issue 03: body of water
the rivers in the places we have lived togethermána taylor hjörleifsdóttir
The Chicago River traverses gently. It flows through our buildings, our factories and parks, running parallel to the train tracks and the highways, making its way slowly towards the Mississippi River and further south. I know the river by its smells and colours. The rituals, the memories, sometimes the scent of chocolate that lingers from that hidden factory—a ghost you smell when the wind hits just right. It is green, grey, blue, brown. This is where we live now.
Spree, September 2019
We moved into an apartment in Berlin at the beginning of a new month, and while doing so emptied our pockets for Tashlich, the Jewish ceremony, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. The apartment was across the Spree River near a parallel canal, Landwehrkanal, which flows in from the mouth of the Spree. To perform the custom, we cast away our sins by digging into our pockets for old lint and throwing it into Heavenly water, which for us was this canal. I followed along to you reciting the prayer, and it was the perfect ceremony of beginnings and endings—a second chapter.
Danube, October 2019
The water from the Danube flows through most of the cities we visited on the way to Budapest and Prague, swirling its way across at least ten countries. Snake-like. Expansive. Majestic. We took a train near the Polish border through Slovakia and other parts of Hungary and Czechia. The languages, the roots of which I am unfamiliar with, slowly resembled each other as we passed through each country by train. Their “cze” and “zhe” and other sounds were seamlessly intertwining, and in my sleepy state I kept waking up never sure when we had crossed a new border.
Languages can flow and adapt across borders like water. Certain words can remain similar across different countries, or completely reinvent themselves.
Just as all these moving waters have their destination in the sea, their ultimate origin may be traced back to the same source. Water rises by evaporation from the oceans into the atmosphere, falls on the land as rain or snow, and finds its way back into the streams.1
The roots of many European languages can be traced to original sources, but, just like rain or rivers, they can also moult the original and construct new articulations. I think of the water as a snake shedding its skin.
Prague and Budapest are similar in that, the waters they are built on often separate the “old” and “new” parts of the city. To cross a river is to travel back and forth in time. Analysing maps of European cities, one could recognise this pattern quite frequently. The river allows the separation, deeming one side as appropriate for modern construction, and the other as an archive of the city’s past. These two parts of a city do not touch or merge.
Rivers run through borders, but they also create borders. Buda and Pest are separated by the Danube, while the Vltava River in Prague eventually merges with the Elbe in Hamburg and into the North Sea. We shift through our days with the waters. We move and are moved by. Water flows, passes, movemented. Never still. Ever-changing. Dynamic. Agitated.
Elbe, October 2019
We went to Hamburg for one night, to visit your cousins. Through it, the Elbe flows along many lines, spreading out like veins into the city. The water was a little off-centre, unlike the clear structure of Prague and Budapest, where rivers divide. It felt surprising to be constantly met with the water, over and over again.
We walked, passing docked cruise ships and small bridges linking brick buildings, feeling lost. We wanted to make it to HafenCity, the harbour. There were too many canals and bridges that didn’t immediately lead us there. We examined the map again, walking along clean brick buildings, dark glass towers, banks, and design shops, spotless, wondering if the separation of another river will lead us to something older. Instead, we arrived at a port, where the water bled into the North Sea.
Spree, November 2019
Once returned to the apartment in Berlin, remembering all the rivers that flow in and out of each other, I watched the leaves start to turn yellow and drop into the canal, which would carry them back into the Spree. I pointed at the weeping willows. We saw the outdoor restaurants fold and lock up their tables and chairs, the cold days ahead of us. From our balcony, I felt the wind sweep the canal forward.
Hudson, May 2018
When we first met, we lived near the Hudson Valley and all of its majestic waters. This is also where I first read “This Solitude of Cataracts” by Wallace Stevens. Among the valley’s waterfalls, I saw myself change with the water.
He never felt twice the same about the flecked river
which kept flowing and never the same way twice, flowing.2
The Hudson flows flat into the mountains. The Amtrak trains follow its horizon. I remember the person I was near this river, and how I flowed into where I am now.
All rivers have a path, following the line carved into the earth. Most rivers have lingered, some turned dry. History washes away, but the river remains. Or, the river disappears and it leaves its scar on the dirt. As I travel in my mind, chasing the topographical lineage and the water’s ancestors, I swim through all the rivers of our life together.
1 John Bardach, Downstream: A Natural History of the River from Its Source to the Sea (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1964).
2 Wallace Stevens, “This Solitude of Cataracts,” The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (New York: Knopf, 1954).