A cool day, what passes for cold here. The sky is capped off with a low ceiling of nimbostratus. A look up at Mt. Wilson tells me the ceiling is around four thousand feet. I am standing on a sandbar in the bed of Los Angeles river - the bend of the Glendale Narrows, to be exact. The water of the San Fernando Valley aquifer runs out to the sea here. The bedrock glides up into a subterranean saddle, raising the water table to such an extent that this is the only section of the river that flows year round. The flooring of the river bed is cobblestone here, instead of concrete, porous and permeable to the water below.
Trapped between the two angled concrete levees is a linear forest of cottonwoods, bulrushes, yucca, willows, and stands of bamboo. Scattered throughout are the upward arc of Our Lord's Candle, a weird yucca that seems better suited to Mars than North America. Wide sandbars of coarse yellow gray quartzite sand bed down hundred meter long accumulations of rounded granite and sandstone arroyo rocks, sorted with organic efficiency from the beginning of the island, just under the Glendale Freeway overpass. The trees can grow here because of the cobblestone bottom - their roots can inundate the aggregate below. The trees make a stop for the sand, which stops the rocks and creates islands where men who walked here from Central America live in hammocks they hang from the cottonwoods. There's a rail yard on the north bank, warehouses and metal shops on the southern bank. Look north, blot out the railyard and neighborhoods with your right hand, and you have arrived in Los Angeles the day before the Father Juan Crespi came to report to the crown of Spain and the Bishop of Rome.
The river is up some - running maybe two feet deep instead of the usual six inches. The notoriously inaccurate thermometer on my watch reads fifty-two degrees. A fine mist is falling, under a light breeze out of the south east. The Pacific is running the show today. My hands are cold from the damp. My straw cowboy hat keeps the rain out of my eyes. I'm looking for rocks, for the garden. That was today's excuse to come down. The sound of the water reminds me of home, of West Virginia. I am working my way through the tumble of rocks, carefully choosing each step, looking out for chuckholes and ankle-breakers. If I broke my ankle down here, I may be spending the night. I haven't seen a soul in the two hours I've been here. The trabajadores won't be back to light their cook fires until long after dark.
It's when I find the first one - a rough cairn of stacked rocks, maybe three feet high. There was a good flood through here just a couple of days ago, so this is new. At the end of spring, it might have stood undisturbed by water for three-quarters of a year, but not now. Who built this? Who is my partner down at the river today? There, around its base, a circling of small lug-soled bootprints. A small woman, or maybe a child. I mash in one of my clodhoppers next to it. Nearly twice the size, and maybe a third again as deep. So figure on a hundred and twenty or so pounds? The tracks run upstream.
Cairn Number Two. The rocks have been carefully chosen for color, all nearly black and shot through with gold seams of iron pyrite. It must have taken hours to find enough rocks of that color. The same small tracks are everywhere, running northwest, upstream.
Cairn Number Three. Flat rocks, stacked square, like a miniature Scottish keep. I'm crouching down, just getting a closer look at the footprints. The breeze slackens for a moment, the freeway seems to cooperate in the distance, a random lull in the road noise. The forces cancel and for a moment there's a near silence at the river. I can hear the click of stones being stacked, ahead.
The mist thickens. Visibility is dropping. The wind is gusting up now, sometime slotting up parallel to the run of the river and funneling down wickedly, the droplets surging up to eye stinging intensity. Out of this - a familiar alto voice, soft and smoky, is coming through the fog. The voice is singing a mournful, sweet version of "Who will stop the rain?" A small female form is stacking stones into another cairn, the largest yet, at least six feet in height. She is dressed in a bright Oaxacan peasant's skirt, a heavy wool shawl, and small sturdy boots. Putting another stone into place, she seems to sense my approach and looks up from under the shawl pulled around her head, against the worsening weather. She smiles, a bright white smile.
It's Natalie, it really is. She holds a stone between her hands. She bends, setting her last stone at the base of the cairn. She stands, gives me a smile, and then walks around the stacked rocks. She is gone.
I approach slowly, quietly. The footprints just stop, left right left. Looking down, I pick up her final rock. It is oblate in aspect, entirely composed of milky, translucent quartz. As I lift it into mist stiffening into a hard rain, I know that it is more than a rock. This is the essence of something, a storage device for thought and feeling of a fantastic density. It is a life, a catalog of thoughts and effort.
If I bent my will to it, I could unlock this. I could walk through another life as easily as pulling down the volumes of an encyclopedia. It would be a complete knowledge of another human experience. It would be a kind of unilateral intimacy pornographers and biographers only dream of.
The rain is now a downpour. Heavy cold drops mixed in with scattered hail. In thirty minutes, the waters of this river will be ten feet deep. Its flow rate will surge by four orders of magnitude to 100,000 times its present volume. The trees will be lost beneath a surface of whitecaps with standing Class IV hydraulics. Cataracts of foaming, oil laden water will vomit out of the feeder conduits set in the levee walls, and when the water subsides, the bed will have rearranged itself completely, with no stone left unturned.
It is time to go, or be swept away. The stone is the find of a lifetime.
I take Natalie's rock and bury it in the sand.