On the River Verge



At the fringe of the Japanese garden, on an island of cultivation amidst the bramble of the river verge, grows a persimmon tree. It is overshadowed by neighboring maples and ash. In late October, the fruit begins to coral. My dog, a young dirt-colored Labrador named Mercy, charges me and leaps as I squeeze at the low-hanging fruit, thinking it’s a tease. I pick an unripe piece and bowl it along the grass for her. She rabbits it and macerates the pulpy flesh.

Across the open field, in a stand of oak trees blending to filbert, tents and tarps are strung together as a rough shelter, enclosing a corral of bicycles and shopping carts. The deluge of Typhon Songda, though weakened to a storm as it crossed the Pacific, brought an onslaught of rain to fill the river and soften the dirt trails along the river to mud. Men crouch beside the camp and watch us under the brims of their hats. There are fewer now, with the weather turning bitter. Mercy and I slip away and among the bare branches of a willow to a path along the canal. I will return in a few days and pick some fruit before the crows strip the tree.

In the freezing fog of November, the camp collapsed into a heap of canvas, a single shoe, broken glass. We walk up river, skirting the plastic cups and odd bits of clothing the dog takes into her teeth and thrashes, if I let her. She is a pirate seeking booty. I scout the ground, watchful for the glint of needles.

We pick our way down the bank, over black rocks, to the river. Great Blue Herons fish here, solemn and singular on the verge of the river. I was dismayed when we startled one from her reverie, letting out a harsh cry to launch grimly over the water on heavy wings.  I have haunted river trails some years of my life, and will crouch and retreat rather than force these shy fierce birds to flight. This was the first and only time I’ve heard the distressed cry of the heron. I was chastened.

December brought an ice storm that felled one of the great oak trees that sheltered the summer camp. The blackberries died back to their cane and the bare bones of the verge were chafed raw. Snow came, and ice, in January. Mercy stood in the river eddy and listened as wild geese arrowed and shifted in flight, calling out over the dark water. We walked the meadow by the canal pond, working our way through dirt mounds thrown over ground squirrel barrows, the dog clawing away dirty slush to muzzle down a porthole.

In March the willows sprouted soft fuzzy buds as tender as baby mice. The gargling crow of the pheasant rose up among the long grass, then a flash of the cock’s iridescence as he ran before the dog scenting his trail. A blue tent appeared in the hollow of birch above the meadow. It was followed by a new compound of tents and tarps among the filbert, close by the fallen oak.

On Good Friday there was a hail storm, then the skies cleared and the sun illuminated the ice on the wild grape iris. Mercy and I worked our way across the verge down to the old river landing. I unleashed her from her lead to swim in the river and dash along the long peninsula. She dug furiously down into the sand lapped by the water and seized a corner of heavy cloth in her mouth. Digging and heaving, Mercy unearthed a great bundle of muddy cloth that I feared was a body, or a bag of bones, washed up by the river. She tugged and worked it up onto the stones of the old landing, and there she worried at it, seeking some better treasure. It was an old blanket, or sleeping bag, swamped by the storms of winter and now excavated.

The clouds rose higher and whiter. The sun glinted off the waves of the river. Above us, in the distance down the river bank, I heard voices growing louder. I clipped on Mercy’s lead and we slipped through the willows up river.