once they are asleep, I walk away to play a game of my own. I sit in the dark, looking straight at the forest in front of me, and I hold out my hand waiting for something to touch it. My eyes try to make sense of the shadows moving around me and my heart feels like it could explode. This is my most primal fear. We used to play that game when I was little, but I don't remember being afraid back then. Fear comes when we grow up, I think. But I stay there in the darkness, with blood pumping in my ears, because this is my moment with the forest, and we are at one.

During a break, I walk up to the stone circus enclosing the glade. I lie down on the fresh stone and close my eyes. Nothing but the wind here, the children's voices in the distance. But suddenly I feel something on my chest, and when I open my eyes there is a small yellow ribbon slithering on my skin. I raise my head and the small snake freezes, and it looks at me. I stand as still as I can and whisper : it's okay, I'm not going to hurt you. And after a few seconds, it slips down my body and disappears.

One day, the river gets angry. As soon as we're on the water, the sky turns black, and soon the wind is tearing the fog away from the trees, volutes of mist dancing through the air, giant ripples and waves rocking our boats. Rain pours down on us and we are freezing even with our wet suits. After what feels like hours the storm goes away, but the day is not over yet. The sun warms us, but the water is still wild. As I row through a rapid, my only girl with me in the canoe, I can't divert us from the massive rock in the turn, and as we slam into I grab my girl by her jacket and throws her in the water to keep her from being hurt. The boat capsizes with me in it, my ankle trapped between two barrels. Underwater, I try not to panic and twist my ankle free. I resurface and the air burns my throat, and I scream the girl's name only to find she's already swam out of the rapid, unharmed. That night, I leave the table and go sit by myself in the garden, violent sobs shaking my body and driving the fear away.

On our last night, we eat by the river. C tells us a story, and my heart feels full. In the morning the children are gone faster than a trail of sparkles. We leave the next morning, under the rain, a car packed with four people, bags, tentes, a violin and a coffee maker. We said goodbye to some, not everyone. It's hard leaving this place behind. P drives as the sun rises from the clouds and I ask her : it's easier to leave fast, isn't it ? It's easier on the heart to run than to walk away.

One week later I am back for just one night, spent dancing to the sound of accordions. In the morning, on the drive home, I look out the window and there is a bird planing overhead. I try to make out the shape of its wings and I realise it's not a vulture, not a flume or a hawk. It's an eagle.

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