This piece is excerpted from The River You Touch: Making a Life on Moving Water by Chris Dombrowski.
The manifold radiance of an expectant mother: hips widened to the hilt, abrupt, pear-like slope of the belly, cheekbones staunch with strength, skin lambent as if lit from within. Perhaps it’s unbecoming, libidinous of a partner to stare at their bikini-clad pregnant spouse for extended periods of time in public, but I’m loath to look away. I watch Mary ease down into the chill currents of Rattlesnake Creek and recline against a boulder. Nestled against granite, with the water flowing over her shoulders, she holds at waterline a pencil and the birthing journal that our doula Colleen urged her to keep. When she licks the pencil’s lead and begins to write on one of the heavily thumbed pages, I shimmy over with the current for a look. She turns the covers inward, though: a schoolgirl with her diary.
It’s a swelteringly hot afternoon in late July, the air choked with forest fire haze. From Lolo Peak to Chief Joseph Pass the Bitterroot Valley burns like a seventy-mile-long wick, and consequently Missoula’s barely habitable airshed is filled with humidity and flurries of ash. How strange it feels to live with water, to move atop it daily in the boat, and return in the afternoon to a landscape riddled by drought. For weeks the closest we’ve come to rain is the sound of parched pine needles falling from their branches onto our roof. For now, most crops are surviving thanks to small-scale irrigation, which I’ll abide; large-scale irrigation of the old school type saps rivers of volume, and shallow rivers warm rapidly, which taxes the wild trout—a resource that can be stretched much further than cattle farming and dry land crops. Guided fishing trips, for example, bring in an estimated $400 million per year to Montana, a figure eclipsed only by lodging, fuel, and food purchases in the state.
On the creek’s shore, a canvas bag shades what remains of our modest farmer’s market haul: two huckleberries from a high-priced pint we otherwise devoured; the butt ends of four dispatched cucumbers; a bushel of unwashed carrots sold by a former student of mine, a third-generation Hmong farmer named Kuoa; and a cantaloupe selected from the reposing angle of Dixon cantaloupes that spilled across the bed of a green Dodge pickup. I pick up the pimpled melon and take a fragrant whiff off the blossom end, gauging its size against Mary’s midsection. A slice or two would no doubt quench my thirst, but to partake now seems weirdly cannibalistic. I offer a carrot to Mary, who declines without looking up.
“What are you writing?” I ask.
I snap the carrot with my canines and chew, savoring the rain the carrot is made of, the bright sun that drew its sugars out. I sense Mary’s growing desire to communicate with fewer words, or perhaps with none. How long has she been trying to express this, I wonder, while I’ve been oblivious to her desires? She’s drawn into herself of late, and carries herself with a new poise.
“A list for what?” I ask.
“So I can have everything packed in case we leave in a rush.”
The first and only item on my pre-delivery list: a white pillowcase for waving out the window of the car while speeding to the hospital, “a possible” whose value my ever-thorough but semi-neurotic mother has impressed upon me numerous times. “An officer of the law will not pull you over if you do this, no matter how fast you’re driving. I used one the time you sawed open that golf ball and the liquid gel inside shot into your eye. I don’t know if you remember that?” Few moments from my youth, I told her, were more indelible.
Placing my hand on Mary’s taut belly, relishing the tide-like movements in my palm, I bow to my own mother’s protectiveness, her grizzly-sow guard, and sneak another look at the journal.
“What could you possibly need a mirror for?” I ask. “You don’t need any makeup.”
“No peeking,” Mary says. With the pencil she draws a black bikini strap from her shoulder blades to her deltoid, to avoid tan lines I assume. Two warblers call back and forth across the riparian corridor at uneven intervals. A magpie squawks in staccato. Eventually she answers, “To see the baby’s head. Before I start to push.”
Turning away, I slip under the water once again and watch pearlescent bubbles of oxygen peel off my bare skin and loft toward the surface. As soon as we are able, I vow, I’ll bring the baby here so that its small form can be held by the water’s strong hands. Cutting through the thermocline, I surface to a view of Mary’s incomparable shoulder. It’s a location I’ll revisit later, another of summer’s sweet indecencies: not the suntanned skin of a beloved, but the pale skin the suit covered, a landscape to be mapped by the lips.
The first and only item on my pre-delivery list: a white pillowcase for waving out the window of the car while speeding to the hospital, “a possible” whose value my ever-thorough but semi-neurotic mother has impressed upon me numerous times.
A few days before Mary gives birth, a three-year-old boy wanders off from his family’s wilderness campsite in the nearby Ninemile Valley wearing only flip-flops, a pair of shorts, and a pajama T-shirt. On foot and on horseback, with helicopters and rescue dogs, the authorities search diligently. They even dredge the small lake beside which the boy’s family is camped, along the shore where he was last seen. After three full days and nights of searching, with all stops pulled, with nighttime temps in the low forties, with humidity high and hypothermia a distinct possibility, they grow resigned to the loss and call off the search. His mother and stepfather plead from the newspaper cover. After public outcry, authorities are pressured back to the task and redouble their efforts, though again they come up empty-handed.
Watching the television news that night, a local man, a custodian at a fast-food chain, decides to investigate the country early the following morning. He has no children of his own but as an elk hunter has pitched annual camp in the Ninemile since childhood, not far from where the boy was last seen, and he can’t imagine spending an entire season traversing the steps of a missing boy.
After the driest summer in decades, the creek alongside which the man walks is barely a trickle. Like a forty-three-year-old Hansel, he drops candy wrappers every hundred paces in case someone—the boy, he hopes—were to come upon them. Horseflies orbit the sweaty mesh of his ball cap. He considers a mid-morning nap but chides himself: How will you ever pack out a bull in this lazy kind of shape? Thoughts boomerang like this for the better part of the morning, but eventually burn off like dew when he’s walked long and hard enough. The trail he follows is too well used by ungulates for him to decipher recent track from old, but a scattered rose hip – skin broken, seedpod scattered—perks him up. A few steps later a second seedpod stops him in his tracks. All kinds of game animals ate rose hips, but none he knew regurgitated the seeds.
Just then a ruffed grouse flushes from the trail, the explosive whir of its mottled wings breaking the stagnant air, starting his heart. He mounts an imaginary shotgun as if to fell it and tracks the bird’s line of flight through alders and into a clearing. And there, on the other side of the meadow, seated atop a knoll near a logging skid trail, is the boy.
“Hi,” the boy says, once the man has huffed the meadow and reached him. “What are you doing?”
“Looking for you,” the man says, out of breath, a little surprised that the boy didn’t flee, and marveling at how alert and unaffected he appears.
Above the trail a grasshopper ascends a snowberry bush, hopping from one white fruit to the next, waiting until the first has ceased its swaying before venturing another leap—the way a body might cross, boulder by boulder, a swift and shallow stream.
“Is my mom looking?” the boy asks.
“She sure is. We’re all looking for you. Here, you must be starving.” The man empties his pockets of Werther’s, unzips his hip pack, and proffers a peanut butter and jelly sandwich he’d made and wrapped in tinfoil well before daybreak.
The boy opens his small fist to reveal a sweaty palm filled with rose hips.
“My aunt told me if I ever got lost in the woods, I could eat the skins off these. The leaves too. But don’t drink the water ’cause cows poop in it.”
“I bet you’re thirsty then?”
“Yeah. Really thirsty. You got a Mountain Dew?”
Mary strikes the lighter but it throws only sparks. She smacks its base against the desk several times like a gavel, strikes it again and angles the flame toward the votive until the wick catches.
Above Mount Jumbo, one day from full, the big moon rises at perigee. It won’t come any nearer to the earth this year, won’t pull any harder than it pulls tonight on the oceans’ tides, on the child that wants to come out, wants to stay. Mary’s people, the Celts, called it the Dispute Moon. The Moon When Chokecherries Darken, the Moon of Running Sturgeon, Green Corn Moon, the Moon When All Things Ripen: over the centuries, many groups of people have named this August moon. But as it banks through the skylight—a stone paused mid-skip over a deep lake—its immensity renders me mute.
Mouth stoppered with nerves, I kneel beside Mary’s body rubbing her shoulders. She exhales frantically, snuffing out the candle. I light the wick again, offer her a sip of water, tilt the cup toward her mouth. Beyond stock encouragements, though, I’m unsure of my next move. I stick to the script. And while my remedial purview readied me to measure Mary’s contractions, to identify their intensity and duration, nothing prepped me for her sharp tooth biting my knuckle—I jerk my hand back from her mouth as my stomach tightens. Amid the flux, two unmovable truths: I couldn’t begin to endure what she’s enduring; and for nine naive moons I failed to consider that my beloved would morph into my heroine.
I push myself up and recheck the packed bags at the door, pace between the bar and the couch, pat down my pockets for keys and wallet, repeat the routine. Open the fridge, close it. Then from the bedroom Mary lets go a yelp so loud I’m convinced it will chase the baby out of the birth canal and back into the womb. “I need to walk,” she yells. That’s all the discomfort she voices. When I reach her side she doesn’t appear the least bit agitated, recalling instead some mythical huntress who, finding herself deep within an impenetrable forest and sensing the unseen, passage-preventing beast nearby, says, “Okay. So this is the place.”
By the time we step outside the moon has swung to its descent. “Breathe” is the only word I can muster as we step tentatively down the quiet street.
As if she might forget.
I pick a hard pear from our neighbor’s tree and pass it to her. Days from now I’ll find it ripened in her overnight duffle and note where her nail prints pierced the skin.
For nine naïve moons I failed to consider that my beloved would morph into my heroine.
In the birthing room our doula Colleen says what I said an hour ago—“Breathe”—but speaks it as though it were a spell, settling Mary.
Soon, between flights of breaths, they are discussing with surprising casualness a documentary film that Colleen showed us a week ago, about a band of traditional Russian women who deliver their babies directly into the Black Sea. Remarkably these just-birthed, open-eyed pilgrims navigate a cove’s secluded waters with the efficacy of seals or fish. Just recalling these strong post-labor women and their children moments after “conscious” birth—their hair flowing in the tide, swimming, still attached at the umbilical to their swimming newborns—has fortified Mary, she says. And as she sinks down into the birthing tub in the delivery unit I note relief in her face, and fluidity in her movements, for the first time all night.
While Colleen copilots, whispers encouragements, I’m happy to play flight attendant, bring ice water, squeeze hands, wipe sweat, rest a palm on a bare, shaking knee. Otherwise, I stand numbly stage right with my silent plea that the four strong and utterly capable women in the room will soon deliver a breathing, wailing child into Mary’s arms. I don’t want to miss a moment of the spectacle, but I can understand why so many men of my father’s generation—then erroneously considered the stronger gender—forwent this moment of turbulence and milled around the waiting room with unlit cigars in their coat pockets. Despite prevailing social trends, my dad was present at my birth, of which I obviously remember nothing. First memory of him: two years old, I am zipped, my entire frame save for my nose and forehead, into his high-fill goose down red parka on a frigid night as he traverses the Niagara just upstream from the Falls.
Kneeling at Mary’s side in the delivery room, I am snapped from my reverie when a nurse announces that the contractions are three seconds apart. Then, without warning, Mary is calling for the mirror and someone is smiling confidently and holding the polished glass between her straining legs and telling her to touch her child’s head, which is covered in the uncountable hopes and fears, in the ruthless survival, of generations; in tissue and red matter and black hair; in the invisible traces of stars; in a mother’s triumphant cries.
Arrived, he gasps, and we yelp praise at his first earthly breath, his open eyes. Their fathomless, oceanic blue.
This piece is excerpted from The River You Touch: Making a Life on Moving Water by Chris Dombrowski, Milkweed Editions, 2022. Copyright © 2022 by Chris Dombrowski. Reprinted here with permission.
Purchase your copy of the book here.
Then read more of Chris’s thoughts on child-rearing in nature.