Song of the River

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Bill knew a lot about River rights. Riparian rights, as he taught me. R-I-P-A-R-I-A-N.

I often asked him why he kept the river fenced in from the land through which it flowed.

“It’s my land and I don’t want my land suffering from the curse of that damn river!” he would say, brushing an ever-thinning fringe from his eyes as he squinted at me dolefully.

“But surely, Bill,” I replied, “the part of a river that flows through your land is your river, for which you are responsible?”

Compared to Bill, I knew I was too young to know most things that he boasted knowing. And, what was more, the wrong sex for knowing anything at all – in his eyes. I smiled. I was so much younger, I knew one thing for sure: he was too old for me to view him as a prospect for marriage, however much land he owned. Never mind, I often enjoyed his company, although ‘enjoy’ may not be wholly the correct word..

“Have you heard of the word ‘riparian’?” he asked. He asked this question many times on different occasions, despite having asked it before. And then he would continue: “Riparian tells of a lot of things that rivers can and can’t do, who owns which stretch of it and if you own a particular stretch, do you also own the water in that stretch, even when knowing that water is ever changing within the current?”

“That’s a new word that,” I said. He knew it wasn’t new. I knew it wasn’t new. But it was best to say it was new.

“Riparian,” he said, “is in all the law books but one thing the law books don’t tell you, Miss, is about curses and things that history steep in its waters, things quite beyond the scope of laws. Riparian is more than just law or common sense. It’s a feeling of … what shall I call it? Spirit of Place?”

Bill often went off on one. I smiled, humouring him, even charming him with what he once called my ‘sparkling looks’. He said, too, more than once, that rivers had sparkling looks on one day, but gruff ugliness the next. I think that is what he said. The river was one of his hobby-horses, and Bill would not have been Bill without his hobby-horses.

He touched my hand so fleetingly, I hardly noticed – and he continued:

“Riparian rights also tell of the noise of a river as well as its looks. Not just the changes that happen with the weather changing, but changes stemming from its actual moods as a river.”

“Do rivers really have moods separate from the weather, Bill?”

This is not the first time that I’ve told you that this was not the first time we had had this conversation. I laughed to myself as if knowing the very rhythm of this river’s ritual, but then Bill went off on another one. This time a different one. A Billish speech I had never heard before:-

“Of course, on foggy days, its song can be sad or it can be happy. On rainy days, the same. On sunny days, the same. But on snowy days, it seems to swallow and gulp and choke. Riparian rights and wrongs in books won’t help you there. That’s why I fenced off the river. Its moods seemed to seep into the crops and my grazing animals bleated in tune with tunes I did not want them bleating with. Sad bleats whether the river itself was sad or happy that day. So I thought that by fencing off the river through my land, along its fringes, I would show it that I disowned it. Disowned it, literally, Miss. Riparian, Riparian, damn your Riparians. But I can see you shaking your head. How can a mere fence remove the song of the river? A fence is not sound-proof. Well, let me tell you,” – and he touched my hand again, this time more lingeringly – “it is all down to showing the river who’s boss. A fence along its fringes is just as powerful as even the thickest, highest river-wall, indeed even more powerful because the river can see things through the fence-slats and this makes it feel sad at losing its own ownership of the land through which it flows. Ownership can work both ways, you see. This time it’s a permanent sadness. Never to be mixed with happiness. The fence makes the river feel even more cut off than if we’d dammed it at source!”

“The river can see things as well as sing?” I asked, withdrawing my hand.

“Yes, it can see us as clearly as we see it. And when it sees things it didn’t know it missed seeing, it sort of utters its own misbegotten bleats … as if it wants to die. Riparian suicide.”

At this point, I got up from the stile where we were both sitting. I kissed the top of his head and went home across his land, along by the fence he had erected by the river. I’m never sure how it sounds when I am not listening to it, but today as I walked, I heard sobs rather than bleats. And I shook my head as imagination played tricks on me. Through the slats, I saw the fringed heads of creatures or other amphibians floating along like logs towards a log-jam.

That was the last time I saw Bill outside of an open coffin. He died of old age overnight, I guess. I never really forgave myself for not taking him seriously. His body seemed literally to flow between the ornate casket sides. Perhaps waiting for my tears to join him there.

I now always think of Bill when I see the word ‘riparian’ … which is not often.

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