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.  

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