Do Not Enter When Flooded
We should have paid attention to the sign
that night when the sky roiled and dropped
funnels and sulfurous bolts and enough
water to drown a horse, or swamp a Buick.
We abandoned it—just one more problem
for our father to deal with—and set off afoot,
my brother and I, on the first true adventure
of our lives, on the high seas of our city,
past the smoldering shell of a double-wide,
downed power lines, shattered trees,
a roof blown off. The phones were dead;
our parents did not know where we were,
which made it better still. Warm currents
sluiced out of side streets and threaded through
our legs, summer rainwater with no place
to go—just like us. A sewer belched.
Had the manhole cover blown off? Jackie
gripped the edge of my shirt, a small touch
sufficing to keep his balance and his nerve.
I liked that. I steadied him by his elbow.
The rotating red globe of a stalled cruiser
played across the dark waters, the cop having
abandoned ship. The dark hulk of an owl
dove off a lightpole—we both screamed—
and glided soundlessly away. The sky
opened. The universe stared up at us
from the waters that our tired feet trudged
through. We had long since ceased to speak.
At last, a candle in the front window, our
mother’s fierce embrace, and the dazed look
on our father’s face when he realized he’d
gained back his sons, but lost his Buick.
Ways of Water
No one pretends to own the shoreline or the blue body of the sea. I empty my pockets into my hat and enter. Cool water laps my ankles, shins, knees— an astonishment, for one who has long been boot-shod and erect. I let myself fall forward.
I must relearn the ways of water. Every muscle has its moment: Pectorals stretch as I breast-stroke. Biceps flex, contract. Fingers and toes expand like flippers. I somersault, and my rotator cuffs exult, and my big dome breaches like a whale.
Thrashing my arms and legs, I swim straight out. Deep-diving, I arch my back like a dolphin, spin once, twice, then skim the bottom, a barracuda. I hang like a jellyfish, tentacles suspended. My far-off feet glow like sharks. Water infiltrates my pores, irrigates my fingernails, caresses my eyeballs, fills my ears. How clean I’ve grown!
The tide’s coming in. I dog-paddle back, then drift with the wavelets bearing me crosswise, my bottom bumping along the sand. All around, polygons of sun are pulsing. I slide down the leeside of the sandbar into a shallow trench, grip a fist-sized boulder in each hand and bear them to the surface. One is orange and one is black with pink seams. They spark and shimmer in the sunlight. I want to take them with me, own them just as they are. But already the water is thinning on their surfaces, the luster fading. I let them drop.
I walk the shoreline, stooping to pluck shiny pebbles to bring to my lover, who favors small things. There are so many, I realize I do not need to move; I kneel in the wet sand. They will murmur in my pocket all the way across the continent. At home, we will put them in a bottle, water them, hold the bottle to the light, and swish the water back and forth—as if the tides were in our sway, as if we could take from them the wonder of this day.
Recently retired after thirty years of teaching at Western Wyoming College, poet and essayist Rick Kempa is free to pursue his twin passions of writing and walking. Too Vast for Sleep, his third book of poems, is available from Littoral Press. He is the founding editor of the literary journal Deep Wild: Writing from the Backcountry. www.rickkempa.com