A night time whitewater river in flood is a strange beast. The roar of the water is deafening; amplified by the darkness. Does 10,000 cfs or 20,000 cfs careen down the riverbed? It’s impossible to tell in the blindness that is night. Twenty four hours of torrential rain had preceded the cold front as it made its way eastward, wringing out the atmosphere in advance of its push. The river had responded as all large rivers do: Collecting water from the countless rivulets that had sprung from the steepness of the mountains and absorbing the normally small tributaries that were now rivers unto themselves. Its waters had grown until it became a huge serpentine-like entity writhing in the bottom of the gorge. It was near midnight when I drove up the riverside road... alone. Strong winds buffeted my car and it was with a white-knuckled grip that I wrestled with these denizens of the storm. Side streams leapt in a fury off the rock walls and spilled flayed stone into the roadway. As I slowly drove along, picking my way through the mazes of stony debris, the headlights of my car momentarily illuminated something-- someone--standing on the roadside, but it quickly withdrew into its shadow-world. I stopped and peered into the darkness...
“JESUS!” I exclaimed as the figure of a woman suddenly appeared from the shadows near the river and glided toward my car. With hands trembling I rolled down the passenger-side window and above the din of the cold wind and river’s roar shouted,
“My God lady are you all right? Is your car in the river?”
I heard only the wind and river. She was silent as she stood in the dimness and stared at me through the opened window. As I leaned across and opened the passenger door, I continued,
“ Do you need help? Can I take you somewhere? Do you need to call someone? My God it’s cold out there!”
She quietly entered my car and as she sat, water trilled from the long wavy strands of her hair and darkened the seat.
“Here, let me turn the heater up,” I offered. “You look cold, and very wet.”
“I’m fine,” she said in a gentle voice. “I’m not cold, but yes, I am wet... but then, I’m always wet... may I ride with you awhile?”
“Well... yes,” I responded. “But are you certain that you’re all right? I feel that I need to help you... get you home or something. It’s dreadful out--”
“We’ve met before, you know,” she said, cutting short my concern. “Once, long ago, you were caught in the turbulence at the base of a huge fall of water. You had lost your boat and were swimming... do you remember?”
“How did you know... I remember that like it happened yesterday!” I exclaimed. “I must have recirculated a dozen times in that hydraulic before washing out--got beat around on the rocks, too! God-Almighty! That was a frightful time! And you tell me that you were there--where?”
“Actually you recirculated only four times before I gave you that little shove. You needed it... really needed it.” As she looked into my eyes, a trickle of water danced down her pale cheek and off her marbly chin. I resumed the drive up the dark road that followed the bends of the river and continued to dodge the rocks that had tumbled from the cliffside. I didn’t ask where she was going...
“You know,” I continued, “there’s something strangely familiar about you--not a visual recognition mind you--just something I sense. I’m beginning to understand just who you are... I think. There was another time I had a close call. It was on that steep creek that runs by the road--far above the easy section. It was really ripping that day when I came over the big drop, penciled in and pinned between the rocks at the bottom. The boat collapsed on my legs and there I was, bolted to the bottom in the middle of a maelstrom with only my head above the water-- kept my face up by chinning my paddleshaft as I braced on a solitary rock. Thought I’d bought the farm! Were you there that day too?”
“Oh yes,” she answered. “Don’t you recall how you began to feel your boat bending and finally tearing away to eventually release you? Certainly you didn’t think that you were able to do all that alone, did you? Again, you were in a dire situation and in need of help... I was there for you.”
“Then there was that big undercut,” I added. “Gosh it got dark under there then suddenly a strange but welcomed swirl of current sent me up into the light. I burst to the surface just as my breath failed... you?”
“Yes, I remember that time too,” she confirmed. “I must admit that I’ve always liked you--your grand mistakes were never the result of arrogance, just... poor judgment.” I glanced her way and noticed that the water continued to stream from her. As I looked at her sitting there in the warm glow of the dashlights, she seemed to strangely waste away. Our conversation had paused; it was as if she needed a moment to gather her strength in order to continue. In our silence I proceeded to slowly drive along, pondering the identity of my enigmatic passenger...
“But those events were many years ago,” she resumed. You’ve really not needed me for sometime now, that is until--”
“But there was another time--last winter in fact!” I interrupted. “I missed a critical boof on that nasty broken ledge--the others had gone before me and like Blue Angels they all hit that thin line. And then I followed--missed that line by six inches at most! God! I had a split second to crank that bow up and bridge that fissure in the rock--got a glimpse down into a seething netherworld as I passed over! That one scared me... and made me mad! Heck, I’d been making that move for more years than the others are old!”
“Exactly,” she agreed. “Contemplate your last statement for a moment... ”
“You know,” I continued, “ when I landed in the sanctuary of the pool below that awful ledge, a cold wind raced by and cut a strange pattern on the surface of the water. It was as if something large and malevolent had passed closely by.”
“That would have been the Third Angel... in his presence the rivers and fountains of water become blood,” she stated coldly. “He’s so powerful--much more so than I--and comes in quickly on sure wings. I was almost late for you then, but arrived just in time to give you a little lift from underneath and shove you over that deadly crack. You described it as a view into a netherworld and it saddens me to know that others have been lost there because I didn’t arrive in time... but please don’t think badly of me. I’m able to give a little push or shove here and there and I can make the river surge or ebb when needed... most times that’s enough. Some call my presence luck, but I’m really so much more than pure chance so please... no, you MUST... listen to me. When the Third Angel grabs you in his iron grip he will rip the very warmth from your heart and you will be his... forever! There is nothing I can do to stop him... your screams will burst silently upon the surface of the river and your immersion will be... final.”
Shocked by her words, I became silent and withdrew into my own thoughts. I continued to follow the bends of the riverside road and soon approached the place where it veered away from the river and began its ascent out of the gorge.
“Please . . . stop here. I must return to the river... ,” she said softly.
I pulled off the road and stopped. The river again announced its presence and as I leaned across and opened the door for her, a wet caress ran along my arm. As she glided into the darkness, the pooled water from the floor of the car streamed behind her as if it were a trailing gown. She retreated into the shadows then turned to look at me as if to say goodbye. Barely audible above the tumultuous river she said,
“I had to come to you tonight and tell you these things... because... because I’m just not sure if I’ll continue to always be there for you. You see, there are so many more of your kind now and I have to be in so many places at once and... and there’s just one of me. So please... PLEASE... use your own good judgment in the future; it might be all that you will have to keep you safe. You’ve reached a point in your life where you should have plenty... and it’s so much better than...”
Her words trailed away and became lost...
“Will I ever see you again?” I shouted into the darkness. I heard only the voice of the indifferent river... and the howl of a cold wind as it raced down from the mountaintop...