Chapter 1: River Country, Missouri 1814
I was born on land that my mother’s people walked for generations along the wide river. But by the time I was waking up to the world, it was without my mother or her kin.
Nairn had no use for babies. He had left Scotland at sixteen, crossed an ocean and made a home with my mother, Mohongo, as I swam around inside her. I stole their life together, my birth paid for in her blood. She died days after I was born.
In the beginning, Maria was mother and father, sun and moon. She was as much mother to me as she was to Jackson. She nursed us together, girl and boy, both dark haired and dark eyed and, though we were not blood kin, we were sister and brother. We circled Maria, leaning against her legs. “Go on,” she would say, pushing us away gently. We learned to sneak up behind her when she was sitting and kiss the back of her head before she could pull away.
We ranged farther and farther once our chores were done to Maria’s satisfaction: the wood stacked, the vegetable patch watered and weeded, the chickens fed. The summer we were eight years old, we slipped along the ridge and down the creek to the river below. Though I was a few weeks younger, a fact my near brother would never let me forget, I was more sure on my feet. We dared to scale the long falls with a deep pool at the bottom. The water below us gave me no comfort, as we did not swim. I moved above Jackson on the rock with ease and he tried to follow my path. The water fell next to us, a constant roar. The rock was pitted and pock marked as if something had melted it unevenly. It sunk in on itself in unexpected places, offering holes for my hands and feet. Below me Jackson’s legs trembled from the effort of climbing and I searched for a shelf big enough for us to rest on when I heard the rattle: tickticktick, ticka, ticka, tick!
The warning sound was so close that the water rushing down the falls next to me did not drown it out. I pulled back as far as I could from the rock face, scanning for the snake. But I didn’t see it until it struck out, the black green head aimed at my chest. I threw myself backward from one danger to the next, my body falling fast through the air and slap, my back hit the water below. The cold wet darkness swirled around me in an instant as I flailed my arms and legs, only to sink and spin wildly in the white bubbled chaos of the pool hammered by the water falling into it.
I never knew how long Nairn had been watching us when I fell. Suddenly he was there, strong arms pulling me from the pool and dragging me up the rock edge. I threw up water as my whole body screamed in pain. He slugged me on the back with his open hand and shook my shoulders as if beating the river out of me.
He let me go and I sank onto the rock sobbing while he hovered over me. Jackson made it back down the wall and hung back. When I could stop my tears and catch my breath, I looked up at Nairn. He shook his head and started back down the rocks. Jackson and I eyed each other without a word and followed him.
It was the first time we had seen him away from our cabin and we slunk home behind him expecting the worst. He never looked back as he led us along the ridge line, and we knew it well enough to easily keep up with him among the rocks.
All night we waited for him to tell Maria how he had found us and saved me from drowning. He was as quiet and concise in his movements as ever, but as I studied him closely I saw him observe Maria’s quiet act of love as she set down the plates with everyone’s favorite cut of meat.
By the end of supper, Maria noticed our soberness and wondered out loud what we had been up to. I saw a wave of laughter silently pass though Nairn. I could feel our secret grow across the table like a green leafy weed stretching to the sun claiming a warm patch of ground.
In the morning after the chores, Nairn called us and with an impatient wave told us to follow him. We made our way back down the valley to a deep pool in the river where we had never dared to wade. He walked us into the water until we were neck deep. Jackson’s eyes were all white like a horse who had seen a snake. Likely mine were the same, but we were too afraid to protest.
“If you’re going to go in the water, then you need to swim,” Nairn said.
He tucked his arm under my belly and my feet rose off the stream floor. My arms churned the water to keep my face up.
“Now kick,” he commanded.
I did. My head sank below the water when his hand came away. I clawed my way toward the bank. Tears slid down my wet face when my knees hit the river bottom in the shallows. I looked back at Jackson, who was heavier than me, sinking more than swimming, but keeping himself alive with thrashing limbs. When he reached me breathless, Nairn called us back out to the middle again. Again and again, until fear turned to fatigue and my arms and legs knew what to do.
Suddenly I wasn’t scared anymore. I stood in the shallows and launched myself into the water, kicking and churning back to Nairn in the middle of the pool. His orange beard covered the lower part of his face, but his blue eyes brightened, a smile. He waited for me to reach him and held out his arms. He exclaimed, “There you are! My lass!”
I sucked in a mouthful of water and sputtered. I had never been his lass before.
Jackson’s attempts to swim were closer to drowning and he snorted and coughed as the water got into his nose and throat. But the moment I turned to him, standing in the river with my face glowing because I understood this new skill, he was determined not to be left behind. Nairn didn’t tire of calling us back and waiting for us to swim to shore. Perhaps he knew that one day swimming would save my life.
Alicia London’s first unpublished novel Land of Bitter and Sweet received first place for MG/YA in 2019 Mendocino Coast Writing Conference writing conference. It is set in rural Bolivia where Alicia lived and worked as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. She is currently writing a middle grade historic novel, Isa’s Trail, about twelve-year-old Isa who travels with her Scottish trapper father through the Rocky Mountains in 1820. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two young daughters.