Saturday, November 5, 2005

A dryad

Last night I awoke in a sweat, my head filled with a pale vision from my youth.

As a youngster I'd strip and swim upsidedown, underwater and upstream with my eyes open gazing at the willows and surrounding hills. The water in Black Earth Creek was so cold, clear and lazy that staring through it sharpened rather than distorted the landscape. When I tired of fighting the current, I'd surface and float on my back, the current carrying me to my point of ingress.

One September afternoon, as I worked upstream and studied the helicopter pattern of falling leaves from streamside trees, a pale shadow suddenly eclipsed the view. I felt like an ancient Phoenician staring down at a mer-creature, only in reverse. (Maybe this was the beginning to my affinity with the trout, this experience being so similar to their encounter with an osprey or heron looming from the bank.)

Startled, I bumped my head on a rock and surfaced, sputtering. Standing on the shore was a girl. She was whiter than new snow and wore her long yellow hair like a shawl. She had blue eyes, and she covered a giggle with thin fingers. I realized that I now stood mid-thigh in the stream, and my equipment was shriveled from the frigid water like discolored prunes. I sidestepped into a chestdeep trouthole, and tried to recover some dignity. She said that I was the strangest fish she'd ever seen, and I blushed purple and stammered, so captivated by her cool, white radiance.

The rest is a story for another time, but Gerda Tannhauser and I grew fast friends. She soon became something of an obsession, and though we often swam naked together in Black Earth Creek without so much as a twitch from the old ermine, I lusted after her, lying awake at night with my desire clenched in my fist like a hatchet handle. We kissed, petted, but no more than that because later that year she died in a car accident along with her whole family. Their father had taken them to the theatre in Madison, a drive of nearly three hours. On the return trip, a log fallen from a skidder parked alongside the road forced him to swerve into a stand of white pine. They were seven miles from home.

It was Gerda who stared at me this morning in the half-light between sleep and wakefulness, looming over me like the pale apparition I'd seen from the river all those years ago. I recalled her giggle, and I suddenly realized that were I to swim naked in Black Earth Creek now I'd be likely mistaken for a manatee. The mirth faded, replaced with a longing for all the women I've loved and lost, including Gerda and my three ex-wives; all of them had been perfect companions. It's hard to live life with so many severed limbs. I couldn't sleep, so I went to the kitchen and downed four glasses of Chinese plumb wine, music from a student house party pulsing at the edge of my hearing. I finally fell asleep with my head on the table, awaking a few hours later with a pinch in my neck, staring at a puddle of drool. I'm resigned to being haunted for the balance of the week, if not longer.

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