’PRAISED be my Lord for our sister water, who is very serviceable unto us, and humble, and precious, and clean,’ I quoted Saint Francis as I dipped one bare foot into the Gulf. The water was blue, blue, perfect! The sky also was blue — pluperfect! But it was February, and I withdrew my foot rather hastily. 'O-u-u-h! Sister Water is cold!' I thought. Perhaps it was better for a space just to lie upon her beach, praising her, while Brother Sun, who is ‘fair, and shineth with a very great splendor,’ — especially here in Florida, — warmed my back.
At the edge of Sister Water, in and out of her, with sharp little piping cries to one another, ran small long-legged birds; in and out of her, too, jumping up toward the sky, then falling back again, winked little Brother Mullet — whole grammar schools of him! Saint Anthony of Padua — I think it was Saint Anthony — once preached to the fishes, which is not as well known, perhaps, as that Saint Francis preached to the birds. But the fishes liked it. They came up gladly out of the sea to hear him. I too would have heard him gladly. Why have I no word now for Brother Mullet and little Sister Sandpiper? Easy enough to answer — because I am no saint! But perhaps they have a word for me. At any rate I will listen for a while here on Bimini Island in the Gulf. I imagine the reason the saints could preach to the fishes and birds was because they had often listened first to their sermons, considering them, no doubt, as one is bidden to consider the lilies.
Well, they preach to me now of Sister Water, who is very serviceable unto us, and humble — so humble, indeed, that we take all her precious serviceableness for granted, and only a Saint Francis would pause to give thanks for her. But I am thankful now for her — oh, immeasurably so! Thankful for the infinite wide stretches of her drifting away and away to Mexico, where perhaps some dark-skinned woman dips a foot into her at this moment as I dip mine here, Sister Water laving us both, alien as we are. Oh, praised be my Lord for Sister Water when she is salt, and goeth around the world uniting its people!
I am thankful for her in all her aspects over the earth, but especially so for her here in Florida, where she seems to me more precious and clean than I have ever seen her. Here her sharp white sands have so filtered her that on her beaches she is clothed in beauty, and in her marvelous springs lovely beyond compare. In these last — said, perhaps with truth, to be the largest springs in the world — her waters are so transparent one may look dow n and down through her translucency, past deep long-stemmed water grass, green and waving; past the stare of strange goggling fish, and even a green turtle or so; down a hundred feet below, where, boiling out of the ground, she tosses up the white sands in cloudy vapors like great silver breaths in frosty air.
Beautiful and legendary are these springs. It was to one of these, they say, that the Indians directed Ponce de Leon when he came, poor weary traveler from an old and tired world, seeking the Fountain of Youth. Had he come to it, and looked upon its waters with the clear and ecstatic eye of a Saint Francis, he might have found something there more refreshing to the spirit, and perhaps even to the body, than mere physical youth. So precious was Sister Water at this spot to the Indians that many gave up their lives to save her from the Spaniards — but lost her in the end, as they lost everything else. But she was worth dying for, and no doubt when they reached their happy hunting grounds they found a great reward awaiting them for their sacrifice.
There is another spring, the Weekiwachee, — Winding Water, — whose name I mention, but will not give the place of her abode, not wishing her to be found too easily. Her beauty is so melting to the heart that here, it is said, — no doubt by those who know, — no maiden can refuse her lover. And there is still another, the waters of which, springing up through a river, sing for very joy, making a curious melody all their own. I have not been there, so I have never heard Sister Water sing in this strange manner, but I have heard her voice unexpectedly, at another time and in another place. I thought my deaf ears had lost the sound of spring freshets, as they long ago lost the whisper of rain upon the roof; but once I paused for a moment upon a high driveway overhanging a river in flood, and there suddenly, unexpectedly, the full fresh roar of water rushing to the sea came back to me! It was so unhoped for, and beautiful, and so moving to have it back again when I thought it gone forever, that two tears sprang out in my eyes to meet and salute this return of joy. Oh, yes! Praised be my Lord for our Sister Water when she speaks from a river in flood!
And in rain — how beautiful are both the sound and the sight of her in summer rain! Sweeping along green mountains, drowning from sight ridge after ridge, driving her flocks and herds of innumerable racing drops down the hollows, across the valley, across the meadows, and up the lawn, until at last the hurry of all their little rushing feet is in the garden, is on the doorstep, is gusty upon the windowpane.
Lovely, too, is Sister Water at play in a January thaw, running and dripping from the cornices in silver wind-tossed chains of fluent beads. And in dew — but who may speak of her in a drop of dew? Frosted dew on the trefoil of a clover, on a stem of grass, on the azure of a larkspur or the rosy mouth of a foxglove? I cannot. There are no words of mine either great enough or small enough to speak of our Sister Water in a drop of dew. Nor of her in a snow crystal, or when she patterns herself in frost. And if I should speak of her at all when she arches her bow across the sky, it could only be, as it were, obliquely, and in the words of another: —
Bring me my Arrows of desire;
Bring me my Sword: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
But the Spaniards knew how to speak of Sister Water. Again and again in the NewWorld they paid homage to her with the greatest name they had to offer. When they came to what is now Tampa Bay, on Pentecost Sunday, 1537, they christened it Bahía del Espíritu Santo. For them, too, the Mississippi was the Río del Espíritu Santo, and not far from me now are springs that still wear the name of the Holy Spirit.
Of all these things, and many others, did the fishes and little sand birds preach to me that blue afternoon there on an island in the Gulf, but at the end I thought I saw a plump and important mullet leaping toward me with an empty shell in his mouth — the collection plate! I jumped up, for what coin of any realm had I worthy of our Sister Water? What could I give her save my very self?
I stepped toward her. She sent a little wave to meet me. She was cold to the ankle, to the knee, to the waist, cold indeed to the last plunge, and then cold no more, for I was out in her arms, lying upon her bosom rising and falling slowly with her long deep breathings; around and about me were only her infinite stretches; above, nothing but the wide bending blue of the skies; and if El Espíritu Santo were there also, — as I do not doubt, for does He not clothe himself in all the garments of life? — then I am glad He chose to approach softly in the gracious habiliments of our Sister Water, who is so very serviceable unto us, and humble, and precious, and clean.
MARGARET PRESCOTT MONTAGUE