Creative NonFiction Issue 28

At the Edge of Water

by Sayuri Ayers

An abstract portrayal of the Capitol created with ink, gesso, graphite, colored pencil and pastel on watercolor paper, mostly in shades of blue, yellow and orange.
Broken Glass Capitol Thru by Howard Skrill

Behind my house, Alum Creek swells with the March rains. Parting the bare branches of overgrown pawpaws, I walk to the edge of the bank. A birch leans into the water, its stripped branches stark as bared bone. Below the steep drop, the creek swirls. Its current bears Columbus, Ohio’s debris: crumpled aluminum cans and bobbing water bottles. The gold of waning sunlight gleams within the silty water. 

I gaze at the woman reflected in the creek: my Hong Kong mother’s dark eyes, my Japanese father’s black wavy hair.  I think of my son, whose features mirror mine, and the echo of my mother’s warning: Be careful. Be safe.

In the beginning of this year, my mother received news from Vancouver: a man had shoved my cousin, J, off the curb into the roar of rush hour traffic. J fended off his attacker, and a passerby came running to help. Over the phone, my mother’s voice was leaden with weariness: “You have to be careful. Things aren’t safe for you, for us.”

As a child, I despised the beginning of each new school year. I hunched in the back row and cowered as the teacher stumbled over my name. Snickering students twisted in their seats to stare at me. Once, as I sat cross-legged on the gym floor, the health instructor asked me: “Why don’t you have an American name?” Without answering, I drew my knees to my chest, my body crushed into a sliver.

When I heard the news of the shootings in Georgia, I returned to the creek to gather the strength of water. Now at the banks, I allow the grief to surge through me. I remember not only those eight lives lost, but my family and ancestors. We have endured slurs spewing from mouths, pummeling fists, the blasts from firearms. I think of my immigrant parents who had fought to forge a life in America. They taught me that I could gain acceptance through quiet labor and endurance. “Silence,” I tell the water, “cannot save us.”  

Gazing into the creek’s stippled current, I recall my city’s history-how in March of 1913 the Alum Creek and Scioto River swelled with heavy rains. Days before the wild waters broke open the State Levee, Columbus dismissed the power of the Scioto. The local paper proclaimed that the river would remain behind the walls erected against it, that it would quietly withdraw with the rains.

But the downpour continued for two days, and the river leapt from its bank. Locals scrambled up trees as the raging torrent tore their homes from foundations, as the current bristled with the remains of streetcars and store fronts. Cries rose from rubble sweeping through the city.

Now as I watch, the creek tests the confines of the bank. Tearing at submerged birches, its current flexes like golden muscle. The woman reflected in the water gazes back at me. Her eyes gleam with dark fire.

I imagine the creek swelling again, joining the whirl of the Scioto. Wave after wave fills me with feral power. Now the creek rises with the voice of thunder. It splinters pale boughs and gouges new paths through the mire. Surging from earthen barriers, the water shows me how rage will reclaim my body, culture, and future. In the evening stillness, the earth remembers how it crumpled into submission and shudders. 

Sayuri Ayers is an essayist and poet from Columbus, Ohio. The daughter of immigrants, her work navigates Asian American identity, motherhood, and mental illness. She is a Kundiman Fellow and recipient of the Ohio Arts Council’s 2020 Individual Excellence Award for creative nonfiction.

Howard Skrill is an artist/educator. His work has been widely published and exhibited standing alone and incorporated in pictorial essays exploring the fate of public monuments and their impact on the erasure of public and private memory. Howard lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife.