Snow Frieze

Photo: 691806. Public Domain License.
Photo: 691806. Public Domain License.

Trying to think of a bridge, because you told me about a bridge, I had already thought of the river several times, the Rideau River near where I had grown up in Barrhaven, a dry, loud suburb on the outskirts of Ottawa, and had forgotten the bridge of the greatest disappointment.

It was the bridge of the greatest disappointment then, as now. But neither of those times should count above anything else.

Across the bridge, a tree without a trunk. Unless its branches were counted as an assemblage of trunks trying to get free from each other, in a way that seemed more diplomatic than violent, despite all the Hellenistic sculptural contortions, which seemed more like struggles to get closer to one another, each branch seeming to believe that the others were better off going in the directions they chose, each unsure of how much it wanted to follow any of the others. The inwardness of this tragic struggle allowed for tighter and more desperate corkscrewings than I had seen on the branches of any other tree, tearings of bark, complete changes of direction, while at the throne of the trunk a debate was carried on in ritualized and formal terms. The tree looked like it should have been dead, undead, but it wasn’t. In summer when we got close enough to see it move, the leaves were big and dark as the centres of mold patches.

The size of the tree made the strut of marshland it stood on look like an island. This was during the winter, when backgrounds did not exist and foregrounds were snow friezes clumped on a metal door. In winter the bridge was pulled up. In the spring, too, when I spent the most time in those marshes, hiding Easter eggs in spots slightly closer to the river than the places where trash was hidden in its own grass nests. Only in summer did they lower the bridge. By that time I had waited months to get access to the island.

I had hoped to set foot on an island in a river. I had never seen one before, although I had understood they existed. Not “understood” exactly. I would have said on a quiz that I understood they existed, but I would not have understood. I would have thought of islands as part of the ocean because the islands we all most often thought of then, Caribbean islands and tiny volcanic islands, were in the ocean and as children unconscious associations were the same as natural laws. For instance when I watched George Shrinks I remember wondering, around that same time, how they found such a small actor. George Shrinks was an animated TV show about a boy five inches tall and his zany bohemian family inexplicably stranded in a Roman-villa-like suburb. I did not think when I watched it that real people did not look like consistent shapes made of thick black lines. I thought that TV shows had actors and that George Shrinks was very small.

I can’t remember if the disappointment I felt when the bridge was lowered to the island was because it wasn’t an island, or because the bridge had been lowered too late—or maybe because I crossed it too late. I can remember nothing but gratitude for the lowering itself, and a blame that had more to do with me. I had waited too long to see it, or I hadn’t known when the bridge would be lowered and prepared myself accordingly, I think, and all the anticipation that had built up had melted along with the snow friezes. Before it was warm enough to let the bridge down, hadn’t we been able to see that it wasn’t an island, anyway? By Easter there had been no snow left between us and the peninsula of reeds which connected the tree to the shore on the other side of a channel that branched off from the river and trailed into the sewage system.

According to psychology distant memories don’t really exist. We reinvent them every time we try to recall them. This has had implications even for decisions in court. So when I say I can’t remember, I mean I had a certain respect for the answer to my previous question in this case, which I don’t usually have for answers. Consciously or unconsciously I did not want to alter or replace it, even though I was fine with altering or replacing the tree whose many branches or trunks spread out over the whole of island; whose roots, I had imagined, might have rooted it in the mud.

And yet I had remembered it. I had not wanted to respect the bridge of my greatest disappointment and I had not wanted to respect the tree, which even now strikes me as callous and vindictive. I do not respect them properly, even now. I have remembered this bridge several times and forgotten the bridge where I wasted half hours throwing sticks into the river, under the wind.

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