riverbed

Written by Dawn Frank Holtan in April, 2016

The box of ashes fit into a small paper bag with twine handles. It was so heavy I had to support it from the bottom. I brought a ziploc bag full of beads she’d given me—small chips of garnet, malachite, watermelon tourmaline, rose quartz, hematite, blue topaz and peridot. They didn’t look like beads, but like a splintered rainbow. Her ashes clouded the water, settling and drifting with the current. Colorful chips glinted in grey sunlight.

She met my dad in the early ‘70’s, when a man could hitchhike from Nashville to Berkeley with nothing but a guitar slung across his back, a sheet of acid in his empty wallet, and a pocket full of pot. My dad was one of those men; she met him at a party in Nashville. He was drunk and singing through his redgold beard. She listened to every word. She understood him. She met him again on the street the next morning, packing her car to head back to Boston, and surprised herself when the invitation for him to come with her fell out of her mouth. He surprised himself by agreeing, and they drove away together, pushing out of Tennessee in shared disbelief.

One of them told me, years later, that the first hour was really, really quiet.

They kept going, though. Wandering together, with his gigs as their guide. They got a van. They played spades, casino and poker with the lower arcana of her tarot deck, and she beat him as often as he beat her. They dealt each other hands in truck stops along the road, and for cash they propped her painted wooden palmistry hand on top of the van. Over and over again she tried to sell someone the truth about the lines our bodies carry for our souls.

She read his palm, holding his hand between her own and trusting the stories that formed in her mind. Their birthdays were in separate months, but just a few weeks apart. Two pisces fish, she always said. She traced constellations in the night sky, explaining the zodiac. They listened to crickets. She ran out of pills and told him she wanted a baby. She said he could decide whether to stick around for that or not.

His guitar was old, the case lined with worn velvet, and once I was born—unassisted, in a cabin in rural Vermont during a snowstorm—once I was born, they tucked me into his guitar case to sleep. I slept under tables in smoky bars where he played his music and sang his songs. She listened and watched him with a worshipful smile, tears glinting in her eyes.

We slept in the van in the middle of Death Valley. My dad opened the doors; my mom closed them. He opened them, and with me curled up beside her, she closed them. She dreamt of tarantulas—their poison too weak to hurt him, too weak to hurt her, but me—she woke, and closed the opened doors again.

We landed in Oakland eventually, because of my dad’s friend from Vietnam, or just how different it all was compared to the North and the South where they were each born. Once we’d been here long enough, it didn’t make sense to live anywhere else. We still escaped to the wild every year—setting up our huge circus tent somewhere in the woods with a body of water nearby.

She always loved the rocks in the river. She collected them everywhere we went: simple small grey stones wading on riverbanks, bigger hunks of red walking along deep ravines, petrified wood. She kept her eyes on the earth, then found a tree, leaned her back against it, studied the sky, and closed her eyes. I saved the rocks she gave me in an old abalone shell, wrapped in worn silk.

“Silk is purifying,” she would say. “So is running water.”

She showed me how to set her stones in a Cheyenne medicine wheel, colors fading into each other and brown dirt beneath them. Twelve stones in the outer circle. Four larger, pointing North- wisdom, winter, white; pointing East- illumination, spring, golden yellow; pointing South- innocence, summer, green; pointing West- introspection, autumn, black. She linked it to astrology. Twelve signs in the zodiac, four elements: fire in the East, water in the South, air in the West, and earth in the North. I loved the feel of the stones, the raw asymmetry of seven in a small circle with hubs to the outer rim of twelve. I didn’t know how to believe in it, but I liked how the rocks felt in my hands.

When I was home from college, we camped on the Yuba River, high in the Sierras. My mom and I fell in love with a boulder in the middle of the river—a giant rock that looked like a woman seated and leaning forward, like a woman with her head buried in the moving water. She took pictures of me resting against our rock, and we made up a myth about a woman that lost herself in the river. I went back to my dorm room in upstate New York and wrote a short story about my parents’ early life together, but ended it with my mother giving herself to the river and becoming the boulder. In the story, she left me and my dad when I was a newborn.

In reality, she wouldn’t leave at all until I told her it was okay. When my youngest son was an infant, she survived a car crash that should have killed her—instead, she lived for another seven years. Long enough for all the babies to be children. But eventually, with a stuffed dragon my son brought her sitting on the hospital tray, when every word took its own long, slow breath, she asked me if I would let her go.

END

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