Father of Waters
Papi and I walked hand in hand from the Big House down to the banks of the River. It was one of those rare and delicious southern mornings. Larks singing as they dove toward the ground, farm wives hanging out their wash to catch that morning freshness in shirts, skirts and underthings. Men already out in the fields with almost half a day in before the heat crushed them like a bug. But before us the brown waters of the Mississippi flowing like molasses.
I was almost ten years old and full of responsibility already—like watching over my little brother Marcus Aurelius. You better believe that kid was a handful. Sometimes, I would have rather been out picking cotton or churning butter or a hundred other things. Mostly, I was happy if Mama gave me time to go down to the River always with the warning of “now, don’t you get in the water, Prissy—that’s what she called me but my name was Persephone—don’t you get in the water or that old River God gonna snatch you away and no one not a man alive gonna find you again.”
“Yes, Mama,” I would reply dutifully but then would just go ahead and after stripping off my clothes and laying them neatly aside, I would cool off in this little cove protected from the current of the Big River. Of course today that was a no-go cause I was with Papi. Today was for stories and a picnic.
Papi, (he was really my GREAT grandfather. My grandfather, my papa’s father Hercule Colyott had died in 1919. But that’s another story) tell me a true story about the River, I said looking up at Papi’s face brown and crinkled like a walnut.
Papi loved talking about the Pere des Eaux Plantation, the river, and the civil war. I thought he must be about the smartest man in east Arkansas. He had read every book in Pere des Eaux’s library. He said he was born on the fourth of July, 1863 as the Union forces demolished the confederate forces at the Attack of Helena. His father told him they could hear the sound of cannons as he was being born even miles away from the port. And Papi was just obsessed with the River as I was.
A look of bliss settled on Papi’s face as he spread a blanket under a cottonwood just up the bank from our favorite river. He sat down and patted the blanket. I hitched in close and he put his arm around me. He looked toward the river and started:
Misi-zibii! That’s what the Ojibway Indians way up north in Minnesota called it. It means as some translated it ‘Father of Waters’.
Why that’s the name of our home, Papi!
Yes it is, dear Persephone. But that name for the river always seemed wrong. Sure it is the Big River, but Father of Waters? What do you think?
I think it makes no sense, Papi, because the River is only so big cuz of all the smaller rivers that empty into it. I know that cuz you showed me on the maps.
You are right, you little smartie! You are my best student. His name should be Gathering of Waters. He is only great because the other rivers generously pour into him. In many ways, he is their child and not their Pere. And he hugged me tight. I smiled with pride.
Papi, Mama is always trying to scare me with stories about the river god but I don’t believe her. I know that water is strong and moves faster than it looks. I see things moving down the river. But I did find a place where I like to swim. I don’t think anything can hurt me there.
Persephone, you are very observant about the river but your mother has a point. There IS a River God and I met him.
What! I looked at Papi wide eyed.
You look surprised, Bebe, but tis true. This river is born way up North as I said. Lake Itasca. Many years has he flown from the North country to the Gulf of Mexico. Longer than human history. He sometimes is bigger and sometimes smaller, but always enorme here at the banks of Pere des Eaux. Is he not majestueux? Always! But he start petit like you when you were a bebe. Up North the River God is like a Child but ici—here—ma petit chouse—he is a great brown God. I know, I saw him.
Levees were being built along many miles of the river when I was a young man. Towns had sprung up from New Orleans all the way to Minnesota because the River was the fastest way to move all sorts of things, animals and people. It was late spring and the waters had receded from the lower fields and we were all out working to plant cotton. That dirt was so black, full of life. I never thought myself too good to work with my hands though my papa didn’t like the idea of his only son working like a common laborer. I had moved away close to the river where no one else was working and found a tree like this one to sit under and just as I was ready to take a sip of water along comes this big brown man walking on the water like it was dry earth. He was girded with a cloth but otherwise he was bareskinned, muscles rippling like those big swells on the river that day. Sun reflecting of his teeth, eyes flashing so full of life.
He walked right up to me and sat down next to me like we were old amis. Not even a by your leave.
You know me, Nimrod? He said. You are not one of my neighbors. I said, Walking on water and all –No! An ancestor. Nanny Collette said they visit sometimes, mais no. I stared a minute and then…Misi-ziibi?
He slowly nodded his head. And smiled such a big smile and teeth flashing white seemed in that moment he could devour anything and everything if he had a mind to it. Here Papi made his biggest most ferocious smile! I giggled and growled at him.
And do you know why I’ve come, Nimrod? Says this big brown man the color of the river. I have had my eyes on you since the first time I saw you as un enfant playing on my banks with your papa and mama. I’m a bit of a people watcher. But until people with skin the color of my waters started moving up and down the river I wasn’t. When I saw how your people did all the work, often under the whip, how families were separated and children sold up or down the river, when I collected the tears of your people in my bosom I knew I had to show myself to you. You—yes, you– Nimrod Colyott of Pere des Eaux—are the reason I am here.
I have many things to tell you, but not this day. I will come to you again in three days under this tree. Think: what can you do Nimrod to make this world better?