It’s the light that awakens me now. Not the alarm of the phone. I sleep until the light comes because I need to rest completely after riding all day. Anyways, I sleep fitfully outside of my own bed, especially on the first night. I woke up in a campsite on the shores of Lake Brienz, in a small hamlet called Iseltwald, somewhere between Interlaken and Meiringen, nestled up against the sides of the Alps, deep in the Berner Oberland. I was there because Benjamin wanted water. Not just any water, but a water which came from a time in which we had been successful as companions, as travelers, as the best of friends. Water which turned an ordinary mountain village into a magical place of story, reputation, and wonder, inspired by an author he and I both loved, whose stories had filled our house with romance and laughter and charm for years. The wit and mystery of Sherlock Holmes and his devoted and lesser light, Watson. And if Benjamin wanted that kind of water, when it was within my grasp to get it for him, I would. And even if I could make it easier on myself, I wouldn’t, just so that the gift would have been that much more meaningful because I had chosen to obtain and give it in such a way. Was I thinking more about me or more about him? I knew he would understand. He knows why I have to struggle.
Reichenbach Falls connects to Sherlock Holmes, someone whom Benjamin had introduced to me. I don’t remember how it started now, our attachment to this character, but somewhere along the way, we had read all the stories and watched all the films. Perhaps I had read more than he had. It always seemed that way. Jeremy Brett’s interpretation was our favorite, and we had spent hours together watching, reading, analyzing and toying with the Holmes and Watson dynamic. Two friends, one admiring, one inspiring, Watson needing the motivation and drive of Holmes, and Holmes thriving on the attention and companionship of his affable partner. In many ways these two reflected our own dynamic, though perhaps not always in the most obvious ways. On our trip to Switzerland, we had scheduled a special trip to Meiringen to visit the falls and the museum, and it was one of his most prized moments of the entire trip. His suggestion of bringing him back some of the water as a birthday gift made instant sense to me. It would have the effect of going back to a better time, one of the best times, and being able somehow to bring some of that happiness to him. A tangible token of the joy we had shared.
I woke up in the campground on a Sunday morning, after having cycled over 150 kilometers the previous day between Moutier and Iseltwald. I was ready for more. But I had the simplest task now. Meiringen was within reach. I packed up my tent, loaded my bicycle, and departed. The road the Meiringen was hilly along Lake Brienz, but opened out into a wide, flat valley at the end of the lake, and continued down into the town, with cliffs rising up on both north and south sides. You can follow the passes through Meiringen and on to Engelberg, and deep into the Alps. This had been part of our planned route. But we had changed it, as our gear and our experiences made less-than-gentle suggestions that we alter our itinerary. In the end, we had abandoned the itinerary altogether, spending three weeks in a tiny alpine village high above the Lauterbrunnen valley. The week before our flight left, we used up our last rail pass days hunting for Anabaptist caves in the hills near Zürich and following up on the history of the Reformation in Switzerland. And we found one. Together. That had also been a shared success.
When I cycled into Meiringen, I felt a sense of sublime calm flow through my whole body. Everything was easy now, and it all took place slowly, as though I was watching myself. I felt absolutely no sense of urgency and knew I could take as long as I wanted. I would still be able to return to Pleigne by the end of the day, because I would be taking the train back. I withdrew money at the bank, rode over to the cogwheel train that led up to the falls, and bought a ticket. Just like we did the first time. I left my bike at a bicycle stand, changed out of my cycling clothes and into my other outfit, boarded the train and waited as the operator closed all the doors and set the train in motion. The steep rise of the mountain passed underneath me and the valley spread out all around me. This had been just one of so many firsts for him during that trip. First time to fly overseas. First time to take a train. First time to be in a foreign country, surrounded by a language he couldn’t understand. First time to go backpacking or sleep in a shared hostel room. First time to be gone from the children for such a long time. And he had tried. He had tried.
The cogwheel train came to a stop and all the passengers filed out, pausing briefly to admire the long fall of white water down to the pool below, where it boiled and churned in over on top of itself, over rocks, and down to join the Aare as it flowed through Meiringen and west to Lake Brienz. I moved past them, up the stairs, following the path up the mountain towards the top of the falls. I remembered the little metal bridge, and the guesthouse at the top. I took my time and thought about when and where I would take the water sample. Here, by the bridge? At the top, past the guesthouse? Down at the bottom, where the falls dissipated into a stream? I would do it here, by the bridge, and I would do it last, after the remembering. And in order to complete the remembering, I would need to go through it all over again. I walked up and up, to the guesthouse, where the path came out to a road, and curved around the hill. Cyclists, hikers, families with children and motorcyclists came and went, gathering and dispersing. I walked out onto the terrace and looked out over the valley. It was the same. I took a photo I knew he would recognize, and then took a seat at a table and looked out over the valley and listened to the sound of the waterfall, the cadence of its rushing rhythm, its unrelenting cascading flow, like memory, like time, like desire which pulses forth from some hidden source continuously.
I stayed there for an hour or more. I had a light meal, a coffee, a glass of Apfelschorle. I remembered what it had been like when we were there. And then it was time.
As if in a dream, knowing already everything that was going to happen, and simply walking through the motions, like an actor playing a part I had practiced hundreds of times, I made my way back down to the bridge, pacing myself, letting the others go before me, and watching and waiting for those who had just arrived to take their photos, make their marvels, and wend their way up and out of my window of opportunity. When I was sure I was entirely alone– or just didn’t care anymore whether I was or not– I took off my shoes, stepped under the wires, stepped over to the rocks and knelt down. I took the water sample bottle out of my pocket. It was just an old contact lens solution bottle. As I went to take off the cap, I suddenly realized that it wouldn’t come off. I pulled and pulled, panicking suddenly, knowing I had no other bottle with me, until I realized in a moment that if I just squeezed out the air from the bottle while it was underwater, the water would rush in and take the place of where the air had been. I submerged the bottle and did this. I closed the lid and left, hearing strange illusions of chastisement from the roaring, rushing falls. I had only gone a hundred meters or so when I was suddenly dissatisfied. There had been no documentation, nothing to prove that this water was actually from the falls. Benjamin would believe me, I knew, but it wasn’t enough for me. I didn’t want the smallest doubt of the provenance of this gift. I had to go back. I went through all the steps one more time: I waited until I was alone, I removed my shoes, I stepped under the wire and down to the pools in the rocks. This time I filmed myself doing everything, and panned the scene to make sure Benjamin would be able to see from whence the water had come. I put the bottle in my inside zippered pocket and walked down the path to the viewing platform. In a moment of blissful silliness, I asked someone to take my picture standing behind the wooden cutout of Sherlock Holmes, in front of the railing, with the Reichenbach Falls seeming to be pouring down over my head. I boarded the train and descended the mountain. As I walked to my bike, I saw a open-air sidewalk chessboard, just like the kind we had on played together when he was with me. And I played a game, with just me and myself. I was white and I was black and I strategized using the moves he had taught me, how to take my own pieces. I played and played, moving back and forth over the board, being white, being black, Queen’s pawn opening with a hypermodern response, my favorite. As I played, I overheard the English voice of a boy asking his father a question about what I was doing. “She doesn’t want to take her own pieces,” he replied. The middle game lasted and lasted, and just as the endgame was beginning, after the second check and the threat of checkmate was beginning to loom, two girls who had recently arrived in a car rushed into the middle of my game. Each picked up one of my pieces, looked at me and smiled, thinking that I, like a child, like them, was just playing with toys and that they could play too. I smiled back at them as they broke the spell, and then I turned away and began the walk towards my bike. It was time to go home.
The rest of the day was icing. I bought a train ticket and took a train to Bern, changed trains for Biel, then changed trains for Delemont. I thought about taking a a bus, but one look at the familiar road towards Soyhieres and I knew what I would do. I changed again, out of my ordinary clothes and back into my cycling clothes, and turned the bike towards the 7-kilometer hill that led up to Pleigne, with the water from the Reichenbach Falls in my pocket. I would bring the water back with me from Europe and mail it home from Alaska. And he would receive it and he would remember and know what it meant. Here’s hoping.