by Frank Scozzari
The icy water had been rising steadily for an hour now, and despite her best efforts, Ingrid could no longer hold on. The waterline had breached her chest and then her shoulders and then her chin. Then the force of the water, a thousand pounds of pressure or more, all came upon her at once.
She let out an involuntary yelp, her hand released the cold steel, and the current took her. She turned and swirled, thrashing helplessly with her arms to no avail. In an instant, she was above the water. Then she was below it. She could not tell which way was up or down, nor did it matter, for the river dictated their course.
She came against a boulder, which banged hard against her hip. She was hurled in another direction. Then she was at the surface again, gasping for air. Then she was under water again, twirling and spinning. Each time the current brought her to the white surface she tried to paddle but was overtaken by the torrent again. The river was too angry and the force of the water too strong. Eventually, her body became too exhausted and numb to fight it.
All the good things she had found in her short journey of twenty-two years, came rushing back her.
You can’t fight a river, she told herself. You must let it take you.
In the same manner as one would exhale their last breath, she let go and her body went limp.
Nine of them had climbed upon the Cat D8 bulldozer in hopes of crossing the river before it rose too high. On the other side was the Maricopa Highway, and maybe the hope of a passing car—the thought was getting out of the Sespe Gorge while they could. No one knew that the diesel engine would fail halfway across. No one could have foreseen rainfall that would not stop, and a river that would keep rising. For several hours they clung to the steel, their bodies as if molded to the dozer. Every hand gripped whatever knob or rail they could find beneath the frigid water. The children were among the first to go. Even though they had been placed in the seat on the upper deck, when the water rose above them, their little numb fingers could no longer grip. Nor could anyone withstand the swift-moving branches and debris, for that matter. Slowly even strongest among them peeled off, and one by one they disappear into the darkness downriver.
At first, the natural instinct to breathe drove Ingrid fighting back to the surface. And when the waves smashed over her greedily and stole her air and filled her mouth with water, she told herself again: You can’t fight a river. No, no, you can’t fight it. Let it take you.
She found herself flat on her back, face up, rushing down in the current, feet first with her arms trailing behind her. She brought her arms against her chest and folded them. She felt the cold night air rushing past her face and she breathed it in, hungrily.
She continued to travel in this manner in what seemed to be a surreal ride. Above was the night—the rain had stopped. Rushing past along the river’s edge was the tall, dark forest and upper ridge of the gorge. Beyond that was the dark sky with stars sweeping past. She saw a streaking bright light and realized it was a meteor. She saw, in her mind, a place that she loved on the shore of a river which she had visited many times as a child. She saw a fire on a camp stove and a bright sun in a blue sky.
The canyon curved. Down through the deepest portion of the gorge, sliding between huge boulders of granite, cascading over waterfalls, she followed in whatever direction the water wanted to take her. Her body was like a piece of Styrofoam, oscillating and bobbing over the wakes and swells. Though she came against boulders, the collisions were vague now. And though she was hit by branches and debris, they seemingly occurred outside her body. They were distant planets colliding in outer space. The frigid water was like morphine, making her comfortably numb.
And she was no longer afraid. With the numbness and the breaths of cold air in between waves of water and the stars sparkling overhead, came a sense of calmness. She rode the cascades, as carefree and indestructible as a child in a water park, until a final vertical plunge washed her out into a wide, meandering portion of the river.
She could see that the steep walls of the gorge had given way to gentle slopes of a mountain forest. She could see sand embankments on either side. She reached with her feet, but could not find the bottom. Nor did she try to swim as the water was still too swift.
She hit something. It pulled at her like a giant hand, but broke loose. She hit something again, this time holding her in the current like a ladle. It was the branch of a giant tree which had fallen in the river. She looped beneath it, popping up on the opposite side, and wrapped her arms and legs around it. The shore was right there, not far away. She shimmied along the tree branch toward it. Struggling, pulling, fighting against the rushing water, she eventually reached the shallows near the shore and she dropped herself into it.
She laid there on the bank, partially submerged. Her back was resting against the sand, small wakes of water were coming against her, and she was gazing up into darkness. She realized it was the foliage of a grand old sycamore tree.
For some time she just lay there still, exhausted, her chest heaving. Then she realized her entire body was shivering.
Must not let the fire go out, she thought. Must find shelter.
She rolled over, planted her hands in the sand and water, and crawled the short distance up the embankment. She tumbled down the other side into a small ditch filled with sycamore leaves and mulch. She laid there on her back and let the blackness surround her.
But it was not long before her whole body began trembling again. In a sweeping motion, she began raking in the sycamore leaves and mulch with her arms. She raked it into a pile over her, and when there were no more leaves, she dug with her fingers into the soft earth and pulled the mud and debris over her until she was completely covered in it. Then she closed her eyes.
Again her mind wandered. And for a moment she found herself back in the river, clinging to the bulldozer; surrounded by the nine frightful faces.
When the light of day is gone, she thought, the darkness of the night takes away any hope. And there is no such darkness as the darkness that comes just before the light, except for the darkness when there is no more light.
She recalled a time when as a child when she was lost and alone in a forest at night. The blackness was so complete she could not even see a hand in front of her face. She dug deeper into the earth and pulled more leaves and mud around her. The pile rose high until there was only a small space for her face. And she tried to wallow deeper into it as a pig might wallow. Still, she was shivering.
In her quest for life, she thought, her life would be taken. And through her love for nature, her place in Nature would become eternal.
The morning sunlight came crashing through the leaves of the grand sycamore tree, and Ingrid was awakened by the sound of footsteps crunching in foliage around her. She could feel the weight of the mud upon her, heavy on her chest. And she could hear, distantly at first, a man’s voice. And when she looked up, there were three men standing there over her. They were all wearing bright yellow parkas and had on white helmets. Each of them had packs strapped to their shoulders and gear strapped to their waists.
“Hello, there,” the nearest face said. He was kneeling over her and she could see he had a brown beard and blue eyes. The large black letters, ‘S A R,’ were stamped in the crown of his helmet.
“How are you?” he asked.
She nodded her head.
“Are you feeling any pain?”
Ingrid shook her head.
“We’re here to help you. Just relax.”
Ingrid nodded again.
While the kneeling man briefly examined her face, shinning a penlight in her eyes, they other two men were pulling equipment and a space blanket from their packs, which they had already dropped. There was a bruise on her forehead and the kneeling man ran his hand softly over it and felt a welt there. He scooped some mud away, found Ingrid’s wrist, and took her vitals. “What’s your name?”
“My name is Sam.”
Ingrid acknowledged, nodding her head again.
“Everything is going to be okay, Ingrid.” Pulling away the mud with the help of the others, he ran his hands down her legs checking for broken bones. “Do you feel that?”
Then he checked her ribs and put pressure on her abdomen.
“How about that? Does it hurt?”
The kneeling man looked into her eyes. “We are going to lift you now.”
They pulled her from the mud and wrapped in a thermal blanket. She could feel straps being wrapped snugly across her body. Each of the men had a radio, strapped to their utility belts, and she could hear one of them crackling now.
“It is Ingrid,” one of the other men said into his radio. He looked down at a list of names scribbled on the notepad. “Ingrid Simpson.”
The radio spoke again, cracking out an inaudible human voice, to which the man replied; “No, she’s the only one.”
The radio spoke again.
“That’s a Ten-Four. We came all the way up along the south side of the river from below the Sespe Gorge, and found no one else. We need to get someone on the north side, although some of it is impassible. Might have to get a helicopter down there.”
The voice from the radio spoke again, inaudibly.
Then, Ingrid felt the sensation of being lifted.
She was carried, over uneven terrain, up and out of the marsh and along a trail through thick brush. She could hear them speaking to one another and could also hear the voice on the radio, but soon the voices faded. Then she could hear birds chirping. They rose above the river. She lay comfortably in the gurney. She tilted her head to the side and looked down. She could see the river below, green and muddy, flowing briskly. Above, through the blue sky and white clouds, rays of sunlight broke through. She looked up at it and took a deep breath. The rays were a beautiful yellow and gold and white. She felt the warmth of them, like she had never felt before. And she felt the freshness of the air, which she breathed in greedily.
Category: Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing