How Rivers Break Away and Meet Again by Theresa Kishkan


I am a reader of atlases. I’ve always been drawn to them, the tattered cloth-bound copies in the classrooms of my childhood. Looking into them, I could dream my way onto continents so far away it was tomorrow there as I traced borders with a wondering finger. I remember learning how to use the legend, that little box with lines and colour charts which provided visual aids to help you to understand where land rose above sea level, how deep the sea was, how some cities were larger than others by the circle used to represent them. Was it infilled, was it red, did it contain a star? There were the principal roads and the other roads, thin lines (usually red), going from one circle or dot to another, across borders, through the shadings that meant mountains. And the thin blue lines, scribbling across the map, widening to pools, meeting other rivers, breaking away again, finally reaching one ocean or another. It never occurred to me, as a child allowed to borrow an atlas during a wet recess or because I’d finished my assignments early, that someone might actually own an atlas, or several, that the pages would show how borders shift, how rivers change, oxbow, leave their banks, join with other watercourses, enter lakes, the waters amalgamating. Yet somehow a river can leave again, return to its original course, sure of its water.

I have the Oxford New Concise World Atlas, Third Edition, and lately I’ve been keeping it on the low table by our woodstove, lifting it to my lap in quiet moments to check the routes of rivers. Specific rivers, the ones I’ve travelled along or walked across on bridges. In Ostrava a young man took me for a glass of wine (it was beautiful golden Pálava) and as we sat in the little bar, he pointed out the window to a bridge at the end of the street, spanning the Ostravice River. If you cross that bridge, you are in Silesia, he said, smiling. (I’ve been trying to figure out what he meant ever since.)

And on the low table, books about human anatomy, atlases of the strange geography of our bodies, with their own legends. It’s the veins I’m specifically interested in. They are usually indicated in blue, as opposed to arteries, which are red, to represent the oxygen-rich blood carried away from the heart to the rest of the body. The blood the veins return to the heart is darker, because it is oxygen-depleted. In one of the veins of my leg, a clot formed, though there’s no sign of it now.

I find the rivers I love, the ones I dream about. I find them in the atlas and realize they too have their difficulties. They rise in springs or seep from marshes or the melting of glaciers, they gather, they flow, so clean in their beginnings, and unless they become grounded or are endorheic, they arrive at the great oceans of the world full of the silts, the effluents, the timbers and old cars and snowmelt and rain of their journeys. There will have been diversions. There will have been accidents. There might have been meanders and braidings and temporary islands and dams.

A deep river, two or three houses in bamboo quiet,
And such goings on: red blossoms glaring with white!

Among spring’s vociferous glories, I too have my place:
With a lovely wine, bidding life’s affairs bon voyage. [i]

2. Iliac vein, Femoral vein, Popliteal vein, Tibial vein, Greater saphenous vein, Lesser saphenous vein

A deep cramping pain. Some swelling. In the Emergency room, my history is taken: pulmonary embolism a year ago; suspected deep vein thrombosis; suspected metastases in both lungs (though they’ve disappeared); 6 months of blood thinners; and many scans and tests.

A lab technician is called from his bed to take my blood for a test to determine if there is active clot activity. An ultrasound is set for the next morning, though it is well into that morning when the technician draws blood from a pool of my right arm. I do not wait for the results because I want some sleep and the person in the other bed is on a powerful narcotic that makes her itchy, causes her to moan on her side of the screen that separates us. The medical staff are not happy that I’m leaving.

We drive home on a dark highway. It’s a 45-minute journey and after 30 minutes the Emergency room physician phones me on my husband’s cell phone. In the car, the loud opening chords of Sultans of Swing explode, a moment when I regret he didn’t set his ring tone to something sweet— the Brahms Lullaby or That Sheep May Safely Graze—as I stab at the screen to answer the call. Hello, hello? The physician tells me that my test is positive for blood clotting, that I may have a DVT, and that I must return immediately to begin a course of anticoagulants.

     “As I’ll be coming in later in the morning for an ultrasound, I can’t just wait until then?” 

“No, I must insist you come back now.

We turn around and head back, my husband silent with weariness. He won’t let me drive. He’s more than a little irritated that I insisted we leave before the test results were ready but then about halfway to the hospital, at Middlepoint, we see a large animal on the side of the highway. Not large like elk, which we see quite often. And not a coyote. Bigger than that. It takes a moment or two, and the glare of the animal’s golden eyes, for us to realize we’re seeing a cougar. I’ve lived on this peninsula for 35 years and I’ve seen just two cougars in that time. I’ve heard two more, I think, but sightings are rare. We are both excited and forget for a moment where we are going, and for what.

All down the coast, we passed creeks in the darkness, Homesite, Meyer, Anderson, Maple, Haskins, scribbling down the mountains. And I would do it all again, sit at the desk with a nurse taking my pulse, my blood pressure, arranging for bloodwork, ultrasound, medication to prevent a blood clot moving up into my lungs, for the glow of the cougar’s eyes in our headlights, and the knowledge of water finding its way to the sea.

3. Deep venous drainage system

The fibular vein. Anterior tibial vein. Posterior tibial vein. The three become the popliteal vein at the knee; and then that vein enters the thigh, via a passageway called the adductor canal, as the femoral vein. These are the veins where the thrombosis formed, a clot poised like a temporary island, breaking free, travelling into my pulmonary system where it lodged as an embolism, threatening my heart.

    My heart never knew it was threatened. My heart grew large with love that time, in anticipation of a third grandchild, surrounded by other family members, hearing their voices, sitting with them at the long table we’d eaten at for more than three decades. My heart, unaware, as I tried to catch my breath. It never knew it was threatened. It was filled with love, it was heavy with love.

     And other minor veins drain into the femoral vein, like small creeks. The femoral vein graciously receives its tributaries as rivers receive theirs, the threads of mountain courses, of run-off, of bog-dark sweet creekwater, limestone, gritty, clear as mirror glass, dense with salmon, lively with mayflies and dragonflies catching fire, of rivulets, right-bank, left-bank, forked, streamlet, greater saphenous vein, which usually receives the external pudendal vein as well as the superficial epigastric vein, and the superficial circumflex iliac vein.

   When I go for my swim at the local pool, I see the older women whose class is finishing just as I enter the water for my laps. They are thin, large, stooped, high-stepping, and lame. On their legs, the story of their lives thus far. Varicose veins, spider veins, venous insufficiency, superficial phlebitis, swellings and dark bruisings, lymphedema: some of them use walkers or canes to help them into and out of the water, to the hot-tub where they are helped down the stairs. But in the pool they raise their arms, they float, they are light as birds in the clear water while gentle music plays and the instructor leads their movements from the walkway at the edge. In the hot-tub after, their heads above the warm froth, they are beautiful, talking among themselves as the music continues and I swim my laps, listening to them.

…listen to your suppliants voice, come, and benignant in these rites rejoice;
Give plenteous Seasons, and sufficient wealth, and pour; in lasting streams, continued Health.[ii]

Once I told them, You look like goddesses, all of you, there in the water, so graceful as you raise your arms. Join us, one of them says, smiling, using her cane to walk unsteadily to the change room. My own legs are uncertain rivers, uncertain streams, their courses changing, islands forming of my own blood, its platelets and fibrins turned semi-solid.

4. The Rosebud River, between Home Coulee and the Red Deer River

A Blackfoot word, Akokiniskway, meaning “the river of many roses”.

Stop, I kept saying, stop. It was cold, we’d slept one night in the honeymoon suite at the Rosedeer Hotel in Wayne after an indifferent dinner in the atmospheric Last Chance Saloon. Our room was on the second floor. The third floor was apparently haunted, rooms where Klu Klux Klan thugs hired by the mines had beaten men identified as Communists. Burned them with cigarettes. Tarred them and feathered them and sometimes went further. Our sleep was uninterrupted by the past. We’d risen, shivered our way to the cold car, and we left before 7 a.m., everything around us silent and crisp with frost, though we’d hiked in shirtsleeves the afternoon before, above the townsite, to look into old mine shafts, to lean down to prairie crocus, sunlight warm on our arms. Stop,

stop. Because the river had something to tell me. I couldn’t quite hear. Something, something, about miners my grandfather might have known, and hardship, and what the fallen fenceposts had kept contained. Magpies squabbled in the willows. The wild roses were not in leaf, not yet, but the bushes grew on the banks, promising faint perfume and a profusion of pink blossoms by June.

     There was something that I knew as we stopped by the bridge. Air, the light falling over the hoodoos on Highway 10x. Magpies, whose ancestors may have shadowed my grandfather on his way to work, my aunts and uncles on their way to school, their lunch in lard pails. My thumb on the rusting blue of the bridge rasped a few syllables I’d never heard before, a whisper: you could live here. This road could be your route home. Stop.

   5. The superficial and deep veins of the sole

Their beginnings at the dorsal arch of the foot, their communication with the digital veins between the toes, their confluences, the multiple small tributaries, how they swell and ache, how the perforating veins connect the superficial veins with those in the deeper compartments through canals dense with lymph nodes, how they flow, flow, their fluids dark red, deoxygenated, en route to the lungs, the great rivers sourced in our feet, unnoticed in their small beginnings until their braidings unravel, their banks collapse, islands break free and impede the flow.

6. Nicola River, trail off Lauder Road, on the way to Glimpse Lake

Driving to the Douglas Lake Ranch for ice cream and just to remind ourselves that some things remain, some trees, fence-lines, horses, we saw the hoodoos on the other side of the Nicola River. Can we get to them, I wondered?

We turned off on Lauder Road and crossed a bridge over the river. It seemed there was a trail leading away from the chokecherries and the bear scat and spent shotgun shells by the cottonwoods. A dry trail, with dry cow pats, dry coyote scats brittle with little bones. And a few bones, too – the ribs of some large animal, probably a steer. A jaw. A few of the strange teeth wriggled in their sockets.

   The river so lithe and silver, skittish with small birds: swallows.

My muscles were so useful in those days. Walking the rough trail, my legs working well, my blood pumping, my heart strong. (There were signs of muscle damage in the bloodwork, the emergency room physician told me solemnly on the last trip to the hospital, the night we saw the cougar and heard water the whole way home, and I felt the weakness in my right knee, the cramping down my calf.  I believe the enzyme they found was creatine phosphokinase, and I hoped it wasn’t my heart muscle that was damaged.) So, yes, useful, as we walked in intense heat. The hoodoos appeared but the trail dwindled away to almost nothing and we couldn’t walk to the stony bases. A few wooden beams across a dry creek bed leading down to the river, the intense smell of sage stung with sunlight, withered mock orange blossoms on a few scattered bushes. In a deep pool, mayfly nymphs, floating twigs that are caddisfly larvae, dragonflies hovering in the air, their wings a screen for looking at the sun.

     Uprooted cottonwood trees, an old fencepost, earth from eroded riverbanks, impeding the flow of the water but somehow it found its way under and through while swallows dipped and turned.

The river came down through marshlands, entering Barton Lake, then Old Dave Lake, received its tributaries (Beak Creek and Frank Ward Creek), before flowing into Douglas Lake, then out again to run and riffle its way to Nicola Lake. A river of dry beautiful grasslands and the Spaxomin Reserve with its tumble of cabins and irrigation wheels turning through the hayfields on summer days. A river that leaves Nicola Lake is controlled by a small dam at the south end and passes the remnants of a saw mill and a grist mill, on the river itself, and then meanders through ranch lands and brushy lowlands near Merritt, a series of oxbows making measurements difficult.

(Do leg veins oxbow, do they leave their established course and meander, in reaction to a blood clot? Do the femoral canals, the adductor canals, do they break down and allow various routes collapse into a single moving blood-flow to the lungs? Femoral to popliteal, veins and arteries going in their respective directions. I run my hands up and down my legs, wondering at their own strange rivers, their riparian zones, the floods or the droughts ahead.)

 I have heard yellow-headed and red-winged blackbirds singing in the tule groves on the edges of the Nicola River where it leaves the lake on its way to the Thompson, taking in the Coldwater and Spius, the bodies of drowned cattle, a canoe left untethered as the river rose, and I have seen sandhill cranes flying overhead, the sound of them like creaking wagon wheels, and I’ve walked along the river’s edge at dusk, behind the Upper Nicola townsite, once when we stayed in the old Banker’s House and watched coho salmon swimming strongly towards the lake.

I have heard the blackbirds.

7. Unbraided: a repair manual

My physiotherapist tells me that the ligaments, bones, and cartilage exist in a relationship. He braids his fingers together to show me. Then he turns them askew, like my own braided hair after I’ve slept on it for a night or two, and he says our work will be to re-align the workings of my right leg. He doesn’t think it’s simply arthritis though he’s breezily convinced that everyone over fifty has some degree of it in his or her joints. He speaks of trauma, of injury. A bump or a fall or a turn too far.

There’s no hearing that I haven’t bumped or fallen. That all of a sudden I had heat in my knee, an excess of fluid, terrible pain and cramping. That the same thing had happened a year and a half ago, when I was diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism with no apparent cause, though deep vein thrombosis was suspected. (Double doppler scans of my legs were clear, though it was thought the clot(s) had developed into the embolism and that’s why there was no sign of further clots in my legs.) No hearing that I felt it was related to my body’s response to pneumonia, to the difficult passage of the embolism traveling from my lower leg to my lungs. To the horror I felt when a respirologist thought that I had metastases in my lungs and ordered x-rays and blood work with tumour markers. The urgency at that time was to prevent further embolisms so the big drugs were employed. The specialists. The CT scans and the PET scan.

(There’s no hearing.)

He braids his hands and turns them. He rubs my knee with an analgesic and runs an ultrasound wand over it. Then he shows me some exercises to do faithfully, three or five times a day. And I go home, thinking of how rivers break away and meet again, how they are the same, yet not. I stand facing the wall, bracing myself with my forearms, and stretch my leg behind me for fifteen seconds, then lift the opposite leg so that all the weight is on the stretched leg. I lie on my bed and hold my leg up, foot turned out like a ballet dancer, and my husband cradles my heel while I press down against the resistance of his hand. Five times. And it does help, as regular swimming helps: my slow kilometre, I call it, three times a week. I envision the tissues and bones and gels finding each other again, remaking their tidy relationship. (I brush my hair and rebraid it in hope.) I want my physiotherapist’s hands to show me that my body’s geography has returned to the one I have known all my life. I want him to send a report to my doctor and I want her to tell me that the blood tests are normal, and I want to think of my blood as flowing easily, without the difficult clots.

There was no fall, no collision. There was a time when I could walk easily, without pain; then two mornings, more than a year apart, when I couldn’t. Just like that. What I returned to the first time wasn’t normal but something between states. I hovered there, hover there still. There was a time I could walk easily.

Turn the page. Try to find the river you saw from a train window as you travelled from Avignon to Aix en Provence. Was it the Coulon? The Durance? Turn the page. There are photographs: the Nile Delta from space; a sunken church in Illinois as the Mississippi River flooded; the Colorado River dwindled to nothing as it approaches Mexico; the Slims River in the Yukon Territory, carrying meltwater from the Kaskawulsh glacier, to the Kluane and eventually the Yukon River and the Bering Sea, now pirated by a shifting drainage gradient to the Gulf of Alaska. The diminishing South Saskatchewan.


Turn the page of your aging body and find the map of what might have happened:

Turn the page quickly. Remember the rivers you have walked along, and into, and how you were held by water green and lovely. How your grown sons still remember the Nicola River, your grown daughter the ride you took by horseback to Salmon River and its memory of the sockeye runs before the Hell’s Gate slide in 1914, a river you have also driven along on your way to Salmon Arm, its silvery riffles so beautiful in sunlight. Before the slide and before bank erosion and flooding, agricultural run-off and the heavy feet of cattle making their way to water. (So many fish on this page, its wide waters.) How you stop at Lytton each trip to marvel again at the marriage of rivers, a green Thompson entering the turbulent Fraser, your husband’s arm around your shoulders.

Turn the page. This atlas continues. Here are the maps of your legs and feet, a dense braiding of veins and arteries, blue, red, the multiple small tributaries finding their way to your heart, and back.


[i]Du Fu, translated David Hinton. The Selected Poems of Du Fu. Pg. 60

[ii]From Orphic Hymn 50 to the Nymphai

THERESA KISHKAN is the author of 14 books, most recently Euclid’s Orchard, a collection of essays about about horticulture, love, family stories, coyote music, and the mysteries of mathematics. She lives on the Sechelt Peninsula, north of Vancouver, B.C., in a house she built with her husband John Pass and where they raised their three children. John and Theresa operate a small private press, High Ground Press. Theresa is also co-publisher of Fish Gotta Swim Editions, with Anik See, specializing in the literary novella and other innovative prose forms.

PHOTOGRAPHY by the author

1 Comment

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Caroline Woodwardreply
February 8, 2019 at 5:24 am

Such a powerful and lyrical essay by one of the most accomplished essayists I’ve had the pleasure of reading. Simply wonderful explorations of language, the natural world and the deeply interior bodies and minds we carry with us, looking more closely now after reading writing like this.

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