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The following story appears exclusively on Culture Trip, courtesy of the author.
This one night we were perched on the grassy slope above the drive-in, talking about the waterfall. According to local lore, it was deep in the woods on the white side of town. No one had actually seen it for themselves, so without tracks, it remained a tall tale instead of a landmark. Our cousins, a chorus of country hecklers, took turns telling us why we were wrong every time we brought it up. But my little brother and I still tried to casually fit it into conversation whenever we saw them, hoping something had changed.
“Whew, I knew it wouldn’t take but a minute before Macy started in. For city kids, ya’ll are some suckers. Cash, I should’ve bet you some money,” Lonnie fell back on the grass, his laughter coming out in a hushed stream like a gas leak.
Cash took the reins. “You know that’s just a story grandmama tells to make this town seem more interesting than it is. Like it’s more than dirt roads and bugs. But it ain’t.”
Nick, always the most gentle, cleared his throat. “Really, it comes down to this: in a town so small, wouldn’t someone have seen it by now, and had the sense to make a map?”
“Ain’t no waterfall. And even if there was one, your black asses couldn’t go see it,” Lonnie said.
We covered our mouths to muffle our laughter. On the screen was a Western that we’d seen back home almost two years ago, except with sound, cushioned seats, and popcorn. Our cousins didn’t seem to mind what was missing, and sometimes they’d make up dialogue to go along with the scenes. With no black movie theater within a hundred miles, sneaking to the top of “whites ridge” for unintentionally silent movies was as good as it was going to get. Once the sun set, we could let go of some of the fear of being discovered, though it was a fear I didn’t feel, and instead wore like a hat.
This was everyday reality for our cousins, towing the line of unspoken rules, a veneer of happiness with caution constantly humming under the surface. Just as we were about to find out the film’s big reveal, that the town sheriff was behind the bank robberies all along, headlights cut through the tall grass behind us. In near unison, we crouched onto all fours and began to low crawl. Car doors shut and muffled voices cut through the bug fizzing. At the treeline, we hopped up and ran. I squinted to make sure my brother was part of the pack of shadows racing ahead. I wasn’t as fast as the others, but the heat of possible pursuers at my back pushed me forward, even though I was pretty sure no one was behind us.
“We made it! I can’t believe we got away with that.” Lonnie said, as we collapsed in a pile back near Uncle Chuck’s house.
I wondered what exactly we’d gotten away with, but kept silent.
Growing up, we’d spent summers in South Carolina, during a time when a waterfall was more of a head-scratching oddity than there still being a white side of town. Once school got out in June, Dad drove us halfway from Fort Lee, outside of Richmond, dropping us at the roadside gas station where we’d meet up with Uncle Chuck, who finished the trip to grandma’s house, playing gospel music from his stereo while we slept. We stayed side by side from there on out, permanent silhouette in each other’s periphery, our personalities and experiences binding us.
Our weekdays were spent wandering barefoot with our cousins around the countryside. We ran races on dirt paths, crossed trails in the woods, and scooped tadpoles with mayonnaise jars from ditch puddles. In the afternoon, we’d walked to the town air-conditioned drugstore to cool our skin. Our mother had given us spending money, but we were careful to let on how much. Instead we’d chip in with our cousins for chocolate ice cream and two bottles of Coke. The palms of our hands always seemed sticky. Sometimes our cousins took us to Uncle Chuck’s auto garage to listen to listened to records where swayed to Sam Cooke and learned to dip our hips to James Brown. Our nights usually ended with a dinner at our grandma’s house.
In August, our cousins usually went to Myrtle Beach to visit the other side of their family. Without them around, we end up following grandma around town as she did her weekly errands. This meant accompanying her while she volunteered at the integrated orphanage, a two-story, tree-lined house for about thirty kids, which smelled of grease and sugarcane. The stove heated the entire house and we all sat under the fans in the great room to cool off. The orphans didn’t talk much, not even to each other. They seemed bored. It could have been our presence. Sometimes, as she and other volunteers prepared food, we would join some of the orphans for a game of four square, but they often played too aggressively. And grandma got mad if we got all sweaty and ruined the Sunday clothes she made us wear.
When food was ready, Grandma would shout to assemble at back porch to be served. “Strike while the iron’s hot, y’all,” she’d say. She had a fondness for idioms. As we would eat, Grandmother recounted stories, usually the old folk tales we’d heard year after year, which made me yearn for some television. But on a Saturday not long after we fled the drive-in, Grandma told everyone about the town’s waterfall, describing its steely blue waters, but how one could walk for days and days and never find it, because the waterfall only revealed itself to those who could handle the presence of miracles. For them, the woods would peel back with a gentle push, and just at the end of a winding footpath they’d see it, reached so high that the top just disappeared into a fog. It was like a mirage, Grandma said. As ferocious or gentle as a person wished to envision in their mind’s eye. She gave us a nod as she mentioned it, as if one of our cousins had told her to tell us what she knew.
We leaned on each other back to back. A boy around our age sitting nearby turned his head toward us conspiratorially.
“I seen that waterfall. It’s real.”
He tugged at the loose fringe on his blue jeans. My brother and I stared at him.
“I know you don’t know me, but I don’t tell fibs. I’ll take you out there, let you see for yourselves.”
I rolled my eyes like my cousins did when I asked about the waterfall. He wiped his palms on the grass and stood up. He was taller than expected, with the reed like limbs of a praying mantis and wide dark eyes shrouded in the tell-tale puffy-skinned shadows of someone who didn’t sleep well. His hair was shaped into a well-kept small afro, with ears protruding out wide like a set of wings. He loomed over us for a few moments, allowing this assessment and maybe waiting to see if we had something to say.
“Alright now,” he said giving up, “I’ll see ya’ll around I guess.” Twitching his mouth into a smirk, and headed back into the house.
“Bye!” My brother yelled after him suddenly, loudly. Soon after, we heard Uncle Chuck roll into the driveway. Grandma had four sons that lived in town, but somehow he was the only one that really did anything for her.
We spent Sunday mornings in our dad’s old bed, wide awake but quiet so that grandma would wait a while to get us up and ready for church. We looked around at the objects of his boyhood—football trophies, baseball cards, and pictures that lined the frame of the mirror on the wall. We thought about who our Dad was when he lived there, before he joined the army, and whether or not we would’ve been friends if we’d known him back then. We’d debate things like this until grandma came in and made us get dressed for church.
Compared to our chapel back home, an hour-long service of the same hymns almost every week, Grandma’s church was loud, crowded, and mostly due to all the singing, almost three hours long. It seemed unorganized, Grandma even described the service as the blind leading the blind, but we still went. The food was the best part, what we waited for. We could smell it cooking in the basement before service was over. Our stomachs ached during the sermon, and afterward we rush to fill our plates as we shoveled corn and macaroni and cheese into our faces with little regard for manners.
We normally had to stay at church through the evening prayer service, but one day grandma let us walk home alone after we finished eating. We had all the light of a summer afternoon left. We took off our shoes once we got on the dirt road near the house. The top layer of clay was broken from trucks coming through too fast, and it covered our feet like cinnamon powder. The heat didn’t seem so bad, but the humidity in the air made it hard to breathe. Grandma’s two dogs were waiting for us in the front yard when we got home. So was the boy from the orphanage.
“What are you doing here?” I moved closer to the porch.
“Where’s your grandmother?”
“At church,” my brother said.
“Well, I said I was gonna show ya’ll the waterfall. So here I am,” he said.
“We can’t. Our grandma won’t be gone all that long.” I pulled my brother to me, but he wriggled from my clutch.
“It won’t take all that long. I can take you straight to where it is and then come right back. Least you can say you seen it then.”
He introduced himself as John. We followed as he took a trail near the house that led deep into the woods. When I asked him how he’d snuck out of the orphanage, he said that he’d just left, and that he did it often, without anyone noticing. My brother asked him when he’d been to the waterfall before, and John said an older orphan had taken him, A boy who wanted to bring a girl from town out there to “kiss and stuff,” but that he’d brought John along to not make it seem so obvious. We kept asking him questions, and kept answering as we walked into further into the forest.
It was getting darker, but the heat stayed the same. We made adjustments to make it bearable. I wrapped my cardigan around sweat soaked hair, and we rolled our clothes up as much as possible to let our skin breathe, wiping our brows for relief that wouldn’t arrive. The trail occasionally split, but John proceeded down one after another without a second thought. Our legs and feet were burning. We couldn’t believe how far we were going. At one point, we glimpsed a view of a great wide open space that would be unthought of back home with all of the new housing and shopping developments. It wasn’t until John spotted a snake, which quickly slithered away, that we finally came to a halt.
“Let’s just stop for a minute, John said. “I need to get my bearings.”
My heart sank. That was what dad said while driving, just before mom started yelling about us being lost. Henry leaned into me, like a tree crashing into the trunk of a sturdier one. There was no way to be sure how long we’d been out there, but I was sure that grandma was back from the prayer meeting by now. People always returned home early when things seem awry. It’s like they can sense it.
As Henry and I tried to rub the burn out of our feet, John remained standing, occasionally turning in circles, talking to himself.
“I think we went down a wrong path,” he said. “But I’m not sure how far back it is.”
We looked back at the route we’d come from. It didn’t seem like we were on a trail anymore, and nothing seemed familiar. The trees were bunched into smoky sketches in the distance, and clouds covered the rising moon, so even if there was a trail, we couldn’t see it. Mosquitoes came for our slick skin as we idled, so after some discussion, we started walking back in the direction that we figured was east, the black side of town.
“We need to be careful,” John said as he navigated the way. “We don’t want to exit of the woods on their side of town.”
“I don’t care where we get out, as long as we’re out.”
“You should care.”
He led the way and held back tree branches for us to walk by. We sluggishly took the rear and pushed each other along. Faces hot, we brushed tears out of our eyes with the backs of our hands. We readjusted our clothes so the bugs would stop biting. Fear was unraveling us by the minute.
We huddled against each other and my brother buried his face in my chest. I patted him on the back and when he lifted his head to look at me there was blood dripping from his nose. I looked down at the gob of red down the front of my shirt. It happened when he was stressed or nervous. I took my cardigan off and told him to hold it to his nose. John leaned against a tree and stared at at us.
We started walking again, but at a much faster pace. As if something were chasing us out of the woods. John said he could see headlights, which meant that a road wasn’t far away. We came upon a fence that was too high to climb. We walked along it, hoping to find a tear, a dog tunnel, anything. Our throats were dry. My brother kept his head back.
It was dark now, and John said he wasn’t sure what side of town we were on. But he seemed as eager as us to be out of the woods.
“Look!” John pointed at a tear in the fence.
“We can’t fit through that,” I said.
“Well, we can try to stretch it.” John pushed the opening with his hands and tried to kick it open further with his feet. “I can make it through this. And you and your brother ain’t any bigger than me.”
John turned his body sideways and put his legs through first. We watched his technique closely. My brother took the cardigan from his face. His nose had stopped bleeding. As John pulled his head through the fence, his cheek caught a torn piece of the metal, causing him to hiss. I held the fence and helped to push my brother through. A car was coming closer and the headlights lit the area in front of us. I pulled my body through and pushed past my brother and John. We had to flag down the car.
“Be careful!” John shouted, holding a hand to his cut, and pulling my brother back from the road. “You don’t know who that is!”
I could see that the approaching car was actually a dark green or blue truck. I stood as close to the edge of the road as I could get and jumped up and down. The truck began to slow down. I ushered for John and my brother to come closer. Black or white, help was help. Every part of me ached. There were four white men in the cab of the truck. I pulled my brother close to me, and he stayed. The men looked at us a while before talking.
“Ya’ll ain’t where you supposed to be now, is you?” The man in the passenger seat said, smiling.
“No.” I said. “We got lost in the woods.”
“No? No what?”
“No, Sir,” John said.
“All right then.” said the passenger. “Ya’ll look a mess. Why you boys all bloodied up like that?”
“He got a nosebleed,” I said gesturing to my brother, then I nodding at John, “and he cut his face on that fence.”
“A fence you ain’t supposed to come through.” The voice came from one of the men in the back of the cab.
“We didn’t see a sign that said ‘whites only’ above the hole we crawled through.” I stepped forward as I spoke, but John put an arm in front of me as a barricade.
“Well aren’t you a loud-mouthed little thing.”
His attention focused on me, and the skin behind my ears warmed. I folded my arms over my chest and looked down.
“She don’t know better,” John said. “They ain’t from here.”
“It don’t matter where you come from, you still better know what you are. Come here.” John hesitantly stepped up to the passenger who examined his cut.
“You gonna need some stitches on your face.” he said. “after that, it won’t be nothin’ that a little Rocky Road can’t fix. You like ice cream?”
“Well we ain’t got any.”
This caused the four men in the truck cabin to burst in laughter. We stared at our shoes as the front passenger huddled them all together to confer about something we couldn’t make out. I took a step back, pulling my brother with me, and looked at John. His eyes widened and he shook his head left to right when he realized my unspoken idea. I stopped for a moment, heart pounding, looking for the clearest shot to the trees. Finally, the conference broke, and the front passenger spoke up.
“C’mon,” he said gesturing to the back of the truck. “We’ll give you kids a ride back home.”
“No, sir. We can find our own way.” John backed away from the truck. Anger appeared on the man’s face.
“Like hell you will. Like we just gonna let you wander all around where you ain’t supposed to be. And Rosa Parks and Tiny Tim here from outta town probably got someone lookin’ for ’em, don’t you?”
“Our grandma,” I said.
“See, your grandma,” he said. Come on now, get in the back of the truck there,”
We could see another set of headlights coming.
“The next people that stop might not be as nice,” the man said.
The driver pulled a U-turn in the middle of the road as soon as we sat down in the bed of the truck. John sat close to the cab window and we sat with our backs against the side. I brushed my hands through my hair and tried to smooth it into a loose ponytail. I wiped dirt from my brother’s shirt. We looked out at the passing country, now on the other side of the trees and finally catch air with some chill to it. John looked back and forth from the men in the truck to us. “Something don’t feel right. I know I don’t know where we are, but it don’t seem like we’re going back where we’re supposed to be.”
I wanted to tell him he was paranoid, that they wanted to be rid of us just as much as we wanted to be home and safe, but I couldn’t open my mouth to say so. I couldn’t feel fear before because I hadn’t known it until then. Experience trains you.
“Where was they coming from that they had to make a U-turn to take us back to the colored side?”
One of the men in the back of the cab suddenly opened the partition wider and yelled back to us. “You kids. Ya’ll are really lucky.”
I didn’t know what to make of that, but it felt like a perverse threat. The weight of harm narrowly escaped knocked the wind out of me and tears clouded my vision. John stayed quiet and hung his head between his legs.
Soon the truck slowed to a stop. “We’re near the high school,” John said, trying to inject some comfort in the urgency of his voice.
He jumped over the side of the truck. I let the gate down for my brother and we climbed out. John came around the back and we stood in the red of the tail lights. We waited for the men to say something, but there was nothing but the sound of the truck running. I stepped forward to speak to the face in the side mirror. I don’t know what I was going to say, but it didn’t matter, the truck kicked dirt back on us and sped away.
We walked from town mostly in silence, different from the exhausted elation we’d felt with our cousins. John pawed blindly around his face until he found the gash. The pooled blood on his cheek seemed to glow under the light of the lamp posts.
“Who’s going to clean that up for you?” I asked John. “You probably need stitches if it’s still bleeding like that.”
“It’ll clot up after a while,” he said, waving a hand in the air. “Probably get a good scar out of it, and a bunch of stories from people trying to figure out how I got it, but I’ll never tell. Be a real man of mystery.”
John left us to head back to the orphanage where the paved road met grandma’s dirt road. He’d be able to sneak back in without anyone noticing, but asked if we wouldn’t tell anyone that he’d gotten mixed up in this trouble with us. There was something to the gauntness in his face, the fearful hollow of his voice when he asked, that made us quickly agree.
The front lawn came into view as we rounded the corner, but we were still obstructed by a row of trees covered in spanish moss. Grandma’s two dogs, our four uncles, and grandma were all huddled on the front porch, with a patrol car idling in the yard, its highbeams illuminating the gravel driveway. I wrapped my arm around Henry’s shoulder and he limply put his arm at my waist. It was like a slow three-legged race where one person was doing all of the work, but I was in no rush to get to the kind of trouble we were in, and I needed a little time to sort through our story. Henry wouldn’t contradict me so long as I just stuck to the big bullet points. Whatever those were. Lies worked better with fewer made-up details. “What do you think everyone will say?”Henry said in a sudden rasp at my side. “What are we going to tell the cousins? They’ll find out and make fun of us for the rest of our lives!”
“Maybe,” I said, thinking back to the truck, “or maybe they’d just be happy to know we got away.”
Maranatha Bivens is a writer based in Washington D.C. She is currently working on a novel about military culture.