There were stories and accounts from many, still lingering on about the Bayou. Some who witnessed hearing voices echoing, bouncing off the walls from the underground chambers at night. Others heard sounds of rapid water rushing and rising, drowning out the muffled cries below the muddy grounds of the park. Some might say it was a haunted city buried while still alive. But that was the Bayou in the city. It couldn’t happen in the country where the Bayou waters ran free.
Something did feel haunted to her that summer, in the murky waters of the bayou outstretched between the open country and the over-populated city. She felt it bubbling beneath the surface, daring not to touch her toes into the mud nearby. She shuttered to herself, stepping back abruptly from the stream's edge. Even her horse, Chestnut would not take a drink of that water, shaking his head in protest and wandering back up the steep bank.
She remembered the stories her own grandparents told her about the bayou, running for miles in the east and wrapping around the city before it dumped into the Gulf of Mexico. Anyone who tried to swim in it, would surely be carried all the way out to the gulf and never be seen again. Her grandfather's words in her head reminded her to never drink from that water, it might pull you straight in. Most of the country folks including her grandfather, believed the city had polluted and poisoned the Bayou with their over developments of buildings and housing. They were killing the natural country one acre at a time, he said, leaving no room left for farming and wild horses to run. It used to be nothing but a span of country roads and small farms before you reached the bright lights of Houston, now the greater city limits and its eight lane interstate extended and almost touched their small town and dirt roads. Stay away from the city.
She tied the black leather straps of her horse securely around the trunk of an old Cypress tree, making sure there was plenty of shade for him to rest and feel the warm breeze to endure the sweltering heat she had grown accustomed to her whole life. She wanted so desperately to follow where the Bayou ended up, and see it flowing past Buffalo Bayou Park in the city. She noticed several kids floating down the Bayou in old inflated tires. They laughed and splashed
muddy water at her, as they didn’t seem afraid at all. She wondered if they would be carried out into the gulf and never be seen? Envisioning their muffled voices beneath the muddy water and unable to see their faces any longer, she shuddered to herself once more.
To understand Houston, one must first understand Buffalo Bayou. This muddy waterway flows through the heart of the city and once drove Houston’s economy. Starting as a small stream just west of Houston, Buffalo Bayou winds around and travels 30 miles east along the open prairies and unofficial trails through lovely woods, up and down ravines and dangerous high banks to meet White Oak Bayou on the northern edge of downtown Houston. This confluence of waterways carries out to meet the swallowing mouth of the Gulf of Mexico. Many do not realize how close Houston is to the opening gulf of the ocean. One hurricane alone could wipe it off the map.
It is from the pastoral beauty of Buffalo Bayou Park, one can see the city of Houston, rising upward to the blue and cloudless sky in an impressive landscape of high rise buildings. The park offers pristine meadows and a tidy ribbon of water, including several ponds and one small lake. There are areas dedicated to art for the locals, and sandy beaches for boat launching while providing lookout points for lovers, native gardens, benches, and water fountains. It’s an iconic picture in her mind: a modern metropolis city and mother nature in perfect harmony. Or are they?
She had managed to stay away from the city all of her young 25 years of life until recently. Her parents had both died before her first birthday from a car accident driving into the city one summer night. She knew that’s why her grandparents detested the city and traffic. She was content and happy to grow up in the country as she had learned to ride horses without a saddle and spending her days gardening with her grandmother, and helping her grandfather with all the animals on the farm. She adored being raised by her grandparents who taught her how to be a country girl. She also enjoyed being homeschooled growing up, all of her studies occurring on their weather-beaten, wrap-around porch and hanging wooden swing. Which left plenty of time for horseback riding in the grassy hills and reading her novels under the large bent-over Cypress tree, every afternoon until sunset.
As a young woman, she enjoyed driving down the endless dirt roads in her old beat-up Chevy with the windows rolled all the way down. The wind blew up a brown smoke storm behind her and tousled her long hair wildly about in the truck. As she sang away to the radio in those days, she’d chain smoke her cigarettes recklessly. No place to be.
This summer was different. She needed the work in the city to survive and try to maintain her grandparents' farm. After both passing away a month apart from one another, her grandparents had been gone for three years. There was no one left to help her. Unable to afford the family’s hired ranch hand any longer, the farm seemed sad and overgrown.
She had taken a job in downtown Houston, giving horse-drawn carriage rides with her two last horses she owned. This meant she could earn enough money over the summer to last the entire year. Newlyweds and tourists loved that sort of thing in the city, riding along in a carriage as horses pull their heavy weight for hours, although she could never understand putting a horse through such torture. The bit in the mouth of a horse, gagging and choking him, he never complained, just continued lugging along on the concrete streets of downtown. Black patches were placed and covered the horses’ eyes to protect their peripheral vision, so they wouldn’t become distracted from busy traffic and noise a city brings. She had yet to visit Buffalo Bayou Park once, since working in the city.
After work and once settled back in the country, she usually landed at the only local bar that existed. When the evenings finally cooled off, she was able to enjoy a few beers, only a few miles from her grandparents' place. You could hear the music playing down the dirt road and inviting one to come in before you even parked.
She was often asked why her name Jesse was spelled with an e, as if her parents had really wanted a boy. Asked this question from a stranger once again this evening, she pretended to laugh, continuing to crack open the shells of her peanuts with no interest in answering the guy sitting in a stool next to her at the bar. He didn’t look like a local or even someone who knew what country was. As he freely stared away at her outlined breasts in her thin shirt, she took a big swallow of beer from the bottle and suddenly felt conscious of herself wearing blue jeans, a white T-shirt and her cowboy boots. She excused herself to go outside and smoke.
He followed her outside and stood next to her silently, enjoying watching the sun melt behind the hills. She watched him kicking his Nikes around in the dirt as he turned his attention right into her eyes, “Ya know, smoking isn't so good for your health, Jesse with an e. I mean, I suppose there are all kinds of things that aren't good for you, like this beer I'm drinking, here. I have to say, I’m really enjoying all this ice cold beer you have here in Texas, I don't normally drink beer, I'm a wine kind of guy. Actually, I'm a bit of a wine snob.” He was inspecting his beer bottle as Jesse decided not to answer him. Instead she hopped up on the tailgate of her Chevy, swinging her legs back and forth and blew a huge cloud of smoke in his direction. He smiled and held his hands up in defeat. “Alright already, geez..can I bum one off of you? Jesus, I haven't smoked since my dad died years ago. And why are you all by yourself out here, I would think your parents would be worried about you, or someone.. uhh boyfriend, oh surely you aren't old enough to be married ?”
Jesse decided to give in, hearing about his father passing away and handed him over her own cigarette. “Here. Smoke away for Christ's sake. And welcome to Texas, city man. I am really sorry about your dad, how about your mom, is she still alive? Both of my parents passed away when I was a baby and to answer your question, I was named after my dad, Jesse. Something incredibly special to me, that I don't normally reveal to strangers.” She watched how he handled this new information, noticing how his lips pressed against her cigarette, inhaling it for a moment and blowing out smoke through his parted mouth. Running his hands through his hair and smoking like it was a natural thing he always had done, it was so intoxicating watching him smoke her cigarette. Something so intimate that had touched her own lips. He continued his fast city talking, “You mean you’re all alone? You live on a farm and take care of everything and there’s no one else here in Texas with you? Don’t you ever get lonely out here in the country? Damn, I’d love to show you the world. You need to get outta here! There’s so much to see beyond the country. Think I might just have to kidnap you and take you with me, even if I have to throw your stubborn self and cowboy boots kicking, right over my shoulders.”
That thought made Jesse giggle, or maybe it was the beer. It had never occurred to her that she was lonely or even felt alone any time up to this point in her life. She felt wild and free most days, like her horse Chestnut. Seeing something beyond the country is exactly what she had wanted to do. He had piqued her interest with that statement. But did she need any man to show her the world? Naw, she told herself.
They talked for hours on the back of her pick-up truck, drinking far too much beer and finishing the whole pack of smokes between them. She had learned about his entire life story that evening. He was from the east coast, New York City. He had finished college with two Master's degrees dissatisfied, and classified himself as a wandering, exploring man now. He had never been to Houston once. He wanted to see the world, something he had never done after twelve years of schooling and pressure from his parents to take over the family Psychology counseling practice. His father had passed away suddenly from lung cancer and his mother urged him to take some time away for just himself, and go chase his dreams. He had been backpacking all over Europe that summer until he decided to travel to Egypt and Turkey. He had just returned from his travel to Istanbul, Turkey, to see The Basilica Cistern, the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul, Turkey. His eyes lit up and spoke quickly about this secret underground world he had just discovered, like a small boy opening a present on Christmas morning, his first train set. His eyes never left Jesse’s own eyes, explaining that he needed to see the only other Cistern existing in the United States. Located right there in Texas. He revealed there was an abandoned Cistern below Buffalo Bayou Park in Houston, and he was planning on seeing it the next day. She could barely let him finish his sentence from that point on.
Built in 1926, the Buffalo Bayou Cistern was an underground water system used for decades to hold a large portion of Houston’s public drinking water. After it sprang an irreparable leak, the 85,000 square-foot public reservoir was drained and sat unused. Practically forgotten about.
At ground level, the only evidence of the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern was an unremarkable door set into a small hill overgrown with long stems of marshy grass hiding its entrance. That’s why it went virtually unnoticed for almost eight decades now. And it was also the reason that Jesse missed the entrance three times when she first tried to visit the park.
As soon as she stepped through the door and descended into the mysterious sunken world, Jesse knew she was standing somewhere special, in one of only two underground cisterns in the world open for anyone to see. It was a damp underground labyrinth of marble columns rising out of still water, the scene before her unworldly. She felt dwarfed by the massive room, which measured approximately 1 1/2 football fields. The cistern’s 221 concrete columns, each 25 feet tall, gave her the sense that she was standing in an underground Greek temple or even a subterranean Lincoln Memorial.
She had stepped into a different dimension it seemed, a world kept secret and buried from the city. Dropping her flashlight on the cement causing utter blackness, she swore out loud and listened to the echo of damn for a full 17 seconds in the chambers. Shining her flashlight across the waters, it revealed a full reflection of the stone columns, their pillars displaying an image of a lost Roman Empire. A shallow layer of water remained standing on the floor to play with the shafts of sunlight barely admitted by the ceiling hatches above. What a hidden treasure laying there in silence, until she heard the sounds of water suddenly rushing in. And voices.
It took her a moment to fully understand, rubbing her eyes, she scanned the chambers with her flashlight in every direction, causing a magical dance of lights bouncing off all angles of stone walls. The still water began to rise quickly around her legs as she looked behind her for the door she had entered, now gone. The voices were echoing loudly and lingering into a vacuumed tunnel of long screams. Above her she saw a ceiling hatch and a small metal ladder hanging into the air. Quickly she climbed without thinking and panicked, dropping her flashlight into the water, which had almost reached the top of the stone columns. Closing the hatch under her, she stood on top of the grassy lawns of Buffalo Bayou park.
There was no view of the skyline. Houston appeared to vanish. There were no tall skyscrapers outlining the sky, and the interstate seemed to be missing too. There were no people or cars left in sight all the way out to the mouth of the gulf. There only layed a vast span of country, rolling grassy hills and Cypress trees lining the bayou, following its trail.
And then she heard it. The roar and thunder beyond the hills before it arrived. Wild horses galloping freely and grouped together by the dozens, they ran voraciously up the hill and past her. The running force of the wild horses made the wind open a path in the grass as they left. She spotted her horse Chestnut among them, running away with the herd. He was free.
When she turned around behind her, almost wanting to chase after Chestnut, she saw a brown dust of smoke storming up behind her Chevy truck driving wildly up the grassy hill, aiming right at her. What the HELL? He was wearing blue jeans, a white shirt and a cowboy hat, driving her old beat-up Chevy with a cigarette hanging from his mouth. He stopped the truck abruptly, just short of where she was standing. The smile on his face was a wide foolish grin,” I told you to wait for me to see the Cistern, how about you hop in? It’s time I show you the world, Jesse with an e.” Under the sun and on top of the grassy hill, she smiled to herself and shook her head, yelling back at him, “Hey that’s my Chevy! Scoot the hell over! I’m driving.”
"The First Thing I Saw When I Woke Was Chris" | Emily Henning
The first thing I saw when I woke was Chris’ face. It was always the first thing I saw, ever since that night all those years ago when we met in the hallway of his dorm and shared the stories of ourselves underneath the blankets on his bed. Laying there, his hands tucked back behind his head, he would talk about his studies and the scholarships he could not afford to lose. Every now and then he’d turn to look at me, the blacks of his eyes burning bright with an eagerness that warmed me as I laid there by his side. And when he mentioned his family, the ones from whom he came, and the home he did not miss, I’d recognized the slight prick of pain in his voice as my very own. In that moment, wrapped in the comfort of the covers and each other, I’d felt my loneliness leave in waves. We’d kept on after that, talking until the sun began to show itself through the cracks in the window blinds, deciding then and there to never again face the world apart.
Chris came to my apartment on the other side of campus in the days that followed, each time bringing bits of his life packed in a box or a bag, and when eventually he found everything he needed was there among my things it became our place, together. Each and every morning we’d wake entwined, my eyelids fluttering his boyish smile into focus, and the sight of him there next to me in the dark blue quiet of a brand new dawn would make me come alive. He asked me to marry him three months later and unable to imagine a morning that did not begin with his eyes looking back at my own, I’d answered with a tearful nod.
That first morning as husband and wife I saw his face anew, the boy I’d met not long before now the man who’d promised me himself. For better or for worse he’d said and in time his word proved true. Our contentment was peppered with cold shoulders and hurt feelings in those first months and years of being married, arguments both loud and silent. Still, we always found our way back to each other, meeting in the cool calm of early morning, our faces turned toward one another atop the softness of our pillows. It did not matter, the ebb and flow of life. Every day I’d wake to see him seeing me.
Time passed, we graduated, following jobs into the city, and then the babies came. One right after the other until our family grew to five. Chris’ face shone brightest then, those mornings we were stirred from sleep by the sounds of tiny toddlers crawling into the space between us. Always, he’d draw them close, his grin spread wide over the tops of their heads, a smile meant just for me. I knew his joy then the same way I’d known his former pain; together we had made the family both of us had always longed to have.
And now a lifetime later, the kids grown and on their own, Chris’ face is still the first thing I see. This morning I woke and there he was right next to me. Atop my bedside table, framed in gold and smiling back at me through glass. The weight of him, the warmth of him, no longer next to me under the blankets, not in all the years since his car left the road before he could take the exit home. But even so there is his face, the gaze that greets me at the start of every day, a reminder of the first and greatest love I’ve ever known.
"The Thing in the Wall" | Joseph E. Thomas
A summer ago, before we had the gathering at Leshay, I was on one of my walks along the shoreline. I decided to walk in places I was unfamiliar with, which took me to a small river outlet near Hidden-Waters, where I came upon a peculiar rock wall with runes carved into it. I like to make note of landmarks in between my battles, particularly those which bear the marks of colonists. My father instilled into me the importance of history when I was a boy and told me all he knew about the arrival of the colonists and our conflicts with them on long walks through mountain trails.
The rock jutted out from the hillside; the bottom half caked in reddish-orange clay smoothed by rain while the top contained some form of runic declaration. The clay reminded me of a sunset in the summer as smoke from wildfires blanketed the sky. When I approached the rock to examine it, sounds of the world around me dimmed. The waters of the stream faded away, alongside the calls of gulls, eagles, and insects. It was not particularly unusual to me at the time, drowning out distractions is common. I wanted to ensure that I memorized what was on the rock without having to make another trip back to such a remote spot on the shoreline. All I had on my person were my hat, the clothes on my back, a bag of jerky, a knife, and a modest stone hammer.
Deeply etched at the top, the runes said “Army-Wolf Thunder-Wolf’s son carved these runes during the fourth year of Glory-Protector’s reign”. Colonists and their funny names: This That, That-This, “I am Raven-Pot, Leader-Spear’s son”. Though, I cannot deny the appeal of names like “Thunder-Bear”, “Glory-Wolf”, and “Victory-Helmet”. This must have been carved over a century ago in the early colonial period as their edges are worn from decades of rain. My father once told me about the runes he encountered at other sites along the shoreline, sometimes further away from the colonists than one would have expected.
Below the announcement by Army-Wolf, the tips of runes peaked out from the thick layer of clay. I thought that if there is something worth recording, then I should see the rest of the inscription and report it to tribal council. Wiping away the reddish-orange mass caking the rock, the message beneath transitioned from a proud declaration by explorers to gibberish uttered by a madman. Nonsensical ramblings that ranged from semi-coherent yet vaguely threatening (“Thine legs are removed from mother and heart”), to deranged (“Call and answer and rejoice with bones”). The more I scraped away, the more incomprehensible the runes became. They themselves began to transition from professionally chiseled to childishly scratched into the rock, scrawling about as though the carver had forgotten what language was.
Under the ravings, a hole had been bored into the wall. I assumed it was the den of some creature, but it was unlike any muskrat hole I had ever seen. Squatting down, I could see small white and yellowed rocks spattered across from the mouth of the hole to under my feet. For a moment, I thought they resembled human teeth, but there are always rocks like that near-certain streams. Further inside, thin roots lined the ceiling of the hole, hanging down like knotted hair. The clay under it was a dark red, reminding me of blood that had dried over. Further in the hole, just beyond what I could see from the light that seeped through, the clay appeared to shift to a reddish pink. I felt that something was looking back at me from the darkness and stepped away, not wanting to be scratched at by some rodent defending its nest.
Above the hole lied a protrusion of stone that I felt I must have overlooked, cleared from the clay by my hand though I did not recall touching it. The stone had a blackish-blue center surrounded by a reddish pink that gave way to the reddish-orange stain of clay. To those used to violence, it bore a resemblance to the early stages of a black eye, swelling out from the stone. I tried wiping my hands off, but I found they were beginning to tremble. I fumbled for my belt to grab a piece of jerky to gnaw on when I felt the smoothness of my stone hammer, providing me a moment to focus. It was then that a curious revelation struck me; my mother likes to collect neat rocks. From that, my thoughts single-mindedly turned to chipping it away from the wall and bringing it home to her as the hammer felt perfect for the job. After all, even though it is plain, I found it in a special place.
A few years ago, while hiking the trail of Tolma peak with my colonist friend, I came across a simple stone hammer by the lakeside. When I saw it, I was reminded of a narrative told at the Storytelling-House, one of the Changer and several Man-Eating Ogresses across the Sound. It goes that he was given reports of them preying upon early humans after luring them from their canoes. He went around and beat them to death with a stone hammer after pretending to be tricked by them. My friend thought the tale was hilarious and suggested that I take it with me and test it out on any foes who were not quite dead. I agreed, assuming that it had power and perhaps it was something I was gifted by the spirits at the lake.
Thinking of that experience, and the wonderful sight of the mountain one can see at Tolma peak brought me a sense of peace compared to this bizarre trepidation that being in front of this awful wall has inspired. I had almost forgotten that feeling until it began to creep back while my eyes were closed, more intensely than before. It reminded me of the feeling I get just before the outset of a terrible headache, the kind that almost blind me. Placing my hand over the smooth surface of the hammer helped me shake it off again as I pulled it out to prepare collecting this peculiar rock for my mother.
With that humble hammer and a light smack, I managed to crack off the “black eye” as though it were held on by a thread. There must have been an air pocket alongside it because reddish pink dust dispersed into the air with great force. I found myself nearly caked in the residue as though I had been playing in the mud earlier. As I brushed off the dust from my person, I noticed the cries of gulls and eagles returning as though they came from across the Sound. The stream burbled back into existence, and crickets resumed their chirping. It dawned on me that sweat dripped from my brow, I was breathing like I had just come up for air, and my heart was pounding like a drum. I decided to conclude my walk as the charm of the discovery wore off, returning to my home by the creek where good roots grow.
A month later, at the Story-Telling house, I spoke with a shaman friend of mine about the site, describing the experience to him. I recounted the babbling runes, the strangeness of the rock wall, and the remarkable stone that I collected for my mother. I knew he was more well-travelled than I was, so I brought the stone with me to see if he could tell me anything about what it could
be. When I unveiled the stone; his eyes widened, revolting at the sight of the piece as though I presented him with the head of my latest kill during lunch. I understood that whatever it takes to shock a shaman is nothing but trouble, he confirmed my intuition by what he could croak out: “Throw it into the salt-water! Throw it so deep that it will never see sunlight again!”
I left the Story-Telling house and paddled my way out into the middle of the bay on my canoe, far from any other vessels. On the way, I prayed, sang my power songs, and put out of my mind the question of just what my shaman friend saw. I knew it would be better left unsaid, for while I have come across many strange and troubling sights, my experiences are no comparison to what shamans have encountered. When I reached the center of the bay, I hurled the rock into the cleansing salt-water, where it sank to such depths that sunlight was just a concept.