"Listen!" her grandmother had used to say whenever they had been out walking and had come close to a stream.
And Ava would ask, "Listen to what, nan?"
"Listen to the voices of the water," the old woman would whisper, covering Ava’s eyes with her hand. "One day you might be able to understand what they are saying. Listen carefully but know when to turn away."
And so it was not as if Ava had not been warned. But she had grown up and realized that the voices of the water were nothing more than the gargling of a brook, the rushing of a river, amplified and distorted by the silence of nature and the rise and fall of the landscape to resemble human voices. And after her grandmother’s death, she did not even think of her river stories for years until she found herself walking into the Swedish fjäll.
Already from far, she could hear the roaring of the stream which raced down from the mountains overflowing with meltwaters. It was then that her grandmother’s words came back to her and she smiled not knowing whether they had been nothing more than stories to amuse a child of if her grandmother had actually believed them. Old folks were sometimes strange like that.
It was only just the beginning of the hiking season and apart from a young couple with a dog Ava crossed no other hiker. In the evening, she set up her tent and made a fire, then sat down at the riverbank with a cup of tea and dipped her toes into the ice cold water with no company but her own and that of the summer’s first mosquitoes. As she looked into the churning floods, she felt her mind calm down and come to rest for the first time in what seemed like years. Her gaze soon became lost in the flowing of the river, the reflections of the sun on the water, its depth, its smoothness, the turbulences caused by rocks on the riverbed. Time dissolved. The birch trees that grew along the stream faded. Even the high-pitched buzzing of the mosquitoes grew silent.
It was only when the sun moved behind a mountain summit and a cold shadow fell upon Ava that she tore her eyes away from the water and went to sleep. It was a deep and restful sleep filled with the song of the river.
The path she continued on the next morning led her away from the water. Yet, for a long time she could still hear it growing ever fainter until silence took over. With every step Ava ventured deeper into the fjäll. At the top of a hill, she cast one last glance at the lake by the train station where she had arrived – now already far in the distance, then turned towards the mountains that faded to blue at the horizon. On she walked into a valley where patches of snow still endured, where willows which barely reached half-way up to her knee were in bloom, where a carpet of water covered the ground.
The mountains around her reached into the sky; softened and rounded by old age and ice. Like sleeping giants waiting for the old gods to return which Ava knew from her grandmother’s stories. And even the mountains were shouting water that cascaded down their slopes. Here, surrounded by rock and sky, Ava stopped and felt small and endless at the same time.
It was that evening, when she sat up her camp, that Ava heard the voices for the first time. To her it sounded like a conversation that echoed over to her from somewhere further down the trail. Yet, when she squinted into the sunlight to spot the hikers on the path, no one was there. The trail was empty and remained so. After a moment of waiting, Ava shrugged – surely, they had set up camp somewhere where she could not see them, and really, it was better that way.
During the night, she awoke to the sound of the same voices. Closer this time. But when she zipped open the entrance of the tent, no one was to be seen. Judging by the low sun it was a little after midnight, perhaps one in the morning, yet, unable to fall asleep again, Ava decided to pack and continue to walk.
As she made her way through the valley, it was as if she could feel the mountain giants observing her. And all throughout the day, the sound of the distant, unintelligible voices was surging and subsiding with the wind and the bends of the trail. Ava started to get used to them; they became a part of the fjäll as much as the mountains and boulders, the reindeer and lichen and the Midnight Sun. And she began to listen.
It was not a listening in the ordinary sense. Not with the ears and the mind, but with the soul. A listening that leads to an understanding that cannot be repeated with words because it is more profound, more instinctive. It was the beginning of a slow process of becoming aware.
When Ava set up camp that night, she was almost in eye sight of the stream again. It flowed past the still and silent stone only a little further downhill. And so, Ava headed to the riverside to refill her water bottles. Large boulders sat in the middle of the stream, smoothed and polished by eons of water running around and over it.
"Water is patient. Water can wait." She could hear her grandmother’s words in her mind so clearly as if the old woman was standing next to her speaking them in this very moment. "You see this rock over there, Ava-child? It once was sharp and rough, but see how it has become smooth and round. Not by brute force but by gentle touch and time."
Holding her bottles, Ava plunged her hands into the river, the water was gentle indeed. It continued to flow undisturbed, taking barely any notice of the human kneeling at its waterfront, and yet pulling and nudging ever so slightly. In the short time it took to fill the bottles, Ava’s hands almost went numb from the cold. And yet, she dipped her fingers back into the river to feel the resistance and flow of the current. And the river began to murmur to her. It whispered and sang. And Ava listened. Soon she was able to tell apart the different voices of the water, and to understand.
They were old and they were young, they were ancient. They were calm and wild, reassuring, enticing. They laughed. They teased. They told secrets and stories. They wept and they screamed. And Ava pulled her hands out of the water, grabbed her bottled and hurried back uphill.
She did not sleep that night but watched the sun disappear and reappear behind the mountains while feeding a small fire with branches and twigs she found around her campsite. Meanwhile, the river called out to her. Throughout the night she could hear its song, its ever-changing melody that it hummed just for her. But Ava stayed by the fire repeating the words her grandmother had spoken when she had been a child. Over and over again she whispered them to herself.
"Know when to turn away."
"Know when to turn away."
"Listen but know when to turn away."
"Listen but know…"
Sleep was creeping up on her and the pale shadows cast by the night sun began to blur and move. So, Ava stood to gather more firewood and shake off the tiredness. Half sleepwalking she let her feet carry her in whichever direction they chose and eventually found herself down by the river which gurgled contently.
Its voices welcomed her, greeted her as one of their own. Ava barely noticed the cold as she took off her hiking boots and waded into the water.
'Like so many before,' she thought. 'Like so many yet to come.’
The pebbles under her bare feet dug into her skin. She almost slipped and fell on one of the larger rocks but regained her balance. She made it close to the center of the river when the current finally won and quickly dragged her under. Countless arms embraced her, countless voices welcomed her home. And Ava smiled as she became one with the river and her voice joined the water calling out for wanderers who are alone and willing to listen.
Story and cover photo by Merle Emrich.