“I cannot, I will not!”
She gapes at the churning water below then scurries back to her place by Dad.
I’m at the end of the family que but can feel Mom’s anxiety, even horror. Her toes are aligned with the edge of the one nearby bridge that connects our side of the river to the other. Slaughter’s Runnel is fast, deep, and it often swirls far below the banks. The reviews of this river are not uniformly great even though calling it a runnel (“just a word for stream of water, find that a bit odd”, dad interjects) makes it sound sweet, even tame. It’s not the best spot for fishing up here and you have to go a good mile to put in a canoe. But it’s beautiful, long, chilly and often clear. Dad says it must have been a pleasant trickle once. Now it’s good-sized, especially with snow run-off and rain.
But I feel prickles of impatience. When finally my parents bought the cabin, my first thought had been that we would hike daily, be outdoors all the time and just take off into the woods. And since we are by water, that meant that we could see it or hear it all the time. I want to hike alongside it, see where it takes me. I have a love of water; my dad says it’s an obsession. Dad and I have the outdoors in common. My mom, not so much.
If only she’d step out and walk behind Dad and be done with it. Our tribe of four–parents, little brother, myself– has attempted to cross three times so far. I came out by myself one early evening but Garret followed me so I had to convince him to go back to the cabin. He wouldn’t budge without me. He now operates under a delusion that the bridge is unsafe due to our mom’s carrying on. Dad has explained how and likely when it was built–he’s an engineer and such things come naturally to him–but no one believes him but me.
“Liz, I’ve got you–hang onto me. We’ll just take about six or eight steps and we’ll be there. This is a narrow spot. I’d never endanger you or the kids, you know that.”
“No.” Mom grabs the back of his belt but doesn’t step forward.
“I’ll even carry you, how’s that?”
“Of course not, not happening,” she mutters, releases his belt and turns back, stalking off to the our rustic but, she does admit, cozy place.
I don’t know why she’s afraid of heights or bridges or water. She won’t say exactly what it is. I don’t think it’s water, as she loves to go to the beach. She doesn’t act scared when we’re zipping up elevators or flying, like Christmas when we visit the grandparents. I’ve asked Dad about it but he refuses to say, tells me maybe she’ll explain it sometime, don’t worry about it.
Anyway, I’ve gone down to the bridge twice by myself. The first time I crossed over and went right back; the bridge seemed sound. This second time I manage to climb the rough trail a few minutes before I hear Garrett call me. I scramble back down and over the bridge. The last thing I need is for him to suddenly get brave and follow me or tell Mom I’ve gotten lost. His pinched face opens up in relief as I amble back over.
“Why you want to do that, Marly? Scare everybody! I wish I could go with you.”
His skinny arms are crossed over his chest. He can be a real pouter. Garret is seven; I’m fourteen. He’s way too young to understand the critical need for independence but old enough to want to have an adventure.
“Don’t tell or I’ll never take you anywhere again.”
He breaks the twig he’s twiddling and frowns. “You think you know everything. I can keep quiet.”
“You can’t keep anything to yourself, Rett Boy. One day you’ll figure out that the best stuff is often secret stuff.”
“Don’t call me Rett Boy. It sounds like Rat Boy!”
I laugh–that’s true, that’s why I say it–then shepherd him back to the cabin. Before we get there, Garrett turns and puts his palm up to stop me.
“I’ve been thinking. How come we got the cabin if Mom is afraid of things here?”
“She’s not afraid–well, the bridge or river, yeah–she’s just not used to so much nature.”
“Me, neither. Or you. We live in a city. But you like it a lot.”
He sees a dragonfly and tries to zigzag after it. I notice he didn’t include Dad but he grew up outdoors, helping his family farm, hunt and fish.
“I’m a nature nut, you know that, some people are and some fools aren’t. Mom is the second kind. Not a fool…of course.”
I hear the porch screen door squeak and know she was there. I make a side motion with my head at Garrett and we go in for dinner.
At nightfall I sit in a rickety Adirondack chair at the edge of our yard. Blackened silhouettes of trees stand in relief against a deep navy sky. The moon is beaming but I can see the Big and Little Dipper, locate the North star. The air is thick with damp earthy smells. The river chatters as usual, its music a complicated gurgle and rush of sounds. I try to imagine different rocks the water hits, the edges of its banks as water adds or subtracts bits of dirt and stone, the way it looks from each side different times of day and night. It has a whole complicated life. I think of the simple old bridge. Who built it? Dad has said it’s been there probably twenty years so maybe he should check it out more but we both know it’s a decent bridge. Six other families live on this stretch of road; we all use it from time to time.
It’s just Mom, just how it is, I guess.
Earlier in the day she was reading a magazine, the one with all the fancy houses and decor. She started to ask me something but as soon as I looked up she changed her mind.
“Well… since you ask.” She closed the pages. “I just was wondering if there was anyone, you know, somebody you liked.”
I shook my head. “You mean, the boy thing, right?”
“You don’t talk about them much. Never, really.”
That’s true, I think, so why do you have to ask?
“Your girlfriends gossip away about different boys.”
“You listen in?” I wasn’t really angry because we’re careful what we say around our mothers; of course they listen, or try. “They do like a couple, true.” I shrug as this news changes weekly.
She looked at me intently, dark brown eyes often hard to interpret but the feeling is clear. She wanted to know something for certain. If I even think of boys. If I am always going to be disinterested in things she likes. Throwing parties. Shoe shopping. Trying on make up together. Even though it’s the twenty-first century she thinks I am not enough like a girl ought to be. It was hard for me to really like her because of this but I try to not judge her. I know she’s had a life that was laid out for her. “A good family”, as she called it. Meaning: a top-notch (sheltered) earlier education, then college that took her to Europe twice where she met my father. He was not so golden but he was brilliant and a great worker. So then: an excellent marriage. Mom was a high school global history teacher until she had me, then stayed home. She’s restless, I think. I would be.
Her palm flattened against the plaid sofa cushion beside her. I tensed up because next she likely would give it a little pat, try to bring me next to her for a chat about all I’d rather avoid.
I took a quick breath.”Maybe. I mean, I have good friends you haven’t met. It’s a big school.”
The lines around her mouth relaxed.
“Andy is pretty nice; we have general science together. We make a good team, figure things out well.”
But it’s not Andy; it’s his friend, Julian, that I think about after class ends.
“Oh? Do we know his parents?”
“No. Or his best friend’s parents. Julian.” I tried to not say his name aloud around here. It tendd to come out like it just did, with a little too much emphasis, quietly important.
“Julian.” Mom’s light eyebrows rose and fell. She got it. “He’s in sports or choir, too?”
“Julian? Track and field. Andy is in choir. He–Julian– likes to swim, too, so sometimes I see him at the pool.”
“Well, he’s athletic and smart, I gather?”
That’s all I’d tell her. Unless she told me something. She resumed reading her magazine, acting as if this is not the thrilling info she’d tell Dad as soon as she got him alone. I sat by her and she looked sideways, her sudden smile a sign of success.
“Mom. My turn. Why not the bridge crossing?”
She sucked in her lower lip, squashed it with her teeth then pursed them both. Her shoulders went up and back. I knew she was getting ready to argue before one was even in the making. That is how Mom can be sometimes.
Her voice was tight. “I don’t like bridges. Not on foot. And that one is not in the best shape, did you see the moss creeping in? Moss weakens things, I think. Slippery when wet, too. And the river runs fast there. I like it here, back from the water a little. It’s restful. The cabin was a good investment and a nice retreat for the family. But I’ll leave bridge crossings to you and Dad since you manage these things so well.”
The last sentence sounded like an accusation or complaint.
“You mean, we actually like the outdoors, getting dirty and taking that huge risk to cross the water?”
“Well, you take off with Dad a lot. Garrett and I can only play so many hands of Uno. Or his computer games. Which are dreary.”
“Okay, Mom, you can always drag him along and join in!”
I was more than irritated. She got something from me, something I wanted to stay private longer. But here we are in the woods at our wonderful new cabin. I’m happier and she lets down, too. So if I can take a chance and share, why not take her turn and reveal her secret? The one about the bridge? It seemed only fair.
“We do but it’d be nice to spend more time with you. You’re on the go all the time–always up and at ’em as if life is moving target. I’m trying to be understanding but I can’t keep up with you.”
I got up, the sofa releasing dust from years of use and also neglect. It faces the front cabin windows years of sunlight have faded the plaid.
“So the bridge is off-limits but you can interrogate me about boyfriends.” I started off then lookd back. “If you want to just hang out here, fade like the sofa, fine. Dad and I love nature and adventure, that’s all!”
“Marly, that’s not necessary!”
Dad entered the room with Garrett. He was holding up two trout, scales reflecting light. A sleek, smelly prize. I thoguth about trout dinner as I rushd out the cabin.
“Oh boy, Marly’s in trouble!” Garret called after me.
The next morning I take a run and end up at the bridge. I sit against a big white oak; its rich red leaves captivate me. Everywhere I look are prismatic colors of trees changing from summer to fall to winter. I want to cross over the bridge, make a beeline through the woods. Take a couple hours’ hike. But do not.
I just can’t worry anyone. I don’t want this gorgeous fall day to be influenced by yesterday’s fuss about boys and Mom’s middle age and the friction we try to avoid. But I can’t be the kind of daughter she wants most. I’m athletic and she has a delicate grace. I’m quiet where she is chatty. What matters to me is being out in the air, moving and observing, listening. I want to be a national park ranger or a botanist. She has suggested I’d make a great lawyer because she feels I have “equanimity, even as a youth, which is something.”
In, out: lungs fill with the brisk, pungent air, then compress. It’s mid-afternoon and it’s already cooling. Falling leaves twist and float in the barest breeze. I’m just about happy again and stand, shake my long hair out of its loose bun and stretch, then run in place. I feel like beating my chest like Tarzan’s Jane. My own Jane, that is.
“Marly, I want to tell you, but it’s not that easy.”
I turn to find Mom standing with her chic–to her–teal cape on and a hand held out to me.
I take her hand–its dry and strong–and we walk to this modest but seemingly powerful bridge. Stop to survey its narrow length. She releases me and stares into the tumbling green musical depths of the river.
“I was seventeen. We’d gone camping, my boyfriend at that time and his family. It was this time of year but the end of October–I never forget that it was almost Halloween–and I’d brought my dog, Eddie, a little terrier, a gift from my parents at thirteen.” She inhales as if only now finding the air sweet as I do. “Randy and I were on a long walk. The others had started a fire and dinner preparations. It was on the verge of getting dusky, everything softer and quieter. It had rained hard the night before and all still looked and smelled rich, fresh. Our boots were getting muddy and Eddie needed a hosing down but we were having a lovely time. We came to the edge of camp and almost turned around when we saw a rickety swinging bridge.”
I turn toward her but she doesn’t see me. She’s peering into the woods.
“We wondered where the bridge led to. It was held up by rope, thick prickly rope that looked strong. Randy took my hand and we started across but I said, “‘No, wait! Eddie is coming!’ ‘It’s okay’, he said, ‘he has better balance than we do; he won’t come if he doesn’t think he should.’ But I scooped him up in my right arm and the three of us gingerly started across. I remember the bridge swaying a little but it was only about eleven or twelve feet across a deep ravine. The water was swifter than I’d realized. But it was a bright fall day, I was with Randy. I was so confident and happy. Then we paused in the middle, suddenly uncertain as a sudden shift was felt beneath our feet. Eddie started to bark like crazy and squirm. We backed up. I held onto Randy with my left hand, Eddie with my right. Randy was pulling, I lost balance then fell against the rope. And it started to give more as we saw the other side loosening its anchorage in the softened earth. It was coming apart. We swung as it started to fall.”
She faces me, dark wide eyes illuminated by flashing whites.
“Mom, it’s okay, stop.”
“And I was hanging on to Randy with one hand, Eddie in the other when Randy grabbed the slack rope and me. But Eddie was slipping. ‘Let go of him’ Randy called ‘I can’t hold you both!’ But it didn’t matter because Eddie was falling already. It was that deluge of rainwater, the muddy river banks caving. They took Eddie, covering him. And I fall right behind him. Or did I let go of Randy? I wanted Eddie safe but he was not to be seen. There was all that cascading wetness, little waves of it and the muck and bundles of splintered wood from the bridge. A weird sucking sound as I was pulled into more mud…”
“Oh no, Mom!” I hold onto her shoulders. My face must be mirroring her fear because she smooths my bangs away from my forehead as if she has to calm me.
“The thing is, I was only waist deep in the mess, pushed about but not drowning. But Eddie was a very small dog!” She closes her eyes. “He was just a lovely little dog and could not swim through strong swirling waters, not that day, anyway. I should never have taken him.”
We lower ourselves to the ground. I feel half-sick, dizzy. What an awful thing it was. But she isn’t sniffling. Her eyes are rimmed with wetness but tears don’t flow. I put my arm around her and we lean against each other.
“I truly hate foot bridges in the woods.” She shakes her head.
“I get it, Mom. A terrible thing happened to you–all of you, really.”
“It was, dear. Randy and I never went forward. I blamed me, him, me in the end. I never got another dog. And I developed a phobia of footbridges.” She pulled her cape close. “But today after you asked me about it, I thought: how absurd is this? How can this be seen as such a trauma in my life? It’s embarrassing! I’m forty-four years old. I adored Eddie and was heartbroken. But I have not ever tried to walk over even one ordinary bridge. So daughter, let’s get it done.”
She stands and I follow suit. We ready ourselves at the bridge where she indicates I start first. She does not hold on to me. Every step I take, I look back until she tells me to keep my eyes forward and don’t stop. I do not dawdle. As soon as we arrive she starts back, this time faster, with more sure steps. The light skims her ebony and greying hair. It brightens her teal fringed cape and when she lets go of the wooden railing and walks with hands held aloft, her gold bracelets gleaming, her knee-high chestnut leather boots glowing–well, she looks like some exotic bird-woman who has found her way home. And I see her –just for an instant, a brief glimpse into a private place that holds my heartfelt, dazzling, brave mother as a person separate from me. Then she is once more just my mom.
When we find the earth beneath us we whoop like a couple of wild women, our voices carrying all the way down the road. That’s what Rhett Boy and Dad say when they find us laughing and tossing leaves at each other along Slaughter’s Runnel.