Tranquil Torrent for the Moderately Neurotic

Submitted into Contest #146 in response to: Write about a character attempting to meditate or do something mindfully.... view prompt


Contemporary Fiction

              Mom and I hiked out from the wooded path to where the calico-bark beech trees and overgrown ferns began to thin. I’d picked a particularly smooth stone from the trail, and continued to roll it between my palms.

The land gave a wide berth to the reservoir, which flooded my peripheral. Peninsulas splintered into its circle, and miles ahead, pinched the lake to a narrow flow. They were all unoccupied on this quiet day, aside from the one we took perch on. In a few weeks, with the warmth of late spring, the waterside would bloom with day-trippers.

“Be careful,” Mom said, “sometimes there are stray fishhooks.”

Patchy grass stretched from the trees, turning to gravelly dirt that led into the water. Mom inspected the ground with the toe of her trekking boots before laying out the nylon camping blanket. I took off my decade-old Dr. Martens, balled my socks inside them, and arranged them to anchor the blanket’s corners, before walking gingerly to the reservoir's edge. It was perfectly lukewarm.

I would have waded out a few feet and sat crisscross on the soft mud floor, letting water swell over my shoulders—if I wasn’t wary of fishhooks. Instead, I sat on the blanket, doused in midafternoon sun, which rippled over from above the opposite treetops.


              After an unexpected—but unfortunately common—college experience, I’d taken the semester online and moved back home. Plans collapse in on themselves. Tension swallowed the space in our house, and burst against the confining walls. Mom and I routinely escaped. Every afternoon, we’d take a two or three-hour drive, and play therapist for each other.

“I’m stressed about this literature review,” I said from the passenger’s seat, on one of our destination-less drives.

“You always say that, and always manage to pull through.”

“Everything’s overwhelming right now. It’s too much.”

She slowed down as we passed a field of curly brown cows. One stuck its head between the horizontal bars of the fence, slopping its jaw in wide circles. The grass is always greener, I guess.

“That’s understandable, the world feels like it’s collapsing,” Mom said, “and your personal world is collapsing too.”

It's not about the divorce, I wanted to say. She always brought it up. It wasn’t about that. But, I hadn’t divulged the truth of what had happened, and didn’t plan to.

I complacently nodded and looked out the window.

              We’d gawk at the landscape, at the shadows of clouds rolling over the tilled hills. How could this hellhole hold such beauty? How had we never seen it before? I became a tourist in the town I’d grown up in.

We often sought hidden areas for adventure and exploration.

The reservoir was only half an hour from our house. We found it in late December. We followed deer hoof prints down the snow-covered path to the water, which lulled freely at the center of the basin, choked by lichen-spots of ice as it neared the shore.

“The cracks look like blood vessels,” I said, “or tree branches.”

“I love that,” Mom said, “how nature follows the same patterns. Like how the solar system looks like an atom.”

I stood shivering, my cold fingers achily clutching my arms, understanding that we were a part of everything.


              In the tree next to where we sat, a spindle of fishing line tangled the leaves, ensnaring the shimmer of the midafternoon sun. I pressed into the earth through the nylon blanket. My rib cage expanded, refreshed by a deep inhale of crisp air. On the out-breath, my body filled with space. Tension melted off my softening muscles, and my shoulders dropped from their regular raised position.

As soft awareness graced my gaze into the water, the scene fell into a fuzzy blur of vague dynamic shapes. Distinct patterns moved independently of each other, yet somehow, flowed together indistinguishably. Unchanging, constant change.

It stopped—my ceaseless internal monologue ceased. It exposed a layer of latent sound, like the stalling of an AC unit’s persistent hum. Nudges of wind rustled the leaves, and water rolled rhythmically onto the dirt. For a single instant, we sat there for hours.

“You ready?” Mom eventually said.


Deep satisfaction glutted my stomach like a warm stew, and holding on to it felt greedy. But I could have sat there forever. I daydreamed of setting up a tent on that little outcropping of land, spending the rest of my days staring out at the water. How would I eat? I entertained the idea rationally, but the question felt silly. I would happily starve there, probably not even feeling the pain of it, letting my body slowly turn to moss.

              I tracked behind Mom back through the woods. I stared down at the ground, tossing the fallen leaves with my toes, stepping over spotted rocks and rotting logs.

“Be careful,” she warned, as I evaded the thorned vines snaking through the purple poofs of ironweed.

The calmness pursued us and sank over the trail like a thick fog rolling through the trees. Walking the long path of unchanging woods, pushing forward, I wondered if maybe it would never end.

Maybe I had died, and this was all I would do for the rest of my existence—continuing through the woods, unaware of the time passed. I shook my head like an Etch A Sketch. Maybe it was hell, and I was damned to silently fight off my thoughts for the rest of time.

But eventually, the trail tilted uphill toward a break in the trees, revealing the parked CR-V.

              Back at the car, Mom folded up the blanket to throw in the popped trunk. I rolled up the bottom of my jeans and brushed over my legs, then slid off my shoes to inspect every speck on my white socks, ensuring that I didn’t pick up any unwelcome hitchhikers.

On the ride home, the undulating calmness loomed. The more desperately I grasped at it, the more intangible it became. We lost our words under its influence, saying little to nothing aside from a “that was amazing,” and an “I needed that.”

The sun sunk to set for the evening. We rode over a hilltop, the landscape shrinking beneath us, clearing the way for the pink clouds, billowing behind the remerging cityscape. Tears pushed up to blur them.

“I’ve never felt content before,” I said, after taking a moment to find the word, choked by an emotional deluge. First, contentedness. Then, joy at recognizing contentedness. But all drowned in the recognition that contentedness had abandoned me, and decided to show up unannounced this late in my life. How dare it. Where had it been?

“Is this happiness?” I continued, “Is this what happiness is?”

May 18, 2022 14:53

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