by Doug Ammons
(excerpted from "The Laugh of the Water Nymph")
It was a nice late January day, sunny and not too cold. Above freezing anyway. There was lots of hard ice in the shadows, but the nighttime frost was slipping away into the air and a few drops down the windowpane. Some drips came off the roof and a lot of sun into the kitchen.
If memory serves, he was feeling pretty good. He'd had a good sleep, got up and stretched and looked out the window thinking, "The run should be in." He figured it had melted some the last few days, so the water level must have come up and cut out channels in the ice. The lines would be there. Just a little tighter, that's all.
It was the usual. Let the dog out for a romp in the front yard. A bite to eat, warming up and stretching some. He hadn't ever stretched much because it never seemed to do any good. But he had other ways of getting ready. Standing in the middle of the room with his eyes closed, he tightened his muscles, flexing slowly with the vision of a paddle in his hands, a boat, and the river. Some quiet thoughts about strokes, feeling the water and the current, the paddle reaching into the flow. He felt it. He was ready.
He drove the truck down the highway. How far? A ways. No one thinks in miles when they really know a place. Distance isn't ever what it seems. He knew it was just ahead. There, where the river came out from the big canyon on the right. He turned and drove up to the put in.
The truck lurched through the potholes. They were rimmed in ice, muddy water in the middle with ice chunks floating around. Somebody else had driven up here this morning, probably for firewood. The road climbed high. He stopped in a couple of places and squinted down through the trees. He was looking for certain things, and thought he saw them. On one corner, he could look down and see the straightaway. "Good," he said to himself. The channel was open like he thought it would be.
Downstream the canyon curved around a corner to the left and went out of sight. The sun was low and didn't shine much after the corner. Everything was in shadows. In summer he liked it when the sun was overhead on these turns, reflecting off the smooth boulders and bedrock. And after one of those long summer rains, when he did a run late in the day and everything was still wet, it sat in the sky right off the hump of the ridge and blew his eyes out as he paddled into it. The light would run with the ragged water, shimmer and jump, then disappear over the big series of drops below. It was too bright to see but he looked anyway, paddling down with eyes watering from the brightness and making moves right into the sun. That's what was best. He could feel the light like the water. Sensing the moves and paddling on feel alone down waves and waterfalls of light. On runs like that, he sometimes eddied out above the big series to look at it snake away, so beautiful and bright. "Like a band of steel," he had always thought. "Just like the sun on a band of steel."
But it was cold today and there was ice. At the put in he got the boat and gear out and sat down looking at the water. The level was a little lower than he'd thought, but the ice was only over the rocks along the edge, a couple of inches thick. The main channels would be clear. "Shouldn't be a problem," he said, and decided to go. He was alone.
He paddled down, hit the first series, and made the moves left past the undercuts. No eddying out. He liked fast runs. Ice covered most of the eddies, but they were small anyway and he wasn't in the mood to stop and worry about it. He got in the flow and ran the slides, past the broken ledge and knew the log was coming. He headed straight down the middle of the drop and cut left at the last second, using the ribbon of slower water in the center and a quick sweep to spin the bow. The log flashed past and he was away, down the next slide. Minute passed minute, but time wasn't really there. There was no time. He was feeling what he liked now, heading into the straightaway. Nice, nice feeling. No thoughts, just light and water and moves, one after the other.
He reached the end of the straightaway and kept paddling. He'd gone around the corner so many times he didn't even think about it. He didn't think about the shadows, and he didn't think about the cold.
The ice was thicker on either side, but the main channel was clear. He sped down the first big drop setting up to boof the falls running hard left. He cut sharp left behind the center boulder - too sharp, and slammed hard into the thick ice sticking out behind it. His bow skittered up on top, hit and hung for a second. The current caught the stern and spun the boat sideways. He scrabbled his paddle on an ice block to hold himself, but slipped back into the rushing water and was swept to the right. A razor sliced cleanly through his stomach and he froze for just an instant. He had missed the move.
The water rushed him toward a fence of broken rocks. Everything happened too fast. Reflexes took over, he cranked two sweeping strokes and spun to face downstream, just in time to avoid broaching sideways at the entrance to a narrow slot. He knifed through the slot, shot into a sliding falls and saw below him the whole sluice plunging into a hole in an iced-over channel. There was nothing but ice as far downstream as he could see. As he hit he heard himself scream, "No!"
The boat dove into the plunge hole and the water on his back drove him deep. The trees, the light, the world, gone. And he jammed underneath the iced-over channel, boat wedged by the current, his face crammed up against the cold, hard, wrong side of the ice.
He let go of his paddle and groped his fingers across the rough underside for something to hold onto against the current. He felt a small lump jutting down and clung to it, then fought his way out of the boat. His hands were numbing quickly and his feet slipped off the boat. It was sucked away by the current and disappeared into the dim halflight. His feet bicycled against the ice, toes slipping off the smoothed little domes and edges of another world. He found a notch one toe fit in, then reached one hand right, searching the dully lit underside for something else to hold onto. Lungs aching, his fingers lost their feeling as he groped. He found a ragged pit that he could hook his hand into, and then another and tried to move across the underside of the ice toward the plunge hole somewhere upstream. Surging water almost peeled him. There was nothing but the noise and pressing cold, the hiss and kaleidoscopic flutter of bubbles.
Lungs about to explode, his face pressed hard against the ice and the sharp little edges cut his cheek. An airpocket suddenly popped open over one eye and he snatched a little breath through numb lips and teeth. His lungs were starving but something held him back from sucking deep. No choking. Can't choke.
The water surged and pounded around him. Another little strangled gasp at an airpocket that was there and then gone. He searched for handholds, moving slowly, haltingly against the current. His muscles were freezing and he began frantically scratching at the ice for something to hold onto. Something. Anything. He couldn't feel his fingers. Spots danced in front of his eyes, growing larger and larger as the ice cold water sucked his life away. He was losing it and he couldn't think, but he tried and tried and he kept trying because the whole world had narrowed into a tiny, tiny point. Try it again. Try it. Try. Another pit, a jutting edge, he reached and fumbled and reached again - then a clubby unfeeling hand found the edge of the plunge hole and broke the surface into the air.
He hauled himself out with hands that weren't his. Ragged breaths clawed at the cold air, arms cramping and his whole body shivering in uncontrolled spasms. He couldn't stand, so he lay shaking by the edge of the hole into which the water plunged and looked at where he had been. He looked and looked. There was no time and no distance and no words, only the water falling. Only a few pits and edges and little gasping breaths under the ice.
He hiked out, up through the trees. It was a long way. He shivered and stumbled, walking on legs that wouldn't bend to his will. On feet that no longer could feel the ground or the person they were a part of. His hands and fingers belonged to someone else, to something else. To the cold that held the world. To the shadows behind the trees. But his eyes worked. He saw every perfect ice crystal on the crust of the snow. He noticed every bud that would open when the ice was gone. When he finally reached the road, he stopped and felt the warm sun on his face. He stood leaning against a tree in the sun, looking at the light and the snow and listening to himself breathe. Amazed at it all. Awed and wordless. And he knew one simple thing that he never would forget or use so freely. He was alive.