Perched on the second highest of five granite steps, I palmed the sweating slab while the old factory floor above, limestone it seemed, leached drops onto my back and shoulders from thin, chalky stalactites. A cutout let sun in just behind me, where ages ago the steps, for some reason, allowed river access. Below, Shannon flicked water from the shaded pool where she sat to the nearest of several drying in the sun. Droplets rained with each aimed shot, and as she does she cocked her head to study the patterns with a single eye, usually the left. When a given outlay piqued her, she let out a sustained curdle, something like a tree frog’s. The handful of people in the narrow, shallow gorge looked over the first few times, but by now had grown accustomed.
Further out, where gravity alone coaxed the current along, Shan’s little sister Flannery hopped from boulder to ledge to boulder, dipping in and out of pools fed by dying, offshoot rills. Steeped in shade, I called over.
“Careful, Flan. Remember: dry rock walk, wet rock sit and slide.”
“Look, Da-Da, look!,” she said. “I’m an otter!”
Laying her bare chest on the algae mat blanketing a rock, she slid to the pool below, pressing moisture from the tangle as she did. Coming up, she knelt beneath the ledge, taking the dripping water and shaking.
“This is how otters take baths, Da-Da.”
“Now catch a fish, Otter.”
Puffing her cheeks, she submerged, then popped up, hoisting a stick.
In the drop below, where throughout spring white torrents churned down to the bridge, a girl, twelve or so, lolled in chest high water. Floating on her back, she spun, legs needled to the sky before frog-kicking toward bottom. Re-ascending, she eased her face through the surface then waded ashore, tilting to wring water from a rope of red-blonde hair.
The main current filled the pool, falling over the ledge in a sheet, a pattern repeated in four or five successive catches until the water slowed from the first of three dams beyond the bridge. In the pool below the girl, an elderly woman tended three boys. Their wet, black hair glossed in the sun, matching the sheen on five hickory-perched crows surveying us from the opposite bank. The tree’s broad, green leaves mingled with the red-tinted ones of adjoining maples, the first of the season to turn. Beneath, just outside the wire fence, someone had parked a red pickup along the cul-de-sac. A young woman, one arm dyed in tattoo, opened the passenger side, the fourth such in the hour we’d been here. Vanished behind tinted windows a while, she exited like the rest.
In the river the two youngest boys sat in the shallows, fiddling with plastic toys, while the oldest, an early teen, dangled his legs over the ledge where the pool drained, holding a fishing rod to the water below. The squat, graying woman sat on a blanket, smiling and muttering to the oldest. Between the distance, my limited Spanish, and the murmuring falls I didn’t pick much up, but did hear her say it was too hot to fish.
The only other person here, the girl’s father I guessed, sat in a lawn chair in line with the crows. Just inside the fence, he’d found a flat spot beneath a gnarled apple tree, one that younger hardwoods were sun-starving. Arms folded, he pressed his one boot firmly on the ground. The other leg was gone, sheared at the groin, with crutches laying either side of the chair. Ten years younger than me, maybe more, his red beard nevertheless tipped he’d gone gray where men do first, in the chin. Occasionally looking down at the girl from beneath a black ball cap, he mostly stared downstream, where around the bend, in the pair of long, high, granite buildings that still remained, his grandfather, grandmother too maybe, likely filled out their lives among hissing pistons and twirling bobbins, spinning thread.
At five, Flan understood now that I had to be near Shannon, and she busied herself turning over what stones she could, looking for nymph life. Shan – who unwittingly brought us here when I hooked into a weedy parking lot behind main street to change a leaky diaper – still slung her water. After the long, weekly drive from Rhode Island and her intense therapy the sight of the river had been too much, and we slipped through a torn flap in the fence, skirting the sun-cooked factory floor – veined in dandelions and fireweed – to the water. Dumb luck for me she picked the steps and shade, and I’d caverned here like a desert snake.
In a mesh of river rocks and crumbled floor bits, a fish spider – gray, hirsute – clenched beside a crevice, while above it a half cup of lichen and moss was spittled to a support pillar, a phoebe nest. With the chicks gone and Flan having seen enough beneath bridges and pavilions that spring, I didn’t bother calling her. Without words to explain or birds to see, I let Shan be as well. Water soothes her, and would, I knew, cleanse whatever diarrhea I’d missed, especially with the upwell. Cut off from the river, this pool nevertheless had a spring, and algae tresses lapped Shan’s naked legs like eels while a crayfish, aroused by disrupted silt, emerged behind her, whisking its antennae.
Like so many New England place names this one – Willimantic – is a Native mash-up, meaning ‘where the swift waters run’. With Shannon having started therapies here a year before, we’d driven over the river once a week since. Hemmed by dams upstream and down, this stretch likely lacks its original punch, but still, from the bridge, it’s a sight.
The dams went in maybe two hundred years before and I doubted a sea-run fish had been upstream since, but under the factory remains I could blank out everything, even my daughters, and see them, the salmon, bunched in every pool, silver shading to bronze, itchy and ripening. They needed rain, enough to gain the cascades to spawn. Only forests clouded the banks, dank, rank forests stuffed with chestnut and elm alongside centuries old maple and oak.
People met the fish, Lord knows from which tribe, maybe one of those running the nearby casinos now. Some netted, some speared, some draped split carcasses over cottonwood racks, feeding smoke fires. At dusk, with the people gone, an otter pack chirped while a black bear sloshed, and wolves – out of their wares, sloshing themselves – snarled at one another’s ineptitude. Later, upstream beneath the Milky Way, a cougar padded along a worn timber. Setting over the eddy, it waited.
“Da-Da!,” Flannery shouted. “Da-Da! Come look! I found a monster!”
It’s a struggle to give Flan equal time, but knowing Shannon would be content for a while I risked leaving. Slipping out from under the old factory, then, I broke off a few dewy stalactites with a clumsy shoulder then stepped around Shan, standing in the sun to stretch, working out some newfound mid-aged stiffness. In the pool just a silt puff marked the burrow where the crayfish had scuttled.
Step-stoning more than walking, I reached Flan, bending to her cusped hands. Still not used to glasses, I’d forgotten them, but the bug was big enough that its outsized eyes and spade-shaped thorax gave it away.
“Holy Cow, Flan. That’s a dragonfly nymph – a baby, a dragonfly baby.”
“A dragonfly baby? Where’s its mama? Is that her singing in the trees?”
Always present, the katydids had escalated their hums, weaving songs throughout the young hardwoods in a collective tremolo.
“I don’t think so, Flan. Even though this is a baby its mama probably laid it as an egg two or three years ago.”
Slate gray, the nymph crept in Flan’s drained palms, seeking water, seeking dark.
“Is she dead? The mama?”
“It’s hard to say, Flan. Maybe.”
Shannon shrieked, a happy sound, and I turned to see her gape at plump splashes in her one-eyed way. Above her our car sat cock-eyed among ribbons of grass sprung from rifted pavement. The church beyond, a Congregational, maybe Methodist, loomed over adjacent stores. A half dozen chimney swifts crisscrossed one another around the steeple, gliding on several wing pumps apiece before coasting, exciting one another for the pending migration. One slipped through a missing steeple slat before re-emerging through another. I looked back to tell Flan, but she’d turned, having released the nymph to resume her searching.
The eldest boy had stopped fishing. Resting his elbows on the lip of the upstream pool, he looked up at the girl.
“You ready for high school?”
“I guess. Same stuff, different building, right?”
“Right. You’re ready.”
“Jaime,” the woman said. “Ayudar sus hermanos. Quieren pescar.”
Rolling his eyes, the boy smiled, then turned. Playing with their boats, his brothers sat in the river as before. Smiling and knitting, the woman looked at the oldest, gesturing to the fishing pole laying on the rocks.
“Ayudar sus hermanos. Es la hora perfecta para pescar.”
Picking up the rod and sitting, the boy dropped his line to the pool below.
On the bank one crow then another stepped off their hickory branches and dropped into the gorge, followed by the remainder. Gliding downstream, the sun molted each black back to purple, then back to black then again. The man had started them. Having gathered his crutches, he stood on the one leg.
“Come on, Em. We have to go.”
Toweling off, the girl looked up.
“Sorry, hun. I told your mom you’d be back by now, and I have an appointment tonight.”
The apple tree curved dead and living branches all around him, further pocking what light the hardwoods let through. A descendant from when orchards were the only trees in these valleys, its few scabby crabs clung to here-and-there limbs while the clambering girl sent a pair of early drops tumbling downslope. Having folded the chair, the man handed it to his daughter, who steadied a palm on his back as he crutched the few feet uphill. A brown sedan pulled in behind the pickup, and as the girl eased her dad through the torn fence a man in a brown blazer got out and tapped a truck window. A door opened, and he stepped in.
“Da-Da,” Flan said. “Look.”
The isolated pool she hunted was deep enough, and she slipped beneath the surface with her arms breast-stroking in unison with her legs. I’d never seen her swim with such ease. Putting her hands on a rock at my feet, she pushed her face through the surface.
“I’m a seal now.”
Her smile was a comfort. Brush-ups with mortality, recently, such as the missing dragonfly mother, often bore into her a little too deep.
“You certainly are,” I said.
Sitting on an exposed rock, she crossed one leg over another and leaned back, looking upstream, while over by the old factory floor her sister had stopped splashing. Having lowered into the pool, only her face and feet were above water, a common repose that would give me and Flan a bit more time, how much I couldn’t know.
Beyond the water spilling from one ledge to the next, nothing in the gorge seemed to move. Even the sticks and grasses Flan had just rippled round the edges re-settled to still life, belying the inevitable as the fall rains approached. Past the bridge, the first dam’s static hum boiled away. Even that, though, would end. Like most New England dams, these are in terminal neglect, and either a hurricane or one freshet too many will see them fall. We forget that. Water can be diverted, channeled, even stayed for a time, but it only knows one direction, and eventually finds its way.