I burn incense to ash and watch rosemary ember drop into a bowl the color of the house I grew up in. I move my fingers over the bowl’s cornflower glass, thumbing the small bumps in its surface where air has been trapped. I inhale the thick pockets of smoke and feel my body become empty and whole at the same time.
The middle branch of the Escanaba River was the back yard of my blue home. The deck that reached the edge of the river was littered with crooked nails and rocks split down the middle. I remember its wood always wet with rain or rot. The river’s water ran low enough to see every rock and twig over which it passed. I would dangle my feet off the end no matter the season. My toes ebbed through its warmth in June and skimmed the frozen water in December, but there have been summers when my feet couldn’t reach the surface.
The water was high and cold in April during the first spring that I could walk. The day I learned, my mother took eight pictures of me moving toward her in our backyard on her 35mm Pentax, each one blurry. After taking the photographs, she shifted to shield her eyes from the sun, her bare arms reaching above her brow, casting a shadow on her face. With her back to the river, she moved her knuckles down to the camera and twisted its lens closed. She opened its back and removed the used cylinder, not noticing that I was still walking.
I fell in head first while her back was turned. She heard the splash and continued to replace the film with a new roll, moving the leader into the slit on the right spindle, winding the lever toward and then away from her until the film was wrapped firmly in place. She pressed the back of the camera shut and pushed down the metal disc on its top left side to lock the film in place. She took a test shot of her shoes and then came to save me.
I notice a crack in the side of the bowl and I run my finger against it, wondering where it came from. Maybe it split when I dropped it on the bathroom floor. Maybe it was there to begin with. I think about flaws: cracks in casserole dishes, cracks in windshields, cracks in fingers.
Sometimes I imagine rivers, ones that flow through towns I’ve never been to, ones with red sand and grass carp and water higher than the Escanaba in spring. I walk along many other banks, but my fingers always slip back to blue houses and mothers with their backs turned. Maybe half of my words are synonyms for suffering.
Macie Mitchell lives in Michigan's Upper Peninsula where she studies literature and writing at Northern Michigan University.