The River’s End
August 2004 | Published by Grit Magazine
The mother and daughter sat on a wooden bench in their front yard, shucking corn. The trees were still summer-green, but here and there red and yellow leaves glowed among the branches.
“Does she have to stay here for good?” the girl whined.
“Ssh, lower your voice, Missy. She might hear you,” Theresa whispered. “Granny has nowhere to go. She can’t take care of herself anymore.”
“But, Mom, she’s driving me crazy!” Missy pulled the husks off the corn with an impetuous jerk. Silky yellow threads floated down, tickling her knees. She brushed them away. “She always calls me ‘girl.’ I’m 13 already. I’m not a girl. It gets on my nerves.”
“She doesn’t mean any harm by it. She used to call me ‘girl’ when I was younger.” Theresa couldn’t remember whether it had bothered her. She didn’t think it had.
“And then she’s always telling me about the old days. About our heritage, and how important it is.”
“Well, our heritage is important,” Theresa observed. “One day you’ll appreciate Granny’s stories. You should listen to her while you still have the chance.”
Missy rolled her eyes. “She’s so annoying. I wish she’d just go away already.”
Theresa lost her patience. “She’s not going anywhere. She can’t even walk. If it makes her happy to talk, we can have the courtesy to listen. Deal with it, okay?” Theresa was tired of these discussions. Granny came to live with them two weeks ago, and Missy seemed to have a new complaint every day. Well, school would be starting. Then Missy would have other things to distract her.
Missy finished shucking the corn in silence. “I’m going to the river, Mom. I’ll be back soon.”
“Don’t be late for dinner,” Theresa called after her. “Be back in an hour.”
Missy rode her bicycle out of their small gravel driveway, made a few short turns and was soon riding along the road, following the course of the river. She pedaled half a mile to her favorite spot: a small grove of trees hiding the remains of a dock that jutted out into the water.
She sat on the dock and threw stones. Her tan, long legs dangled over the edge, the tips of her sneakers making gentle ripples on the surface. The sun was setting, casting a shimmering gold veneer over the water. Out in the middle of the river, the golden light camouflaged the current, making the river look languid, almost still.
She wasn’t fooled by its peaceful appearance. That current almost took her last summer.
It happened when she wasn’t paying attention---a stupid mistake for someone who grew up there. She got over-confident, went out a little to far, and before she knew it, the swift fingers of the Niagara River plucked her into the current and carried her downstream as effortlessly as if she were a small twig. It took all her strength to swim back to the shore. She had several miles to go before she would have seen the mist of Niagara Falls, but the certainty of where the river was taking her filled her with terror. The Falls had claimed many lives: some suicides, but most were daredevils who thought they could brave the 158-foot drop over the falls clad only in a barrel or some other home-made contraption. It wasn’t the descent that got them, but the enormous boulders at the bottom, hidden by the thick walls of cascading water and roiling waves. A human body had no chance against them. It would be shattered by the fall, and then crushed and drowned by tons of water crashing down on those rocks every second.
She never told anyone about the incident, not even her mother. But she did have nightmares every so often. It was always the same dream: She was swimming in safe water, when suddenly she was being swept toward the precipice of the Falls, powerless to stop. The roar of the water drowned her screams. She always managed to wake up, shaking with fear, just as she was about to go over.
“Get me the corn husks, will you, girl?” Granny said after dinner that night. “I want to show you something.”
“But we threw them out,” Missy protested.
“That’s okay,” said Granny. “Be a good girl and get them out of the trash bin, won’t you? They won’t be hard to find.”
Missy sighed and went outside and dug around in the trash can to find the paper bag with the discarded husks. She would have complained to her mother, but Theresa was out working the evening shift. Then she remembered her mother’s words: Deal with it.
Missy put the bag on the table in front of her grandmother.
“Sit down, girl,” Granny said.
Missy did as she was told and sat across from the old woman, crossed her arms and pouted.
Granny’s legs were weak, but her hands and arms were strong. She ripped open the bag, flattened it, and arranged the husks neatly in front of her, piling the silky yellow threads to the side. Her eyes glittered keenly as she worked, and her mouth was set in a firm, determined line. Her white hair, braided and twisted into a bun at the nape of her neck, was as thick as a young woman’s.
“I’m going to show you how to make a corn husk doll,” Granny announced. “This way, you’ll have something to show your kids when you’re older. Something from your heritage.”
Missy suppressed a groan and hoped Granny didn’t see her roll her eyes.
“Fetch me some cotton and some thread, girl,” Granny ordered. When Missy returned, Granny said, “Now look at how I do this. I use some cotton for the head.” She wrapped a long corn husk over the cotton, and tied it off with thread. “And more cotton for the chest. You try it.”
Missy reluctantly obeyed. In a few minutes, she found she was enjoying it, or at least not minding it too much.
The old woman’s face softened into a wistful smile, full of memories. “When I was a girl, we didn’t have money for toys. We used what was around. I’d string tiny flowers on a thread and use them as necklaces for the doll.”
They worked in silence for awhile, shaping the green, pliable husks into little figures. Missy let her mind wander, wondering what teachers she’d get when she returned to school, whether she’d be in the same class as her best friends.
“I’m going to die soon, you know,” Granny said calmly, as if she were commenting on the weather.
Missy jerked her head up, startled out of her own thoughts. “Don’t say that!”
“It’s true. I know my time is coming. And I know it’ll be easier on you and your mother when I’m not around to bother you anymore. It won’t be too much longer.”
Missy tried to think of something to say. “You’re healthy. You have many more years left, I’m sure.”
Granny chuckled dryly. “My legs are no good. It’s just a matter of time before the rest of me goes.”
“But aren’t you scared?” Missy didn’t mean to ask, but it slipped out before she stopped herself.
Granny kept her gaze focused on her work. “No, my girl, I’m not scared. Look around you. The trees, sky, earth, the water. I will become a part of them, part of God’s creation…” She paused. “If I thought you could get away with it, I’d have you and your mother give me a river burial, right above the Falls. I’ve always wanted to know what it was like to be in that powerful water.” She smiled as one would smile at the prospect of taking a particularly enjoyable vacation.
“You’d want us to put you over the Falls? When you’re dead?” Missy asked, incredulous.
“If I could have my way. But you’d get in a lot of trouble if you tried it. So, I think a traditional burial in the ground is good enough. At that cemetery down the road. The one that overlooks the river.” Granny held up her corn husk doll, perfectly shaped and topped with corn silk hair. “There. Now it needs to dry for a few weeks.”
“I’m afraid of the Falls. In my dreams, I mean,” Missy blurted, surprised that she allowed herself to reveal her secret. But she couldn’t stop. “I almost drown in the river last summer. I swam too far out, and the current got me. I was headed for the Falls. I almost didn’t make it to shore, and then I had to walk home. It took me all afternoon to get back.” It felt good to tell someone about it.
“So now the river has a special meaning for you,” Granny said with a knowing smile.
“I guess you could say that,” Missy said thoughtfully. “But I don’t see why I still dream about it. It happened last summer. It’s over.”
“Our fears and dreams come from the same place. The dreams try to tell you something, you know.”
“What are they saying, my fears and my dreams?” Missy was eager to have somebody tell her the secrets of her own heart.
The old woman shrugged. “Your fears and dreams belong to you. Only you can find out what they mean. Nobody can tell you.”
When school started, Missy was surprised that she actually looked forward to her time with Granny. She’d come home to find that Granny had made her a cup of tea and a snack. Missy would sit and talk to Granny, relating her progress in her classes and the latest gossip among her friends. Every few days, Granny showed her how to make something new out of things around the house. Old scraps of leather were sewn to make pouches for spare change, broken jewelry was re-strung into beaded necklaces, sugar and nuts were boiled into candy, remnants of fabric were pieced together to make tiny quilt squares that would be fashioned into potholders or a bigger quilt. Maybe when the weather got a little colder, she and Granny could build a fire in the yard to roast apples and fish, just as her great-great grandparents had. And in the winter, they could cool the maple candy syrup by dribbling it into the fresh snow to make lacy hard-candy wafers. Her friends would be impressed.
One Friday afternoon in October, the air was crisp and full of sun and autumn colors. On her way home from school, Missy started to plan her weekend. She’d buy some beads from the store, then ask Granny to help her make a few more necklaces so she could give them to her best friends at school on Monday.
When she turned the corner on her street, her eagerness turned to dread. An ambulance was in the driveway.
Her mother and two paramedics crowded the tiny bedroom. Granny was in bed, feebly waving away the strangers.
“I won’t leave this house,” she cried, her voice raspy and weak.
The paramedics looked at Theresa. “We can’t force her if she doesn’t want to,” one of them said.
Missy squeezed her way past them to her grandmother’s side. “What happened? What’s going on?” she cried, grasping her grandmother’s hand.
Granny smiled. “It’s time, girl. They want to take me to the hospital, but I want to die here. It’s no use sticking me with needles.”
Missy’s mother was quietly weeping. The paramedics waited. Missy clutched her grandmother’s hand tighter. The skin was papery like an old corn husk.
“Well, then, you won’t go,” Missy insisted, her voice shrill and loud. “I won’t let them take you out of here.”
The old woman closed her eyes. Her breathing was loud and labored. “Open the window, girl. I need fresh air.” Missy leaped up to do as she was told. The paramedics left the room and waited near the front door. Theresa followed them, unable to watch her mother get weaker.
“If I could, I’d have you take me outside and put me among those beautiful trees out back so I could slip off quietly,” Granny whispered. “But I think it would distress your mother too much. So, we’ll keep the window open instead.”
Missy had an idea. “I’ll be right back. Please, Granny, stay here until I get back.” She darted outside, past her mother and the paramedics, who were discussing in hushed voices what should be done next.
“What are you doing?” Theresa asked, watching the girl scoop up handfuls of red, orange and yellow leaves into a basket. Missy was too intent on her task to hear her. She cut a few graceful branches off the weeping willow, along with whatever late-blooming flowers she could find.
Granny appeared to be sleeping. Missy put flowers and leaves around the old woman, on the pillow and blanket, and carefully arranged some in her white hair. She tucked a small bouquet of yellow flowers and colored leaves in the wrinkled hands. She put the remainder on the table next to the bed so Granny could see them when she woke up. The sweet, earthy odor of the autumn foliage filled the room. Granny’s eyes flickered open for an instant and then closed. “Thank you, my dear,” she whispered. “It’s almost as good as being outside. I have to go now. Don’t be afraid. It’s the way of things.”
Missy held her grandmother’s hand, and watched to see whether the old woman’s chest was still rising and falling with each breath. She imagined it did long after it had stopped.
The dream was different this time. Missy stood on the shore and watched her grandmother go over the Falls.
What was the dream saying to her now?
She woke up and tried to think about things in a new way. She started with the day she almost perished in the terrifying current of the river. Then she thought about Granny. The pain of losing her was worse now, even though it had been a week since the funeral.
Missy rode her bicycle up the road, keeping pace with the river’s swift current running parallel to her.
There were a few tourists taking pictures against the watery backdrop where the river fans out and becomes the 2,600-foot, horseshoe-shaped expanse of Niagara Falls. Missy walked her bicycle to the railing and leaned over to see the water descend. A fine mist prickled her face and hands. She enjoyed the sensation, even though it was chilly and made her shiver.
The noise of the Falls vibrated in her head and chest, like a million drums and chanting voices. Every sound water could make was made here, from the lowest rumble vibrating through the rock precipice to the highest-pitched splash. It was a cacophony of rushing water, and all other sounds were drowned in it.
Missy walked to her favorite spot nearest the crest. There, the water was rippled and choppy, getting ready to fall over the edge. When the light was right, the water was a deep, transparent green, almost emerald. The rocky ledge over which the water flowed was just a foot or two below the surface, perfectly visible through the choppy green water. A mere body-length later, the deep green fell away and became a white wall of crashing water known as Niagara Falls.
The tourists were gone. Missy was alone.
She reached into her jacket pocket. The corn husk dolls had turned from a pliable bright green to a brittle yellow-brown. Granny’s doll was more perfect, but hers wasn’t too bad. She looked at them, remembering the good hours when they were created. She wiped the tears away with the back of her hand. Then she threw the dolls over the railing. They landed exactly where she had hoped, in the deep green at the river’s end. In a breath, they were swept over the edge, down into the falls, to become one with the water.