The Little River

By SUSAN HARLAN

the great smoky mountains national park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

 

The Little River isn’t very little or rather
I don’t know what it is little in relationship to.
By the bank the water is smooth as paper
but in the middle my sneakered feet are unsteady
pulled by the current.
Yellow flowers
a black butterfly and then another
a mass of gnats
a hummingbird in light.
My bug spray and sweat are washed off
in the minnow-smelling water
and I can see a school of them
just below the surface
as if they are testing where it is
where it ends.
And what can you say about sun on water?
You could say that it is an afternoon in summer
and not many left.
Or you could say that it is light moved against its will
and carried off into mountains.
You would have something to say about it.
I sit on a rock.
Two people constructed a cairn on this rock
and the water moves around it.
The cairn is precise, balanced.
I watched them build it.
No that one will make it fall, she said.
She was looking out for it
as you can look out for a thing.
Leaves float by
bringing fall to mind
before its time.
I wonder how to compose all this on my rock
how to make it one thing.
We talked about rivers
what they do and where they want to go
so I think that maybe I could place you here
like a rock
picking you up out of the past.
You too were precise.
And what does a cairn do
other than mark and remember?

Susan Harlan’s work has appeared in venues including The Guardian US, The Paris Review
Daily, Guernica, Roads & Kingdoms, The Morning News, Public Books, Curbed, Nowhere, The
Awl, Lit Hub, and Atlas Obscura. Her book Luggage was published with the Bloomsbury series
Object Lessons in March 2018, and she teaches English at Wake Forest University.

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