The river was brown and full. The February floods had come and gone, leaving the banks strewn with branches and tangled vines. The Rock baked, round and familiar, three backyard-swimming-pool lengths away.
You waded in knee deep, toes reading the slimy uneven stones, skin crawling through weeds. Pushed off. Boogie board slapping the stillness. You were tempted to lift your knees and feet and hands and arms out and above the murky unknown, balance on your belly and hold the monsters at bay, never touching down, but The Rock called for late summer adventure, so, with the thrill of courage slipping down your spine, you dipped in and started paddling quickly across the divide.
There was Dad swimming freely ahead, coming up to The Rock, splashing its surface with river so it wasn’t too hot, and then hauling body up the slippery side to flop down in the steaming warmth. His red Speedos loomed closer than real in the shifting afternoon heat.
I am paddling hard. I hear my little sister splash in behind me. Her whole body in the river and just her moppy, straw-colored head poking out, chin resting on the board. “You’re a water baby, Shaeli,” Mum would tell her; “you always were. Look at those strong shoulders and broad chest. You’re a born swimmer.”
And she is. She’s just turned eight but she’s got big arms and lungs and she’s not scared of the river; she doesn’t seem to feel things gripping and slipping and pulling her under as she chugs along, kicking to her own little song: Row row row your boat, row your motor boat, kick start a monkey’s fart, don’t forget your coat.
Behind Shaeli I see Mum on the causeway fussing with my little brother, her belly big, big, big. I wonder if she’ll push and glide her way out to the rock today, on her back, roundness to the sun, with little Jack in floaties splashing along beside. Lately she’s been slowing with the heat.
I am nearly eleven so I can’t tell anyone about the monsters, and, of course, they’re not really real. It’s just the weeds and shadows from the straggly casuarinas hanging out over the water. It’s fish and platypus. Eels, as scared of me as I am of them. It’s just my very active imagination. Still, my heart is beating too hard as I pull up to the hot rock and scrabble onto its dry-land safety. Hopping from one foot to the other. The soles of my feet are burning, but it’s not just that; I’ve got the willies in me today. This flood has stirred things up, the river is all reddy-brown and thick, and I don’t trust what I can’t see.
Just a few weeks before, you had watched the neighbor’s music shed get gently swept off its bearings and flipped upside down by the flood. It had silently made its way, like a raft on an invisible rope, across the paddock of brown water and ended up in some trees downstream. You had watched the cows in the field below gather and low on their shrinking island until the river enclosed that too, and they were forced to swim with the rising current. You wondered if the water would keep on rising forever. The rain had stopped but still the river was fed relentlessly from the surrounding mountains. The roads were blocked, and Mum and Dad made jokes about an early labor and an unexpected home delivery. It was Valentine’s Day. The Valentine’s Day flood of ’92, they came to say.
You and your sister rode the rivulets like water slides down the creases of hill. Bright yellow rain coats billowing as you bailed onto lush green grass. The water gushed on, flowing out under the barbed-wire fence and across the road, peeling, like your laughter, into the field below. Everything sparkled and groaned with growth and the sudden weight of water—it had been a dry summer.
There you were on the side of the small mountain you called home. Listening to the build-up… the rain, the radio and the adults’ voices. Watching the river rise into view and then break its banks as if it were an overflowing bath, gently filling in the gaps and spaces up to and across the road. It was exciting, and besides, you got to skip a few days’ school.
“Here, jumpy!” Dad pulls the boogie board onto the rock beside me. “You don’t want a hot bot, do you?” he jokes. I sit on the board, grateful for its damp coolness. “It’s a scorcher!” Dad’s up and squinting back across the river’s slow expanse to where Mum stands with her feet in the shallows. She waves, and he waves back in this silly exaggerated way that ends with him half falling, half diving off the rock.
I’m still laughing as Shaeli reaches us, pulling through the water with one hand, the other hand resting on the bright orange board. As she reaches for the rock, Dad swims under her and launches her up and over the lip so she lands with a splash in a jumble of arms and legs next to me. “Do it again! Do it again!” she squeals and skids back down the slimy bit we call the slippery-dip. Dad’s swimming around just below the surface with his hands poking up together like a shark fin. He’s coming toward us. Shaeli screams…. Whoosh! The shark sends her back up the slippery rock in a wave of water and high-pitched squeals.
My board shifts below me. “Daa-aad! It’s like a tidal wave up here. You nearly knocked me off!”
I tuck my feet in so I’m almost a ball. Lean back, eyes closed, face to the sun. I see red patterns dancing across the inside of my eyelids, a swirling world of shapes and shadows moving in and out of focus. I screw up my face, trying to make sense of the shifting pictures, but they keep moving and merging, like clouds trapped in a kaleidoscope. I think I see faces—a boy’s face, maybe? I see crisscross light and dark in an arc like a bridge; it gets swirled off out of sight by a whirlpool that seems to hollow out to some place beyond the red, into some kind of other world or universe, like a vortex or a black hole I feel myself sinking through…
You dreamed of monsters. The same dream as always. Of small hands with too many fingers reaching from murky, slimy depths. Of anonymous body parts, separated from person, drifting and bumping against your feet as you try to kick free.
You awoke, or at least you thought you did, gasping for air, held under some kind of wooly blanket. Red suffocation. Something or someone sitting on your chest, bearing down, your face smooshed sideways, mouth open, breath rasping. You wanted so badly to get up, to live and walk and gulp back cool air and water. Every fiber of your being strained for movement as you lay there pinned to The Rock like an insect specimen. Body told it is no more than this. Hot. Thirsty. Somewhere you heard crying… no, laughing! that… is… laughing. You tried to find your voice to call out. Help! The word bounced around inside your head.
Then there was roaring.
Whoosh! I am lying on the rock and covered by a small, wet, squirmy body.
I am awake.
My sister is pulling herself off me, giggling. Dad the shark prowls the waters below with a big sloppy grin plastered across his face. Shaeli stands over me, triumphant and dripping. She throws her head back and releases a high-pitched cackle. She has river weeds in her hair, and so do I.
“Shaeli, I was, like, sleeping. Ugh!” My voice is shaky.
“You were daydreaming, more like it,” she reports in her smarty-pants voice, “and you daydreamed me into the land of the living. I am the witch of the river-bottom. The River-bottom Witch. And I’ve come to get yoooooouuuuu!” She is shaking her witchy river-bottom in my face and cackling and laughing like a lunatic.
I’m not impressed. I pull the weeds from my hair and stuff them down her swimmers.
“Last one off the rock is a river-bottom witch’s itchy bottom,” yells Dad.
Now I shriek with laughter. I don’t stop to think. I stand and leap two steps. One, two. Jumping a great jump, curling my legs up tight beneath me, I bomb the bejeezus out of my little sister, who’s still standing on the rock pulling green tendrils from her crotch.
Splash! I feel with relief the coolness of the brown water. It is soft and smells all earthy. I can touch the edge of the rock with my toes if I want to. Gently, I do a backward mermaid roll, feeling the grace and ease of the water on my baked skin. Dad slides by and gives me a gentle smile. I am awake, and monsters are about as real as my sister’s river-bottom witch with her river bottom itch.
How deep is it, Dad? you asked. Can you touch the bottom? He looked at you and your sister, and perhaps there was a slight fear playing around his mouth, but he took the curious dare with a big breath and disappeared beneath the still and murky surface. You counted one elephant skin… two elephant skin… three… it felt like a long time and you found yourself moving over to the shallowest submerged part of The Rock as the seconds stretched on.
You had heard the adults talking that night of the flood. The Friday you couldn’t go to school because all the low parts of the roads into town were covered with rushing water. The Brushbar bridge had been washed away, they said, and with it six people. A wall of water, the local radio said; it pulled the clothes from their bodies. It’s a miracle anyone survived.
“Thirteen elephant skin… fou—ahhhhggh!” The shark’s back and this time it tickles my toes, so softly it takes me a whole count to notice and another to leap out of my skin. “Daaa-aaad! You scared me!” I protest as his face bursts through the still surface. I am pleased to see him though.
He looks at me thoughtfully. “Ya know, it’s not that deep,” he says. “If you can hold your breath for ten seconds, you can easily touch the bottom and live to tell the tale.”
“Let me try. Let meeee.” Shaeli is up and bouncing.
“No, no, Shaeli. This is for people who have double digits in their ages”. He winks at me. “Shaeli, we need you to count!”
The river tries to hold me up. I feel its thickness balancing me toward the sky, like it is more solid then water. I give Dad my hand, take a deep breath, and let him pull me through.
It’s not as though he really knew them, but something about the missing father and son hit close to home for Dad. You heard him one morning soon after it happened: They were all just standing on the bridge watching the logs roll by on the floodwaters below. It was an old bridge, but not that old. It was a freak accident. It could have been anyone. It might have been us. He had been crying as he spoke. You could hear the low, comforting murmur of Mum saying something. It was a private grief witnessed by small ears through a thin wall.
He’d joined in the search. Three days of scoring the river’s banks downstream from the bridge, but to no avail. You wanted to go too. Mark had been two grades above you at school. You had ridden the same school bus since you first moved to the area five years ago. One time, in choir, the music teacher singled you both out to demonstrate the harmonies. The song was “Bright Eyes.” You each held your part. You’d felt all warm inside for the sound of it.
Eyes squeezed shut, I feel the slow warmth of that upper layer give way to cold and slick. Dad is moving strongly beside me, pushing up and out with his free arm. We go feet first. Down, down. His hand is tight on my wrist.
I open my eyes. It is mostly dark except for the dim sunlight filtering through the murk above and casting eerie shadows. I should be afraid, but instead I feel held. Like the water is my friend and I may never need to breathe again. I let myself be pulled deeper.
The evening before it was washed away, you and Dad had stopped off at the bridge on the way home from your after-school music lesson. Just a quick look, he’d told you. It was almost dinnertime. The river sure had come up fast since the morning. You scuttled over to the railing, through warm, heavy drops, and squinted in some kind of awe at the closeness of the water, reached your hand down as though you might touch the thick frothy chocolate milkshake river and lick your fingers after. Good chance she’ll break her banks if this keeps up, Dad had shouted over rain and river as you skipped back to the car. Soggy and thrilled, you sat in the front passenger seat on the way home, staring transfixed as sheets of water bucketed off the windscreen.
I see swirling patterns of dusty red. Around me, flickering pictures emerge and play across the periphery of my vision, ceaselessly shifting in the eerie half-light, dissolving back into general ebb and flow wherever I fix my gaze. I see the crisscross of bridge belly and sides. There are people suspended above me looking down. Here is a snapshot of surprise. And here is horror as the solid structure melts away from beneath their feet. It is almost effortless the way the river reaches and pulls them in, merges their individual forms with its own until they are one, until they are none. Beneath the surface is chaos of bodies and broken bridge wood. I feel limbs brush against me like monsters. I know the terror in the gripping and the sadness in the slipping. I make the boy’s face out of the shifting shadows. He is scared. My head pulses with lullaby: “Hushabye, close your eyes, nice and tight, you’ll be all right, you couldn’t know, it’s time to go… It’s time to go… It’s time to go.”
My feet touch the river bottom’s silt and I wrench my hand free from Dad’s grip. This is no place for me. I need breath and light and trees. I need the steadiness of the rock, with my sister counting and my mum and brother paddling in the shallows, that unborn baby swimming into position. I pull through a long weed and shoot toward the light. I am ready. The boy is there too, swimming loosely beside me; he is not grasping anymore. I feel his strength pushing me up, giving me back. I hit the warm thick of the surface and the last thing I see is his hand waving, swirling off into the currents and eddies of river red and brown. He will go now, I know. I burst through into sweet, sweet everyday miracles of nothing and everything. Shaeli counts “ten” and Dad is beside me shaking his curls like a dog on the beach.
Some kind of a deal was brokered with God, or was it with the river, that day. You said you wouldn’t be afraid of monsters anymore if the river would just offer up its secrets. You would be so brave forevermore if the river would just give up its special hiding place for Mark and his dad. Let them be found. Let their spirits rest. Courage seemed like the biggest thing you could offer the river. The monsters had always scared you.
One, two three, there we are back in the brown sluggish water. Me on my board paddling slow, paddling strong. Dad’s on Shaeli’s board; it looks small beneath him. Shaeli is on her back holding his feet and kicking out behind her. She’s singing again, and I hear bits of “Puff the Magic Dragon” through the splashing sounds. I can see Mum, chatting to a neighbor on the causeway; he’s hanging out the window of his truck, engine running. Mum’s hands are moving, making pictures out of air. She’s always good for a yarn.
We paddle into the shallows. Jack’s sitting there amongst the slimy rocks, floaties on, sucking on a big old mussel shell. Dad pulls him onto the orange boogie board, and Jack flexes his little body and makes motor sounds in his throat.
A hat brim is touched and the truck drives off. Mum picks her way over to us.
“Hoody?” Dad asks.
“Yes. Hoody. He’s on his way back from the sale-yards.” Mum pauses to grab Shaeli, who is sneaking up behind her with some river weeds. “Oh, you little monster!”
“I’m the river-bottom witch,” she chirps.
“With the river bottom itch,” I pipe up. Mum raises an eyebrow at Dad.
“Witty children?” he suggests.
“If fart jokes are witty, yes.” Mum has a wry smile. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, now, does it?”
I like it when they talk like this. Teasing and in their own world. Mum scoops Shaeli into some kind of hug across her broad belly. Shaeli rests her head there, listening in quiet concentration.
“Hoody says they found the boy; they found Mark.” Mum’s voice is low.
“Oh.” Dad, delicately lifting his spirit to the news. It’s always hard to hold these things.
“This morning. Down by the weir in Parry’s field.”
“No sign of David yet?” So that was Mark’s dad’s name.
Mum shakes her head.
“He was such a good artist, that kid. I remember even in grade three, when I taught him, he would draw the most interesting pictures. Detailed. And really stylized. His own way of seeing.” I had heard this before. This was Mum’s way of remembering Mark. I wonder if he still liked art in high school.
Shaeli yelps. “It kicked me. The baby kicked my head”. I move in to feel, to rest my head. To listen. To hug Mum. Hum to the baby.
“I reckon this baby’s about done.” She’s smiling a great weary smile at Dad.
“Let’s go home and make tea.” He’s up, board under one arm, Jack wriggling under the other, singing, “You gotta fly away on home, hallelujah,” as he makes his way over to Mum. The end of the hallelujah is swallowed in a firm meeting of lips and breath. I look back across the river’s brown to the distant rock; it’s mostly in shadow now, the sun dropping behind the casuarinas. I turn, hopping my way over the hot uneven stones. I know the words.
“Standin’ in the trees, I get lifted by the leaves
and carried away by the wind.
Turnin’ around, I touch down on the ground
and then I’m drifted away again.
You’ve got to fly away on home, hallelujah.
Fly away on home.
And get carried away by the wind.”
You thought I was gone but I linger still. I heard the song on your father’s lips, the prayer on your mother’s tongue. Things change form, shift space, but they never just disappear. The river is never the same river twice, and stories change in the telling. I slipped between the folds of red and brown and you saw me go. And then you didn’t see me at all. But you sang along anyway.
Note: Song lyrics are from “Fly Away Home” by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils.
Told from the alternating voices of a flood survivor and a boy who was drowned,
this provocative story draws the reader in and won’t let go. In stunningly beautiful prose,
we are swept into the twining currents of hope and sorrow, until no breath is left on either side.
—Kathi Appelt, 2012 Katherine Paterson Prize Judge