We’re running out the Appalachians. Chasing the tender tails of the hills we love. So much of what we see in the far northwest corner of Pennsylvania feels familiar, like a shade of the Virginia home we knew in high school. The way the quiet isn’t a quiet at all, but the chorus of a breathing forest. The sigh and rustle of uncountable leaves, their silver bellies flashing at the sky.
The way the rivers move, too. Wide and quicker than they look. Deep enough to float a canoe but too shallow to drown in without some effort. We spend a night by the Clarion, the smell of it warm and bright, a flash in the cool dark of the forest. The water is brown and green and translucent, and if I want anything in this world it’s to be up to my neck in it, letting the current work at me like any other dull stone.
The banks are blue rock beaches mortared with black mud, pressed in places with tracks I recognize. The shrunken palm of raccoon and the symmetric, split hooves of deer. The quick, light steps of coyote, and the heavy, slow marks of my own boots, all of us drawn to the life of the moving water.
So is my daughter. When we bring her to the river’s edge, she can’t help but be in it. She splashes at the glowing water with a fierce joy, her small, pale toes bright against the dark stone bottom, her shrieks of happiness licking at the trees a quarter mile downstream. She reaches in up to her elbows, cooing at the feel of the water slipping around her limbs. Laughing at the wonder of the thing, the miracle of there being this much water in the world. Of it belonging to no one but us in this moment.
It stokes an irrational pride in me, one that curls and pushes against the confines of my heart. It happens, sometimes, at rare and unmappable moments when I can see the shining threads of her makeup. The best parts of her mother and I condensed and forged into the brightness that is our daughter.
It’s more than the obvious currents of her being; her stubbornness, or the heat of her independence. Her determination or her ocean of joy. Those, I know. I see them in the mirror and catch them in the soft lines of my wife’s face. It’s the unexpected revelations, the small surprises that reveal the truth of our daughter. How she can hear a dog bark or a bird sing over the din of a busy city street. How she’ll point and beg to be closer. How desperately she loves flowers. And now, rivers. It nearly breaks me.
Is there a gene that switches on somewhere? One that tells her that wide water through green hills is a part of her, as necessary as the breath in her lungs? That she will seek it out when she feels knotted like twine? That she will open her eyes and find herself standing at the water’s edge without knowing how she got there, her heart weak with grief or loss or love, but still strong enough to point her to water. That the Christians have it wrong; it’s not the one baptism she needs, but a thousand—a long line of desperate and perfect cleansings, not holy but sacred all the same.
Of course not. That’s a parent’s pleadings with the universe, looking for order in the chaos of a toddler. Searching for tracks I recognize.