March 2013

The Creek

It’s been years since I visited Audri’s country house. I used to go there regularly with my parents and her family over the summer, back when she and I were five or six years old. All of us piled into their car and drove for six hours to their old house in the Catskills, arriving long after sunset. Audri and I jumped out of the car and scampered up the overgrown asphalt path toward the front door. Our parents told us to be careful in the dark, because the path was so cracked and churned up by the weeds growing through it, so I slowed down. But Audri never stopped; she leapt over the cracks with the agility of a deer, running gracefully right up the path and into the house. She was always filled with energy when we first arrived, but long after sunset was a very late hour for one little girl, and my eyelids soon drooped. Once we were in bed though, we were both eager to sleep so morning would come sooner.

We awoke almost as soon as the sun rose, dragging our parents out of bed to make breakfast. Then we went swimming in the creek. I knew the way, but I let her lead me every time, watching the brown curls of her hair bounce on her shoulders as she skipped ahead of me into the unkempt yard. The grass grew up past my knees, and the expanse of green was peppered with dandelions. Their petals tickled my calves as we passed through. A gap in the bushes around the house opened onto the road. From here, we could see the mountains rising in the distance, their smooth curves emerging from the morning mist. The clouds cast shadows that rolled along these curves, as if the mountains were the sky itself.

We clambered down off the side of the road and then through a patch of brambles. They scraped my legs, dotted my bare feet with splinters, but I never cared. Besides, we soon came to the trees, and the ground turned soft again. Once in a while, we saw a deer that dashed away, showing only a thrilling flash of its tail. Finally, we reached the creek. We stepped out onto the algae covered, slippery stones, the water dancing around the edges of our feet. The water here wasn’t deep enough to swim in, so we followed the current to where it pooled next to a clay bed. We stood together by the edge. The water was still enough for us to see our reflections, mine slightly shorter than hers. But Audri kicked a small stone into the water and the reflections scattered away like more startled deer. We had learned that the water was too cold to enter slowly. We threw off our clothes and leapt gleefully in. I remember the shock of it against my skin.

We stayed in the water only a moment, climbing frantically away from the cold onto the
shelf of clay, getting coated as we did. We ripped handfuls of clay out of the bed and smeared it
on our bodies, using our fingers to stripe each other’s faces like war paint. It all was wild.

***

One time, her mother followed us to the creek, suddenly worried for our safety. While we slid and scrambled over the clay bed, she stood across the water from us. She balanced awkwardly on the rocks, absentmindedly twirling a strand of hair between her fingers. Placid and out of place, she was certainly not part of our game. We resented her presence. Losing her balance for a moment, she dropped her sunglasses and had to turn her back to us and bend over to look for them. I saw a mischievous glint in Audri’s eyes.

“Oh my God, we have to!”

“What—”

She quickly ripped out a fistful of clay, shaped it into a ball, and hurled it across the water, where it hit the back of her mother’s shorts with a slap. I was shocked. The thrill of being bad, of being complicit with Audri, mingled in my chest with fear of her mother’s anger. But Audri laughed so hard I couldn’t hear her mother scolding us. Finally, her laughter subsided. Her mother scolded us some more, telling us to come home with her. We obeyed, but as we were walking home, Audri grinned at me behind her mother’s back, extinguishing any spark of contrition I felt.

***

It is now too cold to venture into the water. It is only late August, but fall comes early here. We have returned, Audri and I, older and without our parents. We took the bus this time, getting here even later than usual. We have stayed up almost all night, though, baking scones and drinking coffee on the porch. The night air is uncomfortably chilly, so we find a couple of moth-eaten, oversized sweaters to curl up in outside. Slowly, luxuriating in every smooth movement of her thumbs, Audri rolls a cigarette, lights it, takes a drag. I envy the graceful curve of her neck emerging from under her sweater as she leans her head back to exhale a stream of smoke. Her rows of earrings dangle like chandeliers, and her rings reflect what little starlight there is.

Most things about Audri are wild. I am painfully domestic in comparison, and have spent much of my life in her shadow. It is moments like these, when I admire the ease with which she moves, the animal life coiled in her muscles, that I understand why I have followed her for so long. We do not speak. I watch her as she finishes her cigarette, and then we go inside to sleep.

We waken lazily, long after the sun, and decide to walk to the creek. We follow the same path we took as children, my feet stepping on the edge of her shadow as she walks in front of me. Finally, we reach the creek. We stand away from the water this time, making sure not to get our shoes wet. An abandoned railroad track runs alongside the creek for some distance, and we clamber over the rocks to it. Audri skips agilely ahead of me as I test each plank carefully with my feet, not wanting to step on soft, rotten wood.

“Dude, why are you so slow?” she calls back to me.

I want to make up an excuse, unwilling to reveal my unease, but she is already moving again, and I remain quiet in order to focus on catching up with her. As we continue along the tracks, the ground slowly falls away below. I am dizzied by the stripes of forest floor I glimpse between the planks. Our shadows walk along these stripes, mine still slightly shorter than hers. Looking ahead, I can see that the creek has widened into a calm river, and that the tracks curve, forming a bridge over this little river. I can also see that Audri intends to cross it.

She takes one step out onto the bridge. I want to stop her, but suddenly she is running, leaping gracefully over the gaps between the planks and letting out an exuberant whoop when she reaches the middle of the bridge. She turns to beckon to me. I shake my head, but I know, even considering my real fear, that I won’t be able to resist her. And then I am walking across the bridge, forcing myself not to watch the water streaming by below me. Only when I reach Audri do I allow myself to look down. I see I am only about ten feet above the water, but with no railing I feel exposed, ready to bolt back along the bridge.

“This is amazing,” she says.

It is hard for me to agree. I just want to be safe on solid ground. How can she be so fearless? But maybe I should be wondering about me. How can I be so cautious with only this sky above and this river below? I look down and the water is so calm that the sky is reflected perfectly in it, as though there is nothing between them; the sky and the river are one. I feel a sudden thudding in my chest, and Audri frowns as she sees a mischievous glint appear in my eyes. I take off my shoes, placing them next to each other on a solid plank. I look over the edge. The water here should be deep enough, I think. I throw off my clothes. I jump.