Summers are short, here in the Northwoods. The apples have already started to fall, their pink hides blemished by black spots. Within a month the wind will shift off Lake Superior, bringing weeks of cold rain and gloom to Duluth. Stuck in the house with a one year-old, we’ll walk in circles, looking for something new to discuss, like a married couple going on fifty years. Our conversations will stick to the same topics: large vehicles, dogs, food. We’ll converse with engine noises and sirens and gestures. But today, while the air is still warm, we cannot waste an hour of blue sky and sunshine; we’re going for a run.
Before we reach the end of our driveway, the sirens start. Rafe, in the jogging stroller, recognizes them first, turning his head, pointing to the sky. He always hears sirens before I do. I lived too long in a city, or maybe in the world. Sirens are an anomaly here on the northern shore of the lake, where the forest is never more than ten minutes away from the city.
I had been looking forward to the run ahead of us: a steep climb, bordering the park, crossing seven bridges over Amity Creek, past birch and pine, white-tailed deer and wild lupines. We are on the other side of summer, coming down the hill; the goldenrod plumes are in full allergic glory, the birch leaves wrinkle up at the sides, touched too long by the hot iron of sunshine. Often, surprisingly, there will be a garter snake in my path, its six-inch body smashed in the middle by a thin tire.
Now, as I turn onto the street leading from our neighborhood to the park, three, four police cars speed across our path, followed by a fire truck and an ambulance. People pour out of nearby houses and offices to see what’s happened. At the edge of the trees bordering the park, a fire truck idles, its engine humming; workers climb off in full dive gear, wearing harnesses and hauling grapnels, hustling downhill toward the creek. Rafe gives his engine growl, a guttural roar that sounds like an old man’s. He can’t believe his luck, to see a fire truck this big, right in front of him. “Fire truck,” I say, silently noting the distinction between the vehicle in front of us and a fire engine. A fire engine carries water; a fire truck carries equipment and gear. We read a lot of books about emergency vehicles these days.
I’m not sure what to do. I don’t want to run up the hill now; it would take us right past the Deeps. Beneath a waterfall, caverned by rock and trees on either side, it’s a surprisingly deep spot for a creek, and in the summer hordes of teenage boys scale 30, 50, sometimes even 70 feet to plunge in. If there’s an emergency, it probably has something to do with the Deeps.
When we first moved to the neighborhood, my husband and I hiked there one evening and paused on the bridge over the waterfall, watching teenage boys jump in, one after the next. They came in all shapes and sizes – some round with potato chip bellies, some tall and lean as only a teenage boy can be. I could see the excitement in their eyes, the speed and adrenalin. Yet their courage could disappear in a moment of hesitation. We watched one boy stall at the top. “Don’t worry!” called his buddy from the water below. “If you jump out far enough you won’t hit your head!” My husband turned away first, “I can’t watch a head injury,” he said.
But I lingered, fascinated by their bravado. I wasn’t yet pregnant, but I yearned for a positive sign each month. We moved to the Northwoods to recreate for our own kids the childhoods we remembered: running free on summer afternoons, in the woods, along creek beds and ravines, not caged into concrete by skyscrapers and traffic. Watching these boys leap off the cliff, I imagined a child of mine growing up here, riding a bike in the alleys, walking independently to school, even, someday, jumping into that creek.
The next summer, when Rafe was barely bigger than a bag of flour, when I feared I would drop him every time I picked him up, we took him on walks in the park, strapped to one of us, his scrawny legs dangling. It was uncharacteristically hot that year, and all summer, while we hiked and took turns napping and taking care of a newborn, people swam in the Deeps, jumping from great heights, climbing to ascend even higher, plunge even further. Twice we heard the sirens; twice swimmers misjudged the trajectory, though neither of them was seriously injured. I thought of the adolescence awaiting my tiny son.
Now, on the edge of the woods, not even a block from our house, something terrible has happened. I don’t want to run up the road, but I don’t want to turn back home, either. Somehow it feels disrespectful to leave. I push the stroller further into the park, towards the main bridge crossing the creek, where traffic is slowed in either direction. Here is the full regalia of emergency vehicles: pumper trucks with water intake valves and extending ladders, an ambulance and a red rescue unit, its side open to reveal circular saws and oxygen cylinders, axes and power cables. Police and emergency workers stand on the bridge with radios, talking too casually. Onlookers line up at the rail, peering down.
I won’t stop on the bridge and gawk like these others, I tell myself, pushing ahead. But as soon as I reach the bridge, I halt. The roar of the creek beneath us muffles all other sound. Never have I seen the water rushing so fast. Boulders we’ve used as stepping stones are smothered by the white tops of churning rainwater, racing downhill towards Lake Superior. The relentless gushing looks more like April than August, its rapids more like the spring thaw than the late summer trickle.
I keep pushing, entering the park through the east side, Rafe pointing and growling at all the vehicles. I push the stroller down a gravel path to a footbridge crossing an intimate bend in the creek. Here are emergency workers with radios and more onlookers; a guy in swim trunks asks if they need gear – he has harnesses at home he can bring. The water rushes below us, roaring. Along its edges, perched on rocks, rescuers are poised with grapnels and hooks, alert, waiting.
I park the stroller just off to the side of the crowd and we watch. A woman comes by with a small dog and stops for my son to admire him.
“Do you know what happened?” I ask her.
She stands close to me. “Two boys jumped in – only one came out.”
I note the word, boys. “How old were they?”
These aren’t the daredevil sixteen year-olds who jump from high branches. They’re just boys. I imagine them on the rocks below the waterfall, next to the creek, casually wading into the water. I can’t see them jumping 70 feet, tempting fate. Their tenuous courage is not to blame. They’re too innocent to take such a risk with their own lives.
A runner in muddy shoes and a sweat-stained t-shirt cuts through the crowd on the bridge. Pausing, he sizes things up, then continues indifferently into the woods. I used to run like that. It’s how I lived my whole life: stick to the path, keep going, because it’s weak to stop for disaster. A sense of moral superiority compelled me not to look when I passed the scene of a collision on my morning commute. Instead, I sped past, congratulating myself on being better than the rest of those gawking commuters. The radio traffic report would announce the “gaper’s delay,” the slow-down in traffic caused by curious onlookers, and I would seethe at the insolence. How disrespectful they were, to watch someone at their weakest moment, yanked from a car by the jaws of life, bleeding, helpless.
But now – now, I stop. I am no longer simply observing this life, unbound; now I have a stake in it. I’m no longer on my own, traipsing through life with a backpack, merely carrying my own things. Now, I carry Rafe’s things, too, and my roots here are deeper. Becoming a mother has chipped away at my selfish streak in spite of my efforts to keep it. I can’t keep running indifferently anymore.
Just two days earlier, I stripped Rafe to his diaper and we waded, holding hands, in this creek bed, the water barely up to his waist, watching our toes on the slippery rocks, our biggest threat the mosquitoes. This is our backyard. And the part of me that watches out for my own son now extends beyond him; another boy is in the water, and when would he come up? Was he in the grip of rocks under the gushing waterfall? Had he already been swept out to the Big Lake?
I can’t bear to stand watching for another awful moment. I push Rafe up past the playground, over the bridge, heading home. We pause at the corner to see the fire truck one more time, up close. I push the stroller on the side opposite the crowds, so no one will see us stop to look at the truck. Rafe has no idea why it is there. Should I deny him the chance to gawk at the truck? We are all there to gawk.
That night, late, my son awakes from a nightmare, cries out into the hot night wind. We are still not used to summer nights in the Northwoods, to sleeping with windows open, exposed to the nocturnal vibrations of the lake and forest. It’s easy, in winter, to close out the world, to sleep as if we are protected. I get up and go to his room, put my hands under his outstretched arms, feel the warmth of his ribs and lungs. I pick him up and hold him close, sit in the rocking chair beside the window, and open my cotton nightgown to him. His mouth finds my nipple, and he latches on, instantly relaxing into my breast, his skin melting into mine. We breathe together, listening to the frightening silence of a moonless night.