I must have been five years old the first time Mama warned me about the river. I let go of her hand and ran into the cold water ‘til it covered my bare feet up to the ankles. Before I could go any further, Mama grabbed my wrist and yanked me back onto the shore.
Her gaze blazed through me. “Don’t you ever go trying to cross the river, girl! Even if you make it, the evil on the other side will do you in.” Though young as I was, I sensed that I ought not try to explain I only wanted to cool my feet.
In the thirteen years since, I’ve heard that warning from her hundreds of times. She varies the words some, but she always puts the same stress on the last three words, “do you in.” Every time she says it, the same fear that shook me at five years old comes back to sizzle through me from head to toe.
Sometimes, I sit on a boulder and watch the river and the forest on the other side. The dangers of the river are clear. Water plunges down a bunch of tall, steep drop-offs that line up one right after another. Lose your balance on the slippery rocks and the river will sweep you away, knock you unconscious, and make you helpless as water fills your lungs, bit by bit, ‘til you are dead.
I respect Mama’s warning about the river. What I don’t get is the part about the evil on the other side. I asked Papa about it once. He just pursed his lips and said, “Mind your mother, Jilly.” I never asked anyone else. ‘Cause if I spoke Mama’s business to anyone but her, she’d ground me for weeks and not let me talk to anyone ‘til she cooled off.
Now, I feel a bitter, deep loneliness. Papa died last year. High school graduation day has passed. Things are changing and Mama stays the same. She wants me to stay the same, too. But today, for the first time in thirteen years, I stand barefoot in the river with cool water up to my ankles. Staring, staring at the other side.