As the nights grew longer, more children appeared at the swimming hole. Except they weren’t children, not anymore. Months of solitude had hardened their bodies, as if loneliness were tougher than skin. Yet inside, they softened from the relief at finding others who were lonely too. We can say they knew more than they should. But that’s only part of what came of their gathering.

I went down to the river
Before the break of dawn
I went down to the river
But now the river’s gone.

Down to the river, her phone lighting the path through the woods, Hollie wondered how many others she would find this time. Every night since the problem began, more were congregating at the water’s edge. With the town in lock-down, they had nowhere else to loosen their fear except among these dank shadows, drifting first to one cluster, then another, like moths drawn to broken flames. Distances were breached, breath expelled too close in illicit sighs from mouths unmasked. They believed the danger couldn’t follow them there. The river would keep them safe.

Beyond the trees, the half-moon hit the obsidian pool as the revelers held hands to jump from the bank above. The cold took their breath away before they rose to the surface with screams of laughter. After months of self-restraint, they craved spontaneity. They did it for kicks, just like kids had been doing for decades in this very spot, the clock turned back to a time when the biggest threat was gossip. Now, no one cared. Clenching and unclenching, they cleaved to each other in the night’s unburdening.

I jumped into the river
To the place where I was drawn
I jumped into the river
But now the river’s gone.

Hollie looked for friends but saw only unfamiliar faces. It didn’t matter. They were all here for the same thing—the ritual of water and the cleansing it could bring. Since entering the river was required, she shed shirt, jeans, phone, and shoes, bundling them at the bottom of a tree, not worrying whether they would be there when she returned.  

Watching for an entrance into the current of bodies, her mind rewinds to a time when women in white were dipped backward, their unbound hair mingling with mud. As if all it took were water and prayer to cleanse a transgression. If she listens, she can hear the murmur of hymns promising salvation or heartache, with no guarantee as to which would be given.

 I crossed the river
And found my way was wrong
I crossed the river
But now the river’s gone.

Hollie wades out until the water reaches her chest. She raises her arms, takes a breath, and dives. Going under, she swims away from the pack before surfacing toward the pale light.

In five days or fourteen, she will know: has the river washed it away?

 

Kayann Short

Writer, farmer, teacher, and activist Kayann Short, Ph.D., is the author of A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography (Torrey House Press), a Nautilus award-winning memoir of reunion with a family’s farming past and call for local farmland preservation today. Her work appears in Midwest Review, Hawk & Handsaw, The Hopper, Pilgrimage, Dash, Genders, Mad River Review, and the anthologies Dirt: A Love Story and Rooted: The Best New Arboreal Non-Fiction. Dr. Short organizes community writing events and teaches digital storytelling and ecobiography at her own Stonebridge Farm on Colorado’s Front Range. More on her work can be found on Instagram @kayannshort and at www.kayannshort.com.

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