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ESSAY: Still Life with Water


by Matthew Maitland Thomas

Somewhere, as a child, I saw a painting of a harbor at twilight. The boats were neglected in their slips. The lines mooring them to the crumbling docks were frayed and slack. The cranes were idle. Sea birds perched on weathered, tilting pilings, which would someday (any day now) fall over and disappear under the water, which was very still. The birds, one hoped, would fly away.

When I was in junior high, my family visited Niagara Falls. I was mesmerized by the countless gallons spilling over the falls. Little did I know, standing at the rail with the other gapers, that my parents’ marriage was already over, and our family would be forever changed. I remember little specifically of the tumult that followed, but the falls I see clearly. I can still hear them rumbling, and feel the fine spray.

I spent much of my adolescence skateboarding, and water was the enemy. Rain-slicked asphalt was dangerous. Wetness ruined skateboards; it warped and bloated wood and rusted wheel bearings. Snow and ice made skateboarding impossible. The rage I felt upon waking to a fresh snowfall! As a teenager, a tempest in a human-shaped sheath, my protestations were operatic. I shook my fist at God and renounced His glory, which I’m sure He found amusing.

In Vermont, where I’ve now come to be, much of my engagement with water is tangled up with time: Will the snow and ice slow the roads and make me late? Will they be impassable, rendering me motionless? How juicy will the dirt roads be when the thaw comes?

But even these are passing considerations. One learns, adapts and gets by. The seasons change, and one forgets.

Mostly, when I dwell upon water, I’m at my writing desk, looking out the window. There is a pond across the yard. Partway between the pond’s edge and the woods a slender metal pipe rises from the ground. Water flows from the pipe in a never-ending stream — on dry summer days, during spring and fall storms, and even in winter when everything is frozen. The water runs in a rivulet down to the pond. It is very lush along this rivulet, everything markedly taller, bushier and greener than everywhere else. I wonder if this trickle of water, gurgling from the ground in the backyard of a house set off a dirt road somewhere in the interior of northern New England, is the fountain Ponce De Leon quested after but never found.

There’s an explanation, no doubt. Something like, “The water coming out of the pipe is part of a system that churns the pond to keep it from becoming stagnant and fetid,” I imagine (but do not pursue).

On hot days while mowing the lawn I often pause to drink from the pipe. Kneeling, I make a basket of my hands and put it under the stream. The water collected is cool and clear. Certainly, it must be refreshing. I delight at the thought of shivering down mouthfuls. But something always stops me as I bring the water to my lips. I study the squishy, absurdly fertile ground around the pipe and wonder what if. Could I exist on an infinite continuum? Am I prepared for deterioration of self that would seem to come along with a boundless existence? I part my fingers to let the basket drain.

Water is a less a thing and more a cycle, always tending toward one of its potential states, which are steps in the process of it re-becoming what it currently is. Similarly, we are cyclical creatures. We mark time by ascending to denouement, then reflecting and longing. Memory, the intangible residue of our experience, is cyclical like water. Memories repeat like the past repeats in stories about time travel, always happening, over and over, irrespective of our presence. They do not begin or end; they simply are, like a river that flows in a circle.

But unlike water, we diverge from cycles eventually, not the physical stuff of us, of course, which lives on forever in one form or another, but the metaphysical stuff. In this case we are more like fire — propulsive, brilliant and brief.

Whatever we are, once we’re gone, we ghosts in the machine, the twilight harbor, along with the town perched above on the surrounding bluffs, collapses into the bay.

Matthew Maitland Thomas was born and raised in Michigan and lived in Chicago for many years before moving to Vermont. He is a graduate of Shimer College and a passionate reader, writer and yogi.