I wanted to live by the river. The urge settled in quickly, wordless and strong, as soon as I accepted that I would have to find a new home. And the river – the White River, running through my hometown where I would be living again – was where I needed to be. I needed to be near something wild for the hard times to come. And rivers, wherever they flow, are ribbons of wildness.
I pored over houses for rent, but was unable to find one directly on the banks of the White River. So I settled for a bungalow a short distance from the Monon Trail, the greenway leading directly to the river several blocks to the north. I could walk there easily.
The first time I did was on the fourth of July. Two months earlier, I had been visiting my family from my Idaho home when my husband unexpectedly messaged to tell me he wanted a divorce. I decided to stay in Indiana, where I had a job, and a family, and a support system. My almost-ex-husband had flown in for the holiday to see our son. My five-year-old and I had been together constantly for the last six weeks. I should have welcomed the break, but I was ambivalent about it.
For the first time in nearly two months, I realized, I was absolutely and globally alone. Everyone else in the known universe was enjoying a family holiday but me; I was by myself, cut loose and alienated from everything. A year earlier I had been with my family and friends in Glacier National Park. A year later, I would be backpacking in West Virginia, entwined in the heat of new love. This year was a miserable in-between, a time of no longer being who I was, but not yet who I would become. I was unmoored from every marker of identity I had – almost.
When I was no longer able to tolerate the silence in my newly rented house that holiday afternoon, I clipped the leash on the dog and walked out the door. It was time to visit the river. We crossed the busy road at the end of our quiet little street, cut through an apartment complex, and got on the Monon Trail. The morning had been uncharacteristically chilly for early July, but now the sun was out. Humidity was gathering in the warming air. Bicycles and roller-bladers zipped by us, but Thomas and I kept a steady, rhythmic pace. Only by walking could I get a step or two ahead of the ever-present constriction in my chest, the pain and bewilderment briefly receding.
The Monon Trail led us through Broad Ripple village first. Married couples with small children roamed the sidewalks, free of work and care for the holiday. The pinch in my chest caught up with me. Those people were who I used to be. I had been tucked snugly into a small family. What was my life now? Who was I?
It would be a long time before I discovered that I was an independent person pursuing her own life, an identity I would be as reluctant to shed later as I was to relinquish “married mom in an intact nuclear family” on that day in July. But I had no such clarity of self as I walked through the sea of happy families that day; I only knew I felt discarded and erased.
I picked up my pace to get in front of the pain again. For a short time, the trail became wooded, the trees shutting out the encroaching urban environment on both sides of the asphalt. The air became dense and humid with the trapped respirations of tree leaves. But only a few steps later, the trail opened abruptly out onto the broad White River and a bright red metal bridge over the water. Breezes crossed freely there, dispersing the thickness of the air and cooling my face.
In the middle of the bridge, on either side, were two small, semi-circular viewing platforms jutting out over the water. We stepped out onto the platform facing downstream. Thomas tilted his nose upward to catch the musky smells of the river. Below us, a few ducks bobbed on the surface of the water, periodically diving for plants, their feathered butts pointed toward the sky. I scanned the river for anything of interest.
Thirty or forty feet off the platform, I saw a turtle swimming downstream, just under the surface, then another, and another, and several more after those. I squinted and took a closer look. There appeared to be a small exodus of turtles headed downstream, all of them paddling intently in a single direction.
It was a turtle army.
I thought briefly how my own private army – of whatever species – might be useful at that point in my life. And for a few minutes, I got one. I imagined my turtle army fanning out in the river, protecting me. For a moment, I was no longer untethered. I was the Commander of the Army of the Shelled, and Thomas my faithful lieutenant. How bad could a world really be that served up turtle armies on the Fourth of July? For a split second, I felt like I might be ready for the uncertainties of the future. Me and this army, that’s who.
I knew that freshwater turtles like this don’t really travel in groups, and that the appearance of the Turtle Army was likely coincidence. They do bask in groups, though, and it wasn’t surprising that there would be a number of them in the river at once on such a warm day, heading for some choice spot downstream. But none of that mattered. For five minutes on a painful day, I’d had a turtle army.
The turtle army didn’t save my dying marriage, or numb the pain of its passing. But it stayed with me, and carried me a little on that first lonely holiday. This, I know now, is why I wanted to live on the river: That’s where the helpers are. That’s where the turtle armies live.
Thomas and I stood on the platform for several long minutes, watching them swim out of sight. When they were gone, we turned and took the path south again, toward home, and all that was to come.