We walked down the stripe of new pavement on the grassy hillside where so much of our childhoods had been spent. I told her of a restaurant I had been to, built high in the trees, overlooking running water. All the waiters were members of some sect. They wore orange robes and moved silently on sandals, pretending not to hear the unholy things I said. The only light was from candles, and the food was very good. She said that I must take her there some day, and I said that I would, though I knew the restaurant had closed long ago. She began a complaint about some charitable organization that had withheld support from one of the weird causes she was always marginally involved with. The circumstances were complicated and made little sense. Probably she had it all wrong, that's the way it usually was with Doris, but there was no point in arguing. What was wrong with her was not in a few facts or words here and there to be corrected, it was in all the words she had, beyond all correcting, and so you said "Oh, Doris," or you set your lips and said nothing.
We came to the stream that ran behind the gymnasium of our old elementary school. She turned right, toward the playing fields where the stream ran among tall willows. I walked upstream, where the near-dry creek ran through mossy beds under old firs, remembering how it foamed and roared in the springtime, when the rains came down unending for days.
As soon as school got out, we boys would rush to the creek to build dams. Beginning with a few stones or some tree limbs dug into the bank, we would pile on sticks and mud and gravel, whatever debris came to hand, til a big, swirling pool began to form. Always the dam leaked somewhere, and the rising water would find the leak and pour through it. Shouting with excitement, we would rush to patch the leak while a new one started somewhere else. Our voices rose to the urgent pitch of soldiers as we strove against the stream, holding it back, desperately repelling each fresh assault til at last the mass of pent water became too great. With a soft, rushing sound, gentle as a sigh, the creek would shrug off our creation, carrying the whole primitive structure down the swollen stream on a single, great wave, one great laugh of water. Discarding our broken dam among the pussy willows, the wave would continue on down the creek, crashing like a breaker across the road below the playground, leaving a wonderful calm in its wake. We would stand and watch for a long time, long after our wave had passed from sight, til at last the steady falling of the rain made us stir ourselves and look at one another. The force of the dam's bursting could move big stones anchored deep in the creekbed, or shatter the timbers we stole from building sites, long two-by-fours you could lay across the creek and bounce on. That the element we opposed could break these beams was marvelous and frightening. We would survey the wreckage, conferring in the serious tones of children. Then we would start a new dam, behind which the water would rise a little higher before something cracked or warped or shifted and the thick, spreading wave washed down the hillside.
We never discussed the goal of our efforts: There was no need to. We built the dams. The water broke them. We could never defeat the stream, because the longer we fought it, the stronger it grew. Thus our sense of purpose was complete, enabling us to function as a perfect team in which everyone shouted orders and no one obeyed them. At dusk we would go to our separate homes, exhausted and muddy, already planning the next day's disasters.
Now, in late summer, the stream was hardly there. The wide winter bed, too wide for a boy to jump across, was deep in grass and trillium and skunkweed. Queen Anne's lace hovered over the stream like a fog in the shaded places, while blackberries grew deep green and impenetrable where the sun shone. The foaming, muddy torrent of spring had become quiet and thoughtful, all its vigor sucked up by the heat and the arching vines. In other years, we had laid boards deep into the thicket and filled buckets with the sweet berries. No one had picked the blackberries this year. They sagged in dull clusters, overripe and beestung, ready to fall at a touch. I wanted to pick one, but I knew it would be tasteless, tiny seeds floating in a watery paste, slightly sweet. The thought made the front of my mouth water, as if I were about to spit.
I awoke then, on a working day, in the winter of a distant city. For a while I lay in the sweet pain that memories of summer can bring when one is not quite awake on a winter morning. "Wasted blackberries," I thought, "Wasted blackberries in a dream," and my mind filled with the blue of summer skies and the smell of the first drops of warm rain falling onto hot dust. It was only then that I recalled who had walked there with me, before she turned downstream. I had meant, in my dream, to go back for her, and continue our walk and our uneven conversation. My poor sister, always so unhappy, always getting it wrong. Now she was dead, seven long summers dead, and I had grown on til her memory was smooth and round as the stones in among the moss on the creek bed. I had meant to go back, but I became intent upon the stream, on that summer afternoon I lusted after the stream as only a child can lust after something simple and easy as a stream. I had spent all my mourning on the stream, and on the wasted blackberries of a long-ago summer.