So we beat on/boats against the current/
borne back into the past.
(F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Around 5 pm, the sky turned gray, the river grew
windy. Soon, lightning and rain began. We paddled
our canoe to the western bank, a cluttered, rocky
area on the western side to wait out the storm.
Daylight was fading. When the rain also lessened,
we debated: stay there and camp? The ground,
too cramped and rock-strewn along the water’s
edge, and a rocky ledge rose behind. But across
the river, on the eastern Piaui side, an exposed
sand bank looked suitable for camping. Still, we
had a big problem: we’d have to cross the river,
now swollen. We stood in the rain, we pondered.
In the weeks of our trip, all we saw of civilization
were those villages we’d stopped or food,
mostly fresh eggs and fresh water. Those first
days out of Teresina, we’d seen subsistence
farms evolving into vast plantations of babassu
and carnauba palms, most common trees
to the Brazilian northeast, but now we’d entered
the delta region. Here, the terrain melted into
a sprawling wetland of sedge, papyrus, and
water-surviving trees, a bayou region.
The rain faded, but the wind still blowing strong.
Not a good place to cross—here the current
flowed too strong, but our options were few. We could
not walk further along the cluttered bank to pull
the canoe back upriver nor walk it back upstream.
We saw the river’s edge ahead turn sharply right,
some 40, 50 yards. I said, “Well, let’s chance it.”
Lauren shook her head. But light was fading fast
from an overcast, drizzling sky. We agreed we
couldn’t camp in such a cramped, awkward place.
I put a lifejacket on her, she put one on me. We
bumped our sore hands and pushed off into
muddy, swirling water—she paddling in front,
me in back—setting out across a winding river
at this point no wider than 30 yards to reach
the other bank. At first, all seemed okay in our old
canoe we’d rowed for three weeks, but near
the middle, the gusting wind began to blow
the water up—slopping over the canoe’s side.
I bailed with a tin can left over from our dinner
the night before. But when we passed mid-river,
the gusting wind flopped more waves over
the side. I bailed and bailed, but I could not bail
the water fast enough to keep the water flooding
the canoe’s bottom. I was yelling we could still
reach the eastern bank, but the canoe seemed
to hear a silent command, the howling wind
whistling—then the nose dipped, then rose,
then dipped again and stayed below, and I,
sitting behind, witnessed Lauren sinking waist
deep in water—still paddling. She shouted
something, but with the howling wind, I didn’t hear.
I yelled, “We can make it!” I now saw we had no
more than 12, 13 yards to reach the eastern bank,
but now the current was strongest. I dropped
the bailing can and both of us paddled like we had
electricity charging through our veins, but as
the surging current grew stronger, the canoe’s
bow was pulled down-stream—I saw a sleeping
bag floating over the lip of the canoe, but, stretching,
I could not reach the precious bag. Bizarre to see
cans of beans, bottles of suntan lotion floating away.
She yelled, I shouted—we tried like fanatics to force
the nose back toward the river bank, but the old
canoe, too heavy, too sluggish with flooded water,
could not be turned. Then, like a Brazilian caiman
entering its death throes, or like the world turning
over on its side, the canoe rolled over, and we
found ourselves swimming alongside the canoe
in a swollen river’s flow headed for rapids ahead.
As I snatched back a floating loaf of bread, Lauren
screamed—a floppy wave smothered her head
and she disappeared under, but as she bobbed up
again, she yelled: “An-chor! My legs!” She submerged
again. In an enlightened moment that disaster brings,
I saw we had reached one of those rare times, when
careless fate was knocking at the door of our lives.
Her head did not emerge. I took a desperate breath—
dived under. Here, all seemed quiet, water moving in slow
motion. Water so warm, so clear, so surrealistically
calm, the underworld seemed, compared to the windy
air above. Brownish, tinted water, but clear like herbal tea,
my feet felt her floating hair below me—I dived, grabbed
at her hair as I would grab loose ropes—pulled
her up—kicked furiously to reach the surface, thinking
my lungs would burst, but we emerged to grab, then
clutched onto the side of the canoe, but just
as we caught our breath, the river swerved us right,
and we watched our disaster further unfolding,
the rapids sucking us in—then the roiling, surging
water more powerful than we’d ever known,
as if caught inside a washing machine on high speed.
The torrent swept us into a crashing hell with both
of us yelling at the other: “Don’t let go! Don’t, don’t—”
An hour might have passed, or maybe it was two
minutes. In the paradox of the moment, my panicked brain
remembered Bergson: “Two kinds of time exist: the
usual constructed time of watches and calendars,
but also, subjective, perceived time, ‘la duree’
as he had once put it. Gasping for air, trying to keep
our heads above the water, until finally we passed out
of the rapids, and the current carried us into a calm
area, where a wetland area spread out on both sides.
One of us reminded the other what we’d once read
somewhere in a camping book: that if a canoe capsizes,
It will not sink. With blurred vision we looked around.
The banks had disappeared with only sedge and rushes
and papyrus growing some 100 meters back from
the flow that was drifting onto the delta channels.
But whether our disaster had lasted in the space
of Bergson’s minute or hour, now to survive, we had
to break out of the current and reach the shore. This
now became the most strenuous part—pulling, pushing
A waterlogged canoe toward the bank. We kicked,
we pulled, we shoved, we cursed, we strained
our overtired bodies to get the canoe toward
the stable river bank. For the first time in our lives,
we learned what “exhaustion” meant in those torturous
moments struggling out of the powerful current.
But it took many more minutes of panting like
fish, wondering if we would suffer a stroke from
the exertion, until finally our toes touched the river’s
bottom; it took another five minutes to reach the ankle-
deep mud that formed the Maranhao river bank. There,
trying to calm our breath, we watched helplessly
as most of our possessions of food, water bottles,
most of our camping supplies, including out tent,
A carton of farm eggs, I bought the day before
in Luzlandia—all floated away beyond reach. Worst
of all, our tent and precious sleeping bags. We even
saw one of Lauren’s beloved Vasque hiking boots
floating 30 yards ahead of us, caught in the center
of the current. Still in shock, we sat on the side-turned
canoe in our wet clothes and bare feet. We gazed
at the mud squeezed between our toes. In the twilight
we took stock of what was lost. No more flashlights,
no more drinking water, no food. We still had our life
jackets, an empty container, which had contained
our potable water but ti had mixed with the river water.
In our soaked fanny pouches, at least, we had chlorine
pills. We pulled the old waterlogged canoe further
into the papyrus and struggled to turn it upright.
Already, our stomachs felt nauseous from swallowed
river water. But both of us were happy to be alive,
we gave each other a hug and saw that a slice of moon
was rising to offer bare light shifting into dark. We tried
to think. We had lost our blue tarp. How could
we even camp? How could we stay there in such
a soggy, marshy area, where there was no place
to rest or sleep except on wet, muddy ground
with no cover from the coming dew, and what
if it rained again? Worst of all, we had only wet
clothes to wear. Now we had to decide: Spend
the night in that damp, muddy area or push on?
We had been organized in two ways: we still had
our life preservers, and we had our paddles, which
we’d tied to hooks inside the canoe. We could
still row. Lauren, the nurse practitioner, said:
“Us, trying to spend the night here in wet clothes.
That’s some 12 hours, while sitting in a marshy
swamp could make us sick from exposure.
But body heat should dry out our clothes, if we
keep rowing.” So we decided: keep going, rowing,
now with our only light, the quarter moon, we gazed
downriver toward a long, dark night.
Three, four hours passed as we rowed deep into
the jungle night, feeling as if we had floated into another
world, an ominous and charcoal-gray water world,
and as we paddled on, even the spare, skinny moon often
hid behind smudged clouds. Our flashlights useless,
our matches wet, our phones, once kept in a dry pouch
had disappeared in the capsizing. Only later, I realized
my wristwatch also sat at the bottom of the Parnaiba River.
Lauren, still dipping steady after rowing all day, then
the ongoing hours since capsizing, and me growing
sicker by the minutes and hours, my stomach aching and
my brow, hot with fever and a headache caused by
wearing wet clothes. My voice had dropped into hoarse
roughness like the raspy sound when I had flu. Soon,
I vomited; I dry heaved. I called out to Lauren: just let
us drift, but she shook her head as she steered us
around a floating tree with exposed roots. Once when
the moon was invisible, we snagged on a branch, clogged
with hyacinths and driftwood. I grew weaker with
increasing stomach pain, and soon I could no longer sit
upright. Staring into the returning moon’s angling movement,
I assumed midnight had passed, but it seemed increasingly
that time grew slower, even grinding to a crawl. Finally,
I faded out of consciousness, finding myself bi-located,
standing on the side of the river, watching us float by
as Henri Bergson was standing at my shoulder: “What
do you think about this disaster?” I asked him. “I disagree
with Kant,” said he. “Time and space are not the same.”
“Why talk about theoreticals at a time like this?” I retorted.
“Time and space are not parallel rails of a railroad track. In
fact, our task is to go beyond spacial time, for only intuition
can capture the essence of time, not kill it like science does
with its obsession with measurement. ’S’il vous plait,’ let’s
remember the process of life is not static but dynamic,
an ‘elan vital,’ a living continuity.” “Oh, I see,” said I, lying
crumpled on my back, stuck painfully in a cramped space,
too weak to rise up, staring at the smudged, charcoal sky
and skinny moon. Now we were passing through a stretch
of river, framed by gargantuan, black water trees jutting
up on both river sides. Trees so sky-tall with branches
leaning toward the river, I feared they could fall on us, as
“la duree” of the long minutes passed—seven, eight
hours. We felt we had passed outside the parameter
of time where a panic attack would sometimes snatch at me,
making me perceive that the tall river trees were falling,
as the current drifted us randomly on along and the moon
moved in and out behind passing clouds. Sunrise and
day light seemed an increasingly diminishing dream.
Then, I felt the rhythm of her rowing cease. Cramped,
slumped between the cobbled seat and the canoe’s
rough side, I floated again into bi-location. Now Bergson
was discussing “Tristes Tropiques” with Levi-Strauss
under a thorny babassu palm tree. I stood beside them
on the riverside, when suddenly a caiman crocodile grabbed
my left foot—I shouted. “No! get back!” I kicked back at
the jutting nose and giant teeth, but then realized it was only
Lauren poking my foot with her paddle. But why? I could
barely raise my head, my skin still shivering under clothes
that had taken hours to dry. She said something I could
not hear—she seemed to be speaking from inside a bottle.
—What? I whispered.
—I see something ahead.
—I see something ahead.
—No, I mean…what do you see?
—Island. Small island.
—Dry island? A place to camp?
—Looks like a sand bar risen where we—
—Oh God, finally!
So weak, I couldn’t bring my head above
the lip of the canoe. I took a deep breath,
pulled my head up with my hand. I saw
her outstretched arm—she pointing, I
followed her extending fingers. Then I saw it.
Yes! A heavenly mound of white sand
setting there in the middle of black river water.
“Yes, yes, oh God yes,” I mumbled, “yes.”
My voice so hoarse, it barely projected,
but now my spirits lifted up like the fog.
Finally we’d found a dry place to rest. True,
We had no cover, but since our clothes
had dried, we could still lie huddled
together on the sand to stay warm from
the night’s heavy dew and morning chill.
I saw a flash of illumination move across
Lauren’s dark hair and pallid face—just
enough light to see her smile. I waited
as she paddled us toward the island’s
edge. Me thinking: after all those hours
of toil and trouble following our disaster,
it seemed a divine gift to find a dry island,
where we could rest until daylight. I felt
the rhythm of her back paddling slow,
At that moment, I imagined no greater
luxury than that little island. Not even
a bed in a five star hotel seemed more
desirable than a dry, clean, white sand
island. She said: “You, Rollie, you get
the honors,” and she clapped. I struggled
to roll out, but was too weak to raise up.
I grabbed the end of her paddle, took
a deep breath and went rolling out, entering
a chilly chaos of a liquid, alien water world,
sinking into my lungs, my face and body,
submerging, my throat, gulping water, unable
to breath, barely able to comprehend what
had happened, but imagining that the island
we’d discovered was made of soil so unstable
that it was made either of quicksand or creamy
algae scum that collapsed beneath my weight.
Submerged into a black, blind mass of watery
ink, I swallowed, choked back the rancid water,
my feverish mind switching into panic mode.
I was kicking, hitting against the blinding confusion,
shocked and bewildered what had happened.
but when my head emerged above the water
line and I could breathe, I saw the island had
not just disappeared, but I was yards far away
from the canoe that had floated away from me,
and I was surrounded by a chaotic collage
of ripples and waves of that foul-tasting liquid.
“Grab my oar!” Her faraway voice yelled.
I managed to swim the 20 feet to grab on
to the end of her oar and she pulled me
to the edge of the canoe, where I clutched
onto the lip side with both hands. She threw
me my life preserver.
—Don’t try to roll back in! She shouted.
—You’ll pull us over, we’ll capsize again.
—Damn it! What the hell happened?
But I knew what had happened. The island
had been an illusion, the thing we so desperately
wanted to see was the mystical reflection of a cloud
lying on the water. Now I felt the current
tugging at my legs, and I imagined piranhas
gathering about my bare feet, ready to attack for
their midnight dinner.
—So we beat on,” I mumbled, suddenly remembering
Scott Fitzgerald’s line, “Boats against the current, borne back—
—What the hell are you mumbling?
—Something in my head that suddenly emerged.
How long could this disaster go on? I asked myself,
I was hanging onto survival with only my fingers,
Lauren slowly paddling us along, finally pulling us
up against a floating mass of hyacinth stalks, clogged
against a log. I tried to get a leg up by stepping
on the log, but it was too slippery and unstable
I couldn’t get into the canoe, so I returned to hanging
onto the side, and the canoe drifted on along under
the skinny, jagged moon, and the marshmallow clouds.
—You’re from Berkeley, I said after a long pause.
—I remember…you said you come from Berkeley.
—Has the river water washed your brain away?
—No, I was just thinking that—
—Who cares where I’m from, but where I’m going.
—Berkeley, California was named after Bishop Berkeley.
—What does fucking Berkeley have to do with this mess you got us into?
—I can explain if—
—Yeah, try explaining this disaster you organized so well.
—Wasn’t it Berkley, that philosophical idealist, who said—
—I’m really not hearing this!
—He said reality is nothing more than our sense impressions giving—
—Oh God! I’m condemned to listen to philosophy at midnight!
—When could be a more appropriate time? Considering….
—Listen, I’ve listened your philosophical bullshit before.
—Really think it’s just b.s.?
—So if a tree falls in the river, but no one is around to hear it fall, then it never fell, right?
—Listen, Lauren, maybe it seems…a bit theoretical but—
—Look, I admit my fault! I wanted to see an island so bad that I guess I—
—You saw a mirage.
—Yes, in my desperation I saw the cloud’s reflection and….
—You saw a mirage.
—Yes! I’m guilty! But you saw the same island that I saw!
—Yeah, so in a philosophical sense we—
—Is this what I gotta listen to out somewhere that—
—It’s the Parnaiba River, Lauren.
—No, it’s the middle of nowhere land and shit soup for us.”
—Nah, you think?
—Look at you, hanging off the side of the canoe.
—Aw, it’s not that bad.
—Look here, Rollie, this was your crazy, fucked-up holiday idea!
—But didn’t you also think my river-trip idea was exciting?
—Not really, I was just trying to be accommodating, which was stupid.
The moon moved behind a cloud again, the water,
where I was dragged along, again turned inky-
black around me, and the sky, smudged with charcoal.
At times we seemed to be floating through a tunnel,
where overhanging trees shut all or most of the sky
light, and even made it impossible to see a faint
star or catch a glimpse of the skinny, quarter moon.
We knew the delta subdivided the river into finger
channels, but we had no idea if the route we followed
would take us to the ocean. So we floated on,
my wrists tied onto the side, now resigned to go where
the current pulled us. Once, I remember saying:
—Bergson once wrote, the French “Le temp” or our English “time” is not an apt word.
—Who cares about that now?
—but he said it is not an apt word to describe the passing life experience.
—I don’t care.
—This is still important stuff to think that—
—Important? Would you please just shut it?”
—“La durée” is a more apt word, a kind of “duration” or maybe—
—Now I’m getting a French lesson. Just fuck off!
—“Enduring’” would maybe be the best way to say what we normally call “time.”
—Who the fuck is this guy, Bergson? Lauren asked after a long silence.
—Oh, a guy who once lived in France. He thought a lot about time,
I said, hanging onto the side of the canoe, shivering in the river water.
Many dark days and weeks passed. We realized
the daylight would never come again, realized
the river was returning us to a proto-history and
not just to proto-history but to a time even before
human society was keeping records on cave walls,
and, as the months passed into a year, we flowed ever
deeper into primordial time—thousands of years,
even millions before our ancestors crawled
out of the river and turned with sticks to spear
and catch the frogs and fish they had left behind
in their wake. We evolved into a wetland world,
the only structured language were the dialects
of frogs with their grinding, scraping, raucous
singing, but as more as more millennia passed,
the language of the frogs also became the tongue
that we spoke—the river flowing us far away
from the modern world we once knew, the ocean
current pushing our destiny in reverse, shaping us with
wheels of watery concentricity, but with more time
passed on the river, we realized that we had
no more desire to return to the human world.
Sometimes, we heard the deadly growl of saber-
toothed tigers, and overhead, the flight of airborne
dinosaurs, sometimes even the blood-chilling roar
of wooly mammoths, as they sucked up gallons
of water somewhere in the delta darkness. But
what we feared most was the raucous honking
of a bull caiman looking for a blood meal, and
always the croaking, the unceasing frogs croaking,
rutting, singing of thousands—millions of frogs
so overwhelming that eventually, we became
mesmerized and spoke their language. We
evolved into the river’s liquid timelessness, as
we drifted on through millennia that became
millions and millions, multi-millions. Our water-
logged canoe, no longer able to resist the ocean
waves, pushed us further back into the past,
and with every moon that passed, we saw our
fate increasingly parallel with the river’s fate, and
our destiny, where the river chose to take us,
the river’s water wheel taking us into its liquid
fingers—spinning us into eddies and whirlpools,
shaping our feet and hands from toes and fingers
into extending fins until we realized that it was
no longer we who were floating down a river, but
the river flowing around us, the liquid water shaping
us like a waterfall on stone. Both of us finally
comprehending that we floated on a river that
had no beginning and no end—that the water
under us was also the blood flowing in our veins.