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Odd Things about Onawa River
I had heard some odd things about the river. Just rumors, messy and unconvincing. But it was all enough to make me curious. Which is why I did what I did.
The river itself was no big secret. It’s out in the woods a ways, still pretty close to the small New England town I call home. On every map of the landscape you can find, it’s always there, a ribbon of blue-white, labeled “Onawa River” with icy black ink. But no path led to it, there was no easy way through the part of the woods the river runs through. So when people started talking about the Onawa River, most of us who’d lived in Lumber all our lives didn’t care much. Of course, I was only eight at the time of all this, so I had very little interest in local geography. But what I do remember is shopping at the grocery store with my mom, on a freezing December afternoon. And I remember that in the checkout line, she spoke with Mrs. Spalding.
Mrs. Spalding had babysat me a few times before that, so she tried to look excited to see me. “Oh, why hello, Henry dear! I haven’t seen you in months!” she’d said, staring down at me like a fat, grinning vulture. She turned to my mom. “He’s growing like a weed, Beth!”
My mom smiled back. “Yes, we tell him so all the time.”
The line inched forward, Mrs. Spalding with a shopping basket, my mom behind her, pushing a half-full cart. “I’m sorry we’ve been so out of touch,” Mr. Spalding said, “but I’ve simply been so busy lately! Did I tell you about my son, Robert?”
“How old is he now?”
“Oh, he’s eighteen!” Mrs. Spalding squeaked, a little too happy, in my ears. “And I was about to say, he just received a scholarship to Fordham University! Isn’t that wonderful?”
“Aw, that’s great, Maggie! What’s he – ”
“He’s studying law right now, you know. A regular chip off my father’s block! You know that my father was a lawyer in his time?”
“I wasn’t – ”
“And now he and my Robert have been inseparable for weeks!” Mrs. Spalding cried, attracting a few glances from passers by. “And it’s a good thing, too, let me tell you, what with my Humphrey being gone so often because of – ”
“Your husband, the architect?”
“Yes, yes, of course, dear – because of all the work he’s been doing with the new construction just outside Lumber. All those woods up beyond downtown, soon we’ll have a suburb there! I couldn’t be prouder!”
My mom blinked. “Oh, I see. Are these the same woods that have been here since before the founding of the country?”
“Well, they’re the same trees, if that’s what you mean. About time something fresh was built! Wouldn’t you say so?”
Even from down there, at the height I was at eight, I could see something dancing behind my mom’s eyes. But she smiled and said, “I’m so happy for you and your family, Maggie.”
“Oh, so am I! But of course,” Mrs. Spalding said, leaning in, suddenly a very grave gossip, “you’ve heard about that missing man?”
“Missing? No, sorry, I haven’t.”
“Well,” said Mrs. Spalding, ignoring the advance of the line behind her, “Humphrey was working with a dozen or so men who were out in those woods yesterday, planning construction, or something like that. They reached that scenic little Oon-uh-wawa river – he texted me pictures, what a gorgeous place, I’ll have to show you sometime – and when they got back, one of them was missing!”
“Who was that?”
“He was… a Jake? A Jack? Anyway, Humphrey knew him quite well, and was first to call the police. They sent out a search party last night, and as far as I know, they’re still looking now.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that, Maggie. This must be putting your husband through the mill.”
“Hm? Oh, he seemed very distressed when he left last night to search. His hands were shaking, I’ve never seen them shake like that! But I have no doubt they’ll find Jake-Jack whoever, my husband wouldn’t be working with someone who couldn’t find their way out of a patch of trees.”
A voice called out from behind Mrs. Spalding. “Ma’am? Uh, could you come forward please?” It was the girl at the checkout. I looked behind my mom’s knees and saw a whole lot other, less familiar knees patiently waiting behind us. Mrs. Spalding sighed and tottered over to the checkout lady on inappropriate high heels.
“Well,” my mom said, filling the gap behind Mrs. Spalding and allowing the line behind her to move forward, with almost tangible relief, “I sure hope they find that man. This has been a freezing winter so far.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry dear,” said Mrs. Spalding, pushing a bright purple bottle of shampoo and a loaf of bread onto the counter. “I have no doubt that this will blow over quite soon.”
Two days later, I was trying my best to read a Spider-man comic in the living room while my mom was folding the laundry. The local news was on, and suddenly there was an aerial picture of a river in the corner of the screen. A wide river. Frozen over completely, covered with snow, completely white, except for the creeping shadows of surrounding trees. The anchor announced that recent search party efforts had turned up the body of a recently missing man, Jason Morrison, who had somehow broken his leg before slitting his wrists with his house keys.
My mom turned off the TV and continued folding laundry.
I stared at the comic, into the eyes of the Green Goblin. For the longest time.
January began, and the cold weather persisted. Recess was held inside – teachers broke out the board games – and I could be found lying on my stomach in the corner, watching the march of a solitary, confused looking ant. Every now and then I’d offer him a challenge – a pencil to climb over or maneuver around, a crumb of leftover lunch from my pocket to examine. Well, the ant evaded the pencil. And ignored the crumb. In all, I just did my best to keep him in the same square foot of space.
And then there was a high wailing behind me. I carefully cupped my hand over the ant to keep him in one place, and turned over on my elbow to see what was happening.
Amanda was crying, screaming, throwing her books and pencils all over the room. Stamping her feet, swinging her head back and forth. With a tremendous heave, she pushed her desk over, sending the lid flying open, and the contents spilled out at the feet of three stunned third graders who were trying to learn to juggle. They took an involuntary step backwards, eyes never leaving Amanda’s red face.
The teacher, Mrs. Thompson, went to Amanda, tried to calm her, but Amanda would have none of it. She swung her fists at that old teacher, striking her in the stomach. Mrs. Thompson winced slightly, then did her best to bundle the still screaming Amanda out into the hall. The door closed, and the yelling was almost comically muffled.
Slowly, conversation returned to the classroom as Amanda grew quieter and quieter outside.
I looked back down to my hand, still cupped on the floor. I lifted it, and the ant was gone.
Must’ve been a crack in my fingers, I thought. He’s still here.
I carefully got to my feet, fearful of unintentionally squashing my new friend. I looked for a whole five minutes, but he was gone.
Later on that day, I learned at lunch that Amanda’s dad had died. “So of course she went crazy,” said John, biting into an oozing peanut butter sandwich. “They won’t let her back in school.”
There was a muttering of agreement from the rest of the table, and the topic turned to the uselessness of boy nipples.
I remained silent.
I wouldn’t have gone to the river if I was a little older. Even if I was, say, ten or eleven, I believe that my caution would have overcome my curiosity.
But as it was, another body was discovered – this one, a man who had broken through the ice on the river and froze to death, leaving him a frozen, floating buoy, head and arms stretched to the heavens.
And in elementary school, the mind needs very little stimulation before the imagination takes over.
Rumors were everywhere. One first grader in particular, Steven, was convinced that there was a crocodile in the river, and somehow it had been responsible for the deaths. When questioned about the likelihood that the croc would have refrained from eating its prey, Steven responded with, “It’s not a normal crocodile.” And that became one of the major theories, at least in the first-through-third grade circle.
And another – a fourth grader with a lot of friends in the lower grades – told us, in all confidence, that he was convinced that there was a man living out there in a cave, or an abandoned shack. He’d learned all about it in the Friday the 13th movies, he’d said. A man with a mask who kills people. He started talking about all the ways that you could get killed – an arrow in the throat, a machete in the head – when a teacher overheard and dragged the unfortunate big kid down to the principal’s office.
So what could I do, really? At that age, I was an observer and interpreter of the world. Not yet an active participant, but present, all the same. And how could I interpret something I’d never seen? The river was THERE, wasn’t it? Why all the rumors? Couldn’t someone in school just go there, find the man in the mask, find the crocodile, and come back with news?
I resolved to be the one to do so.
I returned home from school one day to find a note taped to the door. I was a very good reader, and didn’t even feel remotely intimidated by the untidiness of my mom’s scrawl. I leaned into the door and read;
Gone to Stop & Shop. Be back soon. I’ll bring you back a comic!
Proud of myself for my relatively smooth reading, I went inside, threw my coat and hat onto the coat rack, dropped my backpack on the floor and started up to my room.
But I froze on the stairs.
This was my chance.
But what if my mom got home before I came back? What would I tell her? Would she still give me my comic book? What if it’s a Hulk? He’s my favorite!
I thought for a moment, and bolted back down the steps. I reached my backpack, and took out a sheet of lined paper and my lucky yellow pencil. I went to the kitchen table and, in a painstakingly precise and legible print, I wrote my message;
I will be back soon. I went on a walk. Please do not get mad.
Pleased with my work, I threw my coat and hat back on again and went outside. I used the tape from my mom’s note to tape my own message to the door, and, happy to have my bases covered, I started my walk to Onawa River.
I found it without much trouble. Although I was eight, I’d grown up in Lumber all my life, and even though I’d never actually been to Onawa, I could gather its location from what I remembered of various maps of trails in the woods (I always took a map when I went out in the woods with my friends).
And after a half hour of walking, off the trail, I saw the white river.
At first, I was confused. It didn’t look anything like the picture on the news. But then I realized I must just be at a different part of the river. Either way, I’d gotten there. Even though snow covered the frozen water, I could tell where the river was. It was a long, flat indent, located in a rut between the trees. From my eight year old mind, I estimated it to be about 50 feet across, but in retrospect, it was really only about 20. A small part of the river. I saw that as it continued on my right, Onawa began to get wider as it disappeared around a hill.
It wasn’t that bad.
But what would I tell my friends? That everything was fine, the deaths were just accidents? No, even at eight, my pride was my guide. I had to find the someone/something that everyone had been talking about. It had to be here.
I followed the river as it wove around the hill.
I continued along its frozen banks for a good deal longer I think – about twenty minutes or so, which, added on to my prior thirty minutes of walking, is an exemplary level of dedication for an eight year old. The river did indeed become wider as I continued. Soon, it was the 50 feet I’d estimated it to be, and then wider. To me, it became something much grander than a wide river. Soon, it would be warm, and the river would wake up. The giants in the earth, done sleeping. With this thought to chew on, I continued on.
And I found something I hadn’t expected.
In the middle of the wide expanse of frozen ice was… some sort of lump. A darker, shadowy shape that seemed much shorter than I was.
I hesitated to explore it. I knew that a man had fallen through the ice, and I didn’t want to share his fate. But, I reasoned, it’s colder today than the week that the man fell through. And, I’m much smaller than he was. So I’m lighter.
With that thought for comfort, I started across the ice.
I wasn’t afraid, exactly. I was anxious. This lump could be the answer, to bring back to the world as a trophy. I could be a superhero for this. Henry, the adventurer. Henry, the brave explorer of the icy wilderness. All my lunch trades would be ten times better! And so, I started to run. And I shortly arrived at the lump. It wasn’t a lump. I leaned over it to take a look.
The dark shape I’d seen was really just a collection of shadows cast around a hole cut into the ice, creating a small cave-like structure. Surrounding the hole were jagged spikes of ice that jutted out at all angles, like pieces of white broken plates. Puzzle pieces forced out of alignment. And underlying it all was a web of cracks.
I realized that this was where the frozen man’s body had been cut from the ice.
Suddenly, I didn’t want to be there. It was too cold, the sky was getting too dark, and the prospect of eternal glory didn’t seem so enticing anymore. I backed away from the hole. I would have just turned and ran, but I didn’t want my back to the hole. Especially once I’d backed up about ten feet. At that distance, I couldn’t see the inside of the hole anymore. Of course, I knew it was still empty. Sure I did.
All the same, I kept backing up. Slowly. I didn’t dare stop moving, but if I moved too quickly, my footsteps crunching in the snow would drown out any sounds around me. And at that moment, listening to the hole was just as important as keeping it in my line of sight.
It was a slow journey, and if anyone else was around, I would have just turned and walked to the edge of the river. But I was alone, and I was scared. So by the time I felt my feet touch something different – the incline of the snowy riverbanks – it was startlingly dark. The rush of time and the advance of the clouds were conspiring against me. The hole was harder to see now, but I didn’t turn, even when I was no longer walking on the river. I walked backwards, up the slope, for a few steps. And I finally felt like I could turn around, safe among the trees. So I turned.
My footprints seemed odd.
When I walked through the snow, I usually trudged. I just couldn’t lift my feet all the way above the snow. I noticed that some grown-ups did that too, when it was REALLY snowy. But even when I trudged, they weren’t like this. I looked at them now, and they seemed, even in the dim light, a little too messy. Even the places where my feet should have landed didn’t seem to leave a proper indent. Like they’d been covered up, or muddled somehow.
Was someone behind me?
A flash of heat ran through me. My stomach began churning.
Had someone been following in my footsteps while I walked? Had someone slowly been backing up with me while I retreated from the hole? And when I turned around to face the woods, had he found a way to remain behind me? Unseen?
Is that breathing I hear really only my own?
I followed my footsteps in the still fading light, crying now, bounding over rocks and roots, listening to my feet land like hammer falls on the snow. Were my feet the only pair of feet I heard? I couldn’t hear, I was panting, the blood was pounding in my ears, I started crying even harder. If someone was still behind me, they must be running to catch up.
All I could picture behind me was a tall, thin, grey man in tattered clothes with a long face and eyes that weren’t really eyes, just points of awareness in the dark. A thing that couldn’t really be a person.
I kept running and running, and I saw something yellow through the trees.
I hadn’t even noticed that my footsteps had led me back onto the path, and now I was about to come out onto the street.
I hit the pavement running. I flew under the streetlight and continued on home.
I didn’t stop running until I was in the door, and I didn’t stop crying until my mom got home ten minutes later, horrified. She held me, told me she’d never leave me alone without telling me again. I’m not sure I believed her.
She gave me my comic book. It was a Hulk.
She never knew where I had been. The note I’d put on the door had fallen off when I left, and it had disappeared somehow by the time I got back. Not at the bottom of the door, not on the ground nearby. Gone.
I don’t remember going to bed that night, and I certainly don’t remember what I dreamed.
The new addition to the town was, after years of construction, finished when I was in high school. I visited it once. It was a pretty place. Some houses had pools, some had what was advertised as “a scenic riverside view.”
It was summer when I had visited that river again. No ice at all. That made me feel better.
The following year, I was planning on heading off to college. The school was pretty close by. My mom wanted me to try and get one of the new houses by Onawa after I finished – we both knew that I wouldn’t stray too far from Lumber. Even though we couldn’t afford it at that time, my mom hoped that once my career as a journalist picked up, I’d have enough to move back here, maybe start a family.
But I didn’t want to live next to the river.
Sometimes I remember the evening when I went out to explore Onawa River, and I remember that tall gray man. It seems unreal, but the more time goes by, and the more I think about it… the more certain I am that while I was running, I actually turned and SAW him behind me. The frosty old spider of a man that I’d imagined, who followed me until I set foot on the road.
Running under the streetlight, I was so SURE I’d turned to see him. And in my memory, I had turned to face a shadow, standing at the edge of the woods. A moving thing on a windless night.
By now, the ice has melted. The woods are gone. And I’ve been happy.
But still. Shadows shouldn’t move when there’s no wind.