by Mark R. Vickers
Part 1 appears in this issue.
I remember one late afternoon when I wanted to go down to the river. My brother was ill with a summer cold, and my mother said we’d go once Petey was better. But I cried very hard, and she relented, bundling up Petey in a green windbreaker and sitting with him on the dock as I swam. Mother didn’t want to race crayfish. When I asked her what she wanted to do instead, she became uncharacteristically short-tempered and told me to just swim and get it over with.
Of course, I was hurt, but also knew I’d won the battle. Early morning and late afternoon were, despite the chill, my favorite times to swim. You must first become accustomed to the dimming and changing light, of course, but then the river becomes otherworldly. The weed seems longer and darker, yet slivers of unexpected light occasionally cut through the murk, stripping prey of their invisibility.
As the sun sank in the sky, I had to go deeper into the water to take full advantage of the slanting light. When I realized I was out farther than usual, I listened for the whistle my parents used to call us back in when they thought we’d gone out too far. But all I heard was shrieking and giggling from Petey, who seemed to be in a tickling match with Mother.
I decided to go out even further, swimming below the surface as long as possible in order to alarm her. In what must have been five feet of water, I sensed a strengthening of currents, the cusp of the river’s force. It was here that I saw a silhouette of something large, perhaps four feet long. In the growing darkness, I thought it must be a submerged boat buoy caught on a cord attached to the rocks. Perhaps I could free it and amaze my family with sunken treasure.
As I approached, however, I realized it was something else. A very large dead carp, perhaps, caught on some thick line. The fish seemed to be rotting, with mossy weed growing on top and something like a large infected sore on its flank. Hesitantly, I reached for the weed-covered line. As I did, however, it flashed away and another “line” clutched my own arm.
In a panic, I tried to surface, but it held as tight as a steel band. I could easily have drowned. No doubt I should have, but I felt a surge of stubbornness. That was my realm, and I wouldn’t be slain so easily by a dying fish.
Rather than pull away, I swam toward the thing and was startled to see its large eyes with gray irises and dark slit-like pupils. There was no sympathy or mercy in those eyes, but there was a recognition of sorts. The sick and perhaps starving creature released me, and I sputtered to the surface where I could hear my mother shrilly blowing on the whistle. I swam back across the darkening waters to my family.
I didn’t share my experience with my family. It wasn’t only that — as I well knew — they wouldn’t believe me, but that the lurking beast had somehow become mine. I had uncovered a critical secret in those depths that I didn’t want to relinquish.
Just imagine them, these astonishing beings who must have been here long before the first men discovered the Falls. Imagine hundreds, perhaps thousands of these innocents thriving in the boiling waters, sating themselves on the stunned fishes flung over the enormous cataract. Or at leisure clinging to a river bottom sown with rocks and boulders, snatching their prey in sharp teeth. A primordial paradise in a roaring, steaming canyon. Their domain, I imagine, for millennia.
The first humans to arrive must have been in superstitious awe of the great waterfall, yet they must also have tried, as humans are destined, to exploit the white waters. Local folklore tells of how strong fishermen died along the wet rocks, pulled in by powerful waters. It’s told that nets would tear, canoes tip, and playing children disappear along the rocky banks. It’s told that the gorge was a haunted place, protected by the ones called river people.
When the first whites came, the tales of the river people were discounted as aboriginal legend. It was true that settlers died along the gorge, but that was to be expected in a yet untamed land. It was also true that evil-looking fish were sometimes seen around Devil’s Hole. In fact, smaller ones were occasionally caught in settlers’ nets, then dried and smoked and carted around the countryside by traveling preachers.
“Come view the Devil’s spawn,” they cried. “Be not afraid, for God has dominion in this country now. Come see the evil he has rooted from the darkness of this once-Godless land.”
Yet consider, dear doctor, at how God has since chosen to bless these once untainted provinces with the poisons and effluvia of human rapacity.
My father was an ambitious and, for someone still rather young, rather influential corporate lawyer. Today, I understand his desire to become powerful, the pressures he endured, the lack of patience he sometimes showed toward a strange and recalcitrant son. Petey was his prize, his fair-haired boy. He no doubt saw me as something altogether different: moody, homely and unpredictable. He was not a bad man, perhaps not even a bad father for his time. But fatherhood was not his focus.
To be honest, I can’t recall what Petey and I were fighting about, probably something as mundane as a toy or television program. We were struggling on the floor of the family room and I was, by virtue of my greater size, on top of him, probably slapping those round cheeks. When our father, who had been working in his study, came in to check on us, he became red-faced and tore me off Petey, calling me a damned little monster. He shook me with such fury and violence that, I realize now, he must have scared himself as much as me.
Petey stopped crying almost immediately, awed by our father’s rage. Father stood there, breathing hard, staring down at both of us. He told us to stop fighting, to be good or he would be angry again. He went into his study to collect himself, and Petey looked on as I cried.
Not long afterwards, Father came back and declared we were going down to the dock. I’m sure now he was trying to make amends, taking me to my river despite the waning of summer and the growing coldness of the water.
My memory is of him sitting on the dock reading the Wall Street Journal as Petey and I waded in front of him. Because of the lateness of the season, there were fewer perch, minnows and crayfish in the shallows. My brother’s skin was turning bluish as he sat in the water in front of the dock, playing with a small, pink floating ball, holding it under water and then letting it rise to the surface again and again.
My father looked away from his paper, checked on Petey, and then absently said to me, “Find some crayfish for us, Caleb.”
“They’re in deeper water now.”
He looked down into my eyes, focusing his attention. To this day, I don’t know if there was any calculation in his mind. “I trust you, son,” he said.
“How about Petey?”
“Petey’s fine where he is. You’re the better crayfish hunter.
“He’s not,” said Petey, still playing with the ball.
So I tentatively snorkeled into the deeper water for the first time since having seen the creature. At first, I was afraid of the surrounding dark green murk but then, suddenly, I wasn’t. I swam out as far as the edge of the river trench, the place where the main currents run and the river is, even as it empties into Lake Ontario, deceptively strong.
I dove, grabbing at rocks to keep it from sweeping me away. When I lifted my head, I saw my father still reading his paper and Petey standing in the shallows, searching for me. I waved to him, bidding him to join me. I swam in a ways to meet him.
“Be careful, Petey. There are river monsters here.”
“Are not,” he said.
I pointed to the place. “Be careful,” I said. “It’s hungry.”
Then I swam back to the dock, feeling the shadows grow longer. I found the pink ball and submerged it. It took a little time before Father, who was still reading the paper, glanced over and saw me.
“Where’s Petey?” he asked.
I pointed out to where Petey had been diving, where the currents swirled and a boil of smooth water rose to the surface. My father stood up suddenly on unsteady legs. “Petey?” he said, his voice quavering. He blew on the whistle, his eyes scanning. “Petey!” he yelled.
“You stay here,” he said to me and jumped into the water with his white shirt and dark slacks still on. He swam out to where I’d pointed and dove.
I pulled myself up onto the dock and waited, drying myself with a beach towel. I saw my father surface several times and then, when he didn’t appear for a long time, I climbed the wooden stairs to the house. I saw that my mother had gotten home and was putting away groceries.
“Where’re your father and brother?” she asked smiling, opening a bag of oatmeal cookies and handing me one. I took a bite, watching the water pool around my feet.
“They’re down in the river,” I said.
Somewhere along the way, Mr. Edwards had closed his eyes as he told his tale. Now he kept them closed.
I stayed silent, waiting to see if there was more. I needed time to judge his story, to know whether there actually was a trauma-induced episode or whether this was an elaborate ruse at my expense, a classic Cain and Abel story with Oedipus thrown in for good measure. Yet, I’d seen the newspaper clippings documenting the tragic drowning of a local corporate lawyer as he’d attempted to rescue his son all those years ago.
When he first opened his eyes and strove to give me a wry look, I doubted we’d made any progress at all. But then the look faltered and came apart like a broken clay mask. He swiveled his chair toward the window so I wouldn’t see his tears.
Together we watched as the weather turned dismal, the gray sky melding with the molten color of the river. The mist from the falls rose up and up. With a shock, my recurring nightmare came to me, the terrible black smoke of the destroyed Twin Towers wafting over the world, spreading death and decay, tainting whatever it touched, transforming men into demons slaying one another, even their own brothers.
Did the river people exist among the long shadows of a poisoned river? Perhaps. I was sure Caleb Edwards, at least, believed it. I had to help him come to terms with that long pent-up torrent of guilt and anxiety. It was the least I could do in a darkening world from which I myself could no longer run. I realized then that the ever-deepening gray mist of the great cataract must inevitably engulf us all.
Copyright © 2020 by Mark R. Vickers