Saturday, April 15, 2006
He parks his car by the side of the sleepy highway, makes his way down to the stream. There is no path here, just the hint of a mountain trail, steep and twisting, its surface scattered with loose, uneven stones and dusty goat pellets. As he descends, he can feel gravity urging him on and he has to resist the urge to hurry. Afraid of hurting himself, he keeps his eyes firmly on the ground, picks his footholds carefully.
It's only when he reaches the bottom that he stops to admire the view. It has been a long time since he has been here, and the landscape has shrunk in his absence. The great mountains he remembered, their impassive, stony faces raised loftily above him, have been reduced to mere foothills, their shoulders hunched in submission. The magnificient suspension bridge of his memory turns out to be little more than a minor footbridge, its great span only a few planks long - no engineering marvel, but a flimsy excuse of a connection, joining one side of the valley to the other. Even the small signs of commercialisation that have crept in, seem, in his eyes, only to diminish the village. The sight of these pathetic little grocery stores, for instance, their shelves stocked with Marie biscuits and Red Label tea, such a contrast to the supermarkets back in the city he lives in. There was a time when it was possible to imagine this valley a secret and pristine Eden, a place that time could not touch. But the highway has reduced it to what it has always been - a decrepit little hamlet where the newspapers arrive two days too late.
Even the stream is not what it used to be. In his memory, it was a mighty river, swift and merciless, part naiad, part demi-god, the dominant spirit of the place, a laughing and electric presence searing its way across the valley. But standing on its bank now he can see that it's just another mountain brook, narrow enough so that you could jump across it, if you were fit enough and could get a running start, shallow enough so that you can see right down to the bottom, where tiny eyelids of fish wink among smoothed and mossy stones. At least the water is still clear, he thinks to himself, grateful that this plcce has been saved the final indignity of pollution. It's a great blessing, he knows, and the stream, with its calmly gliding waters, its banks of lichen and wild flowers, is picturesque enough, but nothing can dissolve the disappointment that fills his heart at the sight of it.
Standing there, he remembers how important a presence this trite little stream used to be in his life. There was a thrill of adventure in being allowed to come down to it by himself, a sense of authentic risk. And while the water was always far too cold to bathe in (though he begged his mother to be allowed to anyway) you could always splash about on the edges, paddle your feet in its swift flow. There had been, in those long ago days, something comforting about the stream, something transcendent - the possibility of being washed clean, the constant feeling of being carried away beyond yourself. This was where he would come when things angered him, or made him cry. Knowing the stream would always be there to console him. Knowing that she would not allow any disturbance of his to break the evenness, the simplicity of her flow.
He thinks of the day his cousin made fun of him, declaring that his painting of the valley by sunrise looked like an untidy snake had wriggled its way across it, that he couldn't paint for nuts and shouldn't even try. He had spent hours on that landscape, even waking up earlier than usual to paint it (his mother had been amazed, but encouraging), and had been very proud of it. Showing it to the cousin had been a privilege, jealously given. So that her criticism of it had reduced him to tearful fury, sent him running down to the river, where he tore the painting into a dozen tiny pieces, threw them into the water.
Thinking about it now, he smiles gently to himself. Yes, this is where it happened. Right here, on this very spot, were enacted the most violent scenes of his childhood. And yet staring at it now, with the temple bells tolling in the distance, and light of these autumn months starting to fade, it is hard to imagine anything more peaceful. How things change, he thinks. Heraclitus was right after all. Sitting down on one of the round, potato shaped boulders that line the stream, he kicks off his sneakers, peels off his socks, folds his pant legs to his knees. Then gingerly, afraid of how cold it might prove, he lowers his bare feet into the stream, savours the first shock of the contact, the sensation of the water swirling through his toes. Lying back on the bank, eyes turned to the sky at first, then closed, he lets the stream flow over him, past him, feeling the purity of the moment soak into the edges of his life. And an image comes to him, unbidden, of a dozen scraps of colour-stained paper, bobbing their confused but resolute way out to the sea. He chuckles out loud, and the stream chuckles with him.