Falls Only A Collector Could Love
When I was eleven and we lived in South America — before the government changed and my father left and my mother took up golf — there was an irrigation ditch where we used to play, even though the water was much too dirty and I was much too old. My brother had a plastic jeep with a canoe rack on top and two buff scientists, three inches tall, that we posed and pushed, sending them racing down the stream in their kayak, plummeting over the banks in their jeep, always on the brink of disaster but never destroyed. God always reached down and rescued them, elbow deep in the muddy water, crying for extra time if necessary. I know they came home with us: they were precious as gold.
The irrigation ditch bent and wavered below a hillside thick with orchids. A waterfall poured off the slope just downstream from where our adventurers took their spills. The fall was a small one, but those can be lovely. It doesn’t have to be Niagara or Iguazú. It’s the sound of water, the possibility of ferns that draws the eye. Most of all, variation in sameness: the water that arcs over and over right at that rock, a glass-smooth burl just before the explosion, then two streams left, spray right, droplets rainbowed over the abyss. And then again, and again, and again.
My father had a book, something he’d picked up at one of the shabby hotels where we stayed in the capital, a book entirely out of place in that Andean city or in our little town: a hiking guide to the waterfalls of Western Canada. The traveler who left it behind must have screamed with irritation when she found it in her pack — why did I bring this? But my father liked waterfalls and free books and — that year, especially — anything in English, anything familiar. He quit his job, happily, when my mother got the grant, but then he was bored and anxious; he hated being unable to speak. I doubt he left anything in exchange for the falls book, the way the sign said. He hoarded the books he had. There were never kids’ books on those shelves, so Marcus and I seldom traded.
The book Dad found pinpointed falls all across British Columbia, Alberta, part of Yukon Territory. We pored over it, memorizing information we would never be able to use. We learned that falls have their own language. Not the noise of the falls, as if one might gloss a vocabulary of splash and thunder, no phrase book required. The book offered a typology. Stylized icons flagged the Plunge, the Horsetail, the Punchbowl, the Ribbon, the Keyhole, the Veil, the Slide. I never learned if this was a standard subdivision or the unique invention of the guidebook author, a private code made to seem universal.
The falls came rated, too, from the 5-star (“Magnificent, awe-inspiring”) down to the measly single star (“Unremarkable. Of interest only to serious collectors”). We laughed at the idea — who collects waterfalls? But then my mother told us about birders with their life-lists, and butterfly hunters, high-peak baggers. You can collect anything, it turns out. That year, my mother was collecting interviews and family income data; three more case studies and she’d have her book, and then she’d have her promotion. She collected graph paper notebooks like the school kids used and miniature cassette tapes full of stories. She collected a few extra pounds, from the bread people served her with coffee. Between interviews, she collected orchids. They bloomed in chipped jars and dishes on our patio; our house fit right in, though the locals favored geraniums.
My father collected reasons to go home: the water we boiled before drinking, the trips to the lab when one of us picked up amoebas, the dusty wind, the postal strikes, the difficult language, the elections that might not happen.
But who collects waterfalls? Why would you? It was a game for a while, making up reasons: because you didn’t have water in your house, because you lived in a desert, because you were looking for fairy gold dropped in the pool, because you were scared to go over in a barrel and this way you’d still win. Just because they’re beautiful, my mother suggested, but that was boring.
After considerable debate, we decided the fall above our ditch was a horsetail. It was smallish, perhaps twenty or twenty-five feet high: more than a trickle, not a cascade. I remember saying, the day we found it, “It’s a waterfall only a collector could love.” My parents both laughed. My mother was a true collector; she loved everything in those mountains, just about. She and my father were holding hands that day, he was trying hard, but he must have zeroed in on that little fall and the day’s sunshine with a kind of desperate focus, one that might block out the rest of our surroundings. The water where we were playing was dysentery waiting to happen, it was herbicide runoff and sewage and probably lye, it was a place no self-respecting member of the educated middle class from any country in the world would let their unprotected children play. And yet my mother did.
She didn’t have the heart to stop us. We were so homesick. Either we were cooped indoors with kids excited by rare and costly televisions, wanting to share their favorite shows — shows we’d already seen, now dubbed beyond recognition; or we were outside stealing guavas, using slingshots to knock fruit from other people’s trees, bands of children scouring the countryside like armed locusts. In honor of our foreignness, we were included in the gang despite our lousy aim. When we had spending money, we bought everyone popsicles. But our weak Spanish still hindered communication more often than it helped. That little bubble of adventure, the action figures gamely braving the current, promised an hour’s break from being exotic village idiots.
And it was glorious. That ditch was a river, it had rapids. It far outclassed any backyard creek at home where Marcus had played with his plastic kayak in the past.
When the water came, that is. It was a drought year. There was a month when the upstream farmers took their paltry shares and there was nothing left, and the next month the waterfall disappeared, though the ditch was flowing again at half speed. Then the scrawny rains came and the fall was back, brittle like molten glass about to harden.
My father lasted seven months, thirteen days before he called it quits. By then he was able to order lunch at a restaurant in the city, he could buy a pound of rice, he could puzzle out the headlines in a newspaper most days. But if a neighbor stopped him on the street to say hello, his ears plugged or his vision fogged and he would stutter and blush and answer a different question altogether. Sometimes he’d just shake his head and walk away. I was perplexed when he left, horrified, relieved. And lonely. The town only had one phone. It seemed to go without saying that Marcus and I should stay — they didn’t fight in front of us, not about us. I told people he had to go back to work, which was nearly true. No one had to tell me not to say divorce aloud. We said qué pena, qué complicado, how nice he was able to stay as long as he did, and the old women clucked about responsibilities and jobs and the kids already had a plan for sneaking behind Leonor’s where the figs were ripe. We held hands in the street and sang at the top of our lungs and people barely even turned their heads. We sang baby, baby, come back to me, and eres el sol de mi vida, mi luz, and just this once, answer the phone, oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah. I missed my father, but the figs were sun-warm, their skins velvet, and the mountains glowed. Still it didn’t rain. Our waterfall petered out, then tried again, then scattered into rivulets of spider silk before irrigation rules restored its former glory.
When our year was up and it was time for all of us to leave, I didn’t want to go, and that waterfall was one more place I didn’t want to leave behind. By then it was months since I’d played there with Marcus; settled and superior with my older friends, I no longer had any need to play baby games with my baby brother. But I wanted that waterfall, and the walled plot where my best friend’s aunt kept her pigs, and the guava tree and the view across the valley in the late afternoon, and so my mother let me take the camera, though not without tedious warnings about the fragility of the lens and not wasting film and just one roll, the shots I really, truly had to have. She wanted to ease me into the bleak permanence of any goodbye, but she tried to be encouraging: if I looked carefully and took my time, I would know what I needed to preserve.
It wasn’t the same, of course, but it was a start. I made a few good choices, I filled my album. Even careful choices begin to accumulate. A splurge here, a must-have there — 36 frames and it’s still not right, but you keep them all as a reward for coming close. But close was never close enough. I wanted my falls. I wanted the movement, the trickle and roar, those little dancing rivulets near shore. Video, if I’d had it, might have caught the sound, but I missed that smell of water in the air.
I moved twice after college, three times, four. It took a long time to find a house that would accommodate my collection. I needed a generous, malleable space. Nothing that would leak — no repeats of the plaster cave-in, no watermarked walls. I followed rental agents and anxious owners into closets, attics, basements. I sniffed inside cupboards. I didn’t want stagnant damp.
At first I’d hoped they might be folded, like road maps in a drawer, but I never got the hang of the creases. The folds left marks and the flow was never the same; it was hard to smooth them neatly back again. Especially the larger ones. They’d boil or bubble like an ill-timed belly just as guests arrived; I was always asking friends if they’d eaten, could I offer them anything. Other times, seepage gave me away, the slick ribbon of bridal veil lace rippling over the cabinet. Vertical storage was the only solution.
I didn’t set out to keep my collection hidden. It became a secret out of habit. So many things are hard to explain. How did I get them and why did I start and might any of them be valuable? If anyone was the least bit interested, they wanted the whole story, unabridged, but it never meant to them what it meant to me. They wanted to know how long we lived there, and wasn’t I glad to be back? Or they wanted to know about method, like there must be some trade secret. Did I use nets, did I ever fall in, was there anything left? Of course there was, I’d tell them: it’s just a moment, a snapshot.
I got lazy, I kept quiet. Still, I’d like to open the cupboards and show someone again. It’s been a long time — I’d like someone to hear. My brother maybe. If he still has that jeep, he’ll understand.
I might invite him for dinner — just bring yourself, I’ll cook — ask him to hang his coat in the front closet. A good host would hang it for him, but we’re family. I can almost see him, taller than he was, a little tired. He’s an anthropologist, too.
His hand is on the doorknob. I nod encouragement, though he shouldn’t need it. Nothing ostentatious in there, nothing flashy. He just needs a hanger, maybe a hook. He opens the closet.
If they’re not disturbed, they hang neatly, composed and quiet. Some are in dry-cleaner’s bags, others in those boxy storage pods I associate with old ladies’ closets, beige and quilted. There’s just a little roar, an aural ripple. He looks around at me, then pushes a hanger to the left, making space. The cleaner’s bag is heavy, harder to move than he expects. He looks inside.
And he pulls one out, as if to try it on. A short hesitation: he tests the length against his torso, not sure it will fit. Then he smiles. It’s a small one, delicate and fine. Insignificant, really: a fall only a collector could love.
He loves it. He wraps it around his shoulders and over his head like a mantilla, all frothy lace. The water bolts, then settles, finding its path. We laugh at the water in his eyes, flashing and splashing over his face. We laugh with water in our mouths, overflowing. The way it sparkles, no one cares if it’s clean. We’re somewhere else now. He disappears behind a filigreed curtain, all except for the eyes — I can still see his eyes — and his fingers playing with the droplet fringes, and his feet planted shoulder-width apart, ready for action. He’s still the explorer, looking out from the rock ledge in the cave. And I stand for hours, watching the rapids again.