Crossing at Slaughter’s Runnel

 

Photo from Public Domain

“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.

“Never mind.”

“What, Mom?”

“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.

“Okay.”

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.”

“What–now?”

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.

 

Water Likes Her, Not Me

Photo by Mary Ellen Mark
Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

My Marnie had her own entrenched ideas even as a toddler, so when she took to the water like it was her calling, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I gave her a thunderous “No!” but I couldn’t stop it any more than I could stop birds vanishing into a vaporous sunset. She was paired up with it from birth, like my mother, somehow. It had nothing to do with my priorities. My terrors.

I never have trusted the water. It’s too much everywhere, cannot stop closing itself over you when you stick so much as a little toe in it. It is obvious it has the power to consume you. It flows as if from an endless supply. Curls around the perimeter of the sodden earth with impatience. It’s wily, that’s what, beckoning and tantalizing you until it is too late. How can something so enchanting from a distance–the light riffing over it like fingertips playing a silvery blue instrument–feel so inconstant, even onerous, up close?

I know, you’re thinking it took someone from me or there was another tragic event and that is why I’m inclined to temper her interest. Not so. Everyone in my family swam as I grew up; we had a deep river behind our home. Not more than two and a quarter miles down the road was a lake. And beyond that, the sea, although it took four hours to arrive.

So that you have knowledge of my genes: my mother, tall and sinewy, demonstrated beyond normal athletic prowess whether she was at work or play, in stationary landscape or unstable watery scenario. My father did alright himself, though two inches shorter than she and less agile. They were brainy yet brawny. We were not afraid of really anything, the four of us kids, and were taught from babyhood to take to water as well as all else in nature, within reason.

“Far better to know its ways now,” Mother said as she dipped my youngest baby sister’s legs into the river. The infant squealed and smiled.

“Far better to be prepared, I agree–to save yourself rather than to depend on help,” Father intoned, as suited his pessimistic perspective.

“They find it friendly. Water, the river and lake and ocean. They’ll know how to move with water, get strong, enjoy themselves without anxiety.”

“There is always something else to fear unless you are well-armed with information–lest we kid ourselves,” Father muttered but she didn’t hear him. She had already taken my sister into the current, holding her firmly, watching her surprised face.

He glanced at me as if recalling how I was their exception to the family rule. I would not go willingly into the river. Nor a bath tub. In and out of the shower, in and out of any water whatsoever and that was more than enough.

Mother had been a swimmer long before Father was around. Won awards, competed. He, on the other hand, cared about and respected water as life-giver. He fished, he dug up clams, he nourished our garden with it. He harvested rain water. They shared activities like boating and water skiing and ice fishing. We did, too, or rather, I was also often dragged along with my cheerful siblings. And I was repelled by it and sometimes (guiltily) them.

When I was born Mother said I recoiled as soon as I left her protection and plummeted into open water, so unlike the womb’s. She would know since she had home births, slid us right into new water, the LeBoyer method. (They were quasi-hippies then. My father was a scientist at a research facility, my mother a biology teacher. They lived as much off the land as much as they could muster.) I suspect she was disappointed in me from the start but strove not to divulge it. It made poor sense to either of them that they produced someone who was only wedded to pencil, paper and books, who found excessive physical exertion anathema as often as not. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do things, run and  play basketball behind our house, ride a bike as well as others. I did and enjoyed myself. I liked the ground beneath me. But I liked to be still, too. Water was another story. It was so wet and sneaky. Voluminous. Shape shifting.

If Mother hoped I would have a change of mind about water, she didn’t indicate it. I could dog paddle out of a will to live, I could float if not able to paddle. They were fair parents, or considered themselves such, and encouraged me in my reading, writing, and developing observational powers. I was, Father noted, more akin to himself than to her. I sort of liked ice fishing with him. Our silence. The solidity of the lake. I liked examining insects and seeds, even animal scat. They told accessible stories.

But my brother and two sisters, they were demons about it, my water deficit. I had my share of being pushed into the river, being led to the lake in a blindfolded game, being told the tide was going out when it was coming in and being stricken with catatonia when the waves grabbed my ankles. I was dunked more than I could bear but I could hold my breath a long while, to my utter surprise. I could find safety by getting my feet on mucky land beneath me or, eventually, at the final edges of water. (Did this liquid possess even a blurred edge? It seeped into earth, washed over something.)

“Stop goading her,” Mother would say with a wave of her hand, as if it was nothing serious–though she’d rescue me if needed.

“Stop endangering her welfare, children! She is not a water child but a fixed earth child. You cannot change a creature’s natural habitat.” Father bellowed often, then returned to his projects.

That “fixed earth” bit: I wondered over that, how he’d borrowed from astrology–I am a Taurus–when he was a scientist, but the truth of it was evident. But they both got brimming with philosophical talk so perhaps that’s how they explained my personality, an anomaly: of the stars.

Anyway, it was suspended around age fourteen, my sullen resistance, as well as the teasing.

I was taken sailing with my first summer boyfriend, Jon, after we met at Loon Lake. His parents had a Sunfish and not wanting to tell him I was afraid to go out on it, I sat down and clung to its sides, staring at his bronzed beauty. I imagined my parents would be astonished by the tale I’d tell when I got back. This gave me courage. We bumped along endless wavelets and those more threatening. I just didn’t want to capsize out there, feel the water yank at legs and arms, ruffle my swimsuit, take me even a few seconds to its dreamy depths. I had a life vest on but it seemed like a flimsy foil for the lake’s unpredictable moves. I prayed for safety and let Jon do the work. The wind let up enough that we slowly began to sail easily. Gratitude lifted my spirit as we slid along. It was a sweet, bright-blue July day following a thunderstorm, as if all the irritations within water and air had been driven out.

And then we glided, lifted off the known world.

Jon cjecked with me often. I bravely followed his instructions as he maneuvered the small boat. I forgot to ward off anxiety. I just thought, If I fall in, I’ll bounce along with head up, it’s okay. If I must drown, Jon will be there the last moment. He was good-natured and at ease, the first boy to pay me attention. I discovered out there that if I acted as if I could do something, I could manage it, not without some trembling and misgiving, but it did get done.

It felt like being on a small ship adrift in an azure sky, I thought, soft wind in our hair, sun so near it felt like second skin. The rising and falling of the Sunfish was more like a lift and a roll, a boat dancing, a boy and a girl having a time together. Water splashed onto us and felt silky-cool. The shore and its cottages looked like a miniature movie set. I liked that we were far without being too very far. It was, by the end, as if we were under a summer spell. I did not want to get off and could have bobbed along for the rest of the day, at least.

But Jon left in two short weeks. We never even kissed, just fumbled. I felt stunned by his departure, and spent time puzzling over how a person I barely knew could so affect me. I had a few dreams about him and the lake; they were both unnerving and magnificent.

I didn’t tell my parents about the Sunfish ride until he left.

“You braved the elements, got out there and sliced through the water, just like that?” Father asked. “How did you even know he was expert enough to take you out?”

“I am sure he strongly persuaded you, but all ends well, so good for you. You’re learning how to take more chances!” Mother added, then her brow wrinkled as if she thought better of her words, but too late for her second young daughter. “So, you might be a water baby yet?”

“I’ll take you out in the canoe tomorrow.”

“No thanks, sorry, I’m done.”

I retreated to my chair and book. I could not be enticed again. It was Jon and his sailboat that held the magic key and they were gone. That time out was a separate experience. It was out of sync with my life, a bright sprinkling of mystery, a wash of perculiar emotions. An inkling of young love. I avoided the water again though my parents and siblings were befuddled by it. I grew up and nothing else happened to disabuse me of my idea that water was fundamental, crucial to living things but otherwise a choice to like or not. I still did not.

I once told my daughter, Marnie, the sailboat story and she was unimpressed by my sophmore courage. She knew of her grandmother’s water prowess–she still swam and dove and went on boating adventures at seventy. I could never live up to that. My mother had also told Marnie she had it living in her blood, the champion swimming gene, she could tell by her long torso and wide shoulders, how easily she took to it. She was impressing gym teachers by then. My pleading for a very conservative involvement, rather than full immersion of daily hours, meant nothing.

“What are you worried about, Mom?”

“That you’ll grow fins.”

“Already have.”

“That you’ll grow fins and run off to be with the mermaids and mer-gents and never return.”

“Well, I hadn’t thought of that. Sort of crazy, Mom.”

“I always worried, you see, well, uh, that I might corrode or melt if I was in the water for more than a few minutes. That it might change me. I didn’t want to be so changed.”

She looked at me as if she was looking at a stranger, then laughed hard. “Yeah, it makes people happier to swim and play in water! You’re a funny ole mom…”

I wasn’t thinking when I spoke honestly. Or whenever I was in the water, for that matter. It was a visceral thing, something that came over me and propelled me back to all shores. I felt bodies of water were mainly for looking at and listening to–fine for senses and mind–and respecting for their places in the natural schemata. Having moments with it scattered about. Not deluding yourself into thinking you could manipulate it, harness its force, outwit it. I knew better.

“I don’t want to work against it, Mom, I want to be one with it,” Marnie said before her recent race.

It was then that it all made more sense. I always had felt that way about the earth, then my vegetable and flower gardens, and finally my work as a landscape designer: an adoration of form and function, beauty and mysteries. It was like living a prayer, following earth’s wisdom. I needed to meld with nature’s abundance, with gravity of land. Oh, the miraculous dirt.

I studied her from where I sat at the swim meet. She had mighty strokes that would beat all the others in the pool. She was freed by the water, given an infusion of personal power, transported to another plane. When she won, I closed my eyes and was on the Sunfish, riding water’s permeable, floatable surface, water and air molecules working together for the good accord of all. And we nearly flew. How I missed that sensation, that light on the undulating surface, a sense of strength I had never felt before coupled with a willingness to surrender.

I didn’t say to her, I might take to the water sometime, we might swim together one day. But I knew it then, just as I knew Marnie had been fortunate enough to be born to it. Water loves her well. She, it. I want to understand this world from a new perspective, as well as follow her adventures. Water and I, we may well be uneasy together but that doesn’t mean we haven’t found a new point of common ground. I will just have to push off, learn as I go.