The Force Acting on the Displaced Body
little creek behind my trailer in Kentucky is called Frankum Branch.
I had to go to the courthouse to find that out. Nobody around here
thought it had a name. But all the little creeks and branches in the
world have names, even if nobody remembers them, or remembers which
Frankum they're named after.
I wanted to know
the name when I was planning the trip back to Paris. That's Paris
as in Bourbon kings, not Paris as in Bourbon County. I was writing
out my route and Frankum Branch was Step One. I couldn't afford to
fly, so I was going by boat. I didn't have a boat, so I was going
to build one.
I was drinking
a lot of wine just then.
I saved the corks.
Before I decided
to go back to Paris, I considered using the bottles to build some
sort of roadside tourist attraction. I looked into it a little bit,
but the math defeated me very quickly. You remember how I am with
A boat though-a
boat built out of corks-that turned out to be easy. All you need is
a roll or two of cheesecloth and some thread and a needle and of course
a whole lot of corks. I put it together in a long afternoon in the
field behind the trailer.
None of the bottles,
full or empty, would break on the corks, so I never did christen it.
I'd be happy to hear your suggestions for a name, though, you were
always good at that.
had that party, set up the game to name their new kitten. Calliope,
you suggested, and nobody else even came close. You didn't go to the
party, though. I carried over the note you'd written.
that's a pretty good name. Even if I couldn't track the provenance,
I know there are Frankums around here, know they've been here for
a long time. Probably a particular Frankum, sure, but here's a case
where ignorance is kind of liberating. Since I don't know-since nobody
knows, not even the people at the courthouse-it could have been a
man or a woman, an old lady or a little boy. It could be named for
all the Frankums.
The boat behaved
at first. It rolled down the hill and settled into the branch, stretching
out long because the stream bed is so narrow. It waited for me to
throw my bags in and to clamber in myself, and then I headed downstream.
I only moved at
the speed the water moved. I only went as fast as the world would
How far is my
trailer from Sulfur Creek? See, that's a more interesting question
than it might seem. There are so many ways to measure it.
If I walk out
my front door and follow Creek Bend Drive to the end of my landlord's
farm, down into the bottom and across Frankum, up another hill and
then back down to where the blacktop turns to gravel, it's about two
miles. That's the closest place, I think. Where the road breaks up
into gravel is where Frankum Branch flows into Sulfur Creek.
But there are
other ways I can go. I can walk through the fields, cross the branch
on rocks at a narrow place, climb through some woods. I think it might
only be about a mile and a half, that way.
Then there are
crows. "As the crow flies." Do you think that means that crows are
supposed to fly in straight lines? Maybe they used to. I watch crows,
and I don't think I'd trust them to give me advice on distance. I
don't think I trust crows or creeks either on much of anything, except
to be themselves.
time. Nobody ever gives distances in miles anymore, but it's not because
they've switched to metric. They measure how far it is from here to
there with their watches, not their odometers.
That place, that
confluence of water and roads both? It's about two miles from my trailer,
it's about a mile and half, it's about an hour if you take Frankum
Branch in a boat made out of corks.
So then I was
on Sulfur Creek, which is broader than Frankum. The boat rounded itself
up into a little doughnut. I smelled the water in the creek and I
tasted it, searching for rotten eggs, I guess, or hell.
The sulfur must
have washed away, though. Sometimes that happens, things wash away
and only the names are left.
town I lived closest to growing up and the one I live closest to again-it's
an island, maybe. At the edge of town, you have to cross a bridge
over Russell Creek. At every edge of town. Every road leading in and
out passes over Russell Creek.
When I was younger,
I thought that meant that the creek flowed in a circle. I'd seen illustrations
of the Styx in my mythology books.
It's not, of course.
The creek and the town are neither of them circles, and the roads
don't lead out in perfect radials along the cardinal directions, something
else I used to believe.
What's the difference
between a creek and a river? Length, just length. Nothing about how
much water flows through it, nothing about breadth or depth. In Kentucky,
if a rivulet you can step across is at least a hundred miles long,
then it's a river. Russell Creek is ninety-nine miles long. Maybe
it's the longest creek in the world.
When I floated
out onto it, I started thinking that maybe I should have dug a trench
somewhere at the headwaters or made a long oxbow in a bottom. Maybe
instead of building the boat I should have lengthened Russell Creek.
But then it would just be a short river.
flows around the town, and beneath the bluffs that line one side of
my family's farm, and then winds, winds, winds through the county
to the Green River.
The Green River
pretty much named itself.
The Green is deep
and swift above the first locks and dams, then shallow and tamed below.
Floating through the impounded lake at the county line, the boat began
to misbehave. It didn't want to leave town, after all.
It bunched up
in a tight little sphere. I bounced on the top, netting my nylon bags
filled with wine bottles and this notebook and a corkscrew into the
cheesecloth so they wouldn't drop down and disturb the muskies. Then
the boat stretched out, became narrower and narrower, longer and longer,
so it almost looked like it was floating forward.
But I could tell
it wasn't really moving, so I tried to paddle for a while with my
hands. I kept getting pushed back by the wakes of fishing boats headed
for the state dock. When I gave up, exhausted, the boat finally shuddered
or shrugged and drifted on through the spillway, through the dam.
I don't know the
motive force of the boat. Its motivation is a mystery to me.
You have to keep
an eye on that boat.
Then it was a
John Prine song for four hundred miles.
Here's a true
story. The Commonwealth of Kentucky owns the Ohio River, or used to.
We still own most of it. But then counties along the south bank started
charging property taxes to the Hoosiers and the Buckeyes who built
docks off the north shore. The Hoosiers and the Buckeyes got their
states to sue ours and theirs won, a little bit. Now the Commonwealth
owns the Ohio River except for a strip one hundred yards wide along
the upper bank. The Supreme Court of the United States decided that.
shouldn't have tried to charge the taxes. They should have known what
seem to be much point in owning most of a river.
These are things
I saw along the Ohio River.
where the Green gets muddied into the brown, I saw the carcass of
a cow, bloated and rotting, floating in the shallows outside the main
current. The boat shied away from it even though I was curious to
see what kind of cow it was.
the water became as clear as air, and I felt like I was flying for
a little while. The bed of the Ohio is smooth and broad at Owensboro,
unsullied by anything but giant catfish and a submerged Volvo P-1800
in perfect condition.
was playing a concert on the waterfront at Paducah. This time I didn't
mind the boat's dawdling.
At Cairo, I floated
onto the Mississippi.
Cairo is pronounced
Mark Twain's mother
was born in my hometown. She was married in the front room of the
big brick house at the corner of Fortune and Guardian. Mark Twain
was conceived there. No, Samuel Clemens was conceived there. I think
Mark Twain was conceived in San Francisco.
mean "Father of Waters"? That's a great name, in the original and
in the translation and in the parlance.
You could make
a career on that, I think. "Father of Waters." If I'd made that up,
I would have lorded it over all the other namers for the rest of my
life. I would never have named another river.
So, past New Orleans,
the first place I was tempted to stop (but didn't), and into the Gulf
of Mexico. The discharge of the father forced me all the way to the
Gulf Stream, and it's easy to cross an ocean when the currents are
doing all the work.
The boat was showing
a little bit of wear, though. I had to drink more wine and patch a
few places with the corks.
It was around
then, south of Iceland maybe, north of the Azores, that it occurred
to me that I could have used all those bottles to make a boat instead
of the corks. It might have been sturdier and I could probably have
found some waterproof glue. I think you would have thought of that
at the beginning.
But me, I was
south of Iceland, very wet and cold, before I hit my forehead with
the heel of my palm.
"Bottles!" I said.
The French, in
naming rivers and cities and forests and Greek sandwich shops, have
the advantage of being French speakers. I only know how to say "I
don't speak French" in French, but I say it with perfect pronunciation
and a great deal of confidence. Nobody in France ever believed me.
Sometimes even I didn't believe me.
So, I don't know
what Seine means, and I'm actually a little bit unsure of the pronunciation.
I kept my mouth shut through Le Havre, past Rouen.
France was the
first place along the trip that other people noticed the boat. The
French love boats. I know what you think about that kind of sweeping
comment. It's true though, in all it's implications. All French people
love all boats, even ones made out of corks. They might not like them,
all of them, all of the time. But love, sure.
Do you remember
when we were on a boat on the Seine together? Cold fog, ancient walls,
tinny loudspeakers repeating everything in French, English, German,
Do you remember
the other boat? The Zodiac moored under the Pont au Double, lashed
against the wall below Notre Dame?
A man stood in
the boat, leaning back, pulling a bright blue nylon rope. People started
watching him instead of the church. What was he pulling out of the
water? What was the light rising up from below?
It was another
man, a man in a red wetsuit, with yellow tanks strapped to his back,
climbing the rope against the current.
Do you remember
They were still
They waved me
We have underground
rivers in Kentucky, too. The Echo is famous, in the caves. If I'd
thought of it at the time, I would have tried to coax the boat into
the caves when I floated past them, tried to spot some eyeless fish.
In Paris, the
underground river is the Biévre. It enters the Seine right across
from Notre Dame. But then it leaves it again. It's just a river crossing
through another one, not joining it.
I told the man
on the boat that I didn't speak French, in French. He shrugged. Maybe
he didn't care. Maybe he didn't speak French either. He just pointed
at the diver in the water, so I slipped over the side, into the Seine.
My boat seemed glad to be rid of me.
The diver took
me by the hand and led me down. Down a very long way. He tied himself
to a grating in the side of the stones that formed the channel there
and showed me how he'd bent the bars wide enough for someone not wearing
air tanks to slip through.
So I did. I slipped
Then up and out
of the Seine, or it might have been the BiŽvre. I could have been
in the secret river the whole time. Up and into a dank passage. I've
been in dank passages in Paris before, but never any with so few bones.
No skulls and
thighs stacked along the walls here, just a dark stone hallway. I
followed it and followed it and came to a junction, a place to choose.
Left or right.
You remember my
sense of direction. You wouldn't have been surprised to know that
I knew where I was: at the center of the Ile de la Cité.
Left was north,
then, and I knew that it would take me beneath the police headquarters
and up to Sainte-Chapelle, which Louis IX built to store the organs
of Jesus after he'd bought them from of one of the great salesmen
of the thirteenth century. Right was south, to Notre Dame, where signs
remind the pickpockets that God's eyes are on them.
Notre Dame or
Sainte-Chapelle. The lady or the heart.
I stood there.
I am standing
Other than the
signs saying that God is particularly aware of petty larceny there,
I only remember one thing from inside Notre Dame.
You were so disgusted
when we heard the woman with the Maine accent say, "They're praying.
I didn't think this was a working church."
There were jugglers
outside. I didn't think it was a working church either. I didn't tell
When we went to
Sainte-Chapelle together, we didn't go to look for the heart of Jesus.
There was a concert, a half-dozen stringed instruments in a candlelit
cavern of stained glass. Bach? I don't remember.
What I remember
was leaving, walking out of the cathedral and into the rain. The line
was slow because we had to pass through checkpoints in the Justice
Ministry, which surrounds the church. Gendarmes with Uzis below and
gargoyles with scythes high above.
tracked a stream of rainwater from the mouth of a gargoyle to the
pavement. I leaned out, turned my head up, opened my mouth. I told
you that I didn't know what it tasted like. Like limestone, a little.
I said limestone or ash, soot or smog.
You smiled and
said, "It tastes like gargoyles."
You said that
from my description. You didn't catch the rain on your tongue.
A long way to
come to choose between places I've already been. A long way to come
to choose anything at all.
I wonder if I
can turn around.
I wonder if I
can find my way back to the boat.
I wonder if it's
by Christopher Rowe
Christopher Rowe interview