Standing Water

It’s like there’s a guard at the gate of your memory and you’re not supposed to remember certain things because you can only obtain the full experience by completely going under its power. You can be destroyed or scarred…you don’t know…it’s like dying.
— Jeff Buckley, quoted in the press release for


Wolf River Harbor is a slack water channel of the Mississippi River just north of downtown Memphis. Slack water being a body of water under no stress. Stress being flow, pressure, pull. Slack water is often found at the confluence of two opposing streams, when the currents negate each other for a time. This period of equilibrium is often brief, its appearance just as unpredictable as its disappearance. Yet slack water is not still water. It gives only an illusion of stillness, beneath which seethes a chaotic exchange of invisible eddies and treacherous undertows.

The surface of the water hardly stirs under the late spring breeze. Only a few stars shine out mutely, the sky polluted by city lights. The occasional blare of car horns punctuates the constant, soft rush of sound from the city center. A breeze picks up and sighs its secrets through the trees. A tugboat hoots, distantly.

It is May 29, 1997. I am eight years old. I am nowhere near Memphis, Tennessee. I am some seven hundred fifty miles to the northeast, and I do not know that Jeff Buckley is about to drown in Wolf River Harbor, because I am in Pittsburgh, where I have lived since birth, and I am sitting shiva for my great-grandmother who died only three days ago, and I am silently mouthing the holy words of mourning I will hear and repeat so often in life, but which I do not yet understand:

Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash sh’mei rabah…


On the cover of his only studio album, Grace, released in 1994, Jeff Buckley looks vulnerable, in a white t-shirt and gilded jacket, his feathery dark hair pushed back, a few locks drifting over his forehead. He gazes downward, eyes nearly closed, blushing lips just caught in the act of parting. A five o’clock shadow felts his long jawline, underscoring his high cheekbones. Clutching a vintage-style microphone in his left hand, he could be mistaken for a 1950s heartthrob.

With his long hair and slim figure, a fine tenor voice that could rise into a falsetto with ease, Buckley transcended gender much as he did genre, time, and place. His extraordinary vocal and stylistic range remains one of the most commented-upon and defining features of his talent. Through song, he could weave together the ecstatic wails of of Robert Plant and the sultry yearnings of Nina Simone, the chanteuse stylings of Edith Piaf and the impassioned camp of Elton John, the earnest lyricism of Bob Dylan and the showtune swagger of Judy Garland. In his early performances at the East Village cafe Sin-é, he covered these artists, and more, with remarkable dexterity, intimate and ethereal, regularly leaving his audience in silent rapture.

Buckley died with a song on his lips. A song heard only by the fish and the frogs and the lily roots. All of them silent, all of them still.


As a child, when I lay in bed at night, before I fell asleep, I would try to hold my breath for as long as I could. I had a terrible, inexplicable fear of drowning, and tested myself to see how long I would be able to stay under. Often I dreamt of drowning, too. I’d find myself naked, far beneath the surface of a vast body of water, receding into impenetrable darkness below me. I struggled to swim up into the light that shimmered faintly above, but no matter how fiercely I swam, I never made any progress.

The first track of Grace opens with a wordless croon like a qawwali moan of devotion. I’m lying in my bed, the blanket is warm, Buckley begins softly, this body will never be safe from harm. I close my eyes. He lays beside me, still. His voice colors the dark behind my lids with bruise-blue shadows. When I reach out blindly to touch him, his skin is cold and wet against my fingertips.

Memories fire, the rhythms fall slow. Listening to Grace, twenty years after Jeff Buckley’s death, I am a child again, holding my breath against a chill current rushing over me, my body caught up in the rapids, struggling against dissolution. I drop down to the river bed, a flooded necropolis of bones and decay. Among the effluvia glint fragments of submerged treasure: precious precious silver and gold, the soft jelly of eyes once cradled within the sockets of grinning skulls now opalesced into pearls in oyster’s flesh. The water surges and subsides, throbbing like a pulse, a rhythm: rising, falling, rising again. Ageless, ageless, he sings, I’m there in your arms. But when at last I open my eyes and gasp, I’m alone in bed, in the dark, only a heavy blanket weighing me down, sheened in sweat. I turn onto my side and squeeze my eyes shut, willing myself back into dreaming.


The Hebrew word chesed is most often translated into English as “loving-kindness,” but a simpler definition might be “grace.” God bestows chesed unconditionally and without discrimination upon humanity. We are meant to follow God’s model of compassion by finding ways to be loving, kind, and charitable to one another.

The sixteenth-century Jewish scholar and Kabbalist, Moses Cordovero, was the author of the treatise Tomer Devorah, or “The Palm Tree of Deborah,” which elaborates a system of ethics based on the imitation of God. Among the actions Cordovero enumerates that may be undertaken to follow God’s model of chesed is attending to the dead. In some Jewish communities, men and women organize into a chevra kadisha, “holy society,” which sees to it that the deceased is prepared and buried according to custom, and that the family of the deceased is cared for during the period of mourning.

The body of the deceased is washed and purified, dried, dressed in a white linen shawl, placed into a simple pine casket, and wrapped in a winding-sheet before the casket is closed.

God did not begin as gracious. It was only after he flooded the earth and destroyed every living thing save for a single family that he arranged to make a covenant with humankind, a promise to never again drown us out of existence.


In 1960, the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the eastern fork of the Wolf River near its mouth, where it drains into the Mississippi, thereby diverting its flow away from the city. This dam formed Wolf River Harbor, which separates the Memphis mainland from Mud Island, now a peninsula. The dam also strengthened the already fierce currents that rush around Mud Island.

From its source in Holly Springs in the red clay hills of Benton County, Mississippi, Wolf River flows northward along a bed of alluvial soil. Unlike a river that flows through a substrate of rock, carving out canyons and gorges and confined by hard solid stone, a river cradled by soft yielding earth meanders and weaves, changing its course rapidly and unpredictably as it traces its way across the floodplain.

Buckley had gone swimming in the harbor before. Toward nightfall on May 29, 1997, he and a roadie, Keith Foti, were driving through Memphis to the studio where they were to begin recording material for his second album. Passing by the harbor, Buckley had the idea to stop by the water and take another dip.

“He was unpredictable,” Foti would later remark. “That was the beauty about Jeff. Every moment was an expression.” You never knew what course he would take, never knew what direction his notes would turn, when his scale would shift.

Buckley and Foti walked down the bank, carrying a radio and guitar with them. Foti cautioned against going in, but Buckley just turned and grinned and walked backward into the water. He was wearing a t-shirt, jeans, and boots. When the water reached his waist, he reclined and backstroked further into the harbor, singing the chorus to Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.”

He floated south past two cement pylons that support a monorail bridge across the channel. A small boat approached from the other direction, and Foti yelled for Buckley to watch out. He got out of the way in time, but shortly after, another, larger boat followed. Foti turned around to move the radio farther away from the shore in order to avoid the boat’s heavy wake. When he turned back around, Buckley was gone.

His body wasn’t found for six days, when a riverboat passenger spotted it just a few hundred yards south of where he disappeared, floating among the broken branches and crushed beer cans strewn like jetsam along the waterfront, at the foot of Beale St., where the blues were born.

Wanna whole lotta love. Wanna whole lotta love.


My father could recite the whole of Psalm 23, the King James version, which is odd, given the fact that we are Jewish and do not use the King James Bible. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

Tradition says that David composed seventy-three of the one hundred fifty Hebrew psalms. The final psalm, one of those ascribed to David, is embroidered on his tomb in Jerusalem. The first and last word of Psalm 150 is hallelujah, or “praise the lord,” and every line besides the first and last begins with hallelu-hu, or “praise him.”

Praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with strings and pipe!
Let everything that breathes praise the lord! Hallelujah!

In Hebrew, “Hallelujah” is in the second-person imperative. That is, it commands you, demands that you praise the Lord. Demands that you love him with body and soul. That you sing even as all the pain in the world comes hurtling at you.

I am eight years old and I am thinking about how the body disintegrates and dissolves. I am thinking about the body of the shepherd boy David and his love of God, about the psalms he composed and the honey of song on his lips. I am thinking about his lips on my lips and his song entering my body like spring air. And as the rain begins to fall outside, I am thinking about David and how he would play his lyre for Saul, soothing the mad king’s rage, even while Saul threw spears at him, and David kept playing, strumming the gut-strings and mouthing hymns for the man who would conspire to murder him. Nothing on his tongue but hallelujahs.


The Mourner’s Kaddish is written in Aramaic, the ancient Semitic language of divine worship, spoken in the time of King David, and of Jesus. Reciting it, we raise an extinct language from the dead, tongue a genealogy of exaltation shared only with ghosts. The Kaddish contains no references to death, to loss or grief; rather, it is a series of praises and adorations of God, prayerful supplications that he rain blessings upon and grant peace and life to his devoted people.

I am eight years old, and the rhythm of the Kaddish washes over me like the lapping of waves against the cold night shore. Its prosody rises and falls in a chain of dactyls and anapests, cadences overlapping, meeting, splitting, breaking. The voices of the mourners join together, dissonant pitches and timbres swimming in the air above me.

Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash sh’mei rabah,
B’alma di v’ra chir’uteh…
Magnified and sanctified is God’s name,
In the world he created, according to his will.

Of course, according to Scripture, when God created the world he only had water to work with. When he began the great work, his spirit swept as a wind over the face of the deep, and the waters above separated from the waters below, with the vault of the sky between them.

I am eight years old, and I am nowhere near the shore of Wolf River Harbor in Memphis, Tennessee, when Jeff Buckley steps into the water, pauses, listens to a lone plane fly far above him, blinking in the ochre haze of dusk, and wades further in.


During the final hour of Shabbat, the twilight hour before the sun fully sets and the first three stars come out, it is said that the dead gather at the fountain of water that flows outside the gates of Eden. There they drink and bathe themselves, parched and scorched as they are from the blazing flames of Gehenna. It is forbidden for the living to drink any water at this time, for to do so would be to steal water from the dead.


The first sound of Jeff Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is an exhalation, like a sigh, his breath warm against your cheek.

Cohen’s original “Hallelujah” seems now like a distant ancestor to the many hundreds of covers that have been recorded since the song’s release on Various Positions in 1984. A full band, complete with electric organ and chorus, backs Cohen’s characteristically gruff voice, rendering the song almost symphonic, rich and sumptuous. Many of the versions we’re now used to—those of John Cale, Rufus Wainwright, Allison Crowe—are stripped-down, intimate songs, a single singer with a sole piano. Cohen’s Various Positions was not received as enthusiastically as some of his other albums. The grace of “Hallelujah” was not really acknowledged until years later, and the song remained an obscure bit of marginalia in Cohen’s oeuvre. Cohen himself performed several different versions of “Hallelujah” over his lifetime, constantly reimagining and refining the song’s lyrics and delivery.

Buckley accompanies his own vocals with an electric guitar, and the wholly instrumental introduction to the song lasts a full minute. Quiet, reverberant notes slowly gather into a recognizable tune, then waver into something more improvisatory, weaving other chords into the ghost of a song before resolving again, plucking out Cohen’s classic succession of compounded triplets, a meter hearkening back to the early days of rock, when it was still something closer to gospel or blues, visceral and visionary, from a dark and holy place.

In a susurrus of voice, almost secretive, he begins, I heard there was a secret chord, and I wonder if he’s just being sly, if the chord he’s playing now isn’t that very same one David first played to please the Lord. And I wonder if David himself wasn’t just improvising, just a baffled king composing praise after praise, making it up as he went along, desperate to ease Saul’s rage even though he didn’t really care for music, did he? Well it goes like this, he continues, the fourth, the fifth, lets me count along with him like a child being led by a teacher, his fingers resting on mine as I learn to play, falling and lifting, falling and lifting.

Buckley contributed a greater sense of longing and desire to “Hallelujah,” lent it a palpable air of ecstasy. He claimed that he understood Cohen’s song as “a hallelujah to the orgasm,” and undoubtedly there is an inherent eroticism in Buckley’s rendition, in both form and content. The second verse draws again on the story of King David: as the second book of Samuel relates, David was walking on the roof of his palace when he spied a woman bathing on a rooftop in the distance. Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you. He sent a messenger to bring him this woman, Bathsheba, wife of the general Uriah, and in the tactful words of the author of 2 Samuel, “he lay with her.” When Bathsheba later informed David that she was pregnant, he ordered that her husband Uriah be placed in the frontlines of battle, ensuring his death. David then took Bathsheba as his wife.

The prophet Nathan came to David and told him of God’s anger at his actions, foresaw that Bathsheba’s child by David would die, and that David’s reign would be plagued always with war. Nathan’s prophecies, of course, came true.

Your faith was strong, but you needed proof. Once, God told David that he would be as a father to him. If David were to do wrong, God assured him that he would be chastised. But God also promised David that he would never stop loving him.

One wonders if, after David received the news that Uriah had been killed, he uttered a hallelujah as he took Bathsheba in his arms and into his bed. The Bible does not tell us whether David ever felt any guilt or shame for what he did.

One wonders if, gazing on the bloody corpse to which Bathsheba had given birth, David uttered a hallelujah. His faith in the word of God reaffirmed. The prophecy fulfilled. Perhaps David sinned only to see if he would really be punished, his wickedness validated. Proof of God’s gore-stained grace.

And there it is, blue-gray and limp in the midwife’s arms. A sigh of relief.


Of course, with drowning, the real problem is that you can’t exhale.


The night they began dredging the river in search of Buckley, a violent storm lashed through Tennessee. Thunder tattooed the clouds and lightning scarred the dark sky. Buckley’s mother, Mary Guibert, landed at the Memphis airport amidst a torrential downpour. Everyone began to converge on Wolf River Harbor, like pilgrims pulled toward a relic. Blinding white searchlights lit up the harbor from above and below. Helicopters hovered, police boats slowly cruised the dark water and combed the shoreline.

Memphis was named after the Egyptian city of the same name, ancient capital of the Old Kingdom, which occupied a strategic position at the mouth of the Nile River. The Nile’s waters were the sacred lifeblood of Egypt, much like the Mississippi, surging artery of the nation’s commerce, on which the American Memphis is situated.

The royal burial ground of Saqqara lies just outside of Memphis, its sands blanketing the tombs of dozens of pharaohs and other noble Egyptians. Saqqara’s most famous monument is the step pyramid of Djoser, one of the oldest known manmade stone structures. Through this pyramid, Djoser intended to live on after his death, ascending the monument like a staircase to abide eternally in the North Star.

Life after death formed the conceptual core of ancient Egyptian cosmology. The myth of Osiris, god of the dead, relates that the god was murdered and dismembered by his brother Set, who scattered his body parts in the Nile. Osiris’s wife and sister, Isis, journeyed to retrieve each piece from where it had been deposited across the kingdom before they all flowed into the sea and were lost forever. Isis reassembled and resurrected her brother-husband, swaddling him as a mummy in linen, and Osiris’s cycle of death and rebirth was said to govern the yearly flooding of the Nile, upon which all Egyptians’ agriculture and livelihood depended.

When the legendary pharaoh Menes founded Memphis, he is said to have diverted the Nile away from the city with dikes, sparing his capital from being inundated by the annual flood.

Ten years after the Wolf River was dammed and diverted in 1960, scientists pronounced the river “dead” around Memphis, poisoned by sewage and industrial pollution.

Under peals of thunder rise the roar of helicopter blades and riverboat engines, the shouts of police and of Buckley’s friends and family who have come to help. Curtains of rain pelt the water, threatening a flood. Downstream, the Memphis Pyramid radiates an unearthly glow. Steve Berkowitz, Buckley’s producer at Sony, said of that night, “It was like I’d gone to the River Styx.” Dead river, river of the dead.

The search for his body was eventually called off. Within a few days, Guibert and the others would concede that Buckley would not be walking out of that river. Perhaps some of them recalled the title track of Grace and its haunting, if not prescient, lyrics: And the rain is falling and I believe my time has come; it reminds me of the pain I might leave behind.

When his body was found, the week it had spent decomposing underwater rendered it almost unrecognizable. Gene Bowen, Buckley’s road manager, identified the body at the morgue by its navel ring and green nail polish on three toes.

There was no trace of drugs and only scant traces of alcohol in Buckley’s system. The medical examiner at the time of his autopsy, Jerry Francisco, was the same man who presided over the autopsy of Elvis Presley twenty years earlier.


The last single Elvis released before his death was the upbeat, soul-inflected hit “Way Down”:

Way down where the music plays,
Way down like a tidal wave,
Way down where the fires blaze,
Way down, down, way on down. 

He recorded the song in his home studio at Graceland, the same mansion in which he died, ten miles downriver from where Buckley drowned.


The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, renders chesed as eleos, mercy or pity, itself translated by Jerome into Latin as misericordia. A misericorde is also the name of a long, narrow knife used in the Middle Ages to deliver the death blow, or mercy stroke, to a mortally wounded knight. The blade was thin enough to thrust through holes or weak points in the armor, such as under the arm and into the heart.

None of us deserves grace, really, yet God still grants it. Perhaps this is his way of punishing us now, the psychological torment of believing ourselves unworthy of love, and yet receiving it all the same, delivering the mercy stroke when all we want to do is suffer.


Aside from the capital-F Flood, probably the best-known storm in the Bible is the one that strikes while Jonah is on a merchant ship setting out for Tarshish. Suspecting that someone aboard had displeased the Lord and incited this storm that threatens to sink their ship, the pagan sailors turn to Jonah and ask what he is doing sailing to Tarshish. Jonah sheepishly explains that the Lord had called upon him to travel to Nineveh “and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” Eschewing the role of prophet that had been foisted upon him, Jonah fled from the presence of the Lord.

The sailors ask Jonah what they can do to stop the storm, and Jonah tells them to throw him into the sea. When they toss him overboard, the storm immediately abates. Jonah, of course, managed to escape drowning by being swallowed by a huge fish, in whose belly he remained for three days. While inside the beast, Jonah offered a prayer of thanksgiving and repentance to the Lord, and was promptly vomited back onto shore.

The story of Jonah is meant to teach that no one is beyond the reach of God, that no one can escape God’s justice. It also teaches of God’s mercy. When Jonah did eventually arrive at Nineveh and preached repentance, the citizens of that city all ceded to God’s will and gave up their wickedness, and God did not strike them down. Jonah, however, was angry at God’s mercy and sulked miserably in the desert, wanting only to die. Nonetheless, God provided shelter for Jonah, refusing to let him suffer.

I am eight years old, and it is an angry wet spring, and I am nowhere near Memphis, where the wild rainfall stipples the surface of Wolf River Harbor. I am in my grandparents’ house, where a tusk of lightning illumines the somber faces of the mourners and casts sharp shadows of potted ferns against the high-piled green carpet and the cream-papered walls, while the thunder roils, underscoring the chant of dozens of voices praising the Lord:

Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash sh’mei rabah…


Buckley only met his father, iconic folk musician Tim Buckley, once, when he was eight years old. Tim Buckley died two months later, aged twenty-eight, of a heroin overdose.

In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the shipwrecked prince Ferdinand is tormented by a voice in the wind, a voice that sings a melancholy song:

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes,
Nothing of him doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

The son tormented by the image of his drowned father, wandering the shores of some enchanted island upon which the sea has cast him.

Death from a heroin overdose, like the one that killed Tim Buckley, typically occurs when the body forgets to breathe. You fall asleep and the respiratory system simply shuts down. The last thing you’ll ever do in this world is exhale, and you’ll never remember that in order to live, you need to inhale again.


There is a scene in The Tempest in which the scheming Antonio persuades the weak-willed Sebastian to kill his own brother in order to take his place as the King of Naples. Acquiescing to hear out Antonio’s plan, Sebastian says, “Well, I am standing water.” To which Antonio replies, “I’ll teach you how to flow.”


I do not have many memories of my great-grandmother. I remember she was small, and sweet, and had a gentle voice with a slight German accent, and bone-white hair. I remember sitting on the floor of her living room as she sat on a couch and talked to me. I do not remember anything she said. I remember cookies.

There is a picture of my great-grandmother in a family album. She is young, a new mother, holds my baby grandfather in her arms, smiling wide with those same full lips I recognize as my own. On the obverse of the photograph, her name is written in my father’s tiny print, along with the dates of her birth and death.

I did not attend her funeral, but I did attend her shiva at my grandparents’ home, and I remember being confused, attempting to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish and crying silently, which nobody noticed. I cried because I couldn’t follow along with the other voices. I cried because I didn’t know what I was trying to say.

But this story is not about my great-grandmother. This is a story about how I was eight years old on May 29, 1997, and how I was not in Memphis when Jeff Buckley drowned in the slack water of Wolf River Harbor, but I was in Pittsburgh, and I was standing and facing east with everyone else, holding a prayerbook, and the sweat of my palms made the glossy leather of the prayerbook slippery, and I struggled to keep it in my hands. I was afraid to drop it because it contained the name of God, and you must never drop anything that contains the name of God (this is one of those rules you are taught as a child, and you never really know if it is true, but it instills a holy fear in you just the same, and so you never ever ever drop that book). I faced east, toward Jerusalem, not west toward Memphis, where Jeff Buckley dropped down, way down, the water in his lungs heavy, the gas of decomposition not yet raising him to the surface as it will six days from now, dropping down, way down to that place where, as Elvis sings, the music plays.

There was a tempest that night in Memphis. The storm unfurled over Pittsburgh like a pall, spreading west and south toward the Mississippi. I remember that storm.

When I went online to find the weather reports for Pittsburgh from May 29, 1997, I discovered that, according to the archived data, there was no precipitation that day.

Yet I remember that storm. I swear, I swear, I swear I remember.

White stabs of lightning like knives in the dark.


In the Illustrated Hebrew Bible I read as a child, the one I slid from off the shelf when I came home that furious spring night, I would linger on one page, running my fingertips over the glossy paper, tracing text and image. It was an illustration of Jonathan, son of King Saul, wrapping his cloak around the young David. Jonathan knew of his father’s jealousy toward David, who was lauded for his razing of the Philistine army. Jonathan watched over and protected David, and they grew very close. The first book of Samuel relates that “the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” As a sign of his love, Jonathan stripped himself of his robe, his armor, and even his sword and bow and belt, and offered them all to David.

The most energy Buckley expends in his “Hallelujah” is in the final verse. The song is full of uncertainty, full of faint memories, full of doubt. Maybe, his languid voice concedes, there’s a God above, but all I’ve ever learned from love was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you. What’s the use of a hallelujah when there’s no Lord to praise? Still, it’s always ready, that song, in case the knife is drawn on you first. In case the love that God promised to shower on you turns sour. Suddenly, his voice, Jeff’s voice rises loud and zealous: And it’s not a cry that you hear at night, it’s not somebody who’s seen the light, he insists, It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah! Neither a shout of ecstasy in the dark, nor a howl of revelation, but a bitter exaltation, a moan of adoration, a sob of worship.

In the picture, Jonathan is taller than David, with thick brown hair and a short beard. He is strong, muscular, olive-skinned, wearing only a white undergarment around his waist. David, by contrast, appears much younger, almost pale, with waves of black hair, yielding to the weight of Jonathan’s arms around his shoulders. My fingertips caress the contours of Jonathan’s neck, stomach, thighs, David’s long hair and boyish face. They are caught in a still moment of intimacy that is foreign to me. While I silently trace the edges of their bodies, I cannot follow along with the longing I feel for Jonathan and his beloved. I do not yet know the words to the song in my chest.

Hallelujah! breaks the silence. Hallelujah! louder than the lyre. Hallelujah! like the white heat of thunder. Hallelujah! thicker than water.


I’ve been thinking about Jeff Buckley. I’ve been thinking about him because I am twenty-eight years old now, the age of Tim Buckley when he died, and I’ve been thinking about myself at eight years old, Jeff’s age the first and only time he met his father. I watch myself from a distance, as though on the opposite shore of a great river two decades wide. I watch as storm clouds gather overhead, and can see the glint of tears welling up in my young bright eyes and spilling down the soft clay of my cheeks.

I wade into the river. The mud sucks at my boots and reeds tangle around my ankles. The water is still, but I can feel that it is anxious, tense. I dive forward into its depths.

The water welcomes me. I surface and allow myself to float on my back, taking wide backstrokes, kicking my legs in a steady cadence, making my way carefully across. I look up at the undersides of thick clouds, deep blue and simmering.

I pause in the middle of the river, then turn and tread water. My slight form still waits at the shore, nearer now, holding an open book.

I want to keep swimming. I want the water to stay slack so I can reach him. I want to step out of the river and strip my clothes off, to wrap my eight-year-old body in my cloak, to put my arms around his shoulders. I want to tell him about grace, about mercy and suffering. I want to teach him all the songs I never learned, all the stories I never knew. I want to teach him how to flow.

But soon, I know, the equilibrium will break, the clouds will open up, the current will catch me and carry me under, and I will open my mouth and drink deeply of the water of the dead.


The Bible is an imperfect text, composed by many hands over the course of many centuries. Its stories frequently contradict each other, misremembered histories and half-finished fables jostling together between its covers. The first book of Samuel ends with King Saul, expecting defeat in the midst of battle, asking his armor-bearer to kill him before his enemies do. When the armor-bearer refuses, Saul chooses to fall on his own sword. The second book of Samuel opens with a soldier coming to David to inform him of Saul’s death, relating that Saul asked to be killed, “for the convulsions have seized me, and yet my life still lingers.” The soldier at last provided the mercy stroke.

Jonathan died in battle along with his father. When David, whom the elders would soon choose to succeed Saul as king, was informed of their deaths, he tore his clothes and wept. After a period of fasting, he composed what would be called the Song of the Bow and ordered that it be taught to everyone in the kingdom of Judah, inscribing it in their collective memory. Jonathan lies slain upon your high places, he sings, my brother Jonathan; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women. Unlike the majority of David’s compositions, the Song of Bows makes no mention of God. It is not a song of praise. How the mighty have fallen, David keens.


Buckley performed “Dido’s Lament,” from Henry Purcell’s seventeenth-century opera Dido and Aeneas, at a concert in 1995. Dido sings the song at the seashore as she watches her lover Aeneas sail away from Carthage. She prepares to commit suicide by falling onto the sword Aeneas had given her. While still impaled, she will climb atop a blazing pyre whose flames can be seen far out at sea.

Buckley reaches into a remarkably resonant soprano as he takes on the role of the abandoned queen preparing for her imminent death. When I am laid, am laid in earth, she sings, May my wrongs create no trouble, no trouble in thy breast. His voice sounds as though it’s always at the edge of breaking, yet those high notes never falter, rolling out pure and clear.

Grace sold slowly. Buckley’s songs initially received few radio plays in the States. His music videos wouldn’t make their MTV debuts for some time. But Europe loved him. In 1995, France awarded him with the Grand Prix International du Disque, which had once gone to Edith Piaf, Leonard Cohen, and Bob Dylan. David Bowie said that Grace was the one album he’d want with him on a desert island. As his fame steadily grew, Buckley toured the country and the world, meeting with renowned musicians like Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney. Overburdened by a demanding schedule, he suffered from exhaustion and began to drink heavily. He dyed his hair black. He lost weight. His own concerts took on a restless, loud, and angry quality that were in sharp contrast to the quiet intensity of his coffee-shop days and early appearances on stage.

After nearly three years on the road he finally returned to New York, where he performed under pseudonyms in small venues. Later, he rented a shotgun house in Memphis and began sketching out new songs. He spent silent hours lying on the grass in his backyard or with the butterflies at the zoo, or going for swims in the harbor.

Remember me, remember me, but ah! Forget my fate, Dido sings. Aeneas’s ship sails on, the undulations of its high wake washing back against the shore. Remember me, but ah! Forget my fate.


Four rivers flow out of Eden and into the world, their source a spring hidden deep in the heart of the garden. They spread across the earth, splitting and branching into new rivers, streams, brooks, tributaries, cataracts, deltas.

Jeff Buckley’s drowning is, in itself, meaningless. I choose to give it meaning. It is nothing more than coincidence that he and I share, in a way, a death. That on the same night, we both went under something else’s power, something untranslatable, whose language I will not understand until now, until I learn the song, until I tell the story, and the stories beneath the story, that bind us together. I was a child when Jeff Buckley died, and as his heart slowed and stopped, I began to hear, in the insistent pulse of desire at the frayed edges of my body, a rhythm, a measure, a chord just beneath the surface of what I knew.

I dream of Jeff. I dream that he waits at the fountain outside of Eden. I dream that the gates of the garden are shut, guarded by faceless cherubim clad in radiant armor and clasping white-hot swords before them.

I dream that Jeff sings for the dead, for all the drowned ones who gather around him, led out of the darkness by his voice, a pure drop of flame hovering before his open mouth. I dream that his bones are made of many-hued corals, that his eyes are as iridescent as pearl.

In my dream, I cannot hear his song. I ask him to teach me the words, but he looks at me with his eyes of nacre and tells me that I already know them.

I do not dream of drowning as often as I did when I was young. But when I do, I no longer worry about holding my breath. Instead, I allow myself to hang weightless in the slack water, waiting for the stress to return, for the blade to strike, for the edges of me to unspool and bleed out, seeking their source, calling at the gates of memory.


Of this I am sure: I am sure that on May 29, 1997 it stormed in Memphis, and I am sure that while Jeff Buckley was drowning I was reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish for my great-grandmother. I am sure that when I came home I took the children’s Bible from the shelf and it fell open to the page that told the story of Jonathan and David because I had kept it open to that page so often in the past that the spine had broken.

Maybe it’s that I want it to have stormed in Pittsburgh that night, that my wanting alone is enough to have caused the rain to fall.

I am unsure of my faith in God, but I am sure of my faith in that storm, of my faith in the cries that pierced the night at Wolf River Harbor, of my faith in the fact that Shakespeare was really writing about Jeff Buckley, and that Elvis was really singing about him, too; I am sure of my faith in the souls of the dead quenching their thirst every Saturday at dusk, my faith in Osiris’s resurrection and Dido’s grief, my faith in a dead language and the dagger of mercy; I am sure of my faith in David’s kiss and Jonathan’s arms, my faith in Jonah’s salvation, my faith in the imperative of praise, my faith that slack water will flow again; and I am sure of my faith in grace, my faith in Jeff Buckley’s body being pulled out from where it’s half-caught in the mud, laid out among the grass and reeds on the shore, cold and broken, wound in a white sheet.

And I am sure of my faith in the last breath I will ever draw, which will be, if anything, a song, a story, a hallelujah.


I am eight years old and I am reciting praises to God in a language I do not understand. I am eight years old, and the sun has set, and I am nowhere near Memphis, Tennessee, when Jeff Buckley slips under the surface of Wolf River Harbor, over which the wind begins to sweep, bringing with it the scent of rain.



I am indebted to the following sources for insights into Jeff Buckley’s music, life, and death:

  • Jeff Apter, A Pure Drop: The Life of Jeff Buckley (New York: Blackbeat Books, 2009)
  • Daphne Brooks, Grace (New York: Continuum, 2005)
  • Alan Light, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah” (New York: Astria, 2012)
  • Fred Schruers, “Jeff Buckley: River’s Edge.” Rolling Stone, 7 August 1997
  • Serena Cross, dir., Jeff Buckley: Everybody Here Wants You, BBC, 2002
  • “Eternal Grace,” MSNBC report, August 1997
  • BBC Radio 4, The Grace of Jeff Buckley, prod. Alan Hall, 2014


I am grateful to the Wolf River Conservancy ( for information on the history and ecology of Wolf River.

Except for Psalm 23, all quotations from the Bible are taken from the New Revised Standard Version. In many cases, I have not related Biblical narratives exactly as they are rendered in the Bible. But what is a story if it does not change its shape every time it is told?

Anecdotes from Egyptian mythology derive from my own recollection, and are for the most part my own interpretations of ancient tales.

Quotations from Shakespeare are from the Arden edition.

Information on Jewish customs and folklore come from conversations with family and friends, tempered by scraps of stories and histories gleaned from too many library books to recall. Consider them midrash.


About the Author

Lee Huttner is an MFA candidate in the creative writing program at Chatham University. His poetry, nonfiction, and academic criticism has appeared or is forthcoming in ApiaryThe Southeast ReviewShakespeare Bulletin, and Upstart. He lives and works in Pittsburgh.


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