Barton Pool: Still Life
Pre-dawn triptych: me, fog feathers and a great blue
heron the color of twilight. Beneath this wet paint, in deadfall
and arrowhead grass, dusky darters do-si-do with silversides.
Texas logperch in knotty pondweed. Blackstripe top minnows, redspotted
sunfish, yellowbellies, weedshiners. Flatheads. Gray redhorses
in swaying cabomba. All ignore me. I undress, step onto sharp pebbles.
South of the diving board, blind salamanders, endangered, cling
to life in limestone cracks below Parthenia Spring, named for a daughter
of William Barton. He charged admission. Fair Parthenia is history
like her sisters Eliza and Zenobia, though all three springs named
for the girls remain. Billy’s Beer and Barbecue thrives down the street
—his very name a coinbank still, though the man himself is gone.
Gone too great herds of bison pausing here to cool and slake, gone Apache,
gone Comanche, gone the meat and hides they took on hoof-stomped trails.
Gone the Tonkowa, whose spirit god drew back an arm and threw
a rainbow dart to summon forth these springs from solid rock.
Gone the friars from Spain, gone the governors of Mexico
welcoming show-biz Billy and his fellow Anglo pioneers. Gone
millers of flour and lumber along these banks, gone makers of ice. Gone
the preachers and gone the seekers they baptized by the score. Gone
the soldiers of the Great War who camped and bathed here, gone
to gunshot, Spanish flu, or gone, the lucky ones, to time. Gone
my father and my mother, who learned to swim here long ago.
Daily, from the board, I cast myself off. Slash the canvas. Shock
dives upward, burns through skin to blood to bone. I go somewhere
dark. I feel the cold, by which I know I’m still alive. I aim for light, break
the line: water, sky, water, sky. Stroke, stroke, stroke. I sip the air,
I dip and soar, a bird, a kite. The water silks my skin. It’s a lover
who lays his hands on every cell of me. It’s a mother
who cradles me inside her deepest lake, unborn and safe.
On my back, I spread arms to air and cloud and bare-limbed
oak. I float like the dead. I feel how small I am, small and still
enough to whisper prayers upon the wind. Where did you go?
The pale gray pool of sky stretches far and away. Mother? I cry.
I beg. For my children, my marriage, the widening
cave of me where darkness blooms. But you don’t come.
Champagne bubbles rise from slender plants. Oh! They also breathe.
This comforts me. The fog lifts. Regulars arrive for laps and dives. A woman
nails a perfect double flip. I clap. Easy, she says. I’ll teach you. I believe
her. We swim to the shallows, sink toes into shaggy moss, talk of salamander,
stoneheat, the love in our bones for this place. These springs, this world.
We speak in tongues. Long after we’re gone, she says, there will be
life here, still. I wave my arms. We are on the earth yet in the sky, and here
I stand, stirring one with my feet and the other with my hands.
My background is journalism, oral history & nonprofit, but my 2015 MFA from Pacific University changed everything. I’ve written every day since. My story “No Moon Night” was nominated for the 2019 Pen emerging writers prize and a Pushcart but it’s poetry I adore.
Barton Springs Blind Salamander drawing – Caitlin Jane Mattia, a student in the MFA program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago
I feel lucky to have swum twice in Barton Springs Pool while visiting Austin. It’s a magical spot, made even more magical by this beautiful poem.
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