Carried through many nations and over many seas,
I arrive, brother, for these wretched funeral rites
so that I might present you with the last tribute of death
and speak in vain to silent ash
Since Fortune has carried away from me you in the flesh.
Alas, poor brother, unfairly taken away from me,
now in the meantime, nevertheless, these things which in the ancient custom of ancestors
are handed over as a sad tribute to the rites
received, dripping much with brotherly weeping.
And forever, brother, hail and farewell.

— Catullus 101

The Potamoi

My brother, Bob, and his friends, brothers Tim and John Vogel, had planned to spend the weekend canoeing and kayaking the Rappahannock River. The river would grant views of farmland where Civil War skirmishes had been fought and the dense green spaces of wildlife management areas. As they approached, warning signals would spread as beavers slapped their tails and kingfishers gave rattled calls. These young men, ages eighteen to twenty-two, knew that once they passed the confluence of the Hazel River, the water would get a little rough and tumbly, but they could take it easy until then.

The log jam would be a surprise. A mere two hundred feet upstream from where the rivers joined, a massive pileup against a small bridge was hidden around a sharp bend. The river dropped several feet as it poured through a narrow aperture. There would not be time for a canoe to maneuver toward the bank. A canoe coming around that wooded bend was going to go through it.

It was a Friday, and that evening my best friend Page was spending the night. We were watching “The Howling,” the eighties werewolf film, on TV and we were primed for fright. We were sure that Page’s parents’ wouldn’t approve and that added to our pleasure. Mom and Dad sat a few feet away in their respective chairs. They were impervious to the playful noises of teens--they had raised four children before me--and we did not disturb them. Mom was reading a murder mystery and dad, a western. In the fiction we were each absorbing, people were dying. It’s a wonder we had no presentiment of what had happened earlier that day.

The doorbell rang. A commercial was on, so I used the moment to expel my horror movie- induced dithers. “I’ll get it,” and I bounced across the few feet of living room, acting clownish.

I opened the door and there he stood, in his dark uniform, hat in hand, bearing the worst possible news. The police officer didn’t give it to me. I was only sixteen. He asked for my parents. My father hadn’t heard the officer, but he sensed that my muscles had tensed and my breathing had stilled. He was there in a split second. My mother hovered behind him, her book on the floor.

“Is this the Parks’ residence?”


“Are you Robert Parks’ father?”


“There's been an accident. This afternoon, your son Robert’s canoe overturned in the Rappahannock River. He went under and he didn’t resurface. They haven't found him yet. Divers went in, but they ran out of daylight. They’ll resume searching in the morning.”

What biological mechanism allows for such a sudden change in perception and physiology? The room dimmed, objects acquired greater density, hearts slowed as if pumping treacle. Our small house became a vessel in an alternate reality. In an instant, we were not the same people. In that instant, we were bereft. It would become a chronic condition.

We stood for a moment trying to assimilate the news and then mom sank onto the piano bench. Dad mobilized. The only remedy for his panic was action. He gestured for the officer to come in. He got on the phone to my brother Bill, but then he couldn’t speak. He asked the officer to explain the situation. He called my sisters, Sharyn and Dianne, who were each a state or two away and then cousin Jack to help immediately. I was sent to fetch my aunts and uncles who lived across the street.

Page and I sprinted as if loosed out of the starting gate of a terrible race. My thoughts were delirious. Through running, I knew that I could somehow determine the outcome of my brother's life or death. I pumped my legs and yelled back to Page, “Look at the stars tonight. Aren’t they beautiful? He can’t possibly be dead with the stars like that.” I knew that Bob looked at them for hours every time there was a clear sky, despite cold temperatures or an early class the next morning. With so much investment, I couldn’t fathom how they could exist without him. If he was dead, then they should be too. We knew their names and the mythical origins of their names. I looked up and appealed to them. My running channeled this plea. I felt momentarily exuberant, as if I had been heard, but then Page and I were banging on doors. Porch lights came on. Urgency overcame my senses. My relatives’ shock filled me with dread. My connection to the universe were severed. We called Page’s parents to come fetch her. I called my brother’s mentor, his old Latin teacher (my current one at the time). She lit a candle for him and prayed in an ancient tongue. It was all we could think to do. The men organized a search party and the women tried to comfort my mother. Bill and his wife Sarah had immediately packed the kids into the car and driven home from Pittsburgh. He and Dad were at the river by dawn. I wanted to go, but they wouldn't let me. Better to go than wait. I couldn’t bear waiting. Dad called to tell us that the search was continuing. My sisters arrived and they took me with them to the site. Sharyn, the eldest, kept saying that if the water was cold enough, if we could find Bob immersed, we might be able to resuscitate him. It was a false but necessary hope. We walked through a muddy field and sometimes we sank in up to our calves. It took time to work our way to the bank and we arrived as the divers were taking one last plunge. Nothing came of it. The current was strong and the water murky. They packed up their gear and we stood there, entreating. The fireman, policemen, and rescue workers looked at us helplessly. Someone in the family had suggested that Bob could have hit his head, but still climbed out. He might be wandering in the woods with amnesia. Search parties were organized and dispatched just in case. They would look for a few days. We looked longer.

We walked the river bank daily hoping to find something. Marks in the mud where someone might have struggled out of the water, branches broken holding the telltale clue, a bit of torn cloth. At first, I walked with my brother Bill and a few family members, cousins mostly. Then friends and classmates helped. There was one snowy day when we split up into teams to cover each bank up and downstream. I was on the south bank following the current where the river pitched over large rocks. There was detritus from floods stuck in the trees above my head. I grabbed the sundered leg of an aluminum chair and beat it against a trunk, dislodging the sand stuck inside. I kept beating long after it had emptied. Finally, it was just John and I looking as others had to return to jobs and other responsibilities. We walked through a change in the season. We tripped over roots and climbed over boulders and bruised ourselves. Sometimes we talked about how Bob had rambled near these banks, his metal detector in hand, looking for Civil War bullets and buckles or if in a fanciful mood, gold. Mostly, we were silent. We forced ourselves to look for a shadowed mass in the water. We did not find him.

My family and I alternated between hope and despair. One of us always kept within earshot of the phone in the kitchen. When it rang, we didn’t dare breathe. It was usually someone calling to check on us or to hear any news. There was no news. Waiting is exhausting work.

That unseasonably warm February 24th when the Vogel boys pulled into our driveway with the canoe and kayak strapped to the roof of their car, Bob grabbed his pack and a sleeping bag and flashed me a Clark Gable grin. He had on jeans and a flannel shirt and my birthday present strapped to his leg, a knife that would be handy at campsites. A bandana was tied around his head, fixing his glasses into place. I sat on the hill above the driveway watching them rearrange items in the car. You could tell they were excited and I was a little jealous that I wasn’t included in the adventure. I had to hold onto the family dog, Scotty, a ninety-five pound collie, as he tried to climb in with them. He whined. Just as they were about to pull away, Scotty broke free and jumped at the door. We thought it was funny that he was so anxious to go along. Tim took the first turn in the kayak and Bob and John followed in the canoe. A few hours later, they rounded a wooded bend and found an immense log jam straining against a small bridge. Tim guided the kayak onto the bank, but the canoe couldn’t maneuver away from it in time. It went through and flipped. John surfaced. He looked around as Tim looked on and they saw Bob for a moment, his head bloodied, and then he was gone. One dove in to look for him and the other ran to the nearest farm for help.

The night before, Bob had been tickling me. “Did you read The Metamorphoses all the way through?” “Yes yes yes.” He was prepping me for the Virginia Junior Classical League Convention’s mythology test. Apollo and Daphne, Actaeon, Arachne, and Icarus. Easy peasy. A nymph escaping rape by becoming a laurel tree, a man turned into a stag and hunted as punishment for voyeurism, a mortal turned into a spider for beating a goddess in a weaving contest, a prideful youth flying too close to the sun. On the river, Bob had been sitting on his life jacket. I’ll never know why he tempted the Fates--Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos--but his life was now spun, measured, and cut. Ceyx drowned and his beloved Alcyone found his body on the shore. She beat her breasts in agony and tore her garments and the gods turned the couple into kingfishers. Kingfishers and the drowned are inextricable in my mind.

We devised new ways of searching. Bill and Tim went to a psychic who worked with the police. They took Bob’s wallet and a map of the river. The psychic referred to Bob as dead, exhibiting a head wound, and in the company of two women. These women fit the description of my deceased grandmother and a comatose aunt. I didn’t know what to think about that. The woman of sight made three “X”s on the map. “His body is here,” she said. Divers were given instructions, but the weather fouled their attempts. By then, perhaps, his body had moved again, the river unwilling to relinquish him.

Three months after my brother disappeared we received the call. A park ranger had been walking along the bank after a heavy rain and she had found a body, or what was left of one, in a sand bar. It was being transported to the hospital. Could my dad come and identify it? Dad called Bill again and they went. When they returned, my dad held a knife in his outstretched hand. It posed a question. I nodded. The stone handle was unmistakable. It had still been strapped to his leg. Dental records were being sent to authenticate my brother’s identity, but we already had confirmation.

We had something to do now. Funeral arrangements.

My brother, Bob, died in the Rappahannock River near the small town of Remington, Virginia. The Rappahannock is from the Algonquian word, lappihanne, meaning “river of quick, rising water.” At the time, it had been fed by a week of rain. Sixty-foot oaks had been undermined by flooding waters and pulled downstream. Animals had fallen in and drowned and their carcasses caught on snags. For years, farm machinery, old appliances, and cars had been dumped into deep holes. Barbed wire torn from fences tangled organic matter and iron into underwater encumbrances. One had jealously held my brother in its embrace.

I fantasized that Bob had metamorphosed into a water bird, perhaps a green heron. Every time I see a kingfisher, I wonder, maybe? Or, more likely, was he eaten by fish and living through them now. Did birds swoop and eat the fish? Were particles of him absorbed by river plants? If the river is all of these things, did my brother now constitute the river? Nothing of him that doth fade, But doth suffer a sea-change, Into something rich and strange. One day the cycle will be complete and he will return to star dust. Welcome company for him.