By: David Patten
Daybreak, water the color of slate. A lone figure stands in contemplation, close enough to the river that its current splashes over her boots. This stretch of the Niagara resides in the commonplace, revealing nothing of the chaos up ahead. Annie steps back up onto the grass, the October dew staining the hem of her dress and petticoats. She adjusts her matching bonnet which, like her dress, was once the tone of ripe plums, the garments now faded and frayed.
Farther down river the water quickens, a menace in its energy. Annie observes it coursing over rocks, dragging reluctant branches. Then rapids, the river shapeshifting, relentless. The air resounds, vibrates. Ahead, the torrent launches itself into the void. Annie is still, awed by the force of nature, her clothes absorbing the clouds of spray thrown high by the Horseshoe Falls. Tomorrow, her birthday, she will plunge over the brink in a barrel.
A small crowd has gathered at the launch point, the interest mostly morbid, as few expect Annie to survive. But this stoic woman in her sixties, widowed since the Civil War, remains confident that prosperity will follow. She engages with a reporter, offers a brief smile to the photographer. The large, oak barrel has been lined with thick blankets. Annie climbs through the opening and settles, cushioned. Resigned to being accomplices to such imprudence, two men in buttoned vests and rolled shirtsleeves toss their cigarettes to the ground and step into a rowboat.
Untethered, the barrel rolls in the calm stretch of the river. It appears inert, laden, until the current imposes its will. Annie’s breaths are shallow, fast, as she braces for the rapids. They receive her with disdain, muscles of water pounding the sodden oak. A thunder fills the barrel, invincible. The energy fractures. Freefall. Annie is relaxed, expectant.