It was a river wild, a river rogue. A summer day long ago, a day of rushing water, a summer on the edge of adulthood.
I remember it as an unusually hot day for the land we lived in. We were itching to cool off, to break away from the confines of starched clothing and rigid rules around the house, one last good swim before school started up again. Time to run off, to the water, to the ledges overlooking a mountain pool. This area had been a spot for years. We knew where the rocks were that would ruin your day with a good C 6 or 7 fracture. We knew where the current would gently propel you to the shore when you started to go numb with the cold that stole into the pale rigidity of the rest of your bones.
Even as a child, I found something magical in water. I'd stand in it thigh deep, fishing, I'd wade in it, as a child at camp, the small laps of waves from passing canoes pressing up against my back, coming and going, but always present. As children, rain crashing down, we'd rush to go out in it, seeing not cold, not wet, but drops of wonder on everything around us. We'd look at our shadows on the ground as the sun came back, wondering why the shadow was shaped like us, but nothing else, a mirror that is not a mirror. Wondering why when I looked straight into the sun, I saw a perfect pure circle of light. Hope personified.
Growing up out West, water was everywhere. It was a land of blue streams tickled with trout, dying fall leaves flinging themselves into the water, flotillas of the lost, splattering the water with yellow light. It was still waters as green as the scent of rain, frogs moaning with boredom in hushed summer light. Soft pale air breathes on skin, a lover's moist breath. Pine needles snap under my feet as I'm drawn to the water like flame, a rush of steelhead scented water over stone, the communion of movement.
We didn't have a mall, so on that long ago summer day, we hung around the water. We gathered near bridges that could be jumped off of, near streams in which you could paddle around like a pre-school kiddie pool. The older kids, the braver ones, would jump off the rocks or grab an inner tube and then propel down through some rushing water to a pool further down. Not I, for I was still too shy, too fearful of the rush of ice cold water, the rocks.
I paddled around, hoping he'd notice me, hesitant to grab a inner tube and hit the faster water, cursed by my shyness, but emboldened by something I couldn't even name yet. I was the youngest person there. I was immensely out of my place yet in my element, outdoors. But I saw the other girls, they of the tight clothing and disdainful eyes, gathered around him. I figured it was now or never. With a deep breath of courage I went up to him and asked. "Do you want to go to the dance with me?" It was one of those Sadie Hawkins things where the girls ask the boys.
He looked at me as the girls giggled, standing straight and rigid, the curiously formal angle of his arms gleaming in the sunlight, immaculate and empty but for my heart which he now held.
He looked at me and said "God no."
The words that struck were no louder than the striking of a flint against stone, a short, sharp sound that spoke with profound finality. In that moment I truly saw him, not the romantic version I'd created in my girlish head, but the real person, there underneath, the eyes cold, the mouth hard and open like a dark, empty cave.
I retreated to the sound of the girls laughter. Tears stung my eyes, but I wasn't going to let them see how deeply I was hurt. I turned and grabbed an inner tube, and head held high, dived right in. My tears mixed with the water as I rode the rushing flood of water that came sluicing down, the water moving fast, grabbing my baggy little kids shorts and pulling me on, hurry, hurry. down and forward.
The water was not so deep and fast to as to be overly dangerous for a good swimmer, but enough, so that for this moment, this little band nerd was part of something wild, wet and unstoppable, something so much bigger than this single day in a life. As I came rushing down the sluice way in that torrent of water, something as well spilled out of me, was released in me, and and I rode it until the water ran still.
We've all had that experience in one form or another, in deep water or clear sky. The one that scares the stuffing out of you, or rips open a wound in a place that would know an endless capacity to hurt. Those moments, bringing out instincts ingrained in your breath, making you reticent to get back anywhere near what caused the situation in the first place. "Getting back on the horse" as they call it.
Sometimes it's a near fatal accident, a misadventure, more often it's just a badly broken heart. You'll get through it, even as the reality of it clamps down hard with sharp weasel teeth that leave scars no one else can see. But eventually the teeth will pull free, perhaps taking small bits of flesh, exposing nerve endings to the cold, but you are alive and you're learned something. That in itself is something to be thankful for, even if your heart, as they say, won't "buff out".
Talk to people who've had a near death experience on a mountain top or some other loss and some say I'm not going back. Ever. I'm not going to climb again. I'm not going to get another dog. I'm not going to need. I'm not going to trust. Many don't.
The rest look at the such events not as a failure, a loss, but a measure of that which they know they can survive. The event may fade in time, but that which it brought to you can never be destroyed, it's the full measure of life and love, cataloged back in memory to be retrieved in later years, when it can and will, save you again. It's that moment when you know what you are made of, and what you are capable of, of surviving, of feeling.
Years later, I'm back, kayaking the same area with a couple of friends when we come across the same stretch of water, the pools milling around like restless teens, hoping to be left alone, while desperately wanting to be noticed. There's been some rain, just enough to raise up the water level to the level of our spirits. We grab our kayaks and go in, the water yanking at the edge of that last bit of fear, pulling us down, water fast and huge and furious. Once we picked up the paddle, there was no going back, we had to be there, to see if to the end or die trying, water in a place that's inside of us, water in a place that's somehow holy.
The fear of my youth was gone, replaced by a world much bigger than a small cliquish school. My heart was strong, built up by being broken down, bad choices and healed wounds, one defined moment of sacrifice as a teen that became my biggest act of courage. The water lifted us, and we were part of it, strong, fast, so much bigger than ourselves. Water flew up around me and licked my skin, turning parts of me hard, and parts of me liquid, water rushing on, rushing in.
It's only fear of the what you don't know that holds you back, while upward a huge unknown, your future, beckons. Awaits in a rush of roaring water, awaits in a still pool in the evening, where past hurt is left lying upon a drifting and imponderable shore, washed clean in the yellow afternoon.
Water leaves it marks. Gouges from rivulets in the calloused summer soil, as if scraped by hard nails. Marks that will not fade until the water flow again, but it does, like cleansing rain, washing the landscape clean.
At the end of the run, as we got the kayaks to shore, I saw a man in jeans with dark hair, a man who resembled someone at this very spot so very many years ago. It wasn't of course, but for just a moment I hoped it was, so he could see what he'd passed up and I could validate why things can make us stronger, if we only dare.
For now, it's time to head on down river to the cars and soon a place to camp. Time for a warm fire and the laughter of friends, releasing our day with the stories we tell. We paddle gently down into a calm pool, floating down streams, like veins, that let the forest bleed.