She sat with her back to a cypress tree,
Her front to the river and to the six children,
fanned in front like a peacock’s tail.
They stood and watched her blankly, not speaking.
Her knees were drawn to her chest, her
Shoulders jerking up and down, her
Hands covering her face, her
Palms pressing the images of the six
Into her memory,
The river frothed behind the six, the whitewater relentlessly and mercilessly crashing against rocks smoothed by destruction over thousands of years and leading inexorably to the waterfall fifty yards downstream.
She said something through her hands to a girl of 14 and a boy of 12,
Who both turned
Away and walked back along the water’s edge down the
Brown dirt path from which they’d come.
Their pencil-like bodies grew smaller and
Smaller as a girl of 3 watched them instead of watching
Her mother. Their slender figures disappeared around a bend where
The whitewater frothed, moving toward the four children and
The woman. The children were silent
The roiling water gurgled and hissed, its bubbles’ bursts and popping drowned by the roar downstream, its uninhibited dance on the rocks calling for attention, like a pot of milk overflowing on a stovetop and fizzing on the gas burners.
The woman took her hands away from
Her face, which was red and
Across the river was a cliff, and there was a squirrel
Scrambling down the crumbling rock face, looking for food or perhaps
trying to escape a predator.
She looked over the heads of the four children and
The leaves of a madrone tree, its fiery bark like dried
Blood against the ancient gray of the cliff.
A raven sat on a branch and watched.
The water behind the four young children boiled and hissed and cascaded over rocks, their surfaces pounded mercilessly for hundreds and maybe thousands of years in unchanging agreement between tormentor and slave. The waterfall groaned and howled, its receiving maw at the bottom swallowing and regurgitating all that flowed over its lips. Never satisfied.
She looked at her 3-year-old daughter.
The woman’s eyes were bloodshot.
She heard the raven CAW!—a loud, wounded plea for its mate and for
The whitewater beyond the girl hissed.
The waterfall groaned and howled.
The squirrel stumbled and somersaulted into
the pitch of a hollow.
The cliff was like a wave,
A wall trembling and
Poised to crash on all five of them
On the riverbank.
The woman heard a small voice.
She ignored it.
She stared at her 3-year-old.
The whitewater hissed behind the toddler, only ten feet behind
The waterfall howled, its mouth still open,
The cliff trembled,
Again she heard the voice.
The woman listened to the raven—CAW! CAW!—and the
Water—its bubbling and its dance, now silver with
Light shining off the spray as the
Waves splashed on the smooth, round rocks. A male
Cicada above her sang his mating song to an unknown lover.
The 3-year-old now yelled, “Mommy!”
The mother, her face wet and shiny and red, as if slapped, saw her toddler, dressed in an aquamarine one-piece swimsuit. She exhaled hard, as if trying to touch her daughter with her breath.
The mother looked at her and at the faces of the three other children. Their cheeks were sunburned, their hair dried haphazardly. Derek was scratching the mosquito bite on his right shin. Mary was staring down at her barrette, snapping and unsnapping it. Casey had her hands on her knees and was bent over, looking at an ant making its way around an apple core browned and shriveling in the August heat. Laney repeated her plea, “Mommy, I’m hungry.”
The mother stood up and, taking her under her armpits, hiked the little girl to her hip. The water was an iron gray, crashing and roiling against rocks that had been smoothed over thousands of years in an unchanging agreement of tormentor and captive. The mother walked closer to the water, and Laney wiped some hair that had blown over her right eye from the rushing wind coming down the river. She looked at her mother, her cheeks red from the sun, her hair dried haphazardly.
“Laney, have I ever told you that I was a camper here when I was Derek’s age?”
The toddler was watching the silver water dance along smooth rocks and a big black bird fly down toward them from a reddish-brown tree across the river.
“Well, I was. I came here as a camper for eight years and then was a counselor. I wanted all of you to see this place. It’s very special to me.” She paused to listen. “If you’d like, when you’re a few years older, perhaps you could come to the kids camp.” She paused. “They have horseback riding and archery and many more things than we’ve had this week. Would you like that?”
The little girl nodded, as if dreaming about silver water and big birds and horses and being a princess. “I’m hungry, Mommy.” And she put her head against the mother’s sunburned shoulder.
“C’mon y’all,” she said, turning her eyes to the others. “I think the dining hall’s still serving lunch.”
The mother of six carried Laney on her hip with the twins and the 5-year-old trailing her. The older two would have reached the cabin by now and would be picking up their clothes. The whitewater hissed, the waterfall groaned, and the cliff trembled, forever poised to crash on the riverbank. The raven flew overhead and passed them, its silent flight an empty shadow of the chatter now beginning below. The family walked together along the dirt path, their slim figures disappearing around a bend.