“Dear, let me say something about this old tree here. It has a story to tell. Walk over with me, just through these bushes.”
We go back to a day, many years ago, Nana was helping at the cottage and needed some clay for bricks to patch the fireplace. Her papa sent her down to the river, where the mountain washed down lots of silt and clay into the valley. She went with a bucket and a shovel to carry as much clay as she could, because the fireplace had settled and was cracking at the bottom.
She arrived at the river and came to a small tree, which was tenuously clinging on to the river bank, refusing to let its little piece of soil wash away. Roots were washed bare by the water at the river’s edge, and the little tree dug them firmly into the riverbed to keep itself righted. But something else was odd at the base of this tree. The water below the roots was in a swirl. She loved the pretty funnel it made, and started dropping leaves into it. They spun around and around.
She leaned over, just to get a closer look, and the soft, cool clay of the bank would not hold her. It crumpled down into the water… and disappeared! She noticed that the little whirlpool now was a little bigger too, and her leaver were gone! She started to put more leaves in, and through the gurgling sounds of the water, they were sucked down into the earth.
“Where could these leaves go?” she wondered. She gathered her clay for her papa, and ran back to the cottage.
A week later, she returned to the little tree with a long branch she had picked up along the forest path. The path does not go out here, but it isn’t far away. Only a few shrubs line the foot of the mountain where the river is forced to turn. She pulled up her skirt, and stepped into the cool water. It was only midway up to her shins, but moved fairly quickly. She poked her branch into the whirlpool. It went in several inches, and felt like it caught a root from the little tree. She wiggled it around some more, and then it almost fell into the ground! There seemed to be no end to the hole now.
“Where is the water going, I wonder?” She pushed the branch in all the way, stepping closer to the edge, carefully. The stick felt like it was in open water with nothing below it at all. This was spring, the water was still cool from the fresh melt. She decided to come back when it was warmer out.
Several weeks went by and she gathered up a rope from her papa’s shed. She walked out to the woods, and the path had nearly overgrown by now. it took a while to find her little tree, by stepping through some scratchy and prickly overgrown shrubs. But she found her tree, and below it; the little whirlpool.
She tied the rope to the little tree, and the other end she looped around her waist. Then she took off her skirt which was covering her bath clothes. She stepped into the water. She was very scared, but also very curious. This was her greatest fault, her papa thought. She carefully walked up to the whirlpool, feeling the smooth river stones between her toes. As she got closer, she was very nervous that the earth may fall in again like the first time. But she had a rope on, and that gave her courage. She moved up, just to the part where the water turned black with nothingness, and her toes dangled over the edge. It felt firm. It felt like solid stone, as if she were a mud doll on a large granite shelf. She gave herself a bounce.
There was no question, this was a very solid footing. Looking around, making sure no one was watching (she had a bucket for an excuse just the same), she got to her knees and sat in the shelf, in the cool summer water. Her feet dangled down into open water, just like the branch. The little whirlpool twirled gently just in front of her, and she could cup it in her hands.
She looked around again, and seeing no one, she took hold of the rope where it was fastened to the little tree. Pulling it taught, she gently slid herself off the stone shelf, and held herself above the hole with her arms. The coarse shelf of stone scraped against the back of her thighs with only her cotton undergarment protecting her, but still, there was no bottom. Her waist was just under water now! She decided to slowly unfold her arms to lower herself into this dark, strange hole under the tree. Deeper it went. Now the cool water tickled her rib cage, but her feet still swung free. She lowered to her chest now, and nothing! At this point, she wanted to be sure she could get out, so she pulled up a little. Relieved, she found that she was very light in the water, and pulling up was not difficult. Now was the worst part, to put her elbows at a right angle, she would be into the water up to her armpits. This was a scar as she would go!
And, as the water tickled the bottom of her armpits, something touched her toe! Quickly, she pulled up again and brought her feet up with a startled shriek! Now she has to check around again, that no one saw or heard her. It seemed she was not noticed.
She thought long about this. Did something brush her, or did she touch something? Nothing is reaching up to grab her. OK, now she got the nerve to find out. She lowered herself down carefully, reaching around with her toes. Then, just as before, something touched her toe. Did it move? she thought? No, it’s not moving.
With a little more confidence, she touched the thing with her toe, then lowered her foot down flat. It was something solid. Her weight, light as it was, seemed to be supported. Finally, she let the rope go. She was standing in the hole in water just below her shoulders. But where does the water go?
She tugged firmly once again at the knot on the little tree. It was a good knot, like her papa taught her to make. She bent her knees down, and pushed her hands into the dark water, clenching on to the thick roots of the tree for stability. Lower she went, until her chin touched the water. It was like the water in her bath after playing for an hour. No, maybe a little colder than that. Now she realized that she forgot to tie up her hair. It was wet like a mop now at her shoulders, but frizzy up top. This was uncomfortable. She had the urge to just wet it all and let the weight of the water straighten it out. She went under, and the hole swallowed her up completely.
It felt cool but not frigid under her, she braved to open her eyes. Nothing at all but blackness met her. But more frightening, her hands could feel nothing in front of her below the roots either. There were coarse rock outcrops to the left and right, like pinschers holding the tree up from the earth, but nothing straight ahead. Her left hand held the rope tightly, and she drifted weightlessly forward following the soft current and paying out the rope slowly. This was a time to use her bedroom closet trick: Think about nothing. Focus on her body only; the braids of rope passing through her hands, the gently waving fabric of her blouse brushing her sides, the long locks of hair tickling her shoulders. Thinking about where she was right now would be bad. It is a bad place to be.
Her lungs told her it was time to get up to the surface. The sound of the gurgling river dimmed behind her, but a new sound caught her ear up ahead. She has no idea what direction she went, but the mountain was very close. Is that another river I hear? She decided to push forward one more kick before turning back; the rope gripped tightly in her hand now.
Her hand pushed forward with one last lurch. She really wanted something to be here—anything to make this journey fruitful. Her hand flailed just a bit, and felt the coarse, wet stone walls around her, until her hand made a splash, just over her head! There was air above her! Would she dare to taste it? There was no longer a choice.
She had no choice now. This little air was the closest she had, and it could refill her for the trip back. She pressed her face upward, and blew out her lungs with relief. In came a draft of cool, earthy air. It was a shallow cave… or maybe a shallow entrance to a cave?
She took a few breaths, and felt relaxed. Opening her eyes was useless, it made no difference. But she had air now, and her rope. She pressed further. The cave rose up.
She reached a point where she could swim openly, in chest-deep water and a clear ceiling. She kept one hand over her head in case something hard was sticking down. It never came. But what did come, is a shore. She had never in her life been more terrified. She had never in her life been more thrilled. She had never in her life, been this curious.
She returned a week later, with some kindling and a cloth soaked in oil. She wrapped them in wax parchment, bundled them tightly, and covered the bundle with wax. Having this portable fireplace secured against the water, she lit the fire in her secret cave. She followed a river through the mountain for a while, but it went down, and the cave went straight.
It went straight through, to freedom.