Upstate New York. A bucolic Rochester suburb. A river running past splintered churches and long-abandoned watermills, alongside Main Street and over the falls. Downstream near the house where my aunt and uncle raised their three kids, all older than me, the river glinted through the tree line, its babble seeping in through open windows. On summer visits I ventured alone through the hardwood forest toward the sweet scent of water flowing over granite. I stopped at the riverbank to consider the submerged neon flora clinging to the rocks while the current jiggled their shaggy tendrils.
Across from my aunt and uncle’s house was a smaller falls formed by a broad, flat boulder, impossibly slick, that pooled the water above and spat it out in two horns below. Each visit, my family recalled to me the dangers lurking in that water: above those lower falls, they warned, a hole ran deep, deeper than a man is tall, a hole possessed by the Devil’s eager grip.
I waded through those shallow, pebbled pools beneath the lower falls, stepping from rock to rock, bristling at the cold water rushing over my warm skin. My heart thrummed under the canopy of white pines and sugar maples, the sun streaming through their upper branches. The river seemed so pleasant and serene that I could have dismissed my family’s warnings as mere bluster. Could have, if I weren’t so shaken by the story.
When she was a child, my cousin Ashley wandered alone to the river, her parents’ admonishments not to cross above those falls trailing behind. Use the stepping stones below, they’d said. Stay in the shallows.
Despite those warnings, Ashley crossed above. In an omniverse of all possibilities, there must be a thread of reality where Ashley’s parents, sensing danger, abandoned their chores to supervise. In that thread, my aunt and uncle looked on and chastised Ashley for daring the rippling, muscular water. She complained in her child’s high voice, but she did not fall. She sulked home through the hardwoods and cheered up by suppertime.
In a different reality, Ashley had no supervision and, yes, in that thread she slipped. She was standing on a slime-green rock, peering into that deep where rainbow trout shimmered. A slight shift of her weight sent her sprawling into the water. In that reality, though, she was not pulled under; no, the current swept her over the boulder, down one of the spits, and washed her out at the bottom. She came up gasping, bruised, and embarrassed to see the young couple strolling down the path, witnessing her clumsiness. Ashley choked back tears as she slinked away.
But here, in this reality, the one in which we live, the water swept Ashley up, plunged her down into the hole, and held her tight. What panic must’ve overcome her, submerged and unable to rise. Trapped. Entombed. The river indifferent to the life of a little girl. She kicked for a foothold and groped for a handle.
In this reality, thank God, the couple spotted Ashley’s bluing hand reaching up from the water: a desperate, straining plea from a planet overflowing. In this reality the couple splashed in and yanked her from her underwater tomb. Ashley made it home for supper. The city gave out hero medals. I gulped down the family lore.
Elsewhere in the omniverse, we can’t have been so lucky. In that reality there was no couple, no supervision. Through that reality, as through them all, the cold river still courses inexorably toward the sea.