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  • There used to be a swimming hole in the river, but it's gone now.

    It was a popular place, especially in the hottest afternoons of the Vermont summer. Though the river bed dried out significantly as the season progressed, the remaining narrow channel of fast moving mountain water dropped enough to carve out significant depth as it opened up in front of a giant boulder. The daring would climb up to the top and jump off, the thrill of the fall shattered by the iciness of the water.

    -----

    I don't want to go down to the river today.

    "I worry about the girls climbing the rock -- it can be really slippery," I say, weakly, "They could fall and hit their head. Why can't we just go to our pond? It's so peaceful and private there."

    "They like the rushing water," he says. "I'll take them to the top of the rock," he pauses and nods assuringly, "They're good swimmers, really. And Sunday mornings are quiet and shady and cool down there. If it's a scene, we can come back up to the pond. It'll be good family fun, making memories and all that."

    If it's a scene. Maybe the too young parents barking angry commands at their kids while seated in their rickety low beach chairs. Or the teenagers and their empty six packs poorly hidden in the woods. Or the wiry old man casting his line into the far end of the pool, a cigarette dangling from his lips, mindless of the children running around. My children. With their well nourished little bodies, matching Lands End bathing suits and new water shoes to protect their tender feet.

    We don't argue, we never really do.

    "Okay," I concede, both of us knowing that I will silently carry around resentment like a backpack full of logs, until a time 12 or 24 hours later when I feel like it's okay to abandon it, the load just no longer meaningful enough to bear.

    As we approach the entrance path, we notice a shiny white SUV with gold trim and New Jersey plates parked along the roadside. We exchange a glance and a grimace, this is unexpected.

    We each take a hand of one of the girls and make our way down the shady trail which opens up to a stony beach in front of the pool. Three men, four women. The two younger women have toasted marshmallow brown skin, straightened and highlighted hair, their full bodies in brightly colored bikinis. The men have chains around their necks. One man, probably in his 50s, has a perfect buzz cut and a big gold signet ring. All are smiling and laughing.

    While the girls are taking off their cover-ups and laying out their towels, my husband engages one of the older men in conversation. I can't hear over the rush of the river but I expect they are talking about what the weather was going to do for the day, the week.

    I follow the girls upstream and greet one of the younger women with a forced smile, "Hey. Nice day, huh?"

    "It's so beautiful here but I had forgotten how cold the water is!" Her eyes are big with black eyeliner and heavy mascara.

    "I know. It feels like it only warms up a few degrees all summer. This is probably as warm as it is going to get." I pretend I am an expert on the swimming hole. "You're not from around here?"

    "No, we drove up this morning. From Jersey."

    "Wow, must have gotten an early start. Where are you heading?"

    "Heading? Oh, well, here."

    I'm baffled. "You drove up this morning to come to this swimming hole?" It's a nice spot, no doubt, but surely there was a closer swimming spot in the Poconos or the Hudson River valley. Probably even a more beautiful spot.

    "Yeah, my grandmother was from this area, and my dad and uncle grew up in town. When my brother and I were kids, we used to come swim here all the time. Gran died about six years ago and we've wanted to come back. Some of the best times of our childhood took place at this very spot."

    Her family name isn't familiar. Her grandmother lived in the crowded low-lying area of town where all the houses are the same, former factory workers' housing. A decent neighborhood, mostly.

    I think of what an unusually tight family this is, making the trip up together, though it doesn't quite add up. These are all adults with busy lives, jobs, friends, things to do.

    "So are you all related?" I ask.

    "Yes, well, essentially." She points at the young man with the blue suit holding hands with the other young woman, making their way gingerly across the cobbles. "That's my brother and next to him is his girlfriend. We think they’ll get engaged soon." Back on the shore are her parents and her aunt and uncle. Seven total.

    "Here I go!" Her brother shouts as he leaps into the pool.

    "You are fucking crazy!" His girlfriend shouts over the rush.

    I walk in just a little past my ankles, keeping an eye out for the girls who are up to their waists now.

    "Josh is shipping out to Iraq next week and the one place he decided he wanted to go before he left is here, so we all packed up. Once, when he was ten, Josh jumped off the rock 50 times in a single day. Can you imagine? He wants to take this place with him."

    I look at her and over to her brother in the water and then to my girls who are now doggy paddling in small circles, squealing in delight. Josh's sister is smiling into the sun, the air, the smell.

    I want nothing more than an instantaneous diversion, to respond to a cry for help from the children, or have my husband call me away to assist him with a tangled suit or missing swim goggles. But it doesn't happen and I just stand there. Without words. This war? This place? This family? My eyes well up but I swallow the tears back and reverse her statement, "He's going next week? Wow, that's soon."

    "Yeah, it is. But we are hopeful and proud. He'll be doing good work protecting our freedom. Him and his girlfriend are really tight. It's going to be hardest on her." I look over at his mother who is rubbing sunscreen on his father's back. She catches my eyes briefly, and smiles. This war? This place? These parents?

    Josh has made it to the far side of the pool. He climbs out of the water and scales the giant boulder like an athlete, a small tattoo visible now on his left bicep. He stands on top and strikes a pose like a sculpture of a Greek God, then leaps high in the air and cannonballs into the water. His girlfriend joins him and they climb and jump again, this time holding hands, she screeching, her perfectly flat and smooth hair flying out like airplane wings.

    I step further into the water and then slink in, the cold creeping uncomfortably up my chest, over my shoulders and around my neck. I move quickly along the surface to generate some heat and then without a second thought I go under. The cold blasts my forehead and the pressure in my ears is punishing as I go down deeper and deeper until I reach the bottom. I touch the stones with my hands, pull my legs down, then push off and shoot out of the surface.

    "Look at Mommy! You are so brave!" My older daughter cheers.

    I am not, I think, I am not.

    Later, after jumping, the girls come out and warm themselves against my husband, they recharging by absorbing his heat, he absorbing them in his hold.

    Eventually we make our back way uphill to the house. The girls are cranky by the time we arrive. I settle them in the sun on the porch with some apple slices and cheese. We watch a hummingbird in the pink bee balm, hover-flutter for a moment, then move on to the next flower. We marvel at the lightness and shimmering feathers of the tiny bird. Such a fragile being with so little to protect itself, and yet here it is, before us.

    I have left my backpack of logs behind. Probably down by the river. Probably in the bottom of the pool.

    -----

    In 2011, Tropical Storm Irene came to Vermont. Rivers overflowed, roads washed out, villages destroyed. The mountain rivers raged in the valleys, tearing trees from their roots, sucking soil from the banks, moving boulders.

    We haven't been swimming at the river since Irene. The trees on the north side of the swimming hole -- the ones that provided the break between the road and the peaceful spot -- are gone. The fast moving channel that fed the pool has changed course and the swimming hole has filled with debris from upstream. The rock is still there, but jumping off would be a death sentence into the now shallow water. Devoid of its cover, its privacy, its pause, it is now just a part of the continuous stretch of river that flows down the mountain, into town and out on the other side.
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