The girl found The River irresistible. Whenever she could, she scrambled over the cliff that dropped precipitously down to the swift waters. The snow-melt swollen spring torrents carved deep potholes in the cliff’s sheer walls, and when the floods receded, she often 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 at times a dangerous one, but seeing the trout swim free was all the reward she asked—or needed.
When she wasn’t climbing the cliffs, the girl often dabbled in the 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 the reared up in steep standing waves, only to subside into ripples and linger long in tranquil moving pools.
In winter she turned away from water, exploring the woods that grew right up to The River’s icy margins. She did not walk out on the ice. Her brother had died doing just that, trapped beneath a clouded crystal shroud that had parted only long enough to send him plummeting down into the swift, dark water, a chilly tomb from which there could be no escape. Now, with her world in an arctic temper, the woods were 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 it was, as the saying then went, in her blood. Her father, too, was a woods-wander 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. The River and the woods gave no quarter to the unprepared. So he saw to it that his daughter had the skills she would need to meet wild country on its own terms. He was a strong swimmer, often playing, dolphin-like, among The River’s waves and currents. And when the girl, his daughter, was very young, he brought her down to The River, where she rode on his broad back as he paddled around one of its many pools. Soon the girl was swimming tentatively alongside him in the shallows. Only a final lesson remained.
It came on a smiling summer day. The girl ran with her father into The River, then climbed on his back, in a place where the current ran swift. The father swam away from shore. But this time he did not turn back as the river bottom dropped away. Instead, he continued out to a large boulder in midstream. When they got there, he boosted his daughter up onto the rock. And then he started to swim back the way that they had come.
The girl was merely puzzled at first. “Daddy,” she shouted to her father’s receding form, “you forgot me!”
Her father, already halfway to shore, pivoted around, treading water.
“No,” he shouted back. “I didn’t forget you. You’re a big girl. You can swim to shore on your own.” And with that he turned his back on his daughter and continued on his way.
The girl was afraid and started to cry. But her father was now sitting on a log at The River’s edge, drinking sweet tea from a thermos. He said nothing in reply to his daughter’s screams. He just sat on the log and drank his tea.
After a time—it seemed a very long time to her—the girl ran out of tears. Then she put a tentative toe into the water. The toe was followed by a foot. And another. She stole a last glance at her father. He was still on the log, still drinking tea. The girl wanted some of that tea. So she slid her bottom off the boulder and let the current take her.
She tried to touch bottom, hoping against hope that The River wasn’t as deep as it seemed, but the bottom was far below her. And 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 her father in The River’s shallow pools.
At first she made no progress. Her father seemed no larger, while the current tugging on her body grew stronger. But she redoubled here efforts. At last her father’s face came a little bit closer. And soon the girl could see the stubble on his unshaven cheeks. A few more strokes, 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. But when she noticed her father was grinning, a wave of anger welled up within in. “You left me!” she screamed.
“I did,” her father agreed, 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. And then he added, extending the chipped, enameled steel mug toward her: “Drink some tea. That water’s damn cold.”
The girl took the mug in her hands without hesitation. She was still crying, but her tears were now tears of joy.
Before too many days had passed, the girl was exploring all The River’s pools and riffles. Sometimes her father joined her, but mostly she swam alone, coming to know the river as the otter knew it. And when she wasn’t swimming, she was venturing deep into the surrounding forest, following game trails and hunting mushrooms, learning the calls of birds and finding the sheltered nooks were bears slumbered away the long winter.
Of course, every child grows up, 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 soon little more than memories. Not that she had much time for memories once she became a mother. Her firstborn child was a girl, and by the time she could walk, the child was already proving herself to be a bit of a handful. Once, when the child was three, she set off unaccompanied in pursuit of a squirrel, traveling several blocks before her quarry scooted up into an oak tree, leaving the puzzled girl behind on the city sidewalk, staring upward.
The woman—she could no longer be called “the girl,” could she?—was frantic with worry when her daughter wandered off, but her 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.
“I suppose you’ll want to go exploring again,” said the woman to her daughter, after the tears had stopped flowing. “And that’s OK. But tell me first. Then we can go exploring together. Do we have a deal?”
The daughter nodded in reluctant agreement. She resented having to share her adventures, even with her mother, but agreeing seemed the best way to avoid another paddling. And as things turned out, it was all for the best. Because not long after the incident of the squirrel, the woman, her husband, and their daughter left the city and moved to an old 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 spirited 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 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, back on the city streets, under the watchful eye of the squirrel. Whenever her daughter came to her, thirsting for new horizons, she set aside her other chores and accompanied the young explorer. Together they explored fields, woods, and rills, while the mother did her best to teach her daughter what she had learned while still a girl herself: vital lessons about the importance of compassion and competence and courage.
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 sheltered nooks for drifts of fallen leaves to serve as comforters.
There was also time for the naming of things. Mother taught daughter which trees yielded edible nuts and which berries could be eaten, and where they could be found in season. Mother and daughter made excursions along the banks of small streams, too, walking with the current and almost always ending at a cluster of homes gathered 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 devising.
This was the most important lesson of all.
At first, the daughter had rebelled at sharing her adventures with her mother and kept to their bargain only after a show of grudging reluctance. But this soon changed. Then, when more children were added to the family and the mother was no longer free to drop everything and accompany her firstborn, she gave the daughter her blessing to continue her explorations on her own. Yet, having got what she had wanted for so long, the daughter now found she missed her mother’s company. Still, the call of the unknown was too strong for her, and she was soon ranging farther and farther afield. And 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 a stream had turned out to be deeper or swifter than she had thought, the daughter would feel her mother standing alongside her, ready with a reassuring word or guiding hand, and soon all would again be well.
Child followed child into the world, and before long the family home resembled the railroad station in the nearby farm 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. 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 sheer 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 now 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 toasted marshmallows over open fires by night. They even captured fireflies in jars to use as nightlights. (But the girl let hers go before she went to bed. After all, she knew she had nothing to fear from the dark.) Everyone had a good time. Everyone except her father, that is. But that was only to be expected. He was a city boy, after all.
And then, one day not long before the vacation was to end, the mother realized that her firstborn child was missing. The daughter who had chased a squirrel to its tree when she was only three years old was now ten, a difficult age, and there were animals more dangerous than squirrels abroad on the summer roads. A tight knot of fear formed in the mother’s stomach.
But her good sense soon mastered her fears. The missing girl was, after all, her mother’s daughter. So instead of driving aimlessly up and down the dirt roads around the camp, the mother walked down to the cliffs along The River. And when she looked down, what did she see? Her daughter, of course, clinging to the steep rock, one hand deep in a pothole. Then, 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 her mother’s features. But not for long. The daughter could not repress a smile of triumph, and the mother could not fail to reciprocate. The roar of the river, echoing between the cliffs made speech impossible, but no words were necessary. Mother and daughter had been here before.
The daughter is much older now. The mother is older still. And time, which, like many a fast-flowing river, gnaws relentlessly away at much that once seemed eternal, has taken its toll of both. But a river 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 compassion, competence, and courage. Then the daughter, in her turn, imparted that hard-won knowledge to her daughter. I am that daughter. And I could ask for no better legacy.
Published originally at Paddling.net on 25 December 2012
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