Brackish Water  

Arden Shostak
BFA SC 2022


We went to the river so often that it began to feel like part of our bodies. There wasn’t much else to do over the summer; school was out, the town was small, and almost nothing stayed open past 8:00 in the evening. The heat in August was so merciless that sunflowers drooped and pools of sweat gathered in the smalls of our backs. I was lucky and had my own car, so the four of us would pile in and take off to the parkway.

I learned to drive on the parkway. The roads are wide and forgiving and curve gently along the arm of the river. Out one window, woods broken up by occasional cow-dotted pastures. Out the other, a thin line of trees, and beyond them the shimmering water. Every so often, there’s a small loop-shaped parking lot where you can pull over and walk to the little stretches of beach that hug the riverbank at low tide. Hooking up here with your high school sweetheart under the cover of night was a rite of passage for our town. The thrill of it was heightened by the knowledge that decades ago, a serial killer targeted lovers on this exact stretch of road. You could really get away with anything before they figured out DNA evidence. They never caught the guy, but he would be in his eighties by now and probably harmless.
 
My friends and I would visit the river most often in the afternoons, when the sun’s heat was heaviest and no thought was possible except water. Megan was the most responsible, so she always came prepared with a backpack of towels, water bottles, and sunscreen. Hannah had a fake ID, so she supplied the cigarettes. I drove, and Tia (who I had a torturous crush on) was along for the ride. The drive there was fun—I picked each of them up from their houses, a rhythm generating with the addition of each new person until we were speeding down the parkway, music trailing from the open windows as we traveled beneath a glittering green canopy.

We arrived and made our way to our favorite strip of sand, which we prized for its privacy and the shade supplied by an enormous, long-armed tree. We knew we would have it all to ourselves because in order to get there, we had to wade through a section of reedy marsh, our shoes and belongings raised above our heads. The cypress trees that grew in the river were each surrounded by a scattering of knees that rose above the water like little islands. They indicated sprawling networks of underwater roots, so we were careful not to trip. Once we arrived, the little beach felt like a secret we shared, with a freedom and certainty so strong that we even dared to skinny-dip on the less busy days.

We gathered shells along the shoreline, lazed in the sun, waded, and swam. Hannah talked about how she’d fantasize about swimming way out to the duck blinds, sitting like strange little houses in the water. They were built on high stilts, and as a kid, she would imagine them wandering through the river at night. “Just wading through the water like the cypress trees,” she said. I told her that I was pretty sure Jacob’s father had been the one to build them. A taut silence stretched over us—our school had caught Jacob with a pocket knife in his truck last spring, and then he quietly disappeared from our world, like a bird snatched by a fox in the night.  
 
We talked in a circle far out in the shallows, our knees in the silt and water lapping at our shoulders. The river was warm, but still offered some relief. If we dove our hands beneath the layer of fine mud, we reached a bed of clay, and brought it up in gray handfuls to amuse each other with impromptu sculptures and pinch-pots. Tia raised a lump of clay she had squished into the shape of a face. “Look,” she said, brilliant flakes of mica streaming down her arm, “it’s you.”Nothing interrupted us, except for the military helicopters occasionally circling overhead like ospreys. We weren’t far from the base—drive in the wrong direction down the parkway, and you’ll be turned around at a guarded gate. Through the trees, we could catch glimpses of heavily armored black cars coming and going along the road. They seemed out of place among the violet blooms of wild onions, the deer, the choirs of birds. Snakes in the grass.

We loved watching the birds. Sometimes bald eagles would hover overhead, looking for something to scavenge. A pair of ospreys had built their nest on one of the more dilapidated duck blinds. Across the river was a nuclear power plant, its white dome shining like a light on the shore. It was the reason for the monthly blaring of sirens, to make sure they were working in case disaster were to strike. I’d hear its eerie drone and my stomach would drop until I remembered oh, yes, it’s the second Wednesday of the month. We would joke about it in school—what could a siren do to save us? At least the birds enjoyed the plant; the water used to cool it down was pumped out at such a high temperature that it boiled the fish around it. Free dinner for all of the lucky seagulls smart enough to hover nearby.

We stayed by the river for a long time. The hours slipped by, water in our hands. The sun was sliding lower and lower in the West. Megan said, “Oh, it’s about to happen,” and I followed her gaze towards the blazing horizon. “Come on, let’s get out.” We made our way towards the shore, a cloud of anxiety starting to gather around our heads as the sky began to shift. We made it back in time—we almost always did. Once, Hannah was high and didn’t time it quite right, so she was still in the water as it changed. She had to throw her swimsuit away. It took days to get the smell out of her hair.

We stood on the riverbank, facing the river, hugging sandy towels around our shoulders as we watched in silence. Even though it happened every sunset, it didn’t feel right to talk over it or turn away. As the sun met the horizon, the sky reddened. The cypress trees in the water lifted up their roots and began to wade towards dry land. We stayed out of their way. The movement dislodged a watersnake, which slithered off in the other direction. Once the last tree stepped out of the water, the soft lapping of the waves slowed down. The sun was split in half, part sky and part water. The red intensified and spread across the river. We could sense that it was thickening, that the rhythm was off. Without a sound, it turned to blood. A heavy smell of iron filled the air. We waited, shouldered with cypress trees holding their breath. It only ever took a couple of minutes—the sun sank to a single burning edge of light, and then it was gone completely. The red faded and the river became water again, brackish and ordinary. The trees waded back out. We followed them.

Arden Shostak is an artist and writer who misses the rivers in Virginia.

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