It hasn't sunken in yet. Three years we’ve been coming here and I haven’t done it, but today’s going to be the day. Right? It has to be. Papa and Audrey have done it twice. I came close last year, but I almost started crying when the time came.
Every year we go camping, every year we go around to a bunch of swimming holes, and every year I don't have the nerve to jump off the high ledge. The small one is easy, just five feet above the surface. The scariest part is the icy water. The middle cliff is nerve-wracking, hanging 15 feet in the air, like an Olympic diving board. There’s nothing you can hit as long as you jump out far enough. But the high ledge, the 20-foot jump into freezing mountain water, is still daunting. My heart drips every time I even think about it.
I don’t have anything to hold onto to hide my jittering hands as we walk through the layer of trees blocking the swimming hole from Base Station Road, which cuts through the New Hampshire mountains. As I step out from the small patch of woods, I find the familiar scene. The huge mass of stone stands tall, a skinny birch tree growing fearlessly on the edge. From the top of the ledge, the water falls lethally, millions of years of erosion smoothing the stone into soft pots and swirls. The medium ledge, the one I overcame two years ago, hangs about ten feet down to the right, framing the view of the river. The water winds ahead, a small pebbled beach to the side.
From here my eyes can only catch the top of the waterfall. The mountain water roars, calling me closer. A few steps more and I hear the sound of people cheering, chanting names, shouting words of encouragement I can’t quite make out. Stepping out farther, I see a crowd of, maybe twenty people, clearly related, standing around. They’re waiting for the next person to step off the firm ground, to fall through the unsupporting air, to embrace the bone-chilling water.
The picture of the area mirrors my memory of last year, only now there are more people watching, and higher, faster water, a gift from all the rain this past week.
Audrey nudges my arm, reminding me that my feet can still move, “So, you gonna jump off now?”
“Umm… no… I'll, uh, watch from the bottom.”
Taking a deep breath, I walk away from my sister, down the narrow wooded path which leads to the rocky beach. I duck under a low hanging branch, onto the dry patches of dirt, around the rusty mud puddles.
The cliff looks a little smaller than last year, probably from the flooded water, but it still sends a chill down my spine.
A kid, probably around eight, jumps off.
Why couldn’t I do that?
His arms stick to his side and his bathing shorts flap in the air as he plummets into the water. His head comes up, mouth open and legs kicking, as he swims to his dad. His dad holds out his hand, snatching the shaking boy from the deluge of mountain water. They stand on the submerged rock, struggling to stay upright against the water.
Everyone turns again to the towering rock, anticipating the next jumper. I scan the crowd, looking for the next volunteer. My dad catches my eye. He points and mouths, “You?”
My lungs seem to fill up, but not with air, just an overwhelming urge to scream, to run, to do anything but jump off that rock. Papa gestures, coaxing me back. My feet start the trek. My chest is weighed down, heavy as lead. My breaths come shallow and fast. My hands shake, fiddling with the ruffles on my bathing suit. My feet stumble as though I’ve never walked before.
Soon enough, I reach the top, my whole body trembling, barely managing to breathe. Papa puts his arm around my shoulders, keeping me from melting onto the mossy stone.
Audrey comes up behind me. She uses her preschool teacher voice. “Are you gonna do it, Gigi? That little kid just did it.”
Younger sisters shouldn’t be able to baby their older sister, I tell myself.
I step closer, holding my arms awkwardly, my insides empty. A black hole is swallowing my insides. My body is a hollow shell. I walk forward and grab onto the brave birch tree, barely trusting my hands to keep me from falling.
God, that water looks cold.
Two boys stand to my left, silently debating whether they should jump. A man, a stranger, steps up behind the boys and starts talking to them.
“You’ve got to leap out. Don't step or jump. If you try to jump, you’re gonna be running, but you could slip. If you just step, trust me, you won’t get out far enough, I know. So you gotta leap, no running, just a step with a little push. Okay?”
The boys nod, but the man still stands a few feet away, out of the way of any puke that may escape their pale faces.
Or maybe I just want to think I’m not the only one here who feels sick to their stomach.
The man starts again, seeing how nervous they are, “ Now, when you’re in the air, you’re probably gonna want to put your hands out, like you’re flying. Don’t. Keep them at your side or crossed over your chest. If you don’t, you're going to get burns,”
“When you get under the water, start swimming up immediately, but once your head is out of the water, just float and put your feet out to stand on the rock. Makes it so much easier.”
The boys nod again, their panic rising and falling a little slower. I guess I feel better too, but my hands are still shaking like an earthquake. He never said anything about actually getting off the cliff.
My dad whispers, standing next to me, “It’s not the fall that’ll kill you, it’s the impact.”
“Well, that’s reassuring.”
“Hey, this water won’t kill you. It’ll feel like it when you find out how cold it is, but you won’t actually die.” He shakes my shoulders and laughs.
“Thanks, that helped a lot.”
One of the kids starts striking up one of those if-you-do-it-I’ll-do-it deals with his friend. The other boy paces around in a circle, swinging his goggles.
“Hold these.” The ten-year-old hands over his goggles, as the other stands back in disbelief. He walks to the edge and bounces, shaking his arms out, preparing for the jump.
His friend steps to the edge, shocked. “Wait! Really? I didn’t mean it.”
But it’s too late, the kid is flying through the air, yelling wildly, arms flailing. His arms add a hard smack to the initial splash. The boy shakes his head, still stunned from the impact. He yells to his friend, “I completely regret that. Listen to the dude up there! My arms sting!”
The stranger laughs, “I’ll go ahead of you if you want. Show you the right way.”
The kid nods and throws the goggles down to his friend. The man expertly walks off the face of the cliff and makes a clean landing into the water, the whole thing looking like a scuba diver stepping off a boat into the water on the discovery channel or something. The kid stands there, astounded.
I am too.
How does he make it look so easy?
After a minute, the kid tries his hand. If he doesn’t jump, his friend will never let him forget it. He splashes into the polar plunge, straighter and much more quietly than the other kid.
Audrey lowers her head to mine. She’s a foot taller than I am, even though I’m a year older “You’d be wrong to think I’d ever let you live this down if you don’t do it.”
Papa looks at me, “I’ll go ahead of you, you just gotta tell me when. But if I go in, whether you like it or not, you will too. It’s so freakin’ cold in there.”
“Hey, if you jump off first, they’ll go,” Audrey says, pointing to a group of teenagers, “they wouldn’t let a little girl beat them at this.”
“I’m not that little, I’m probably, like, three years younger than those guys.”
Person after person jumps in the flood of water. My heart beats in my ears in time with the surging water. My ankles hurt from standing so long. My head aches more and more with each splash until I can’t take it any longer. I turn to my dad, “Papa, go. Go soon, or I’ll back out.”
He squeezes my shoulder, and the next chance he gets, he’s flying through the air.
Audrey opens her mouth to say something, but I cut her off, “Shush!”
Two more people jump from the smaller ledges. I step forward, feeling each pair of eyes drift toward me as if I’m about to give a class presentation.
My bare feet scratch the ground as I get ready to take the leap. I prep my leap, shifting one foot in front of the other and step forward, pushing with the back as my front foot stretches forward in jeté. My feet meet in the middle and my arms stick to my side.
What did I just do? Crap crap crap crap crap crap cra-
I feel as if I’m watching a movie, watching through someone else's eyes. This isn’t me, I would never jump off a cliff just because someone told me to. But there’s wind moving through my hair, goosebumps on my skin, droplets of water on my cheek. Just as my heart reaches full speed, my feet touch the water. My body doesn't even have enough time to react to the icy temperature. The world flies past me as I pencil dive into the water. I’m completely covered in water so cold, I haven’t felt just how freezing it is. Time slows like I’m floating in space, everything seems peaceful under the surface, that is, until lack of oxygen forces me to swim up.
I kick until my hair is greeted by air again and my lungs fill. Papa reaches his hand out as I drift toward him, carried by the current, a big smile plastered on his face.
“You did it!”
“It was that easy?”