The first trip I ever took was across the fields, on foot. It took them a long time to notice I was gone, which meant I was able to make it quite some distance. I covered the whole park and even — going down dirt roads, through the corn and the damp meadows teeming with cowslip flowers, sectioned into squares by ditches — reached the river. Though of course the river was ubiquitous in that valley, soaking up under the ground cover and lapping at the fields.
Clambering up onto the embankment, I could see and undulating ribbon, a road that kept flowing outside of the frame, outside of the world, IF you were lucky, you might catch sight of a boat there, one of those great flat boats gliding over the river in either direction, oblivious to the shores, to the trees, to the people who stand on the embankment, unreliable landmarks, perhaps, not worth remarking, just an audience to the boats own motion, so full of grace. I dreamed of working on a boat like that when I grew up—or even better, of becoming one of those boats.
It wasn’t a big river, only the Oder, but I, too, was little then. It had its place in the hierarchy of rivers, which I later checked on the maps—a minor one, but present, nonetheless, a kind of country viscountess at the court of the Amazon queen. But it was more than enough for me. It seemed enormous. It flowed as it liked, essentially unimpeded, prone to flooding, unpredictable.
Occasionally along the banks it would catch on some underwater obstacle, and eddies would develop. But the river flowed on, parading, concerned only with its hidden aims beyond the horizon, somewhere far off the the north. Your eyes couldn’t keep focused on the water, which pulled your gaze along up past the horizon, so that you’d lose your balance.
To me, of course, the river paid no attention, caring only for itself, those changing, roving waters into which—as I later learned—you can never step twice.
Every year it charged a steep price to bear the weight of those boats—because every year someone drowned in the river, whether a child taking a dip on a hot summer’s day or some drunk who somehow wound up on the bridge and, in spite of the railing, still fell into the water. The search for the drowned always took place with great pomp and circumstance, with everyone in the vicinity waiting with bated breath. THey’d bring in divers and army boats. According to adults’ accounts we overheard, the recovered bodies were swollen and pale—the water had rinsed all the life out of them, blurring their facial features to such an extent that their loved ones would have a hard time identifying their corpses.
Standing there on the embankment, staring into the current, I realized that—in spite of all the risks involved—a thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest; that change will always be a nobler thing than permanence; that that which is static will degenerate and decay, turn to ash, while that which is in motion is able to last for all eternity. From then on, the river was like a needle inserted into my formerly safe and stable surroundings, the landscape composed of the park, the greenhouses with their vegetables that grew in sad little rows, and the sidewalk with its concrete slabs where we would go to play hopscotch. This needle went all the way through, marking a vertical third dimension; so pierced, the landscape of my childhood world turned out to be nothing more than a toy made of rubber from which all the air was escaping, with a hiss.