by Tim Gilmore, 1/6/2017
Along Silversmith Creek, south of Atlantic Boulevard, it must have been the late 1990s, south of South Arlington Road, I met an old woman straggling through the Carolina Jasmine. Yellow petals floated through the green of the grove, something slightly sour about those very bright blooms.
Her face shone pale through a sliver of visibility between the long lank falls of hair that covered her cheekbones and temples.
Along one of the most polluted waterways in North Florida, I walked with her. She wore long dark skirts. She said she used to braid seaweed into her hair. Years ago, she stole flowers from neighbors’ yards at night, mapping in her mind, with blooms and fragrances, the whole neighborhood.
In the course of an hour, she told me she was a river witch and a sea hag. She asked me if I thought her pretty. She told me she’d forgotten to sing for me.
I told her she was lovely, that I’d love to hear her sing. In her time, she said, she’d sung opera and death metal, loved Richard Strauss’s Salome.
“I hope you won’t cut off my head,” I said, and of course she got the joke.
She said she was born around here, just south of the bronze-tannin’d creek, and seeing my incredulity, explained we were walking through her father’s plantation. She bowed her head and wore her hair like a funeral veil.
“I was five years old when he died,” she said. “I barely remember. It was so terribly long ago.”
“How long ago?” I asked, puzzled. I’m sure she thought me an idiot.
Quietly, without looking up, she said, “Late winter of 1810.”
Later, in old archives downtown, I’d find references to the Bigelow Plantation and a Spanish land grant inherited by Jean Baptiste Richard. His daughter Elizabeth would grow up to marry Richard Brown Bigelow, whose plantation would cover much of what became urban Arlington. Jean Baptiste Richard died in 1810. The sea hag was five years old.
She asked me about self and art. I asked her what she meant. She asked me, again, about self and art.
I told her the creation of art should be selfless. All the artist’s self should go into the thing created.
She told me she thought that was selfish.
Then she astonished me and said, smirking, “Selfless like the castrati?”
I’d thought of castrati precisely.
“Or,” I said—and I remember I became animated—I swung an arm—my brows lurched—I sounded but didn’t want to sound eager—“the crucifixion photographs of F. Holland Day. The photographer becomes his own model. Emaciates himself. Then hangs himself on the cross.”
We moved through a gnomic forest of cypress knees. So well I remember.
“Do you want to know what to call it?”
Nonplussed, I answered, but don’t know what I said. I’m sure I asked her what “it” she intended.
She repeated, “Do you want to know what to call it?”
I’m sure I said I did.
She pointed to the cypress knees and a light pink solitary flower burgeoning on a buttress of cypress that tapered up through the watery earth.
“The illustrious rosa palustris,” she said with mock grandeur.
What happened next, it still astounds me to recall. She lifted her long thick skirts to her thighs and lowered herself in the creekside swamp among the proliferation of knees.
“Do you want to know what to call it?” she asked me again. “It’s shaped like a heart and shaped like a pelvis, but it’s a flower.”
Bewildered, I mentioned Gertrude Stein: “A rose is a rose is a rose.”
“That’s right,” she said. She pointed to the single pink flower: “It’s a swamp rose.”
And now I noticed pink blossoms hundreds-fold bursting along the berms of the creek in light shade. So often, I’ve noticed, we don’t see what we see until we’re given the vocabulary to see it.
Swamp roses covered a graveyard of fallen wet wood where trees had crashed to the creek in some distant and forgotten storm.
The idea of that storm resounded in me. I’d always wanted to create beauty and blazon it upon the world. I’d wanted the world to love me for it. The urge was something wild. It could kill me if I let it, no melodrama, but even then, I did not believe in martyrdom, and knew I’d rather it live through me, thrust up, and soar me, define me.
I think I thought that whether I lived to be 29 or 93, I’d always remember that a storm had been forgotten. I recognized that storm. I wanted the world always to remember me and my love and my vitality and the beauty I could make.
She watched me watch that expanse of blooms. I must have looked foolish, clueless, naïve.
“What do you think of that, castrato?” she said.
I had just learned that the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima had committed suicide in public by disemboweling himself with a sword like a Samurai warrior, according to ritual, who’d been dishonored.
I think I mentioned the seppuku of Mishima.
Little else of that walk along Silversmith Creek comes back to me. From time to time, I go back and walk it. I’ve not seen the Carolina jasmine in years. Occasionally I see a single swamp rose.
Three years ago, a naked male corpse was found floating in Silversmith Creek beneath Atlantic Boulevard. He’d been living in a homeless camp at the creek and was bathing beneath the street. A friend of his in the camp had found him, no sign of violence, cause of death unknown.
Always, I hope I’ll see the river witch, but I’ve not seen her again. She must have been real. I’m sure she was. How many whole histories experienced in solitary human lives vanish each moment into the earth and time, composted and irretrievable?
I’m embarrassed at how traditionally romanticist my memory must sound. But she’d shown me the swamp rose. I’ll always go looking for her. She said she forgot to sing to me.
I wish she’d remembered to sing, but she’d need to know I’d castrate myself, crucify myself, commit seppuku, and consider it a work of art, before I’d have her feel for me an obligation. I’d rather she need me not at all, surely she never did, but I’ll always hope she might have.
And if that witch, borne up of the swamp and composting creek, came to me once, when I was young, and really did want, really did will, to sing to me, surely I hope I’ll still hear her sing.