“I’ve known rivers. I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” Langston Hughes
The River of Life
Clickety-click. Clickety-click. The sounds of the train’s wheels came steady and even, a metronome marking the beats of a song. To and fro, to and fro, to and fro. The inertia of the movement gently rocked our bodies to its rhythm. Our compartment with its worn cloth seats was the first comfortable place we had been since we left Israel and I stretched my legs to capture the cool air flowing beneath my calves. We had started early the day before motoring from Tel Aviv through Taba, crossed the Sinai to the Gulf of Suez and headed north to the canal where we crossed and continued west into Cairo. There we boarded the train for our long journey down the Nile.
Yesterday’s travel had been through miles of echoing desert silence. Harsh and rocky surfaces bleached dry by thousands of years of baking sun flanked either side of the road that sliced through the desert’s breast. Little evidence of life was visible except for an occasional Bedouin tent encampment far beyond the road’s edge. Now, as we headed west it was as though we had entered another world. Here near the river’s edge and beyond as far as the eye could see the land became green and life began again.
Outside my sand-spattered train window the landscape and the life on it mirrored a time long past. Low palm-roofed houses, abandoned tractors rusting in the fields next to donkeys hitched with primitive plows. Modern technology abandoned for more familiar methods of working the fertile soil along the river.
Groups of women scrubbed the family wash on large rocks while naked babies slept nearby in baskets and children skipped stones that skimmed creating small uneven hiccups on the surface of their murky playground. Mile upon mile, I watched them launder, bathe, play and drink from its waters- this river of life. The Nile.
It’s like looking through The National Geographic, I thought, remembering when my brother and I as children would spend hours poring over its colorful pictures. In our imaginations with each turn of the page we traveled to strange exotic places we had never before seen. Only now, I was here and the reality of what I was witnessing was almost overwhelming, enveloped safely in my coach behind my window, trespassing, unnoticed, into the lives of a culture, familiar, yet so foreign to me.
My husband and I had spent great time preparing for this trip. Gathering brochures, scouring travelogues for information that would make our vacation run smoothly. Initially, we had just planned on visiting his relatives in Israel, spending the bulk of our time traveling and covering as much of the historical sights, but the more we researched, the more convinced we were to include Egypt on our itinerary.
Arthur had never been to Israel before and was looking forward to seeing his relatives and praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. I was realizing a life-long dream of visiting the sights where Jesus was supposed to have performed miracles. Our diverse religions and heritages, Judaic and Christian, would come together again as it had in our marriage. And now, here we were in Egypt, the second leg of our journey, traveling along the Nile by train.
I looked over at my husband sleeping soundly with his head facing away from the window’s light, his jaw slack and moving ever so slightly in cadence with his breathing. My son had gone to the club car to get our itinerary from the tour guide, his backpack was open and thrown carelessly across his empty seat. Just like a boy, I thought.
I suppose his father’s disappearance when he was still so young has made it twice as hard for me to realize that he is growing up, hard for me to let go. I’m so used to doing it all alone most of the time. Habit really is my worst competitor. Sometimes I feel like an octopus with tentacles stretched everywhere. Arthur was never married before and never had any children, but he has done well, considering. I’m still learning, even at this point.
“What?” Arthur said half asleep.
“Nothing Dear, I was talking to myself again. Go back to sleep.”
“What time is it?”
“Early,” I replied.
He closed his eyes, adjusted his sleeping position and his jaw ever so slightly dropped again. He was asleep.
I watched him and marveled at how he could sleep so easily. I was never able to sleep on anything moving. I don’t know why, but ever since I was a child it was so.
My, how being here brings back memories of my childhood. I hadn’t been on a train in years. I remember during the war we lived in Washington, D.C. and traveled by train to my grandparents’ home in Ohio. My father would always book a drawing room which consisted of several bunk beds and a lavatory. I would play games on the floor in the center of the room. When bedtime came, my father must have read me hours of stories trying to get me to sleep on those overnight trips westward through the Allegheny Mountains. Daddy would hold me on his lap and sing to me. I remember resting my head on his shirt and hearing the deep resonance of his voice through his chest. It was that soothing resonance that finally brought the Sandman.
I looked at my watch. Seven-thirty. I could let Arthur sleep a little longer, at least until Lee returns. I studied his handsome face, peaceful and relaxed. His fair skin had been tanned by the hot Israeli sun and accentuated the whiteness of his fine wavy hair. He really must have been so handsome when he was young, I thought with those blue eyes.
I turned toward the window and the passing landscape along the Nile wondering what powerful secrets and stories its waters held. God knows I was no stranger to secrets…..