Excerpt

Chapter One

Dangerous ideas come to life and spread like sparks on dry twigs. It could have been Lula who thought of it first. Or it could have been Tiny or possibly Johnnie Mae. Somebody said, "Let's walk on down past there. It's cooler there." The small troupe—Mabel, Lula, Hannah, Tiny, Sarey, and the sisters Johnnie Mae and Clara—never actually decided to walk to the Three Sisters. It began as an idea that one or the other had and became accomplished fact without planning. The afternoon was hot and the advancing dusk brought no relief. Heat clung to the low-hanging branches of trees and permitted no breeze to stir them. The girls' raucous laughter was not muted by the shrubbery that lined the C&O canal towpath, and the seven pairs of bare feet simply walked westward to ward the Three Sisters.

Higgins Hole is a spot on the C&O canal where colored children used to gather daily in summer and clamber over debris in order to swim. Water still sluices southward through the abandoned locks of the old canal, no longer used for muledrawn barge transportation from Cumberland, Maryland, through Great Falls and Little Falls, under Chain Bridge, and down through Georgetown below M Street alongside the Potomac River.

Gnats and wildflowers are thick on the towpath beside the canal. Some fishers after carp and catfish drop lines from footbridges over the canal or from spots nestled in the shadow of the Francis Scott Key Bridge. Water-loving trees lock boughs far above the heads of strollers on the path.

In the late afternoon on hot days, Johnnie Mae, her baby sister, Clara, and their playmates collected at Higgins Hole with their swimming suits on under cotton shifts. Other groups of boys and girls, older and younger, gathered there too. Some of the girls came just to stand around, but Johnnie Mae always stripped off her shift immediately, pulled on her swimming cap, and plunged into the water, stroking, cavort ing, and sponging up coolness.

Since they opened the public swimming pool for white folks only on Volta Place, right across the street from her aunt Ina's house, the pleasures of Higgins Hole were diminished for Johnnie Mae. In that public pool the water was so clear! Clara said it must be ice water. Clara said they must get big blocks of ice from the ice man on Potomac Street and put them in there. She was certain of this because the white boys and girls they saw through the fence and bushes surrounding the pool were always shivering.

The water at Higgins Hole, though not brackish, was not transparent like the water in the swimming pool on Volta Place. The canal carried the husky bouquet of decaying or ganic matter rather than the scent of chlorine. There were things growing in the canal that clouded the surface and entangled the ankles of swimmers. There were fish, and some times dead fish floated on the water's surface. Higgins Hole had begun to feel like a secondhand pair of shoes to Johnnie Mae. It was useful as a place to swim, but it was no longer special.

Below M Street, below Higgins Hole on the canal, the Potomac River looks calm and quiet on its surface but roils behind its hand. The Potomac River , brood sow for spots, rock, carp, and herring, is also a foam-bedecked doxy lounging against verdant banks, carving out sitting places and lying places and sleeping places all the way from Sharpsburg, Mary land, to the Chesapeake Bay . The Potomac River jumps mas sive rocks and roars downstream at Great Falls. Its spray shoots toward the clouds before falling quiet and running headlong toward Georgetown and W ashington and then proceeding past them.

This river is not one thing or another . It is both. The Potomac River has a face no one should trust. It is as duplicitous as a two-dollar whore. It welcomes company but abuses its guests by pitching them silly on small boats.

Legends abound that the Potomac River is a widowmaker, a childtaker, and a woman-swallower. According to the most famous tale, the river has already swallowed three sisters—three Catholic nuns. Yet it did not swallow them, only drowned them and belched them back up in the form of three small rock islands. They lie halfway between one shore and the other, each with a wimple made of seabirds' wings.

The Three Sisters is a landmark. When you say "the Three Sisters," people know you're going to tell about something that happened on the river to cause grief. And it isn't really clear whether it's the boulders or the river at that spot that causes the grief. Nobody in his right mind goes swimming near the Three Sisters. The river has hands for sure at this spot. Maybe even the three nuns themselves, beneath the water's surface, are grabbing ankles to pull down some company.

The girls were not supposed to go in the river. Parents regularly warned their children not to swim there. Alice and Willie Bynum, knowing Johnnie Mae's fondness for swimming, had warned her off the banks of the Potomac. Nobody trusts the Potomac River. It's not benign like the aqua-glass swimming pool for the white children up on Volta Place. It is not plodding and dirty like the canal. It is treacherous. It is beguiling. Just walking along the riverbank can be dangerous if you've got a worry spot or a grief stone or an anger or resentment that you can't quite name.

At first the girls stood there. Then they sat among the tall weedy grasses of the littered bank. Much of what gets discarded in Georgetown ends up here, twisted and tangled among black-eyed Susans and Queen Anne's lace. Splintered planks with nails sticking out hide in the shin-high grasses. "Watch where you steppin'! Look out there!" Lula suddenly adopted a big-mama voice and broke the hypnotic silence that had brought them wordlessly to this spot.

"Clara, look where you walkin', girl! You hear me?" Johnnie Mae's voice was an echo of Lula's—a reflex exhortation—a pit-of-thestomach reminder that they had no business here and were tempting fate just by stepping, just by breathing. The earth closest to the river edge was mud. In twos and threes—Hannah and Tiny, Mabel and Lula and Clara, Johnnie Mae and Sarey—the girls sat at the river's edge and dangled their feet in the muddy, gunmetal green water. A rotting, downed tree branch covered with terraces of toadstools jutted out from the bank diagonally into the water and provided a place to sit. Rows of ants marched back and forth along its length. Clara sat cautiously on the low end while Mabel and Lula scooted along the log until they were several feet from the bank, swinging their legs out over the water. Hannah and Tiny climbed aboard the log between Clara and the girls on the outer end. Johnnie Mae and Sarey leaned against the log with their ankles mired in cool mud. Johnnie Mae thought about the glistening girls in the swimming pool on Volta Place. Those girls sat on the sides of their pool and only dangled their ankles in the water. The slimy, cool earth banked her anger.

Mabel's sudden shrieking as she belly flopped into the river jerked Johnnie Mae back from her thoughts. Lula followed Mabel into the river and the log shifted and bucked as she springboarded into the water. Johnnie Mae bounded onto the log and ran its length, maintaining her balance as perfectly as an aerialist. She swooped past Hannah and Tiny, nearly knocking them off as she launched herself as far out into the river as possible. The water was of uncertain depth here, but Johnnie Mae was not at all concerned with depth, just breadth. It was her foolish thought that the far bank of the Potomac was within reach of her strokes. And the water was cool, blessedly cool.

Clara sat quietly, watching Johnnie Mae and the other girls. Her quiet allowed them to ignore her . She was a constant appendage to her sister and seemed content to be so. None of the other girls noticed Clara moving along the log to the high end that jutted out over the water. Hannah and Tiny slid off the log into the water, causing it to shift.

Clara maneuvered herself along the log to get a better view of the other girls. They swam together in groups, weaving in and out of each other's arms. They dunked each other's heads and cannonaded each other by slapping the water's surface. Mabel, the oldest, pulled her wet swimming suit away from her chest to show the others her nipples, tight and wrinkled with excitement and cold. The girls giggled, they laughed uproariously, they didn't notice Clara.

Johnnie Mae was obliged to remember Clara. It had been her responsibility to watch Clara ever since Clara was a baby. But Johnnie Mae's mind was elsewhere. She was, right then, considering swimming straight across the river to Roslyn on the opposite bank. It didn't look too far. It looked like some thing she might be able to do.

Johnnie Mae did not hear Clara splash into the river when the rotted log collapsed. Johnnie Mae ducked her head under the surface of the river, her shoulders following, then her back and hips. Her flapping ankles churned the water's surface. She arched her back and pulled up to the surface with long, graceful arms. The splashing sound, she thought, was her own body slicing the water.

But it was Clara's body that slid beneath the water. The fingers of the undertow swooped her . The others did not see her go down. They looked at the place on the bank where Clara and the log had been, and now Clara and the log were gone. It was as though the log were a hobbyhorse and Clara was riding it. The canopy of leaves draping the bank seemed unmoved by Clara's sudden absence. The effect was of viewing a scene through a stereopticon: The first image contained Clara and the log, and the second did not.

Johnnie Mae dove twenty times before the others realized what had happened. Johnnie Mae rose to the surface, tread water, and screamed wildly. She filled her lungs with air and she dove again. The other girls grabbed her after it became clear that she would continue to plunge. The girls grasped arms around the struggling, screaming, exhausted Johnnie Mae and drew in close around her, like petals on a daisy. Johnnie Mae thrashed against them at first, then collapsed. They swam in tandem to the bank. A white ribbon off Clara's plait floated on the surface of the river.



© 1999 by Breena Clarke