At the Mercy of Rio Porciuncula
It was one of those odd nights in LA, where everything has a sharp dark edge to it and all the color has leached away, as if you’ve been placed inside a noir film by unseen hands clicking their celestial remote. Of course, there are those that maintain that is what our lives are, we just never see the hands of the deities that hold the controllers.
“Next on the list is that place just west of downtown,” my mother said cheerfully. We made our way there at a brisk pace, blinking in and out of view as needed to avoid confrontation with some of the local wildlife and populace. We stood in front of the building and examined the easiest route to the roof.
After a moment of pointing and exchanging opinions we did a little stretching and began to ascend, climbing up the outside of the building until we stood on the parapet surrounding the rooftop.
I looked off towards the graceful steel arcs rising above the sodium vapor murk, breathing a little heavily from the climb. Mother took a thermos from a small shoulder bag, and I produced the two collapsible cups from my own. This separation of items ensures neither of us can have an Aviation without the other. On days we climb buildings this is merely prudent. We had by mutual consent done without the maraschino garnish.
“The Lightning Girl has asked me to say hello to her friend, a goddess here in Los Angeles,” I remarked, holding the cups steady as mother poured.
“I thought I heard you talking to her this morning,” she said absently, pouring while taking in the view. On that thought we clinked glasses and looked out at the concrete and steel landscape all around us. Selene was overhead, doing her best to keep an eye on the wayward children who swarmed about town at this three-in-the- morning free-for-all hour, but she was nearly obscured by deepening clouds.
“I’m wondering,” said a sibilant yet somehow musical voice, “if you’ve enough of that Aviation left to share.” Mother looked around and smiled faintly something I couldn’t locate until I noticed the shadow that stood near us, a form darker than the surrounding gloom.
“Do you happen to have your own cup?” my mother asked amiably. The shadow laughed, and I heard the splash of running water in that voice. Darkness moved closer to us, and now a visible arm extended with a neckless glass soda bottle, doubtless scavenged from the deeps of her concrete channel.
“Lady Porciuncula,” I said, “we bring you salutations from the Lightning Girl.” Mother poured a measure of the pale violet liquid into the makeshift glass cylinder that must have been tumbled underwater against concrete for years to make such a milky surface out of a clear one.
The goddess of the Los Angeles River smiled at us, her asymmetrical face ravaged but still noble. Her petite form was wrapped in layers of dark rags and one shoulder was noticeably higher than the other.
“Thank you,” she said, “for the greeting and the libation.” She took a sip, swirled the liquid, and a pleased expression came over her badly scarred face as she breathed in the soft fumes of the Violette. “There will be quite a storm this week, enough to fill the spillways. The Lightning Girl likes to ride the rapids, standing on a carpet made of glowing voltage. She achieves stunts a Venice skateboarder can only dream of.”
I could see it in my mind, the small, laughing, graceful form racing along the channels that wended through the cityscape. In case you’ve never been to Los Angeles, the Rio Porciuncula has been systematically confined and restrained by generations of engineers to protect the city that she flows through. She is a narrow, stunted, twisted, eternally damaged shadow of what she was a century ago.
Mother had her mind on other things. One of us is always watchful when we are socializing, because you never know what may materialize from the dusty dusk that surrounds the Valley of Smoke.
“What is that spot of light? The one on the girder, just there,” mother asked Porciuncula, pointing at the small patch of acute brightness. The river frowned for a second, then adjusted her expression.
“A meteorite that fell at the stroke of midnight,” she said. “I waved for her to land in the channel, so I might cool her, but she chose to stay aflame and grabbed hold of that steel arch as she flew past, embedding herself. She burns almost as brightly now as she did when she fell, but not for much longer.” She took a swallow of her drink, and her face was a study in puzzled sorrow. “I could have taken away her pain.”
“Only at the cost of putting out the fire that defines her,” I noted. Porciulena frowned in thought and finished her drink. Mother motioned for her to present the tumbled river glass for a refill, and the goddess did so without smiling, perhaps hearing an unintended rebuke in my words.
“That poor bit of sky fire will never even have a name,” my mother observed. “It’s fitting, that she keeps her flames ablaze for these few hours she has, to let the world know that she was here.” The river goddess tipped her glass slightly a silent toast, recognizing the opposite end of the spectrum below us, and her lips twisted as she spoke.
“But I am here until the planet expires,” said Porciuncula, “and so I accepted the indignities and adjustments that torment me, caused by the burrowing machinery and structures of humanity.” Here she paused to take another swallow, and I remembered that when this river beside us rose from her banks for one week back in 1938, a devastating flood killed over a hundred people and caused unfathomable widespread damage.
“Unless,” she added, straightening up and standing a little taller, “unless one day I tire of…” and here she made a sweeping gesture with a bowed and twisted arm, ”…of all this- and I decide not to allow it to continue.” Mother and I looked at her as she finished her drink. As one we all turned our heads to regard the now rapidly fading bright patch of light attached to the bridge below us, while Selene sought to break through the clouds.
Drinking with goddesses, I thought, is not for the faint of heart.