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?

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