Image by Sasin Tipchai
Near our little house in the woods runs a lovely rushy stream, Clove Creek. While it’s often brisk and prosperous, it takes a huge spring thunderstorm to understand how such a modest flow could carve out the dramatic and beautiful area known locally as The Gorge.
The Gorge is right across from our three acres. Hemlocks veil the approach, but cooler air and the sound of dashing water draw the visitor to a stony path between two handsome maples. The path shortly opens to a massive outcropping of rock and The Gorge itself.
Here, Clove Creek—tumbling over boulders over centuries—has carved sheer rock walls, blue with lichen, graced with fern. The most vigorous waterfall narrows through two huge rocks and creates a swirling pool some twenty feet below an immense stone promontory. It’s a place of remarkable power and beauty. Dag Hammerskjold summered nearby, and often could be found on this great jutting jaw of rock, gazing down at the falls.
Rite of Passage
It used to be a rite of passage for local teenage boys to leap off The Rock into the cold pool, but with the abscess of insurance rates, the owner got crabby. He took to calling the police to chase the hoodlums off.
For nine years I’d been saying to my husband, “One of these days, I’m gonna jump off The Rock myself.” No small aspiration for me, considering my last game of Neat Falls.
Neat Falls was a backyard game invented, as far as I know, by my older brother. He would start as The Judge, packing his Daisy Air Rifle. He would then shoot each player one by one (or “pick ‘em off,” as he liked to say). The object of the game was to stage the “neatest fall,” that is, the most realistic, exciting or gruesome death. The winner got the honor of becoming The Judge and shooting everybody else.
Although I’d taken it in the gut many times and writhed in what I thought were truly excruciating and lifelike deaths, by the age of seven, I had yet to be The Judge.
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One hot Saturday I’d had enough. I resolved to make the coolest, the bravest, the very Neatest Fall of All, one that had never been conceived, much less attempted, by the older kids.
Our backyard had two areas, the upper part for baseball, Neat Falls and other games, and the sunken part, where the swing set and sandbox were. An eight-foot wall of pebbly cement marked yard’s end. Every spring a dump truck in the alley dumped a fresh load of sandbox sand over this wall.
It’s true that one or two of the braver desperados had gone to the last round-up from this wall, but in sissy ways: a slow crumple and fold, and an inching grapple downward. No drama, no propulsion.
When my turn came that day, I waved everyone down to the wall. Heart pounding, I went through our garage to the alley and stepped on to the wall, with my back to The Judge.
“Fire!” I shouted. The bullet sears into my back. Do I crumple and turn like a coward to fall forward? No! With a cry of anguish I fall backward, down, down, down seven feet into the foot-high mound of sand, thud. All the wind knocked out of me. Neatest Fall Ever Accomplished. Rotten thing was, my brother didn’t agree with me. He gave The Judgeship to one of the Archibald boys.
Jumping off high places stayed on my list of high-risk, low-gain activities, until I heard the first screech and splash of a triumphant adolescent at The Gorge. If they can do it, I can do it, I thought to myself. It was a pleasant nugget to carry on my walks, stepping out onto The Rock in all seasons with the knowledge that someday I would step off it into space and whirlpool. This vivid picture entertained me for almost a decade.
Then we began our search for a larger house. My days by The Gorge were numbered. I took other, milder risks—a barefoot walk in a nearby marsh, a naked moonlight swim in a neighbor’s pond. The summer was drawing to a close.
I was reading on my porch one warm evening, my husband out of town, when my friend Jane drove up with a guest in her car.
“Meet Rainbow Weaver,” she said as she got out. “She’s in town to give some workshops and I thought she’d like to see The Gorge.”
Abundant and radiant as a full moon, Rainbow Weaver rose out of the car. Jane had mentioned that a Native American wise woman was coming to town, but I never expected her to be so young. She was not long into her thirties, if she’d gotten there at all.
She had a firm handshake and a ready laugh. As we chatted, I sensed her natural reverence, but there was not a somber bone in her body.
“Shall we walk to The Gorge before it gets dark?” asks Jane.
“Sure!” I say, always happy to show it off. “You know, I’m gonna jump off The Rock one of these days.”
“Nice night,” says Rainbow Weaver, looking at me with a wry smile.
“Well, who knows, maybe tonight!” I chirp nervously.
This walk, always so soothing, acquires an unfamiliar edge. I might actually have to do this.
In no time we arrive at The Rock. My eye screens little movies of my foot catching on the way down, lacerations, Mr. Crabby calling the police, a severely broken—
“Beautiful spot,” says Rainbow Weaver. She drinks in the power of the hemlocks, the stone, the falls, lit by patterns of setting sun. Her gaze rests on me. In her eyes I meet my own desire to do this thing.
“Well, I just might jump tonight.”
“If you do it tonight, you’ll have witnesses.”
Something I’d never considered. The Jump is instantly more appealing.
“Never be a better time, I guess,” I say, with a knocking heart. I strip off my cotton skirt, leave on my tank top and underwear. Rushy blood. Metallic taste of fear. I‘ll pluck up my courage with a thanking chant to The Rock. I compose it on the spot. “Thank you for the gift of courage, Brother Rock, Brother Rock. Thank you for the gift of life, Mother Earth, Mother Earth.”
Rainbow and Jane join me on the choruses. I am marching around rhythmically now, close to the edge, girding my loins, careful to thank and bless each nature spirit and my own body and my witnesses—
“You just keep making up verses, don’t you?” says Rainbow.
I pause to defend myself but at once I know she’s “RIGHT!” I shout. With a pumping leap and an animal yell, I plunge off the rock, down, down, deep into the icy water, down and down, never touching bottom, then pulling up and up, bursting through the surface, exhilarated, splashing, whooping like a joy-drunk child.
Rainbow Weaver was a wise teacher. From those brief moments in her company I learned many things about approaching risk: to observe myself without judgment, to keep a sense of humor and a light touch, to invite witnesses if I wish. Most important, there comes a time to stop approaching a risk and take it, letting desire propel me.
As I paddled deliciously round in the pool, I found I hadn’t lost Neat Falls after all.
©2020 by Irene O'Garden.
All Rights Reserved. Excerpted with permission..
Publisher: Mango Publishing Group, a divn. of Mango Media Inc..
Glad to Be Human: Adventures in Optimism
by Irene O’Garden
Celebrate life just because. In a world so often filled with distressing news and bewildering violence, being “human” often gets a bad rap. Rejoice in everyday reasons to smile, think positively, and enjoy the gift of life.
For more info, or to order this book, click here. (Also available as a Kindle edition.)
About the Author
Irene O’Garden has won―or been nominated for―prizes in nearly every writing category from stage to e-screen, hardcovers, children’s books, as well as literary magazines and anthologies. Her critically acclaimed play Women on Fire (Samuel French), starring Judith Ivey, played to sold-out houses at Off-Broadway’s Cherry Lane Theatre, and was nominated for a Lucille Lortel Award. O’Garden’s new memoir, Risking the Rapids: How My Wilderness Adventure Healed My Childhood was published by Mango Press in January 2019.