Cliff Dancing

I am not a mountain creature. I do best by the sea, selkie-born child, longing after the waves and the secrets held beneath. But the mountains, too, hold secrets. Secrets can transform a soul, as surely as a selkie skin.

It is no secret that daring and recklessness are not encouraged in girls. When a boy is injured showing off, he looks stupid, like a special kind of ass, but it is something to be expected. “Boys will be boys,” the phrase tosses itself out almost of its own accord, and then we all move on to the next thing– even if the boy in question was a complete moron for doing as he had. When a girl does the same, it becomes another matter– “Well, what did she think she was doing?!” Different response to the same injury. Caught between my impetuous show-offishness and the social reins of femininity, my soul bucks and chafes at the restraint. I wanted to find something daring to do, but not daring enough to get me called an idiot should something go wrong.

This summer past, a friend invited me up to Tennessee, and though I am not a mountain creature, I do have that keen sense of daring. And then my friend told me we had, as per tradition, to hike up to Rainbow Falls. We’d hike there to hunt newts among the pools below the falls and take a few pictures beside. This was the plan. I had additional ideas.

I am a true Novo Collegian. This can be discerned by the leathery quality of the underside of my feet. Down to the bay and back over burning concrete in summer, over shell fill shoeless in fall, barefoot on a bed of pine needles during mild Florida winters, and withstanding the broken glass of spring break shattered on hot terra cotta tile, my feet are impervious to all things but sand spurs. To those, no one is immune. And so to Rainbow falls I hiked, sans shoes.

The trail was packed hard from the feet of hundreds of travelers, and the soil had a vague orange-clay cast. It was firm and cold and smooth on my feet, and walking it with no shoes saw me nimble-footed, placing my toes with a sureness I only manage unshod. Ancient roots worn smooth by tourists passed beneath my toes like silk turned solid. The stones of the mountain (great-grandmother mountains, these Appalachians; cigar-smoking crones, these Smokies), cold on my arches, held up the whole world from deep above to high beneath.

The trail bent and curved around the hips of the mountains, switching back and at odd angles as it climbed from one earthen body to the next. At one of these angles between two crones, a log had fallen near where the trail handled the way sharply, but the fallen log, off the path, offered a more intriguing route up to the same spot. Barefoot on the bark of a tree, a balance beam footbridge across a steep downward grade, here the reins loosened a little, and I felt like I did as a child: I want to do that! I want to go play like that! I danced there on the back of a tree, the edge of the world, hopscotch, a crane on one foot, as my granite foremothers leaned close. My feet and skin and body and bones– mine. If I fell, it was my choice, there under the rhododendron tunnels amid the paper butterflies in the blue August of the Smokies. I was a mountain thing, neither nymph nor satyr, perhaps a mountain selkie, not caring about human rules of propriety. I wanted nothing more than to leap rock to rock in the low-leaning light, to walk mossy edges that plummet hundreds of feet on the other side, I needed dark play and dream light. I stole my secret from the air I walked out over, from dead wood and sheer drops.

We ascended the falls, chased newts in the sunset. The water was as cold as December. I did no more edge dancing, my actions stilled by the horse whip of training, though not my longing. I rolled in the dirt instead, climbed into tree hollows. Safer, safer, these things. More responsible.

But my soul’s shot through with sky, and I wonder, I wonder still– will you steal secretly away with me? Will you come to places serene and unsafe, where the adrenaline pounds in your ears? Will you watch me thread the cliff sides with my bare leather feet, watch me dare waterfalls or tall trees? Dare them with me? Will you come dancing with me?

A Transformation of Torrents

There are some rainy days when I look up at the sky and groan. The prospect of cycling home in the rain isn’t usually appealing, soaked to the core, only to hit a wall of air conditioning upon arrival.

Today was…. let me spin today for you. I had entertained the vain notion of beating the rain home, and refused a ride from my boss. As soon as I donned my helmet, unslung my keys and stepped up to the bike rack, the first drops began to fall, big as grapes, it seemed. I retreated under the overhang of the Hamilton Center, headphones blasting Rasputina. Within moments, the rain sped up to a dull thunderous patter still audible over the actual thunder.

Only moments after I had decided to acquire dinner, Ham Center’s lights flicked off, then on, then off again. My stomach growled impatiently. It took only a minute and a half of murmurs and giggles for the lights to come back on; I bought my meal and decided to wait it out in the warm wet air under Ham’s overhang. But there wouldn’t be any real waiting. As I was standing mostly dry, a campus police car drove up onto the tile, racing across the wet terra cotta and an ambulance wasn’t far behind, sirens wailing. There’s a feeling that starts sometimes in the pit of your stomach and only sinks lower… I followed the wailing sounds out into the rain and to their source.

There was a reason the power flicked off in Ham, you see. It was a very pretty reason, though not a very safe reason. Sparking and sputtering in the rain like a road flare, the red blossoming of a lightning fire was eating the corner of New College’s property closest to the airport at the base of the power lines. Relief does flood. It soaks through a person like the aquifer overfilled. All I could do is stand in the rain watching the flames lick red and gold at the palmettos, and the smoke rolling over itself close to the ground, thick and dark from the moisture.

Flooded with the knowledge no one was hurt, I skipped back to Ham, spattered and damp. I resumed my post under the overhang… but the rain did not abate; it fell harder. The drain grates started erupting, bubbling up like fountains from the overflow. The roof of the sukkah in the green space between Ham and Z Dorm caved in under the water weight, its tie-dye cloth walls ripped free, trailing about the mud. And the rain picked up its pace, making knee-deep pools in the grass. And the rain hurried onward, faster still, until the world was a grey sheet.

It was then that I set my backpack down, under the safety of the overhang, laying inside it my headphones and cell phone and the day’s copy of the New York Times. Pockets empty of electronics, I dashed out into the torrent, shrieking with glee. The water ran so heavy, the tiles were their own ankle-deep river; the sky was shot with lightning. Two friends appeared out of the grey curtain and without saying a word, we all knew what to do. With sweeping shuffling strokes of our legs, we splashed the tile-river up at one another in graceful arcs. The angles of our feet directed each aquatic attack as we tried to keep our balance on the red ice; nothing is more slippery than those terra cotta tiles that run the length from Pei to Ham, and nothing else could have made us giggle and shriek more.

Finally, finally, the rain cleared, and this drenched form in ruined work clothes pedaled home, angling her front wheel for every puddle on purpose. Instead of being splashed by passing cars, I sent water splashing after them. Even the air conditioning at home could not bring down my spirits, despite the freezer-like quality of my house. I made a bee-line for the bathroom, stripped off all my wet clothes, and turned the shower knob all the way to hot. Through the bathroom window, the sun shot gold through parting clouds. Warm and wet, I draped myself in a bathrobe to venture back outside, looking skyward at the breaking clouds for a rainbow. Not your typical rainy day.