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At the River’s Edge

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At the river’s edge. After a May afternoon of tempestuous squalls, the sun sets, leaving a blaze behind the forest. The wind was gone, and a lone river cot swung idly on its mooring line, surrounded by the reflected fire. There’s a peculiar form of silence that envelopes the river after sunset. Most birds have gone quiet, except for mallards laughing raucously in the distance. 

When the wind blows on the river, the surface of the water stretches thin. Now, with the wind gone, it turns viscous and languid. Nervous water striders zig-zag across the water’s tight skin, mindful of the trout that every twenty or thirty seconds, leap from the water into the air, in search of supper. 

Midges gnaw half-heartedly at my scalp. It is no longer day, now we are in the gloaming. A formation of three silhouetted mallards passes overhead, in a slow descent towards the water.  I watch the rising tide pulse along a piece of semi-submerged timber. The water bulges forward, its leading edge curved by surface tension. A tiny tsunami reclaiming the zone the shore for sea, before it becomes land again, over and over.

Something prehistoric passes low, over my head. A pteranodon, or a heron, its neck folded into an S. It makes no sound. I squint at far off disturbance in the water, hoping for otters, but it’s just more ducks.

Four and a half years ago, speaking during my dad’s funeral, I said something like “that’s not him in the coffin, he’s down by the river”. And so, here he is. My dad was a dreamer, but he was grounded in this place by the river, he never really wanted to be anywhere else. He was happiest in a pair of rubber boots and his “egg-boiler” woollen hat, rowing on the river.  

Today we buried my mother. She was the more practical one, but you could never say she was grounded. She was more like one of her beloved birds, always on the move, like the woodpeckers – never much in Ireland during my childhood – that have taken to feeding from her bird table. 

I thought I would feel differently about her sense of place, but I do not. I cannot reconcile the harsh reality of them lying alongside each other in a graveyard with where I really feel them to be. My mother is in the garden with her flowers and her birds. My father is at the river. And the boundary between our garden and nature, and the river and all that dwells up on it is permeable. These two universes are intertwined and inseparable. 

Nearly forty years ago, my grandfather passed on, barely a stone’s throw from where I made this photograph. Now our parents have gone, and a new young generation is preparing to replace us. My son, my niece and my two nephews. The tide rises and falls, ebbs and flows, and the circle of life continues. 

As the darkness deepened, a blaze of white crosses behind the boat. A solitary mute swan, leaving a shimmering wake as it sails into the night. 

 

See also The River Flows

The River Slaney and the World