Refraction

The bridge across the creek isn’t picturesque. It’s built from chalk-grey metal, with traffic barriers for handrails and fencing angling down to the bank on each side. Water rushes under industrial grating. Downstream to the north, the flow widens slightly between the bottleneck of the bridge and a natural dam of fallen trees.

It’s a bright day and I’m leaning against the hot metal. Once, two or three years ago, I came here and saw a blue heron hunting in the pool. Today the place feels abandoned except for flies. The wetland has flooded recently, and tire marks rut the trail where debris has been shoveled and compacted by maintenance trucks. It’s all baked to beige now in the heat, but the smell lingers, saturation edging toward rot.

I’ve come to this wildlife refuge hoping to feel moved, or enchanted, or revitalized. All summer I’ve been dogged by a sense of numbness, jangling but dead like a sleeping limb. Now that I’m out here, I’m disillusioned by the emptiness and by the closeness of the city, airbrushed out in my memory. A high-rise condo peers over the western tree line. But the swollen creek is louder than the occasional roar of planes descending toward the airport two miles away, so I stand on the bridge, staring down at blankly dark ripples of water.

The first fish appears like the key to a code. I catch a glimpse of movement, something large holding position against the current. Nearby, I see the flash of a belly – and then, suddenly, dozens and hundreds of fish, their mud-brown silhouettes revealed between one breath and the next with the snap of a magic trick.

Some are small and narrow as my hand, darting in the rolling, glossy camouflage of refracted sunlight. Others are long as my forearm, slipping slow and heavy through deeper water. Below my feet is a full array of life and presence, where for long minutes I could only see murk. If I hadn’t stayed still long enough to break the concealing glamour of my expectations, I wouldn’t have noticed anything at all.

After a while, I move to the edge of the trail and crouch on a swath of dried muck. Flies feather across my legs and crawl over the flaking tire tracks. An airplane passes overhead, followed by the shadow of a vulture. I sit in the emptiness, counting fish, and practice seeing what’s beneath the surface.

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