The Three Sisters is a landmark. When you say "the Three Sisters," people know you're going to tell about something that happened on the river to cause grief. And it isn't really clear whether it's the boulders or the river at that spot that causes the grief. Nobody in his right mind goes swimming near the Three Sisters. The river has hands for sure at this spot. Maybe even the three nuns themselves, beneath the water's surface, are grabbing ankles to pull down some company.
The girls were not supposed to go in the river. Parents regularly warned their children not to swim there. Alice and Willie Bynum, knowing Johnnie Mae's fondness for swimming, had warned her off the banks of the Potomac. Nobody trusts the Potomac River. It's not benign like the aqua-glass swimming pool for the white children up on Volta Place. It is not plodding and dirty like the canal. It is treacherous. It is beguiling. Just walking along the riverbank can be dangerous if you've got a worry spot or a grief stone or an anger or resentment that you can't quite name.
At first the girls stood there. Then they sat among the tall weedy grasses of the littered bank. Much of what gets discarded in Georgetown ends up here, twisted and tangled among black-eyed Susans and Queen Anne's lace. Splintered planks with nails sticking out hide in the shin-high grasses. "Watch where you steppin'! Look out there!" Lula suddenly adopted a big-mama voice and broke the hypnotic silence that had brought them wordlessly to this spot.
"Clara, look where you walkin', girl! You hear me?" Johnnie Mae's voice was an echo of Lula'sa reflex exhortationa pit-of-thestomach reminder that they had no business here and were tempting fate just by stepping, just by breathing. The earth closest to the river edge was mud. In twos and threesHannah and Tiny, Mabel and Lula and Clara, Johnnie Mae and Sareythe girls sat at the river's edge and dangled their feet in the muddy, gunmetal green water. A rotting, downed tree branch covered with terraces of toadstools jutted out from the bank diagonally into the water and provided a place to sit. Rows of ants marched back and forth along its length. Clara sat cautiously on the low end while Mabel and Lula scooted along the log until they were several feet from the bank, swinging their legs out over the water. Hannah and Tiny climbed aboard the log between Clara and the girls on the outer end. Johnnie Mae and Sarey leaned against the log with their ankles mired in cool mud. Johnnie Mae thought about the glistening girls in the swimming pool on Volta Place. Those girls sat on the sides of their pool and only dangled their ankles in the water. The slimy, cool earth banked her anger.
Mabel's sudden shrieking as she belly flopped into the river jerked Johnnie Mae back from her thoughts. Lula followed Mabel into the river and the log shifted and bucked as she springboarded into the water. Johnnie Mae bounded onto the log and ran its length, maintaining her balance as perfectly as an aerialist. She swooped past Hannah and Tiny, nearly knocking them off as she launched herself as far out into the river as possible. The water was of uncertain depth here, but Johnnie Mae was not at all concerned with depth, just breadth. It was her foolish thought that the far bank of the Potomac was within reach of her strokes. And the water was cool, blessedly cool.
Clara sat quietly, watching Johnnie Mae and the other girls. Her quiet allowed them to ignore her . She was a constant appendage to her sister and seemed content to be so. None of the other girls noticed Clara moving along the log to the high end that jutted out over the water. Hannah and Tiny slid off the log into the water, causing it to shift.
Clara maneuvered herself along the log to get a better view of the other girls. They swam together in groups, weaving in and out of each other's arms. They dunked each other's heads and cannonaded each other by slapping the water's surface. Mabel, the oldest, pulled her wet swimming suit away from her chest to show the others her nipples, tight and wrinkled with excitement and cold. The girls giggled, they laughed uproariously, they didn't notice Clara.
© 1999 by Breena Clarke.
Used by permission of the publisher, Warner Books.
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