A Backpack in the River


By Shamae Budd

          That morning, we awoke to the silence of snow—the first snowfall that winter, like white gauze, an inch thick on the cars and lawn and pavement, exhilaratingly blank after the red and yellow color-chaos of autumn. I looked out the window and pulled my winter boots from the closet, tugging my husband to join me for a walk before breakfast. Two months married, we bundled ourselves into knitted hats and scarves and gloves and made our way to the river trail, listening to the muffled sound of our feet leaving prints in the snow.
          We hadn’t gone far when Daniel pointed toward a snow-covered boulder five feet from the riverbank—or what I thought was a snow-covered boulder. He said it was a backpack. I squinted at the object, unconvinced, as he scrambled down the slight incline toward the still-flowing river, intent upon retrieving the thing. He does that, from time to time—rescues objects that other people have discarded on the side of the road or, apparently, in rivers. It’s a habit I had only glimpsed once or twice before we were married—one item in a long list of unknowns, things I was slowly learning about this man I would spend my entire life trying to understand. He broke a long, brittle limb from a barren tree and carefully edged his way onto the farthest bit of bank.
          “Don’t fall in,” I warned, rubbing my mitten-clad fingers together, but his only reply was to reach for the backpack straps with his primitive pole. He slipped once, dropped his branch and had to procure another. After a few minutes of careful maneuvering, he snagged and dragged the backpack out of the water and up the bank, hefting it, icy and dirty and red-orange, onto the trail. It lay in the snow at our feet, wet and heavy, like a beached sea creature.  
          “Should we open it?”
          The bag was full of something, and I imagined the worst: an abandoned puppy, a drowned cat. It seemed disconcertingly probable that we would find some kind of horror inside. Without comment, Daniel dragged the backpack off the trail and through the park that flanked it, toward a pavilion with frosty metal picnic tables.
          Daniel did the unzipping while I covered my mouth and nose, ready to turn and run (or vomit) at a moment’s notice. What we found was not matted fur and flesh, but soggy paper—books and folders and loose statistics homework.
          At first I was relieved. “This is somebody’s stuff.” Daniel looked at me, puzzled.
          We began to lift things, dripping, from the bag. Peeling the papers apart, one at a time, we spread the contents of the backpack across the frozen picnic table, looking for clues.
          There were several scribbled homework assignments on lined paper, and two textbooks: statistics and chemistry; a leather wallet, empty except for a Cafe Rio punch card (with only two punches) and one for a place called “Tonyburgers,” and a city library card; a Girl Scout patch; an intricate, full-page pencil drawing of an elephant; an “insanity” workout DVD; a planner (nothing scheduled for days); a university student ID; and a little black pocket book, both dieting log and thought record (I flipped to a page at random and read the phrase “don’t eat at parents house,” scrawled under the heading “Diet Goals”).
          There was no question whose things we had found—her name was everywhere. We’ll call her Kathryn Jones. I knew what she looked like, based on the quarter-sized photo on the student ID—a girl with long blond hair smiling back at me. But how did her backpack end up in the river? And how were we going to return it?
          As we continued sifting through her belongings, searching for an address or a phone number, we found things I didn’t expect a student to tote around regularly: a checkbook, an official university transcript, a diploma (the original copy, bachelor of arts in communications, complete with gilded seal), a certificate proving Kathryn’s completion of a TOEFL program (Teaching of English as a Foreign Language), and most surprising of all, a birth certificate (also an original).
          What was she doing with all this stuff in her backpack? Why carry around so many important documents along with a statistics textbook? And why on earth let it all end up in a freezing river, under a blanket of snow? I couldn’t help shaking my head at this girl I didn’t know, and hoping silently that she was okay.
          And then we found a vet bill from August for spaying and worming a puppy named Zoe. And a signed letter from a doctor stating that Kathryn suffered from anxiety and depression, that she would be getting a dog, that the landlord (to whom the letter was addressed) would need to accommodate the animal for the sake of Kathryn’s health.
          With a flash of fear, far worse than the dead puppy scenario ten minutes before, I imagined this girl in a state of panic or hopelessness, packing everything that mattered into a bag, dropping it all into the river and running away, or worse, dropping herself into the river with it. What if the river carried not only Kathryn Jones’ backpack, but also Kathryn Jones?
          Let me tell you now how the story ends: the owner of the backpack was alive while I pawed through her belongings on a frozen picnic table—is still alive. She did not fling herself with brash despair into the river, as I had feared. I know because I met her the next morning when she came to my house to retrieve her things. I could have kept you in suspense. But the point of the story is not the suspense, the limbo of not-knowing—not exactly. To be completely honest, the point may not even be what happened to Kathryn, but what happened to me during the twenty-four hours I had this stranger’s things in my possession, so many pieces of a story.
          We thought about calling the police. I was worried there might be a body floating somewhere in that river, snagged in a tangle of low-hanging branches or caught in the swirling eddies of a pile of rocks. But there was a phone number and a residential address on the bill from the vet, so we decided to give them both a try before calling the authorities.
          Neither of us had brought our cell phones, so we wedged the books and papers, now frozen stiff, back into the bag, and trudged through the snow with the pole resting on our shoulders, Kathryn’s backpack slung from its straps between us. When we got to our apartment, we placed the bag, still sopping wet, on the kitchen floor. I dialed the phone number we’d found, and listened to it ring once, twice, three times, four. I got an answering machine, and left a message: “Hi Kathryn. My name is Shamae. You don’t know me, but I think I found your backpack.” I hit end call and thought to myself, “I hope you’re not dead.”
          At this point, I suppose we should have called the police. But I wanted to find her—I wanted to find her. Not some gruff officer with a badge. Because I felt responsible for her, somehow, and because I felt like I had stumbled into a story, one that I wanted to finish, wanted to follow all the way through from beginning to end. We still had the local address, which I hoped would get us to her parents. It seemed possible, even likely, that she would use her parents’ home as a permanent billing address, given the fact that most college students are (often by necessity) migrant creatures. I thought we should try it before handing everything over to the police.
          As we gathered our things and headed for the car, backpack in tow, I began to consider where I was headed. It was entirely possible that I was about to knock on the door of a dead girl’s parents. I imagined pulling up to a modest, red-brick home, and double checking the address as Daniel killed the engine. I imagined walking up the steps to the front door, knocking three times, and waiting until a grey-eyed woman opened the door. What would I say? “Hello. Do you have a daughter named Kathryn? We think this backpack belongs to her. We found it in the river.” I imagined her face turning pale, like the snow, a sharp intake of breath, and the words: “Oh God.”
          Before we made it to the car, the phone began to ring. Daniel answered. I heard only his half of the conversation:
          “Hi…Yes, we found your backpack…Well, we found it in the river… the Provo River… yes...No, I don’t think there was a passport or a social security card…Yes, there was a wallet, but it was practically empty… No driver’s license…Yes, we’ll be here tomorrow morning. See you then.”
          She was alive. No need to call the police or submit a missing person’s report or drag the river. In the morning, Kathryn would come to reclaim her backpack from our home as we had reclaimed it from the river. But I wasn’t going to leave her things in a soggy mess all night—drying the most important-looking documents was the least I could do.
          We pulled the books and papers out once again, and Daniel hung the bag in the shower to dry. I separated the papers, still soaking, and laid them out on dish towels to keep them from adhering to the linoleum floor. And then I plugged my blow dryer into an extension cord, got down on my knees, and began moving from one important document to the next, drying out the birth certificate and then the diploma, the transcript and then the elephant pencil sketch.
          It was a strangely intimate experience, surrounding myself with a stranger’s personal documents, scattering the pages across my kitchen floor, and slowly drying the river water out of them. Handling all of her things, I started to feel like I knew her. I knew what she looked like. I knew what she had studied in college, and where she had studied. I knew that she was a decent student with just-above-average grades, and what classes she had taken. I knew where she was born. I knew that she was body conscious, that she liked Cafe Rio, that she probably tried to exercise regularly, and that the food at her parents’ home was somehow problematic for her diet. Perhaps they stocked too many treats: Oreos and Pringles. Or maybe her mother had a penchant for cooking overly fatty foods or simply offered too many helpings. I knew that she had a dog named Zoe. And I knew that she had struggled to keep her world upright, that she had been afraid or lonely or unhappy. And I loved her, somehow, loved this girl I had never met, never even spoken to, because I had all these pieces of her life at my fingertips—all these pieces of her story.
          The belongings of Kathryn Jones became part of our kitchen floor that day. After everything had been properly laid out to dry, we made lunch on tip-toe, carefully stepping around her books and papers as we moved from stove to sink. For the rest of the day and into the night, she was on my mind, following me from room to room. I worried over her stolen passport and security card and driver’s license, wondering why they had all been in the same bag. I worried about all the trouble it would cause, thinking that perhaps she was getting ready to travel, maybe teaching English abroad. I speculated on how long her trip would be delayed, because of the stolen documents. And I wondered where she had left the backpack before it was stolen—in a locker room, perhaps, or the back seat of a car? I wondered who had taken it, and why they dumped it in the river, and what kind of person would do such a thing. I thought again and again about how horrible it was, how I would feel if I were in her situation. How sad I was that it had happened to her. What a hassle it would be to resolve.
          Before she arrived the next morning, I carefully repacked her bag, took a shower, blow-dried my hair, and put on mascara. I was anxious to meet Kathryn, excited to talk to this person whose life had been drying all over my kitchen floor.
          She was taller than I expected, standing on my porch as I opened the front door—maybe 5’ 10”. Her blonde hair, which I expected to fall loosely at her shoulders as it did in the picture, was tucked into a bun under a pink beanie, and she was wearing grey sweats, a grey sweater, and a nose ring. We handed her the bag, full of the things I had carefully dried, and she said, “Thanks for even bothering to get it back to me,” hardly looking me in the eyes, and then turned away and walked to her car.
          There were so many questions I wanted to ask. Why did she have all those things in the bag, and where was she going, and did Zoe help with the anxiety, and did her anxiety feel anything like mine, and did she visit her parents for Thanksgiving, and did she see her mother, and did she eat the food she was offered, or did she decline, and where did she leave her backpack, and who drew that beautiful elephant? And I thought you were dead—I’m so glad you’re alive.
          But she left after only ten words. And believe me, I get it. Of course she didn’t choose to stay and talk—of course she didn’t want to get to know me, a complete stranger who found her backpack and pawed through her miserably wet personal effects. She was probably frustrated and embarrassed; sitting in my living room was probably the last thing she wanted to do.
          But I was somehow upset with her—this girl who probably doesn’t even remember my name. Because I wanted her to stay. Selfish and unreasonable and strangely attached, I wanted her to sit on my couch and answer my questions, to hear about how white and silent the snow had been the morning before, how my husband of only two months had this silly quirk and had rescued her things, to tell me everything, to talk.
          I was upset with her for not loving me back.
          It’s been a couple of months since Kathryn and her backpack walked away from my front door. I’m a graduate student and a writing instructor, and lately I’ve been looking back at notes from past classes for inspiration. I don’t remember the first time one of my literature professors scrawled the word “empathy” across a white board—nor do I remember the second, or third, or fourth time—but as I sift through old notebooks from so many dozens of courses in literature and writing and theory, I see the word in big, all-caps letters, again and again, scattered through the pages I filled while listening to lectures: EMPATHY, EMPATHY, EMPATHY.
          At some point during my undergraduate degree, I guess I began to understand what it meant. It had something to do with being human, and telling stories, and being stories—something to do with our need to know that we are not alone, or as Phillip Lopate puts it, the desire to “feel a little less lonely and freakish.” The need to suffer with each other, to be suffered with.
          Our stories bind us together—we ourselves, our identities, are bound up in the stories we tell ourselves, and we are bound up in each other by stories, by mutual suffering. This is why I read and write—to feel connected to the rest of humanity, to see through the eyes of another being and, by knowing their struggles and joys, to feel that I am also known.
          But my experience with Kathryn—or, more properly speaking, my experience with Kathryn’s backpack—unraveled empathy for me, complicated it. All I had was a backpack. And yet…Kathryn was real to me, and I felt for her, with her. But the thing about empathy is that it can be completely and utterly one-sided. In fact, reciprocation shouldn’t even be part of the equation, shouldn’t matter at all, because empathy, by definition, assumes nothing about thanks or mutual understanding. Empathy is the most humanizing of emotions, but it can also be one of the loneliest experiences in the world.  
          I was so newly married, that morning in the snow. And I wonder if part of me was longing to be assured that what I had learned in all those college courses was true: that a story, or part of a story, would be enough to bind me to a stranger, enough to bind that same stranger to me. Shortly before my marriage to Daniel, I flew into a panic, not unlike hundreds and thousands of other brides before me. I remember: we were addressing wedding invitations at the kitchen table, and I off-handedly referenced an eight-week trip I’d taken several years before as an undergraduate. Daniel looked up in surprise, and said, “I didn’t know you’d been to London. When was that?” And it suddenly occurred to me that this man knew next to nothing about my life. We had talked for hundreds of hours, spent entire days and weeks and months in each other’s company, witnessed firsthand the taste of one another’s anger and sadness and fear and joy. And yet—he knew so very little, had simply missed so much of my life as lived. He had only fragments, pieces of the story—clues that hinted at the whole, but didn’t quite add up to me, not exactly. And I found myself wondering how he could possibly love me, how I could possibly love him in return, how we could be bound together for a lifetime, and yet remain strangers—because so much of our being was unknown.
          I married him anyway—despite this fear, despite the suspicion that I would never be entirely known by this man whom I loved. I trusted that part of a story would be enough—to keep us together, to help us suffer through, to understand each other and stay with each other, to keep from waking up one day and finding myself suddenly alone.  
          And two months later, over the course of a few hours, I picked through a few pieces of a stranger’s story, pulled from a freezing wet orange-red backpack that my husband had heaved from the river, and felt close to her because of it—felt that I knew something of her life, cared for her, worried for her. Like a character in a book, Kathryn was a person whose story I had pieced together by looking, quite literally, at the pages of her life, scattered across my kitchen floor. I thought, somehow, that we would be bound to each other. Because I had suffered with her, because I had carried her backpack through the snow, because I knew a small part of her story. And when I finally met her, this person I had begun to love, if only briefly, I discovered a stranger—only a stranger. She gave me ten jarring words; she walked in and out of my life before we could get beyond the courtesy of hello and goodbye.
          And for a moment I was afraid again of the improbability, maybe even the impossibility of being really known. And I wanted, rather desperately, to throw my backpack into a river for somebody else to find.


Shamae is an MFA candidate at Brigham Young University studying creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Prairie Margins and has received multiple university and departmental awards. She lives with her husband and their pet hedgehog, Lilly.