Thursday, October 9, 2014

Under Water

I never really believed that the stories I read in your magazine were true, until yesterday when a very strange thing happened…

I love to snorkel, on reefs near beaches, in lakes and seas. But my very favorite place is the top of the San Marcos River. It is a convenient ten minute walk from my house to the headwaters of this beautifully clear and refreshingly cool spring fed river. And on warm days, of which we are rich beyond imagining, I will often take a short break from whatever I am pretending to be working on for a mind clearing, energy restoring dip in the sacred waters. I only swim the first half mile of the river, getting out before the riverbed becomes a tangled mess of algae and beer cans.

Of course I bring my snorkel. On the walk to the river, I typically pass people. It is curious that almost every day somebody asks me, "What are you looking for?" And, when I am getting out of the water, dripping wet and headed home,  somebody else usually asks, "What'd you find?"

I shrug uncertainly when asked what I'm looking for. I'm not really looking for anything more than a few minutes, swimming amongst the fish and plants. There are other snorkelers out there some days. Some of them are hunting for treasure, either artifacts from any of the many peoples who have populated this section of river for thousands of years, or more modern treasures. I've certainly found both. I have friends who are really into finding indigenous artifacts and will spend hours scouring a section of river for that little gleam of flint that is sometimes an arrow head. I don't really care much about arrow heads. They all look pretty much the same to me, and I couldn't be bothered to search so diligently.

Modern treasure is slightly more appealing. I've found money, keys, plenty of sunglasses, and a pretty large cache of jewelry. I'm not really looking for that stuff either. But it is always cool to find something valuable. I have found one class ring and several wedding bands. The class ring was fairly easy to track to an ungrateful sorority girl from San Antonio. The wedding bands, when they fit, I use to replace the more than twelve rings that I have personally lost in that same river. Sometimes I wonder if the marriages that these rings represented were good ones. Were they accidentally dropped by someone madly in love or thrown from the bank to carry away the despair of a bad marriage? I doesn't really matter. I always lose them before they bring me either good luck or ill. Things come. Things go.

My older daughter is a huge enthusiast of treasure hunting. This summer, she found five dollars and decided that she would search for money on the river bottom until she found enough to buy a GoPro camera. The very next weekend we were snorkeling at Sewel Park. She got out at the ladder. "Dad, I think I see something at the bottom. It's a little too deep for me. Can you get it?" And so I swam down about ten feet to the spot where a GoPro camera was resting on the river bed, its head band swaying pleasantly in the current with the long, slender leaves of wild rice.

We tried to find the owner, to return it. There was one clue, a video on the camera. The video reveals a pair of scuba divers performing routine safety checks on one another. All is well, camera adjusted on head mount. They swim down the river about 100 yards. There is a moment of awkward equipment adjustment caught on the video, and then you see the divers swim away as the camera slips off and floats silently to the river bed. Then there are ten minutes of nothing but rice moving serenely in the soft current until the battery goes dead. We called the local dive shops to see if anyone had come in to return an air tank, griping about losing a camera. We even scoured the internet for stories of woe and loss in the San Marcos River. After a couple of weeks, I let Mina buy some GoPro accessories and really call the camera hers.

I mostly just pick up pieces of broken glass, which are sadly plentiful, even near the headwaters. They fill my pockets, providing ballast to offset my preternatural buoyancy. For some reason, I avoid beer can pull tabs. It would be easy enough to collect them also. Maybe it is a touch of OCD that compels me to stick to my plan - just pick up glass. Perhaps it is that the aluminum tabs are too light and would do little for my above mentioned buoyancy issues. The glass in my pockets does give me something to say, when I am invariably asked, "What'd you find?"

Yesterday I was avoiding looking for a job. I was avoiding looking at all. So I headed down to the river to look for nothing. It is still hot here, and the water felt divine. My anxieties were rinsing away and I was going into the snorkel zone, calmly collecting broken bottles and gazing into the thick beds of wild rice and red hygrophila when I swam around a bend in Sewel Park, finding myself suddenly snorkel to fin with a group of nearly naked mermaids.

This section of the river is popular with students, so it's not strange to swim up on coeds, but these weren't regular students in regular bathing suits. There were three of them. One had the long flipper tail that you immediately thought of when you read the word mermaids. The others appeared to have legs and were wearing uncomfortable looking thong bathing suits. They were topless, save a smattering of what looked like pearlescent barnacles scattered across their breasts. I think they were those large aquarium stones, maybe affixed with glue. I don' know. I have heard enough stories about sailors and sirens to be cautious.

It was awkward because this is a spot where the water deepens and I usually like to swim around a bit before heading downstream to the the place where I get out. I also wanted to know what they were doing and how they got the stones to stay glued to their breasts in the water. But I didn't want to disturb them, to be that creepy guy with a snorkel. Neither did I want to be dragged to the bottom, drowned by them as their faces changed into those of hideous monsters. And so I swam on.

Oddly, it seemed at first that they were following me, past the bridge and out of the section of park with walls and ladders. I turned once and saw one of the mermaids a short way behind me, slipping effortlessly through the water and the thick river foliage. I kept on my course until I was alone again, just turtles and fish in sight. Rounding another bend, I came to the place where I like to get out. Climbing from the water, pockets full of glass, I saw an old guy with a skinny dog and a large can of beer. "What'd you find?" he asked.

"I'm not really sure."

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