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The Ebb and Flow Of a Springtime River

I WAS sleeping when I heard it: the river. For almost five months, it had remained locked up tight under its mantle of gray and slate ice. Occasionally a light snow would dust it, or a heavier storm meld it with its banks. But I always knew it was there. Dormant. Waiting.

What I heard sounded like rumbling from the belly of a large animal: an echoed resonance from somewhere deep under the river, elicited by an April sun that was now high enough and shone long enough to rouse the water. Soon no more snow covered the ice. And then cracks rent its face.

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The thaw had begun.

A river lays claim to our awe and imagination in a way that ponds and lakes never can. Running water. People are drawn to it. A river is powerful, flexing its muscles against its banks. It is always going somewhere, and the longer we stare at it, the further it takes us. The morning after those first groanings from under the ice, I awoke to find no fewer than a dozen people - neighbors all - standing in my back yard, at the edge of the river. No one was saying a word. I realized that I actually knew few of these people, but moments later I was out there with them, part of the collective silent watch.

All through the first day, the river cracked and shifted while the sun worked its slender fingers in among the crevices, and pried the ice sheets apart. Sometime in the night, very late, the great event must have taken place - the breakup and swelling of the river, for the next morning the floes were coarsing freely. I watched as they slowly spun and nudged up against one another, migrating like immense seagoing mammals, dipping and surfacing, plowing the frigid water over their backs. Now and then one w ould crash into a tree along the shore, snapping limbs like matchsticks. The air was filled with the sound of the river. The air smelled of river.

Anyone who chooses to live on the banks of a river knows the risk. My river, the Penobscot of Maine, often looks like a placid mountain lake at the height of summer. Sometimes it is so low that in its midcourse green shoots wag their blades as they are caressed by the barely drifting water.

But it's all but impossible to recall such images in the chill of an early Maine spring, when the mountain snows are liquefying and pouring into the river. I and my neighbors stand and watch as it rises, wondering how far it will come up this year. Maybe that's why we are all so silent as we watch.

The other night, while preparing supper, I paused to look out my kitchen window at the dark, rolling water. It was high but still below flood stage. I sat down to eat. Fifteen minutes later I was startled by what sounded like the breaking of a thousand wine glasses. I looked out the window and saw that a massive ice flow, consisting of innumerable crystalline shards, had come down the river en masse, only to be halted by the abandoned railroad bridge behind my home. I watched as the ice chinks jostled an d shifted, looking to get under or over or somehow through the bridge. And slowly, the backed-up water began to rise.

The neighbors had heard it, too. All those common to the flood plain rushed from their houses and perched as close to the river as they safely could. But even as we watched, the waters were visibly rising, lapping at our shoes. And so we stepped back. And 10 minutes later, we had to step back again. The fire department came, and for some odd reason this put heart into us, although they were helpless to do a thing. The firefighters fell into ranks with us, standing and watching, too. They shook their head s as we did, and they stepped back when the water rose to the soles of their shoes.

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MANY of us were told to prepare to evacuate our homes. We listened, but we didn't hear, not until the water had come over the slope of the lawn and shards of shifting ice were ripping the bark from the swamp maples. Then people began to consider. Some moved belongings to upper floors. Electricity was turned off. One friend, with the help of neighbors, hauled his furnace upstairs. By sunset the neighborhood was still, except for the clinking of ice and the moaning of the bridge.

As night fell, I hovered between evacuation and the less-drastic measure of sleeping upstairs, as if my presence in my threatened home could exert some counterforce against the river's tendencies. I didn't move upstairs, but as I lay in bed, sleepless, I dipped my hand to the floor from time to time, to feel whether it had come time to move. And then - it must have been near midnight - the river, or something in it, moaned deep and long and loud. I ran to the window and by the moonlight I saw it, the bri dge, being slowly ripped up by its roots and heaved onto the ice floes. Within five minutes it was gone. By morning the Penobscot had begun to recede.

The river had had its way.

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