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Aug. 19, 2016:  

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Soaking in a Thunderstorm - Feiereisel

Amy T. Feiereisel

Soaking in a Thunderstorm

 

Three days after we swam in the pouring rain, I listened to the weather on the local radio station and heard this:

Sixteen people were injured after a bolt of lightning hit a tree they were standing under during a lightning storm on Friday. Four homes have been reported as flooded in Lake George. A nine year old girl drowned at a local watering hole on Saturday; water levels were much higher than average due to the weekend storms.

I realized then that I had been very lucky the Friday prior. But I could not bring myself to feel sorry for it. Perhaps I still could not believe that something like injury or death could ever happen to me.

Maggie was nearly forty minutes late when she finally pulled into the house driveway. But something about Maggie’s easy way and apologetic exasperation made me forget my irritation – even if Jeff and Phillipe were waiting for us down at the swimming hole already.

The day had been a moody one. Since May the North Country had been experiencing a dry summer. This is what everyone told me when I arrived in late July, though there was no explanation needed. The landscape told its own story. There were depressing patches of straw where I was accustomed to finding grass, the lakes were running so low you could see the water line on stones, dark to light where moisture usually lay, and the air seemed to crackle with dry heat.  Everyone was hoping for rain. I wished for it each night as the heat mounted, building on itself, until even the cool night air dissipated and left muggy, hot air in its place. The day before we went swimming  I had put an old elastic sheet down on my wooden floor and lay on it, seeking relief from the heat but not wanting to sweat all over my bedsheets. I’d promptly fallen asleep after reading two pages of my book, and woken up dizzy and disoriented.

Blessedly, that very night had brought some light showers, and when I’d woken the next morning, I was delighted to find that there was less sweat slicked at my elbow creases and on my neck and in the small of my back. It had drizzled while I was at work, purple clouds filling and emptying the sky, gray mist descending for a brief moment before thin yet warm sunshine shone down. It was wet, but still hot.

“Weather looks grim,” I told Jeff while on a break. “We still on for swimming?”

“Yes,” he said through the phone. “Unless it’s too dangerous.”

So that was that. I was of the same mind; a cool dip had been a long time coming.

At four, I had looked out the window and seen a fairly bright sky. There was plenty of cornflower blue and even sunshine from time to time. But by the time Maggie had arrived, dark clouds had covered every last clear patch, and miniscule drops – almost like errant moisture – had begun falling.

Even though the conditions were frankly abysmal, it did not really occur to us to cancel our plans. Maggie felt bad she’d kept Jeff and Philippe waiting. I was so sticky that to not swim was simply out of the question. Yet I began questioning this decision as we turned on the long and winding way down to the river.

It began to rain about halfway to Flatrocks, the swimming hole named after large sheets of rock leading down to a waterfall and a small lake. Not sprinkle, not drizzle, but rain. Big, fat, splashy packets of water that seemed to burst energetically against the windshield. It fell so thick and so quickly that the windshield was consumed, and Maggie braked to crawl forward. Only fifteen seconds later the rain stopped; either that or we emerged out the other side of a localized storm. I thought it might be wiser to turn back, but I did not say so out loud, and neither did Maggie. We kept rolling towards the river.

It was not raining when we parked at the edge of the road at the top of the long pasture that led down to the river. We followed the trampled tractor path through the tall grass down. This field always made me happy when I walked through it, because it was not only grass but milkweed and dandelions and the sunny egg-yolk flowers I have never learned the name of. It was a wild field with loamy, rich soil underneath – the kind of earth that one imagines has been left to its own devices for a good while.

The clouds hung above us in a thick black blanket, but the grass was not newly wet, so it seemed the storm had not made it these four miles east. With the sky gently rumbling, we trudged onwards. Any real possibility of the sky clearing up and the sun coming back was long gone.

Jeff and Philippe were in the water, sitting in the stream of water feeding out from the waterfall. The water was so low that the normally fierce fall felt halfhearted. The summer before I had loved to jump out in its path and have it carry me off into the lake, like a natural chute that spit us out sputtering thirty feet away. But it was impossible now; there was hardly more than two feet above the rocky bottom, and the stream pushed me as far as ten feet before gently folding itself into the batter of the larger body of water.

“It hasn’t rained then?”

“Not a drop,” they answered.

“It was pouring on the way here.”

“Any lightning?”

“No,” I was happy to answer.

It was lovely to sit in the miniature falls and let the water wash over my shoulders. The long awaited dip wasn’t quite as refreshing as expected, since the temperature was quickly dropping and the water warm. But the flat rocks still displayed themselves impressively against the murky water, and the sky stretched far above us. Its swirls and dark patches were like ones you imagine painted on a theatre set calling for a “stormy sky.”

But unlike a theatre drop, this stormy sky seemed to take a breath and then release it by dropping all the moisture hanging in the hot, humid air. Thankfully we’d stowed our things underneath a bit of overhanging rock, so instead of the usual reaction to rain — one of worrying about your things and scrambling to get out of it — we simply stayed in the water. I tried to keep my eyes open as I pushed my chin towards the sky and opened my mouth. The few drops I managed to collect were soft and sweet and cool.

It had been a long time since I had swum in the rain, an eternity since I had laughed with my mouth open towards the heavens in hopes of the childish ideal of capturing enough raindrops to drink. I had always wanted to drink the sky; and though it never happened I believed it might someday.

But it was getting much cooler very quickly, and the water level was rising – at least that was how it seemed. The falls, which had seemed so meek and dried up not even thirty minutes prior, now seemed to roar with sound, and the water was crashing instead of flowing. I caught Maggie’s eyes.

“Is it safe?” I asked. My thoughts of drinking rain were all but wiped away.

“There’s no lightning,” Jeff said.

“No lightning yet,” I said back. “I think I hear thunder.”

“It’s still a little while off,” Maggie assured me. “It’s not over us yet.”

I was a little reassured, but not mightily. My childhood had been riddled with news of sudden flooding in the plains and hill country, peppered with the wailing siren sound that came on the news whenever there was a warning. We had friends who had lost homes due to particularly violent storms. There were countless tales of careless children swept away in normally low level creeks and brooks. Rain – especially sudden and powerful bouts of it – was not something to be taken lightly.

“This is an awful lot of water.”

“Yes, but it rained last night. The ground is primed to soak it up,” Jeff interjected.

“And,” Maggie tacked on helpfully, “if it does flash flood, we’ll just let the water carry us and then we’ll get caught in the eddy right there. No matter how much water there is or how fast it flows, the patterns – the eddies, the falls, the currents – don’t disappear. They just magnify.”

“Well, what if we get caught in the magnified rapids instead of the calm bits?”

They shrugged their shoulders and seemed to put the possibility out of their minds. I attempted to follow their lead, but the idea that we were sitting in the direct path of the river’s course, planted among boulders in shallow water was a humbling one. From our vantage point, we couldn’t see upstream at all.

Philippe was fussing with his underwater camera and taking video, seemingly oblivious to the increasingly energetic rapids and the way the water had turned a muddier color from all the stirred up silt and red earth at the bottom of the river.

It thundered again.

“Isn’t it that where there’s thunder there’s lightning?” I pointed out.

“It’s still a few miles off,” Maggie said. “But I guess it is moving closer…”

“What does lightning strike first?”

“Trees, I think. Not water.”

She didn’t sound too sure. But no one moved, and while I had been trying to play it cool, suddenly the whole thing seemed desperately foolhardy. The rain was coming down more thickly than ever, and all I could think of was of my parents hearing the news that their daughter had died swimming in the middle of a violent storm in New York.

“I’m getting out,” I announced. “You guys are crazy.”

I clambered out of the rocky flow and up onto the smooth, flat rocks, now stained dark with moisture. I already felt much better not being in the falls. Actually, now that the threat of a galloping wave of brown water overwhelming me was a tactical impossibility, it was easy to see just how wondrous the thick rain and purple sky were. I had not stood in the rain purposefully for so long– in fact, the last time I could remember must have been when I was seven or eight. Whole decades had passed without the sensation of this intentional soaking. I laughed aloud, and ran up the rocks and then down them again. I opened my mouth and tried to drink the rain again. I held my arms out straight and tried to feel the individual drops fall on my skin.

It thundered again, this time louder, and this time Maggie jumped a little.

“Hmmm, yeah, time to get out.” She came up and joined me.

“It’s a little cold, isn’t it?” she asked. It was. The temperature had been steadily dropping, and there was a distinct chill now apparent. We looked about for shelter, and finally settled on dipping ourselves in the perfect round holes filled with warmer, sun-heated water that pepper the flat rocks near the edge of the lake. They were like tiny little hot-tubs, and I settled in comfortably until spiders began running over my legs. I screamed so loudly and shook so violently that I hardly recognized myself.

Maggie laughed until she cried.

It must be the rain, I told myself. Usually things like that didn’t bother me.

Finally the thunder grew close enough to scare Jeff and Philippe out of the water.

“I think it’s time to go home,” Jeff said.

“We’re going to stay a little longer, I think,” I said. “It’s so beautiful.”

Now that I was enjoying myself I felt very brave and not at all worried by the weather.

“You see! They are young and carefree,” Phillipe said to Jeff. “What difference does it make if we leave now or in twenty minutes? We should really wait until the rain lets up.”

So they stayed, but the rain did not let up, and it continued to chill until we all looked at each other and knew it was time to leave and take a hot shower and eat something warm.

I said before that my inability to understand why I shouldn’t have gone swimming that day was because I couldn’t believe something like injury or death could ever happen to me. But I did get out when the storm really broke, and was able to enjoy the afternoon once I felt out of direct harm. Perhaps it was just the right balance of peril and prudence. And it was such a beautiful series of moments that I can’t help thinking I would have risked the same chances over and over again to have them.