Fear of Drowning

by Mary Ardery

My first week in the Pisgah Forest, the rain does not
give up. August deluge. All the rivers rising, seductive

as a high hemline. One woman, before crossing, looks
back at me, says: This is for my kids. Then she steps

into the current, hip belt unbuckled in case she stumbles.
In case the pressure pulls her and her backpack down.

When I began working wilderness therapy, my father
sent me his AA story, the former life I don’t remember:

all the Saturday mornings he drove us drunk, three daughters
in the backseat. Our small hands sticky from McDonald’s

hotcakes. It’s this I think of in the woods, the scent of syrup,
a reason to stay when I first smell trillium: its rank odor

like a rotting animal carcass. But it’s creek crossings I hate
most of all. Every slip on a river-stone, fear floods in

and I find myself humming a lullaby. A tune to quiet
the mind as I wade through rivers, fifty pounds

on my back and a smaller pack strapped to my chest
like a baby. Once, a stranger followed my father home.

She scolded his driving, drifting—no cell phones back then
to call the police. She yelled beneath our post-bloom magnolia

and he stayed buckled. His hands on the steering wheel,
white-knuckled at ten-and-two. The three of us shocked

silent in our car seats behind him, and the station wagon’s
tires crushing pink petals, tender as flesh. When I see

the swollen river yank the woman down, I drop my packs
and run in humming. Self-soothing. Like how a mother
sings to calm her baby and it slows her pulse just the same.
This woman, gasping, pushes up on her own. A surge

of adrenaline. She still bears the weight of her pack.
In those long-ago night hours, when my father stumbled

down the hallway in his sleep- and vodka-stupor,
he reached behind the bars of my crib and clutched

my small warmth, loud in his hands. When he shook
my head like a rattle, the silence he craved came sweet.

It lasted brief as breath underwater.

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