By Ken Strickland

No Muse-poet grows conscious of the Muse
except by experience of a woman
in whom the Goddess is to some degree resident;
just as no Apollonian poet can perform his proper function
unless he lives under a monarchy or a quasi-monarchy.
A Muse-poet falls in love, absolutely, and his true love
is for him the embodiment of the Muse…

But the real, perpetually obsessed Muse-poet
distinguishes between the Goddess as manifest in the supreme power,
glory, wisdom and love of woman,
and the individual woman
whom the Goddess may make her instrument…

The Goddess abides;
and perhaps he will again have knowledge of her
through his experience of another woman…

Robert Graves
*                             *                          *
There’s a river gorge that exists on the far side of Reality Ridge in the deep and verdant mountains where I sometimes paddle. It sees few human visitors–either afoot or in boats—since its recesses are well hidden, even from those who pour over their late night, beer stained maps searching out those serpentine lines that denote esoteric watercourses in a headlong rove to the sea. Here majestic trees stand sentinel, except where the walls of the gorge hold sway and exile the primeval forest into estranged bonsai gardens on the rocky ledges.

The river has a name, but I’ll not reveal it. It births forth from the gathering of two steams in a pool where gyres a marvelous spiral, the spiral’s center the nexus of inspiration from all that is wild and grand with the interpretation shining sentient entities place upon those things. Some will find this place with a little searching, while others might not find it at all.

Sometime back I had a friend drop me off at one of the tributary streams on the headwaters of this fabled river and I told him to pick me up in the late of the day at the downstream bridge known as Harmonia Crossing.

The first mile or so of this tributary is a rock-joggle of sorts, that is until the increase of several other creeks spawn a full-fledged (yet fraught with stony argument) pathway down to the gorge.

I ran several miles of this challenging river until I came to the section known as The Imbroglio, a long and unrun rapid that is portaged along a goat trail high above the river–portaged by even those extreme creekfreeks who sometimes make it there. Oral history has it that the first boater to see this section gave it the name after looking at the long and complex rapid that had many, many routes down a maze-like course, several of them seemingly safe but leading into dead-end sieves. He often referred to the story of Ariadne’s Thread from Greek Mythology when describing it and was sometimes heard to say: “You’d need a magic boat and a red fleece thread from an Ariadne to follow before you’d make it through that dreadful place alive!” Some say there was certainly more to that story since at its conclusion he often fell into a faraway gaze as if gathering expounding thoughts, but if there was anything more, he never shared it. He returned often—it was said he became obsessed with the run, or something about it—but he never ran the Imbroglio to anyone’s knowledge.

That day I eddied out in the large pool at the top of the entrance to the chasm and was preparing to make my way to the portage trail when I saw her.

It was strange seeing such a beautiful being in such a back of beyond place, sitting there upon a large boulder, lotus-posed like some visage of Saraswati, and all the while combing her long, artist fingers through her hair, straightening the twisted tresses in much the same way the spirals and swirls of the river are unfurled by cant into an aspect of flowing grace.

“Are you a mermaid or siren,” I asked in a giddy tone.

“Neither,” she answered matter-of-factly. “Just another river gypsy chilling and soaking up some ephemeral sunrays in a spectacular place.

“And musing some tunes,” she added.

I noticed a drybag and a small guitar resting upon it next to her kayak. Also sitting nearby were a throwbag with some errant coils of a red throw rope showing from its top, and a bottle of green tea.

Then she lifted the guitar and played a strikingly beautiful melody as patterns of sunlight reflected off the nearby pool and danced like bejeweled notes all around the walls of the natural amphitheater.

“My God!” I exclaimed. “That was dazzling!”

“Thanks,” she replied. “I love it here in this place—the sound of the water, the smooth rocks, and the warming glints of sun at the day’s zenith–it’s all so inspirational and soul-soothing.”

I’m a firm believer that there are bewitching and wondrous entities that walk among us who are of another world, or at least from some undefined and lofty dimension of our own, and for lack of a better name, I will simply refer to them as Goddesses. And there was no doubt in my mind that at that place and time I was in the presence of a Goddess!

But I didn’t want to impose or invade her space so I shouldered my kayak in preparation to carry the long, unrunnable section of the gorge.

“Well, I hate to interrupt your reverie—and I’ve enjoyed your music immensely–but I’m toting this one,” I said. “Mind if I pass by?”

“I don’t mind at all… but it is runnable, you know… that is if you understand certain things,” she said in a whimsical tone that seemed to imply that she held a secret but might be willing to share it if I would but stay and listen.

I paused and gazed upon her again—as if I needed an excuse to linger–and it was then that I realized something special was beginning to unfold. Still, I had to question what she had just said so I lowered my kayak and replied:

“Runnable? This section? It’s never been run before that I know of, and I know some rad-dudes who push the limits and have been in here–are you sure about that?”

She began again to play her guitar, the piece being one I didn’t recognize; it had a very complex, fast, and mesmerizing tune—one that involved fret tapping and percussive finger thumps on the guitar body and sleight pauses—an opus from another realm.

“Oh, yes! It’s been run before–by me!” She declared, her words fitting as lyric in concert with her music. A beautiful smile graced her face; she was no doubt amused at the effect her statement had on me. She then paused, rested the guitar on her lap, and through spellbinding emerald-green eyes looked directly at me and said: “You must think of this gorge as you would music to be played. Yes, it is complex and there are some highly dissonant notes to avoid–notes that would be quite unharmonious with terrestrial life in fact—but it can be done. You just have to be able to read and play the secret music!”

With that she placed the small guitar back into the drybag and began to don her paddling gear.

“You can follow me, if you’d like,” she said. “I know the river’s secret music quite well. You can think of it as my placing your fingers in the correct places on the guitar’s fingerboard or perhaps like a piano teacher would guide the fingers of a child across the ivory keys. Of course we’ll be moving much faster than any of that and there will be no margin for that dissonant note, so you must quickly feel the music within and not play it by rote.”

“Thanks, but I think it’s still best I carry this one,” I answered. I shouldered my kayak and began the sketchy trek down the narrow shelved etching in stone that served as a portage trail. I soon came to a high section of trail that afforded a good vantage point to witness her solo run through the heinous riddle of stone, gradient, and water that had confounded and intimidated all that had passed this way before, and I paused at that spot.

Perhaps at this juncture I should expound upon the features of the unrunnable maze: We paddlers often measure river reaches in terms of gradient, the technical aspect, and water volume—even assign it numbers. It’s a good system and one that gives a quick snapshot of what lies ahead; one thousand cubic feet per second and a pool-drop pitch of one hundred fifty feet per mile speak volumes to one who understands the lingo. But in this place there was another factor, and one that I (as well as others) found alien and vexing to such a degree that it rendered the run impossible to those daring vanguards of the past as well as the virtuoso creekheads of the present (those who have refined river running into a bold and off-the-chart fine art and also have the highly evolved steeds with which to accomplish it). One intrepid boater was once overheard to say that the only reward to be gained by attempting the maze was two silver coins… to be placed upon the eyes!

It begins simple enough with an inverted V-flow from the gathering pool, but then it quickly V’s out again as might some riverine hourglass with opened bottom spill asunder its contents into a stony blockade with many channels—channels which in turn divide again, creating even more intricate paths to follow. And if that were not chilling enough, there is a strange, unaccountable pulse—a surge and ebb—to the river in this foreboding place, so routes deemed safe passage one moment become sieve-filled dead ends the next. It seems the only fictive boatmen to have even attempted The Imbroglio are the lifeless logs now jammed upright like wonky guidepegs into stony recesses or lie in repose bridging gaps too narrow through which to turn.

I watched as she arced downstream from the gathering pool and began her descent into the mazy confines of The Imbroglio. She passed through the first series of counterposed slots as might some colorful streamer wend its way through tendrils of wind. Then she stopped abruptly as the first staccato surge suddenly welled-up beneath her, breaking the flowing meter she seemed to be riding and side-surfed the resulting mound of water that billowed in crescendo against a boulder in front of her. In a backsurf position she quickly arced across river and dropped through a different opening between the rocks, as if manifesting a change of key. And she did this again and again and again….

“Read and play the secret music,” she had said.

I watched in awe as the complex chords, the flowing notes, and the intricate keys converged in a cosmic performance of aplomb and grace that afforded her safe passage through an abominable—although magnificent—river gorge. She played until she dissolved into the river, only to emerge again and again attuned and unscathed as she meticulously worked her way through this complex aria of stone and water, and there could be no superlative to what I had just witnessed.

I finally made my way down to the end of the chasm where the river finally returned to the merely challenging realm (as might be defined by the highly experienced boater). I was surprised to see her sitting there in an eddy, as if waiting for me. I wanted to compliment her… to express my astonishment… my admiration… on what I had just seen, but she said nothing and left the eddy before I could draw near enough for conversation.

I shouted out, “What’s your name?”

From downstream she turned briefly and replied, “Ariadne!”
*                          *                           *
As I continue my ride upon this colorful and exciting Mandela we call life, I sometimes reflect upon the opportunities and peak experiences that have passed my way. Many I recognized as such and grabbed without hesitation, but others came with strings attached and sometimes those strings were knotted to risks with downsides that pitched into utter darkness, and at those times a choice that involved the weighing of a consequence had to be made. That day I made the decision to carry The Imbroglio, and it is one I still question, even today, years later. I realize I missed one of those experiences that peg the life meter and one for which I even had a guide.

I sometimes play the harmonica, usually around a campfire where performer and audience are one. I know my simple 60’s folk tunes pale in comparison to the complex repertoire of string arias I heard that day from atop a boulder at the head of that magnificent gorge, just as my river skills pale in comparison with the one who “reads and plays the secret music.”

I’ve returned again and again to the gorge in hopes of seeing her once more… if only to hear her guitar or to witness another flawless run of The Imbroglio… or to chat… or just to be near….

But I’ve never seen her again.

I am moved by the music of the river… and those beautiful beings that pass our way.