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Riverview 19 June 2008

Posted by ANNA in ANNA, History.

I cannot remember whose idea it was to go swimming in the river. We walked down ravines, thick as lines on my hand, in sunlight metered through vines. Far at the bottom, the gully widened where water began to flow. A stream the color of hog snakes bubbled along our toes. We followed it, empty handed, until it reached the bank. There, still wearing jeans, we set out to wade in the shallows.

It took less than a minute to realize that we were in trouble, and less than five to drift across the Iowa to its less welcoming side. Whatever ideas we may have had about not really swimming, about our mothers finding out and killing us, were slowly abandoned. We clung there together to handfuls of weeds, and looked back the way we came. There, on the empty bank, our sweatshirts waited all alone. When they came looking for us, I imagined, they would find these. It struck me as funny, then, that I of all people would be in such a state. Wasn’t I supposed to be smarter than this? Did the river, in sweeping me away, forget about my brain?

Michelle’s hair hung down in long blond curls around her neck. I loved her then, for being with me, at what could be the end. We waited while the rush of the water pulled our strength away. At last, we looked at each other. My legs ached just from working to stay still. “Let’s try,” Michelle suggested, “to float back.” We counted down and braced our feet. When we got to one, we pushed off.

We left diagonally, downstream, in the direction least likely to fight. Every four strokes. I tried to pull myself closer to the bank. Four down, one over; and slowly, so, we went. I swallowed water through my nose, and coughed mucus through my mouth. Still we drifted, on and on, in the direction of the bend. And then, with three more sets of strokes, all at once, we were safe.

We rolled on the sand, laughing, because we were young, and because we had almost drowned. I realized then, in the sunshine with her, that the river had no feelings. It swirled in eddies at our ankles, as we rinsed ourselves in the shallows. Water the color of pyrite and silt drifted away from our toes. A family of crawdads nipped at my feet. We pulled on our clothes, and quickly, with the urgency of almost-women, we slipped back up to the car.

I slid into the passenger seat, dragging sand and weeds along with me. Too tired to apologize, we sat together silently. Michelle’s hand shook as she fingered her keys. I opened my door to let air in, and we agreed, silently, to wait. As the afternoon passed, we ate warm pickles and grapes. The salt from the pickle juice dried sticky on my lips. I cannot remember when we decided we were okay to drive, or how I made it home.

Today I cannot tell stories of home without mentioning the rivers.

Riverview burned down when I was three, and for ten years it sat vacant on the river’s edge. The ruins of a roller coaster flew over the lagoon. A charcoal carosel, inhabited by sprays of warped green glass, stood like a lady in the middle of the reeds. Here and there, a cement path, grown over with weeds, lead the way to the tadpoles.

We would walk down there in the evenings, before lightning bug time, to watch the life cycle of the frogs. In July it was so loud, between cicadas and birds, the sound of water and amphibian voices, that we shouted at each other as we squatted on the bank. At first you could not see them, until your eyes adjusted to the angle of the light. Then, there, in a hoard at the surface, their bodies appeared. They were semitransparent things, as long as my hand, with bellies round as eggs.

My mother would not let us take the turtles home, but she didn’t mind about the polliwogs. Dad gathered them in a net and turned them into a jar, filled with water the same brown as oak leaves. Then all in a row, across the remains of the charred bumper car court, we made our way back up to the trail. There, we followed the river (the Des Moines, this time, not the Iowa) back to the railroad tracks, through McHenry, to home.

By the side of the river, when I was ten, Ms Grimes taught me to run. By popular vote it was decided that All Saints should have a track team, and both the other girl in my class, Maria, and I were on it. Being tall but steady it was decided that I would run the 800, and any longer races. Maria, not as given to running as me, soon mastered the shotput. In the afternoons all spring, we ran with the fifth grade boys down to the North High track.

The ground beneath it was unnaturally flat, even for Iowan standards. Our flat places are flood plains; the rest of the state rolls softly from the Mississippi to the Missouri. In between, their tributaries, where they leak over their banks, create vast empty spaces of black, black dirt. This, not our crops, is our wealth. This is our claim to fame. If the state is covered in a blanket of green by the Fourth of July, then we are happy. We have won.

I kept running, through the change to middle and high school. At last, at fifteen, on the track team, I made friends with Tashika Lewis.

She was taller than me but not by much, and star of the 100 yard dash. Tashika, thin, broke state records every year in the long jump. She brought home trophies for all her events. She told jokes. She dated a boy half-heartedly, to have someone to dance with. In front of us, on the team, she scratched the inside of her nose. I loved Tashika because she ran with me. In the afternoons of my sophomore year, we trained up and down the river.

We jumped over puddles, we rushed through the snow. In the mornings, before school, we ran and we watched the mist rise up from the water’s surface. In the afternoons, we flew along the straightaways in the direction of the Reservoir. When we reached the beginning of Saylorville, there where the river is crossed by sand beds, we stopped. We looked at shells and at fossils, at chunks of rock lined with the imprints of creatures from outer space.

When the others started to arrive, we turned around and left. Tashika and I, running home, made our shadows long and proud. I learned, at her side, how to work hard. I learned how to begin a race, and how to finish one. We explored the stages of exhaustion together, and the smell of ammonia in our noses at the end of a long day. When I remember the river now, running with her is the memory’s happiest part.

So it goes with the river: none of the feelings I have about it are neutral. They are people feelings, of walking along with my mother and her babysitting kids. Of collecting railroad spikes with my father, in a wheelbarrow we pushed parallel to the bank. Of taking home the rusted chunks of iron for him to bend.

This is all to say that it comes as a surprise now, so many years from home, to find that what I thought would last has not, while what I thought would dry up has widened. I try my parents again on the phone, without any answer. My city, my granddad’s city, Uncle Duncan’s city, Connor’s city — all have begun to wash away

It was horrible, last Friday, to see pictures of North, submerged like a brick in a flat, brown sea. The levee broke, the newscaster said, and that came as no surprise. It was old. The helicopter swept over the city, up from the National Guard base, and along the mouth of the spillway. Then over Birdland, and the railroad tracks, and downtown, and the marina.

Everything I remember being near to the river is gone. The track is gone, the fields are gone. The stadium is gone. Riverview is beyond gone. I could not, if I were ten again, grow up to become the same woman, in this mysterious floating city.

I work not to cry at the halaqa, when Hoda asks if I am okay. “It’s just that I loved my city,” I try to explain. “I know it is kind of silly, to be so sad about the dunya. But nothing looks the same anymore. And my parents’ phones just go to voicemail, and everything is gone.”

It is an exaggeration. Not everything is gone, just everything has changed. As we wait for the sisters to assemble for du’a, I remember poetry. I know you can’t wash in the same river even once, Hikmet wrote. I try to keep this in my mind while I say goodbye.

Goodbye track. Goodbye path. Goodbye school. Goodbye fields. Goodbye ravines. Goodbye farms. Goodbye roads. Goodbye, home. I didn’t realize, I think in my heart, that this would happen.. I didn’t realize that you wouldn’t last.



1. maximus mercury - 20 June 2008

Dear Anna,
I am so sorry for your loss – I cannot imagine what it must be like to see the landscape you love taken away by the elements. I remember apprehending only the beginnings of what you must be feeling when the earthquake hit Islamabad and the northern areas in Pakistan a few years ago – I wondered what I would do if my parents’ home crumbled. I remember the disorientation I felt at the mere thought of that. I hope your loved ones are safe & the place you loved comes back more beautiful and strong than before.

2. ABD - 21 June 2008

kullu man ‘alayha fan. wa yabqa wajhu rabbika dhul-jalali wal-ikram. everything on it (the earth) will perish. and the Face of your Lord, full of majesty and honor, will remain. (Qur’an 55:26-27)

your writing is an exercise in grace. i hope that it has helped you to give some shape to your loss and thereby make it more manageable. please let us know that your loved ones are well, and update us when they are able to return to their homes.

note: following an earlier commenter’s excellent suggestion, i have started a running glossary (see page menu above) and taken the liberty to add du’a, dunya and halaqa from this piece to your definitions from To Mars, Together.

3. Emma - 23 June 2008

I feel for you. I am also from Iowa. The town of Parkersburg, where my mother grew up and where our family gathered every year, was brutally flattened by the tornado on May 25. Just a few weeks later, the town where I was born was submerged in floodwaters, all the way to the tops of the streetsigns.
I have spent many hours wondering at the mystery of God’s plan, when one natural disaster is so soon topped by another. In some towns, all that survived the tornado was brought down by the flood. It seems as if we are all drafted to play different instruments in a symphony that crashes around us, yet we cannot hear it or make sense of it. At times, this symphony feels like a tragic joke of which we are the object, and while all of creation rumbles a deep laugh, we are left unable to understand it, and stare at the sky, asking why.

4. Baraka - 26 June 2008


I’m so very sorry, Anna. Many members of my family were in Islamabad during the earthquake in Pakistan and I remember well the anguish of those days.

I can only say that I understand – a little – and that I pray your loved ones are safe and as well as can be expected after such horrific events.

My thoughts & prayers are with you and yours.


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