The Distant Cataract About Which We Do Not Speak (By Mary Mackey)
The air is full of drifting cottonwood seeds; the water is turning from translucent green to puddled copper; it is 105 degrees Fahrenheit; and once again I am about to sneak up on the ducks disguised as one of their own. Donning a blue baseball cap and a pair of sunglasses, I slip into the river, sink until my nose is just above the surface, and begin to do a slow, underwater breaststroke toward a flock of mallards.
The water comes from Sierra snowmelt that has been held behind Folsom dam like a cache of liquid ice. Even in mid-July, it is still so cold, it takes my breath away, but over the years I have learned that, if I grit my teeth and keep swimming, my body will gradually acclimatize.
The mallards do not notice my approach. They never do. Perhaps ducks are nearsighted, perhaps they have a limited ability to sort out foreground and background, perhaps they are too busy dunking under to grab a beak-full of duckweed, or perhaps they just don’t give a damn. I have never been sure why they always fail to notice the weird thing moving toward them, particularly on days like today when I approach against the current. Logically, I can not possibly be a log or even a lost beach ball.
I swim nearer. No one looks up. The mallards continue to quack and duck their heads under the water. Over to the left, a male is engaged in a display of splashing and wing beating aimed at impressing a female who appears to be more interested in grooming her tail feathers. I take a few more strokes and float silently into the middle of the flock. The water is so clear I can see tadpoles scattering beneath me in all directions. The shadow of a large fish, a carp perhaps, slides under my feet. I am now close enough that I could reach out and grab the legs of the nearest drake, but I am a duck-observer, not a duck-eater.
For a moment, I relish my presence among them. Again, I wonder why they are not seeing me. Does the bill on my baseball cap make me look like a large mallard? Does their universe include the possibility of a bright blue duck with no eyes or tail feathers?
Suddenly, a female with six tiny ducklings trailing behind her paddles toward me, freezes, and does a double-take. That THING is definitely not a duck! She gives a terrified squawk and my cover is blown. Instantly all hell breaks loose. Quacking in panic, the ducks scatter like swimmers who have just realized that the log floating toward them is actually a crocodile. Most of the flock takes to the air; the mothers lead their ducklings into the reeds and disappear.
Finding myself alone again with only a few floating feathers to keep me company, I turn and begin to swim back toward the island, still keeping a low profile. Sometimes on the return trip, I see other animals. I can not get anywhere near the four-foot tall blue herons who are too smart and much too wary to be taken in; but once a green heron actually perched on my cap for a moment, perhaps mistaking me for a small, blue island. On another occasion, near dusk, I looked up and there on the bank, staring at me with unguarded curiosity, was a large buck with a fine rack of antlers. Once, only once, I saw a coyote playing catch with a stick.
Only a week ago as I swam in a warmer backwater, something sneaked up on me. It was not, thank goodness, a rattlesnake. I have only seen one of those in the seventeen some years I have been coming here and one was enough to last a lifetime; but it gave me quite a start nevertheless. I was swimming under the cottonwoods toward a patch of ripe blackberries that can only be pillaged by water, when I heard a huge smack behind me. I did exactly what the ducks do under such circumstances: I squawked and began to paddle toward safety only to discover that I was sharing the lagoon with a large beaver.
I have no idea why she was out in mid-afternoon. As a rule, beavers are crepuscular creatures. When we paddle our canoe back to the boat launch after sunset, we often encounter as many as twenty of them: large, plump, shadowy balls that slap their tails on the water like a rhythm band as we float by. But this one was up early, and she did not enjoy sharing the lagoon. For a few minutes she swam circles around me, slapping and diving. Then, to my great relief, she slid under water and disappeared. I have never heard of anyone being attacked by a beaver, but I got a good look at her, and just for the record, beaver teeth, when seen up close, are formidable.
But today, I make it back to the island without encountering anything more than a small muskrat and a swarm of Bluetail flies. Stumbling out of the water across a spread of small, unreasonably sharp stones, I towel off, sit down in a lawn chair, pick up the thermos, and pour myself a cup of iced tea. In a few minutes my husband, who originally introduced me to this place, swims up and joins me. We sit, chatting, drinking tea, eating cold melons, and waiting for the sun to set; and in the distance, as always, we hear the sound of The Distant Cataract About Which We Do Not Speak.
Of course, it is not really the sound of a cataract. It is the roar of rush hour traffic, half of it crossing the Howe Avenue Bridge, half of it crossing the bridge at Watt. We are sitting on an island in the American River, right in the middle of Sacramento, the state capital, a metropolitan area of well over a million people, but my husband and I like to preserve our mutual delusion. We have agreed to imagine we are not a five- minute drive from our home and a twenty-minute walk from the university where we both teach, but instead in some remote part of California where just out of sight a magnificent waterfall foams down into a green pool.
The American River Parkway makes this fantasy amazingly easy. For over thirty miles, it runs through the heart of the city from Folsom Lake to the point where the American River joins the Sacramento. This is a town where if you float in a canoe or sit on an island below the levees you can not see houses (except in a few places where, alas, the zoning restrictions are being violated). This is a town where some state employees kayak to work; where, no matter how hot it gets, you can get goosebumps and blue lips just by going for a swim.
Over the years, we have seen Hmong families in brightly embroidered, traditional dress picnicking on the banks. We have come upon a circle of Somoans, up to their chests in water, drinking cold beers and singing “On The Boardwalk” in perfect harmony. When we launch our canoe, we often find ourselves having conversations in Spanish with recent immigrants from Mexico or Central America. About 75,000 Russians live in Sacramento county, many of them Baptists. We have watched them build huts of reeds and flowers and carry flowered crosses out into the water as part of their baptismal rituals. African-American congregations baptize here too, dressed in white robes. Like the Russians, they sing hymns and pray. I am always moved when I hear them. This, I think, is the spiritual heart of the river.
Once, during a January when it looked as if the levees might break, my husband and I came upon a pile of candy wrapped in gold foil, pineapples and oranges sliced in half, several beheaded guinea fowl, a pack of matches, and a handful of popcorn: traditional offerings made to the goddess Oxum by devotees of the African-Brazilian religion Candomblé. On another occasion, we went down to the river to launch our canoe and found the parking lot occupied by a Russian Orthodox priest and his congregation. The priest appeared to be blessing the river with incense. A procession made its way to the edge of the river bearing banners painted with holy icons. I believe their prayers were in Old Slavonic.
But nothing can compare to a night in early August when my husband and I came to the river and found it full of small, floating lanterns. A Japanese priest stood at the boat launch chanting as the lanterns drifted toward him and his congregation. We found out later that this is a traditional ceremony for souls lost at sea, but that now it is done to commemorate those who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. Above the lanterns, a full moon rose into the sky, bright and large as a second sun. The flames swirled in the current, the night primroses blossomed, the beavers were silent, and for a few moments the American was a river of light.
Note by Mary Mackey: This description of my swims in the American River was originally written for My California (Angel City Press), an anthology published to raise money for the California Arts Council and school writing programs statewide.