The Levee

It is only looking back that things seem inevitable. People in the past were standing on the prow of history just like us, looking out into the darkness.

In 1539 or so, according to the years later applied here, if you’d seen Hernando de Soto along the Mississippi River—looked up from whatever you were doing—washing clothes, fishing, perhaps, and seen him and his men in the weathered boat they’d rowed up the Mississippi, you would have wondered why he was there. He would have looked quite out of place, with his crew in their mended clothes and ragged beards. A few men with faces burned by the sun and tattered clothes, dirty and unassuming. You might have been glad there were so few of them. You couldn’t have known that he’d be dead soon, and his men would bury him in the river.

Maybe you’d go home and describe what you’d seen, and everyone would talk it over and when the men didn’t come back you’d think, maybe hope, that they had vanished. But maybe you would also suspect, or intuit, or somehow know that you had glimpsed what some would later call a New World, a world in which almost everything you knew, except the river carrying its burdens, would be changed forever.

The sea has its ethics, and the right of salvage. The undiscovered country is yours. You come from a small place, a cramped place, where your best hope (as Cook’s would be, for nothing had changed even centuries later) is the open horizon at the edge of the sea. But you always leave ghosts. And the ghosts need a home.

About the author

After living ten years on a sailboat, Jessica Adams joined the English Department at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus. Her short…

Read the full bio

Issue 24 · Autumn 2021

Table of contents