"The highest excellence is like [that of] water. The excellence of water appears in its benefiting all things, and in its occupying, without striving [to the contrary], the low place which all men dislike. Hence [its way] is near to [that of] the Tao"
- Tao Te Ching
"Know ye then, O Sons of Science, there are seven bodies, of which gold is the first, the most perfect, the king of them, and their head, which neither the earth can corrupt nor fire devastate, nor the water change, for its complexion is equalised..."
- The Golden Tractate of Hermes Trismegistus
"The Water Rat was restless, and he did not exactly know why"
- The Wind in the Willows
"It's old bones, they feel the weather change."
He looks up at the sky, bright with autumn sunshine and the perfect fluffy clouds. I see in his eyes the reflection of countless childhood skies, and the memory of years of falling, golden leaves. The river is high, even for autumn, and the first birch leaves have already formed a mat by the far bank.
He shifts his weight, and licks his lips. I watch as he gazes across the path. The breeze blows another few leaves down the track, and the grass-stalks wave a farewell to them. The westering sun warms the timeworn brickwork railway hut, and I strive to warm my skin, slowly losing the battle against the wind. All along the waterside the reeds move, like an ancient army, their rusty swords scraping against one another in some bizarre salute to the weary dead. The bench seat creaks.
He's seen some time, this man. He has the weather-beaten look of a timeserved fisherman, or farmworker. I look down at his earth-brown hands, clutching the knob of his walking stick, and look at my own. There's no comparison. Skinny and pink, mine are; Mum used to call them "artist's hands".
I play my train game, and try to guess what I can about him. Despite gravity taking its toll on old bones and joints, he still holds his head up. His shoes, though old, are brightly polished, just the slightest film of dust from his walk up the path. He wears an old suit, and a tie, but most of all, he has a look - a look in his eye, an expression which says "I've seen things, I have". I mentally place a bet on military service.
"Did you ever read The Wind in the Willows?" Now he's turned again, to face me.
"I still have a copy I had for Christmas, Nineteen Sixty-One."
I weighed those years in my mind. I'd been five, it was a gift from my Uncle. It's well read, and I think that if the house were on fire, it would be one of the two things I'd take with me.
"It's that time of the year, you see. The swallows are already migrating, squirrels collecting their winter store. The Rat felt it too. Still gets me." He looks up, and into the sun. "Everything changes. except the river. The river just stays here, and the fish."
"And the ducks", I venture.
"Aye, and the ducks."
It is all true. I feel the same in my own bones. The feel of the air changes, the smells are different, and something is drawing me somewhere. But I know that the river will still be here, swollen by the autumn rains, the path will be covered in the finest red-gold of the fallen leaves, and the mallards will still dive for waterweed. Sadly, unlike the squirrels and the swallows, I have no instinct that tells me where to go.
I say my farewells to the old man and turn back toward the railway bridge, and the sound of the traffic. A solitary mallard by the path opens its eyes and pulls its beak from under its wing. I stop and crouch near to it. Why don't you fly away? He makes no answer but a shake of his iridescent head and a slight raise of its feathers.
The answer is in the water. This river is unlikely to freeze over, there will still be food. The Tao does not tell the ducks to move. The ducks have their food, their homes, they are ready to make a new brood again in the new year. The river will flow from its source to the sea, as it has done in all time. A sudden chill takes me, a gilded leaf briefly eclipses the sun, and I walk on.
The river behind me will not move from its bed, but will be a different river every moment as the water itself moves. You can't cross the same river twice, I think, but shoulder my pack and carry on walking, and wonder if I will return in the Spring.