Changelings, You and I
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Laughing whitewater crashes and burns and scatters,
froths like bonfires in the sun.

Long ago, I know that
my toes curled here
the mud and wildflowers stuck to my face
the reek of skunk-cabbage clung to my skin
and flat grey fish swam in the bog around my ankles
unknowing of the mind above.

In the forest, I walk along the river,
step over stones round like dragon’s eggs.
You were there, weren't you? I remember the race
of ducking through the brambles
and following animal trails through the brush.
We called ourselves animals, then:
bobcats, timber wolves, cougars. But
we were not animals. For when we found a den of rabbits,
we did not hurt them.

I wander through the old path
but time has passed and I am old
and I have gone astray.
The bushes are not as I remember:
the leaves are too large
the tunnels too small,
the thorns too dense.
I'll tear my coat if I try to go through
and so I go around.

Do you remember the dance? We would run these paths
where the sun was hot and the ground was dry. The river
ate our words, gobbled them up like we did the crayfish.
They were so sweet, their claws succulent: we
pulled their claws off, one by one, because we knew we could
and because they were tasty. But for all our cruelty,
we dared not hurt them long:
we smashed their fragile heads to pulp with rocks
splattered the rocks with smeary grey and blue
because we were gentle, you and I.

My suit has caught the dust and thorns, on these old trails
and the roots of the trees are larger than I recall.
When I walk where we stepped
join with the trail where the earth is firm and the plants are few,
I slip.
I catch myself on an old log, skin my knee through my pants, feel the ache of
all the slips and stumbles and bruises from before
and wonder at the feel of blood on my skin.

I walk the old path
and the world has shifted. Where are the birds? Where
are the trees? I see only fences and gates.
My stomach rumbles, and I do not see
the salmonberries, huckleberries, blackberries divine
nor the mussels, clams, water from a river clean as snow.
I do not see what I should
and in hunger I stumble, trip, slip again, tumble down a waterfall of dragon's-egg rocks
and icy river water soaks my skin.

The river. Do you remember the freeze
of glacier-melt water on our skin? The river
is of the peaks, so close in this breathless air, it permeates
our skin, soothes our scrapes and burns from coming too close to the fire
and our blistered fingers from when we cooked s'mores
too hot and popped the swollen treats with our teeth
before they had cooled enough to eat.
We swam in the shallows and the deeps alike, you and I
and we were only wary of the whitewaters because
though the deeps were fast, we were strong, you and I:
we were otters, dolphins, manta rays
and we opened our eyes in water clear as crystal
careless of the thousand once-in-a-million scares
that plague the hearts of those the wiser
because we were invulnerable, you and I.

I sit in the river, cold.
I have a call later, a meeting,
in an iron tower in a city far from here,
a call which will decide my future through people I have never met.
As the water soaks my socks and wets my suit,
I sit as a rock in the river, skin white, not shivering and not crying,
and wonder why I came.

Back then, in the summer shade where the butterflies flitted like birds,
you and I played at the riverbed, cooled sunburned skin in summer's swell of glacier-melt waves
and when we tired of the chill you and I played behind the campsites
in tamed woods where no bear or fox would disturb our play.
Molten sunlight dappled our skin, warmed our river-chilled hair and set the air ablaze.
In the woods where the air was clean and the ground was clear,
a single stick could find a hundred lives in our hands:
a rope,
a mast,
a sword,
a staff,
and we were soldiers, mages, animals, warriors,
a thousand lives lived in one
because we were unconquerable, you and I.

I have slipped, in my reverie, further into the river
into the deep where we once swam as manta rays
and I pull myself out, glacier-melt water cascading, squelching in my shoes.
I close my eyes, waver. There is a tightness, a rubber vice around my ribs,
a squeezing around my heart. My shoes
are lost, I know, and my suit is damaged by the water.
I empty my pockets to dry, look to my phone for the time
fumble with numb fingers
and I find that I will be late.

I call a line. My body wants to run
but there is nowhere to go,
and I hold myself still, standing at the edge of the river.
And as the dial-tone rings, I remember the roar
of the river running brown, in later summer
and of trucks and cranes rolling down the old forest road
when rangers were pressed to let the people have cell-towers in the woods.

But through all our innovation, all our iron for this cage keeping out the wild,
there is no cure for foolishness,
and my hands are numb.
My fingers slip,
and I grab, fumble, do not catch,
my phone drops into the river.

I stand there with the setting sun at my back, legs numb and pricking
and distant memories flare like peppering tracer fire through my mind.
The years have been long, and you and I have scarcely looked to the past
but this time, I can see.
My eyes are blind to the world, but they have filled with memories
of molten sky and cotton clouds. Memories
of you and me.

You were there, weren’t you? Walking along the riverbed
when the sun was bright and the trees were young.
This water had not been so cold, then,
and in the trampled ferns and understory of devil's club
we adopted the hearts of thousands
and became something else entirely.
Horsetail whistles made our pipes
rust-red nurselogs made our ships
and wooden refuse built our tales
because we were everything, you and I.

We were sailors, you and I,
and fallen logs made the planks of battleships beneath our feet.
And in the morning sun, we were birds,
jumping windward, flailing our arms and calling ourselves free,
and when we tired, stopped flapping,
we did not call our game done
did not go home
for we slunk through brush and called ourselves tigers.
In the camp,
in the tame woods and the cold river,
we did not tally the days before we had to leave
because we were forever, you and I.
Our games were imaginary
and they lasted an eternity
because we were immortal, you and I.

I turn my eyes, stare at my phone through the glacier-melt waves.
The screen is on, my umbilical to the world.
I lean over the river
roll my sleeves
and with a quick snip and with no emotion at all,
long before my hand, a heron perched beyond the banks, has breached the waves
the screen is dead.

I sit by the river, soft wind blanketing my back,
and listen to jagged grains scratch and cover smooth submerged glass.
The damage has been done, I know,
and I should go,
find my car and hit the road
but I do not.

In the river,
a leaf floats by, green and brown
a chickadee lands, eats, flies away
and the sun filters gold through the trees.
There is an ache, deep inside,
just beneath my ribs.
and the heavy numbness of my weary heart fades
like beaded water on hot glass.

I consider it all
and I make up my mind.

I hang up a line
strip my socks,
hang up my shoes.
I pick up a stick – a crooked sword, this time,
and dangle my toes in the river.

What fate befall us all! If only we could see
through all our trembling, shivering greed
the motes of gold in the breeze.

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