The Water Below
The green waters of the Turakina River rippled and danced in the sunshine, the shadows of leaves waltzing about on the surface. Towels trailing behind us, the eight of us – my six siblings, myself and a friend – raced down the bank towards the river. We were not about to miss the wonderful opportunity a hot New Zealand summer day provided for us.
At first sight, the Turakina River is not attractive in the least: green and murky in summer, brown in winter, and crystal clear revealing a clay bottom in autumn. But after living near it for over seven years and frequently swimming there, I had grown very fond of it – I don't know about my siblings, but I certainly had. There was something about that river which drew me. Perhaps because it held the real New Zealand farmy feeling: the rugged beauty of the rough grass sprinkled with thistles, freshly sheared sheep lazily chewing their cud, willow trees leaning far out over the water dipping their leaves through the silken flow.
Wayne dropped his towel and jumped into the still water. Steven nimbly climbed a tree and Bruce, his younger twin, went to his usual spot where he would dive from in a minute. Gary pulled off his T-shirt, threw his hands in the air and did a stylish jump off the bank into the swimming hole. I followed closely behind, in my own clumsy way.
The soft waters enveloped me, then I was rising quickly to the surface. The glossy water broke into ripples as we swam for the opposite bank. Wayne was already standing in the sand shivering. It wasn't even cold, but then...he was made up of skin and bones alone and I could always stay in the water longer than any of my family. I couldn’t understand how he could stay away from the lovely water which I was enjoying so much – and no, I was not fat!
Nicola, our friend, slowly walked to the waters’ edge and slipped in, keeping her head well above the water. She did not much like having her head under water, because when she was a child her cousins rolled her up in towels and threw her in a swimming pool. Fortunately, one of her wiser cousins jumped in and retrieved her, but after that she was paranoid of being fully submerged.
Nicola paddled in her curious way upstream and stood on the stubby log protruding from the bank beneath the water. I looked over to where Bruce had been standing. He was gone. A few seconds passed and he still did not appear, but I knew him too well to worry. He always dove so gracefully that nobody noticed. And he held his breath so long that he would surface a few metres downstream. My sister dove in, but she was not satisfied and swam for the bank to try again. Steven checked that the water beneath him was clear before jumping from the tall tree. He straightened like a candlestick and fell, fell, fell...
Everyone else made slowly for the bank and flopped down carelessly in the warm sand, but I was an active girl and I preferred to stay in the water. I looked up at the willow tree leaning over our swimming hole, swinging my arms and legs to stay afloat. It appeared so far up, towering high over the river, yet it tempted me so much. No girl had jumped from there. The closest one girl had come to jumping was climbing to the top of the tree before chickening out.
After pondering a moment, I swam slowly for the bank, my heart beating wildly. I AM going to do this! I kept telling myself. None of the others had noticed me, which I was glad of, otherwise they would have mocked me for my hesitation and wild fear. How I longed to jump from that terrifying height!
Determined, I climbed slowly and hesitantly up the tree, my adrenaline racing, the water appearing to sink further and further away as I ascended. I clung to the bark like it was my last hope. There were no foot or handholds, just a branch, which I could only reach if I took another petrifying step higher. Another step, without anything to hold onto except the bark at my feet! Was this wise? Should I just climb back down or jump before it was too late? I knew very well that climbing down is always harder than climbing up. Would they have to rescue me? Would I just make a fool of myself?
I glanced at my siblings on the far bank. They had not noticed me. I looked down at the water, then looked quickly away again. My stomach churned into knots and I felt vaguely sick. Coward! I told myself in disgust. Clinging to the trunk, ordering myself to do it, I took a hasty step and grabbed for the branch. Suddenly I had it in my hand and relief surged over me. But the worst was still to come.
Now very near the top, a stubby bough stood thoughtlessly in my way and somehow I had to swing around it before reaching the safety of the small natural platform the top of the tree provided. I was still embracing the poor branch as if it was my saviour. I brushed my sopping hair from my face and nearly lost my balance. My heart skipped and my right hand shakily rejoined my left hand in hugging the tree. Hurry up, you idiot: It’s not all that bad, I kept thinking.
I took a breath, trying to gain control of my petrified body rebelling against me. Arms, hug branch; legs, swing around; head, stay steady, I attempted. My panicking body refused to move. Why had I come up? I had just got myself into a ‘pickle’ as Mum would say.
I looked down the tree where I had come, refusing to let my insisting eyes lock on the water, and saw how far I had climbed. There’s no going back. It would be impossible to climb down from here.
I set my jaw. I swung my right leg around the tree and locked my arms tightly around the branch. Then I was there. I had made it! I was there! Then I looked down. Maybe not. My heart jumped into my throat. It was so far! How could the boys think this fun? It was now an obligation for me to jump. I did not want to, but probably for the first time – and probably the last also – my pride was about to do me something good. It would be very humiliating if I retreated slowly back down the tree from fear.
After climbing so high, my leg was shaking. I stood there staring down at the water below, the afternoon sun shining through the leaves onto my wet back. I looked at the others lying lethargically on the sandbank, murmuring lazily to each other as they soaked up the sun. I almost felt angry at them for not watching my big moment. Maybe it wasn’t all that big and I was just cowardly.
First girl, I told myself. I looked down again. The once-familiar water looked so far away, so scary and unknown. But I had come this far. If I waited any longer I’d funk. Now or never! I thought.
“Bombs away!” I yelled at the top of my voice, propelling myself forward as far as I could, my adrenaline pumping as I felt air all around me, beneath me, my feet waving helplessly. Out of the corner of my eye I saw everyone look. I imagined rather than saw their surprise and delight. Time seemed to stop. And I knew the meaning of thrill, adventure, fearlessness...glory. I curled myself into a ball as I plummeted down, down, down...
It seemed like an eternity before I hit the water with a ‘wham!' Down I sank like a cannon ball into the depths of the Turakina River. Bubbles surged up around me as I slowed and touched the clay bottom. A curious peace overcame me after the surge of excitement. I pushed myself to the surface and gasped for breath.
I could not believe it. Suddenly I felt I could conquer anything, any fear, any height or depth, any unknown. Nothing could stop me anymore – not even a stupid tree! I had done it! I had done it!
“Boy, am I doing that again!” I yelled, and swam for the bank.