A father. His daughter. His daughter’s daughter. A river. No, that’s not right. The River. Theirs is a story that began long ago. But it hasn’t ended yet. And The River flows through it.
by Tamia Nelson | May 10, 2018
Originally published in different form in different places in other years.
The girl found The River irresistible. Whenever she could, she scrambled over the cliff that rose precipitously from the swift waters. The snowmelt‑swollen spring torrents carved deep potholes in the cliff’s sheer walls, and when the floods receded, the girl sometimes found stranded trout in those dark recesses, swimming frantically in futile circles. That’s when she taught herself how to tickle trout, catching the imprisoned fish in her hands before returning them to The River. It was a difficult job, even a dangerous one at times, but seeing the trout swim free was all the reward that she asked — or wanted.
When she wasn’t climbing the cliff, the girl often dabbled in The River’s shallows, turning over cobbles to see who might be living under them. And sometimes she spent hours doing nothing more than watching The River flow — watching as it swirled around boulders, leapt over drops, and then reared up in steep standing waves, only to subside into ripples and linger long in tranquil moving pools.
In winter, however, she reluctantly turned her back on The River, exploring the woods that ran for many miles along its banks. She almost never ventured onto The River’s frozen margins. Her brother had died doing just that. The ringing ice that had seemed so solid when he stepped out on it proved to be as fragile as fine crystal, plunging him into the swift, dark waters, a prison from which there was no parole. It was a lesson the girl was unlikely to forget. So, when her world assumed an arctic aspect, the woods became her refuge. She slogged along on babiche bearpaws, following the tracks of fisher, fox, and hare, while towering white pines stood silent witness to her passage and spindrift sparkled in the winter sun.
She never once questioned her need to be outside in all seasons. It had marked her from her earliest days. Perhaps, as the saying then went, it was in her blood. Her father, too, was a woods‑wanderer and frequenter of secret waters, a farm boy who, early on in life, had traded his tractor for a rod and rifle. Remarkably — this just wasn’t done in those days — he nurtured his daughter’s bump of curiosity, sharing his love of wild places with her whenever the opportunity arose.
But this love, he knew, was not enough. His son’s death was proof of that — if, that is, any proof was wanted. The River gave no quarter to the unprepared. So he saw to it that his daughter had the skills she’d need to meet The River on its own terms. A strong swimmer himself, who often sported, dolphin‑like, among the waves and eddies, he was well‑suited to the task. And when the girl, his daughter, was still very young, he brought her to The River with him. At first she rode on his broad back as he paddled around one of The River’s many pools, but before long she was swimming tentatively beside him in the shallows.
Time passed. The girl grew stronger. Now only a final lesson remained. It came on a smiling summer day. The girl ran with her father into The River, then climbed up on his back, in a stretch of water where the current ran swift. The father swam away from shore. But this time he did not turn around as the river bottom dropped away. Instead, he struck out for a large boulder in midstream, and when they reached the rock, the man boosted his daughter up onto it. Then, without a word of explanation to the girl, he started to swim back the way that they had come. Alone.
The girl was puzzled. “Daddy,” she shouted to her father’s receding form, “you forgot me!” Was this, she wondered, some new game? She thought that likely, and when her father, already halfway to shore, pivoted around, she was certain he’d return for her.
He didn’t, though. He just sculled, silently, holding his place again the current.
To the girl, waiting to see what her father would do next, the rushing waters of The River seemed to be getting louder and swifter with each passing moment. Then her father spoke, shouting to make himself heard over The River’s clamor. “You’re a big girl, now. You can swim back on your own.”
That was all he said. And when he’d finished saying it, he turned round and continued toward the shore.
Now the girl was afraid. The River roared in her ears, its hurtling waters swirling white on all sides of the rock on which she sat. Soon she had started to cry, calling out now and then for her father to fetch her. But by this time he was sitting on a log at The River’s edge, drinking sweet tea from a battered steel thermos. He said nothing in reply to his daughter’s cries. He just sat on the log, looking out at The River and quietly sipping tea.
After a time — it seemed a very long time to the girl — her tears stopped flowing. Crying, she realized, would not change her situation. Then she put a tentative toe into the rushing water. The toe was followed by one foot. And then the other. She looked at her father again. He was still sitting on the log, still drinking tea. He made no move to come to her. He didn’t even seem particularly concerned by her plight. Impatience warred with dread in the girl’s mind now, and impatience won. She slid off the boulder and let the current take her.
She tried to touch bottom right away, hoping against hope that The River wasn’t as deep as it seemed. But the water just closed over her head, and she didn’t try again. The current was already carrying her away. So she fixed her eyes on her father and began to swim, just as she had swum alongside him in The River’s shallow pools.
For several minutes she made no progress. If anything, her father grew more distant, as The River’s pull on her body grew stronger. But the girl redoubled her efforts, and after a long struggle she could see the stubble on her father’s unshaven cheeks. She was tired now. Very tired. She kept going, though. Just a few more strokes, she told herself, a few more kicks… The River’s stony bed rose to meet her. She’d made it. On her own.
Now she was crying again, though this time her tears were tears of relief. When she noticed that her father was grinning, however, a wave of anger welled up within her. “You left me!” she yelled, in a voice that mingled outrage and accusation.
“I did,” her father placidly replied, still grinning.
“I could’ve drowned, … ” the girl began.
“But you didn’t, did you?” her father interrupted.
“And you wouldn’t have cared.”
“You know that’s not true,” her father said. Then he extended the chipped, enameled steel mug toward her. “Have some tea,” he said. “The River’s damn cold, even in summer.” Cold… Yes. It was cold. And for a moment — only the blink of any eye, really — he looked away, out over The River, thinking, no doubt, of a winter not so long past, of thin ice and of rushing water. Then his gaze returned to his daughter, and these chilling remembrances melted away.
The girl took the mug in her hands without hesitation. She drank deep. Father and daughter sat in silence for a while, looking at The River. And then they walked home together.
Never again would the girl ride on her father’s back. Soon she was exploring all of The River’s pools and riffles. Sometimes her father joined her, but mostly she swam alone, coming to know The River as only the otters knew it. And when summer thunderstorms swelled The River until it overflowed its banks and even the otters stayed on dry land, she ventured deep into the surrounding forest, following game trails and hunting mushrooms, learning the ways of the woodland birds and finding the sheltered nooks were the surly bears slumbered away the long winter.
Of course, children don’t remain children forever, and the girl was no exception. She became a woman, fell in love, and married a city boy. Her new home was far from her old haunts. The River and the woods were now little more than memories. Not that she had much leisure for reminiscing once she became a mother. Her firstborn child was a girl, and by the time her new daughter could walk, she was already proving herself to be a bit of a handful. Once, when the child was only three, she set off by herself in pursuit of a squirrel, traveling several blocks before her quarry scooted up into an oak tree, leaving the puzzled child standing on the city sidewalk, staring upward.
The woman — we can no longer call her “the girl,” can we? — was frantic with worry when her daughter wandered off, but the mother’s worry turned to a mixture of anger and relief when she ran her miscreant child to earth under the oak tree. Her anger spent itself on her daughter’s bottom, but the relief had a more lasting legacy.
“You’ll go exploring again, I know,” said the woman to her daughter, after the tears had stopped flowing. “But tell me next time, OK? Then we can go together. Do we have a deal?”
The daughter nodded in reluctant agreement. She resented having to share her adventures, but agreeing to her mother’s suggestion seemed the best way to avoid another paddling. And as things turned out, it was all for the best. Because not long afterward, the woman, her husband, and their daughter left the city and moved to a new home, a white clapboard farmhouse nestled hard against the rocky spine that divides New York from Vermont. The daughter could now see ancient mountains from her bedroom window, and a lively stream — a destination for anglers from all over the world, as it happened — flowed through a water gap in those same hills, not far from her very own front door.
It wasn’t The River, but it was still a wonderful place for adventures.
And her mother stuck to the bargain she had made with her daughter, back on the city street, under the squirrel’s watchful eye. Whenever her daughter came to her, thirsting for new horizons, her mother set aside her other chores and accompanied the young explorer. Together they wandered over fields, woods, and rills, while mother taught daughter what she had learned while still a girl herself: vital lessons about the importance of competence and courage and compassion.
They often made a game of it. “What would we do if we got lost right now?” the mother would ask, and the younger explorer would scamper off to search for a spruce with low‑hanging branches or a wind‑toppled maple that could serve as a makeshift shelter. And the game continued right through winter, as the explorers excavated snug caves in snowbanks and searched in canopied hollows for drifts of fallen leaves to act as comforters.
There were also whole days given over to the naming of things. Mother taught daughter which trees yielded edible nuts and which berries could be eaten, and where these could be found. Mother and daughter walked the banks of small streams, too, following the current’s lead and almost always ending up at a cluster of homes nestled close around an old mill site — a useful thing to remember if a solitary explorer were ever to find herself temporarily uncertain as to which way to go in strange country.
And then there was the most important lesson of all, the lesson that the mother had learned not so very long ago, when she found herself abandoned on a rock in the middle of a rushing river — that we are all of us alone when we meet the ultimate test, and that when that time comes, we must be prepared to swallow our fears and strike out boldly. Or else stay forever in one place, a prisoner in a cage of our own making.
This was the most important lesson of all.
In the beginning, the daughter had rebelled at sharing her adventures with her mother, and she kept to their bargain only after a show of grudging reluctance. But this soon changed, and the daughter now looked forward to spending time with her mother. Which was why, when more children came along and the mother was no longer free to drop everything and accompany her firstborn, the daughter felt abandoned, much as her mother had done, years ago, on that rock in the middle of The River. Still, the call of the unknown was too strong for the daughter, and she was soon striking out on her own, ranging farther and farther afield.
Yet she was never truly alone. Sometimes, when she found herself uncertain as to which way to go to get back home, or when a sudden storm had blotted out the sun and filled the air with blowing snow, or when a stream had proven to be deeper or swifter than she had thought, the daughter would sense her mother standing alongside her, ready with a reassuring word or a guiding hand, and soon all would again be well.
Child followed child into the white clapboard farmhouse, and before long the family home resembled the railroad station in the nearby town, with much bustle and many comings and goings at all hours of the day and night. (There was still such a thing as passenger rail service then, and the village seed plant was not yet a boarded‑up shell.) Money grew tighter with each new baby, however, and family vacations were rare things, indeed. So when the mother gathered her children together one evening, her eyes dancing with pleasure, and told them that they would all be going to the cabin by The River where she had spent so many days when a child herself, the firstborn daughter shared her mother’s joy. She had heard the stories of The River and the trackless, enveloping woods, of The River’s swift currents and vertiginous cliffs, and of the fishers, foxes, and bears that lived among the ancient pines. And she’d heard about her mother’s father, the man with the stubble on his cheeks, a man whom she’d never met.
The vacation, when it came, was a great success. The family were far too many for the little cabin to hold, so the children got to sleep in tents scattered about the clearing. They waded and fished in The River’s many pools by day, and they toasted marshmallows over open fires by night. They even captured fireflies in jars to use as nightlights. (The firstborn daughter let hers go before she went to bed, however. She knew she had nothing to fear from the dark. And she figured the fireflies would be happier flying free.) Everyone had a good time — everyone except her father, that is. But that was only to be expected. He was still a city boy at heart. He didn’t complain, however. He was also far too much of a gentleman to stand in the way of his wife’s happiness.
Of course, nothing lasts forever, not even happy times. As the days flew by, the end of the vacation approached, and all too soon, the last day had arrived. That’s when the mother realized that her firstborn child was missing. The daughter who had followed a squirrel to its home tree when she was only three years old was now ten, a dangerous age for some. The mother asked the father if he knew where their firstborn daughter was. Then she asked her other children. But the answer was always the same. No one had seen where she had gone. None of her brothers and sisters even knew how long ago she had left the clearing. The surrounding woods were dark and deep. The River’s currents were strong. A tight knot of fear slowly formed in the mother’s stomach.
But her good sense soon prevailed. The missing girl was, after all, her mother’s daughter. Which was why, instead of driving aimlessly up and down the dirt roads around the camp, the mother hurried to the cliff beside The River. And when she looked over the edge, she saw her daughter, clinging to the steep rock, one hand deep in a pothole. In a single fluid movement, the girl brought out a shining fish and — reaching far out over The River — she let if fall into the rushing water. Only then did she see her mother looking down from the cliff edge.
Fear and anger did battle for possession of the mother’s features. But not for long. The daughter couldn’t repress a smile of triumph, and the mother couldn’t fail to reciprocate. The roar of The River, echoing between the cliffs, made speech impossible, but that didn’t matter. No words were necessary. Slowly, carefully, the daughter climbed up until she stood by her mother’s side. Then mother and daughter walked in silence back to the clearing around the little cabin.
The daughter is much older now. And time, which, like many a fast‑flowing river, gnaws relentlessly away at things that once seemed eternal, has taken its toll of each. But a river always gives as well as takes, and The River has given both women gifts beyond measure. Once upon a time, with The River’s help, a father taught his daughter vital lessons in competence, courage, and compassion — lessons which his daughter, in her turn, imparted to her own firstborn daughter.
I am that firstborn daughter. And I could ask for no greater gifts than these.
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