by Christopher Rowe
The 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 math.
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.
The neighbors 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.
Frankum Branch, 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 carry me.
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.
Finally, there’s 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.
My hometown-the 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.
Russell Creek 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.
Those counties shouldn’t have tried to charge the taxes. They should have known what would happen.
There doesn’t seem to be much point in owning most of a river.
These are things I saw along the Ohio River.
Below Henderson, 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.
At Owensboro, 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.
Ralph Stanley 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 “Cairo.”
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.
Doesn’t Mississippi 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, Japanese?
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 that?
They were still there.
They waved me over.
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 through.
Then up and out of the Seine, or it might have been the Bivre. 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 there still.
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 you that.
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.
I 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 still there.