Creative NonFiction Issue 29

The Art of Boiling Water

by Rose Strode

black and white photograph of a retreating wave taken at Head of the Meadow in Truro, Massachusetts
Retreating by Jayne Guertin

Water is easy to drink. Too easy, considering it’s not easy to find. Once found, one must consider its source. Water’s powerful, shaping the landscape through which it flows, yet also vulnerable, retaining in itself particles of all the places it’s been.

The first time I considered water, I was twenty-seven. The year I was twenty-six my mother fell ill. All spring, I sat with her in doctors’ offices. Summer, I sat beside her hospice bed. By August she was dead. A whole year slid past: one I mostly don’t remember. The autumn I was twenty-seven, I camped alone in the Appalachian Mountains for three days. I was there because I’d chosen to be there, but I also felt that I was there against my will, for I struggled to remember how to want to do the things I loved.

I started with a full canteen. Each time I drank from it the water sloshed louder in the increasingly empty space, but I knew a stream crossed the trail farther up the mountain where I planned to camp. Since I hadn’t hiked at all the year before, I’d chosen a trail with an easy slope, even though the steepest trails are the ones with the best views. I trudged all morning through monotonous, claustrophobic woodlands. It was thirsty work. By afternoon I reached a bend in the trail, one I’d chosen as a landmark, and realized I couldn’t get to the stream before nightfall. I sat to examine my map and discovered another stream, a distributary branch of the first, flowing somewhere in the hollow below the bend. If I left the trail and hiked directly downhill, using the slope and my compass to guide me, my path and the creek’s would intersect.

But if I hiked off-trail, I absolutely had to find the creek: not only for water, but because I knew backtracking through such thickly-wooded hills was foolish. I must follow the distributary upstream to its tributary parent, my original goal. That creek would lead me back to the trail.

It was a simple task, one I couldn’t fail. The stream was an ambling border, invisible now but inevitably before me, so even if I wandered off course, to the left or right, I’d still find it. Yet for a long while I sat on the trail, looking down into the hollow, listening. 

Silence isn’t really silent. There’s always some ambient noise. It’s easy to become habituated to the ever-present sounds of one’s own heartbeat and breath, proof of life, or to the sounds of wind or hawk-calls, proof the world exists. But the voices of the mind, the voices of the past, are difficult to ignore, particularly when they arise in moments when everything else is quiet. 

That’s how, alone in the woods, I heard my mother using the tone she always used, when she was alive, to dissuade me from any planned adventure: “Don’t go down there! You’ll be abducted by a wild man and raped and murdered! He’ll leave your poor carcass on the side of the mountain for the bears to eat!” I felt my jaw tighten. I was not afraid of being abducted: I’d spoken to a ranger about which trails were safest, I’d registered my planned route when I received my permit. I knew, even though I didn’t feel safe, that I was safe. And anyway, if I got lost and died of thirst, and the bears really wanted my goddamn carcass, they were welcome to it. It wasn’t as if anything made me happy anymore. So what if a death by thirst would be even more terrible than my mother’s own slow-and-too-fast death?

“Everything’s been so sad,” my mother whispered. Her face, withered by the ravages of cancer, was turned to mine, but her eyes were dull. “I’ve never been happy.”

In the last days of her life I didn’t expect to cheer her up, though I hoped to make her remaining days less bitter. It was hard to watch my mother lose her hair, to see her slender body swell in the belly and shrink everywhere else. But far harder was bearing witness to the utter depths of her depression: to hear her enumerate her regrets, and say that her whole life had been squandered. It wasn’t simply that she derived no enjoyment from happy memories: she now recalled important moments not simply with a lack of pleasure, but as if they had never been pleasurable.

“I remember times when you were happy,” I said. “You once told me that the day I was born was the happiest day of your life. And what about the day you visited me on campus, and I made tea for us. You told me–”

“No,” she said. “I was sad those days too.” She turned away, then jerked back, eyes wide, as I cried out, like a person burned, or a bird shot out of the sky. I remember how bright shock made her eyes in the instant she realized how deeply she’d hurt me. I also remember how it immediately faded. She turned away again, hurt by my hurt, yet indifferent to our mutual pain.

I sat for a long time at the bend. I couldn’t see or hear the water. I knew there was an easy solution: I could turn around, hike back to the trailhead, and go home. It wasn’t as if I was enjoying myself.

But I wasn’t in the woods to have fun, or live deliberately, or any of that Walden crap. Looking back, I’m not sure I had a purpose any more than birds consciously make it their purpose to migrate. It was as if, like the birds, something at the cellular level compelled me to move. It was as if my body remembered its old life and wanted it back, even if my mind remained caught in a thicket of grief.

I drank the last cupful of water in my canteen, then stood. I shook the final tiny drops as an offering to the mountain. I didn’t speak—I’d had enough of words—but simply by making the decision I felt some of my heart-heaviness  rinse away like silt. Things hadn’t gone as planned, yet all would be well.

I hiked for an hour without any sign of the stream. Then, like a burst of sun through a gap in the trees, I heard the silvery trilling of autumn warblers, ringing through the understory. Birds perch near water, so I knew I was getting close. Gradually, I realized there was another sound under the birdsong: the voice of water caroling along long before I recognized its presence. As I continued downhill the day became faded gold: the slanting sun bathed the leaves on the trees and the ground, even the air itself had transformed to the smoky gold scent of autumn. I seemed to be hiking through a rind of light.

The stream revealed itself in a channel carved through the fox-red earth under beeches and hickories, a passage deep as I was tall, though the water jingled only ankle-high. In the rainy season in the humid end of summer, this stream would be dangerous: the color of milky tea, tinted by red clay, raging down the mountain, bearing away anything in its path. But now it was a passage dappled green and gold.

I missed Ma, but I was angry with her.  The sound of the kettle sputtering on the range, the autumn-leaves scent rising from the tea tin, the sound of the teaspoon like a bell stirring in the cup—in the past all these brought respite from anxiety because they reminded me of time spent with her. Now, these memories gave me no comfort. I found no solace in making tea. 

But I was making tea that evening because the water of the Appalachians is not safe to drink untreated, even on remote trails. By boiling the water for two minutes on my camp stove, I could purify the water. I filled the kettle, lit the stove, then sat on the ground, my back against a tall beech, and gazed downstream, into the dark tunnel of trees, uplit by the reflections on water.

Only when I sat down could I feel my own tiredness: the physical exhaustion of hiking, and a more insidious mental weariness trying to reassert itself, now that I’d stopped moving. In spite of the sparkling beauty of my surroundings, I felt a sense of dread when I thought about the night, and trying to fall asleep in my tent. The sun sank lower. Between the tall trunks, long fingers of light lay beside long fingers of shadow. Up on the trail it would still be light, but night came quickly in the hollow. As the water began to boil, I counted the seconds to myself.

Something flicked into existence over bright tracks of the creek as it wound through the slowly growing darkness. At a distance, coming closer, gliding upstream: a bird sailing over the middle of the creek, two or three feet above the top of the bank, suddenly beside me, at eye level. A small, gray hawk, a Cooper’s hawk, wings and tail striped dark and light, a baltic amber eye, illuminated by surprise, looking directly into mine. As the bird flashed past, that shining head turned, and my head turned. Connected by gaze, we held each other a moment.

Then: gone.

The sunset blazed orange, then sank down like burned-out embers. The wonder of seeing the hawk, of being seen by her, remained in me, an open wing. I poured a cup of tea and sat with it in my hands. The hawk was not far off. I wondered where she roosted. I wondered if, as a migratory species, she was a stranger to these woods and, perhaps, felt anxious as night approached. I wondered if her hunt had been successful, or if, like my mother, she went into the darkness still hungry. 

Rose Strode is a poet and essayist whose recent appears in La Piccioletta Barca, The Dillydoun Review, Sugar House Review, New Ohio Review, The Florida Review, and Kestrel. She is a recipient of the Gulick Fellowship at Valparaiso University, a master gardener, and an editor at Stillhouse Press.

Jayne Guertin is a Rhode Island-based writer and photographer. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, [PANK] Magazine, Smokelong Quarterly, and on the cover of Seeking Its Own Level: An Anthology of Writings about Water (Motes Books). She holds an MFA in creative writing from the Bennington Writing Seminars and is a Pushcart Prize nominee.