A coracle is a one-person boat without a sail or rudder. It is light and small and made of willow rods and animal skins. Think round, like a lily pad, or a Frisbee, or a twenty-five pound walnut shell. Think three-month-old Moses floating in a papyrus laundry hamper until Pharaoh’s daughter fished him out of the Nile. Famously unstable, a coracle floats on the water rather than in it, making it vulnerable to the wind and currents. Centuries ago Irish monks like Brendan and Columba took to the seas in these flimsy vessels, trusting that they would survive the tempestuous waves. A few of the most zealous didn’t even take a paddle. Perhaps that was part of the attraction.
My son is in the Pacific Northwest camping with the woman he used to be in love with. Joel has posted the pictures on Facebook; I check them out more than a mother is supposed to do. Hunched like a giantess over my small laptop, I peer at their curated fun, scrolling through the images. Sky, trees, river. Click. Wood, whiskey, fire. Click, click. Tent, cup, clouds. Click, click, click.
The name Joel means “strong-willed” in Hebrew. There was a moment, helping him pack for the trip, when I realized he was already gone. Loading the musty tent into the trunk, the feather-leaking sleeping bag, the camp stove and coffee pot, I knew he was miles away, already down the road, deep into his own life. We raise our children to be independent. We tell them to get lost, to be brave, to strike out on their own. Then they have the nerve to do just that.
Pharaoh’s daughter isn’t named in the Book of Exodus. Even though she rescued Moses from the bulrushes and raised him as her own child, she barely gets a mention in the Old Testament. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t have a life.
Joel crouches by a frothing river, skipping stones. I can feel the solid rock in his hand, its cool surface spackling his palm. The sky is dark and dense, even though it’s the Fourth of July. The girl turns toward the camera with shining eyes, her fingers curled into claws. Her brown hair flies about her shoulders. Caption: “I’m a bear! Grrr!” Joel mugs too, arms splayed at his sides, mouth puckered. Caption: “I’m a salmon!” This is the girl who broke my son’s heart, who kept him crissing when he should have kept crossing. He holds a spatula in one hand and a beer in the other. Firelight plays over his tanned face. Salut.
I’m the mother back home, pacing in the living room, drinking coffee, stalking her kid on the computer. Seeing the camping pictures on Facebook floods me with a weird rush of envy. I want to skip stones from a riverbank too, wear an oversized wool shirt, drink moonshine by moonlight. Set me adrift, cut my line. I want time, days, nights, years of floating all over again.
Moses’ mother Jochebed put him in a coracle. She let him go. She had to. The Pharaoh, fearing a slave uprising, decreed that all male Hebrew babies should be put to death. Moses was three months old, too big to be hidden anymore. Moses whimpered a little in the basket. Jochebed’s heart gave a little twist. “Shh,” Jochebed said, then bit her lip. “Hush.” She bent down and placed the basket in the Nile and pushed it away with her big toe. Moses frowned up at her from the reeds. Then the wind stirred and he began to drift.
Joel is on the outskirts of Spokane, heading towards Montana. On the phone with his dad and me, he sounds tired. He’s ready to stop driving, to come home, but where is that? To sleep in a basement surrounded by boxes and old high school art projects? Jobless, unbound, his trip will prolong the inevitable.
I’ve never thought about where I was going. I don’t know if I caught the wave or the wave caught me. My life seems to have been a series of accidents, side trips and detours. I strayed, took short cuts, eschewed maps. I live by intuition and feeling. Small animals keep me warm. My hair is silver. I think of death and lighted Christmas trees with equal interest. When the streets flood, I worry about the woodchuck that lives in the culvert at the bottom of my driveway.
Moses was a late bloomer. When he accepted the mission to lead the Hebrews out of bondage, he was an old man—eighty years old. They knocked around lost in the desert for forty years. At the end of his life, atop of Mount Nebo and within sight of the Promised Land, he could gaze into this fabled, long-awaited country, but could not enter it. I would be bitter about this, but then Moses had a complicated relationship with God. To say the least.
I’m not good on the phone, but we talk anyway, my husband, son, and I, lassoed together by satellite. I imagine Joel driving across the monotonous brown plains, the western stars starting to come out, one by one, the sky turning deep navy. One time when he was little and mad at me, he said, “I always knew you’d turn out mean.” I had to leave the room to laugh. Now he’s saying, “I got to figure out a plan. I’ve got to do something.” Me too.
There isn’t a town that I pass through where I don’t wonder, what would it be like to live here? Is that a bad thing? To imagine so many other lives?
On one website, the coracle is described as “a personal boat.” You can carry a coracle on your shoulders like a rucksack and flip it into the water when you’re ready to go. I am not a monk or holy person. I don’t do yoga or meditate or go to church but let’s just say I’m open to the spirit. I would like to go on a pilgrimage, although I’m certainly nobody’s idea of a pilgrim. But leaving is difficult. I have five dogs and three cats. Who will love them while I’m gone? They are rescues, strays, rejects. With them, I’m a mother all over again. They don’t want me to leave. I imagine them lined up on the dock, looking anxious and forlorn. They require an ark, not a coracle.
Coracle comes from Welsh the word cwrwgl. It’s a storm-tossed word, potent, brimming with risk and danger and adventure. Scary things can happen out there on the water in a little Celtic boat. Rogue waves. Exposure. Radical dread. Tempests. Loneliness. Exquisite blackness. There are sharks out there the size of VW buses knifing through the water clean as butter and whistling orcas and temperamental clouds. Also stillness, starlight, sunsets, and songs.
I don’t have a map or a compass. I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know what time it is, only that it’s very late. I’ve dropped my cell phone and misplaced my glasses and can’t find my yellow slicker. The weather is shifty and the landmarks keep changing and the sea is running fast. Better to stay put and wave from shore. But I want a coracle, Flying Teacups, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, a sailing suitcase, a portable dream.
I can feel the miles in the pictures Joel has posted. Colorado’s red rocks. Oklahoma’s dusty hills. Dust storms in Arizona, hail in New Mexico. Clouds. Sunlight. Telephone poles. School buses and cafes, tumbleweeds and road kill. All that silence, all that space.
It’s settled. I’m going. Unplug the coffee pot. Pack a life vest. Pack a seat cushion. Pack Dramamine. Unpack drama. Pack heat. Pack light. Pack a black velvet flying carpet that can skirt above the waves. Pack an escape clause. Unpack excuses.
Your own personal boat is waiting on the shore. Drag it the water’s edge. Wade through the bulrushes. Step into it. Settle down. Find your balance. Take a breath. What are you waiting for? Grab a paddle. Push off. Everybody in this story gets a name.
Leaving doesn’t solve the problem of loneliness. It doesn’t make grieving or getting old or losing love any easier. How far to the Promised Land? When do we get there? Measure the distance in heartbeats, wave lengths, paddle strokes. Navigate by starlight, study how it shimmers on the wet backs of the whales. In coracle dreams, we are all going someplace new.
- D’Arcy Fallon teaches journalism and creative writing at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. Her memoir, So Late, So Soon, published by Hawthorne Books, was about living in a remote Christian fundamentalist commune in Northern California. Her essays have been published in a number of venues, including The Sun and North Dakota Quarterly.