I’d been driving from Lake Itasca for a couple of days when the guy in the gas station told me the story, but all in all, it’d been a little over a week since I’d left New York City and started driving west to Minnesota: across the Alleghenies, through Ohio, Indiana, Chicago, up into Wisconsin, through Duluth, and all the way north to the place where the Mississippi River gets its start. I’d hung around there for a couple of days, and met a guy who’d sold me a pair of moccasins, but I didn’t really find what I’d hoped for. I started driving downriver to a place in Illinois, where I’d heard a friend of mine had gone, far ahead of me.
On the edge of Red Wing stood a gas station. Its orange and blue sign said 76, and numbers on the pump spun around while I filled the tank. There was no digital display, no slot for paying with a credit card. Time had left this place behind, out here on Highway 61.
“Tourist?” said the middle aged guy behind the counter, and I told him that I was.
He said, “Going to see the Rock?”
“Pretty much everybody comes through here goes to see the Rock. Other side, over in Wisconsin. The Maiden Rock—you know? Wenona’s Leap?”
I nodded like I knew what he was talking about. He told me about the Dakota girl, an inextricable combination of history and legend, the marriage she didn’t want, and the long drop from the bluff. Then he told me with some small excitement that there was no way she could’ve hit the water from there, and that she must have splattered all over the place. Those were his words, “all over the place.”
“If it’s even true to begin with,” he added at the end, and only then did he hand me my change.
I figured, what the hell. I could make a small detour, cross the river and look at this rock. Running towards someplace didn’t create the same pressures as running away.
I’d set foot in the Mississippi River two days earlier, at Lake Itasca. Now I stripped naked and walked through the water until it was deep enough to swim. The river here was wide enough to be called a lake, and it had a name: Lake Pepin. The water wasn’t much above freezing this early in the spring. It bit into my ankles, into my shins, pushed my balls right up into me, but I dove across the surface and just under. The water numbed my skin and I ached all over. I wouldn’t be able to stay in the river for very long.
I floated on my back, ears under the water, bright sunlight warming my nose and lips and eyelids. The current pushed sound into my ears and I started to sing a song I’d been taught up at Lake Itasca. It only had syllables, no real words. I tried to make them match the rhythm of the current: way-ah-ah, way-aye-yah. My voice sounded muffled and unconnected from me. I liked it that way, but it didn’t really work. It didn’t really match the current.
For the few minutes I floated, Lake Pepin—the Mississippi River—was all my own. Nobody else swam in this cold water. No boat skimmed its surface. Elsewhere, of course, barges pushed cargo north and south, and in Louisiana, down near the mouth, oil slicked it in a rainbow blanket. Up at the source, children jumped from rock to rock or skipped stones across the little stream that would become the Mighty Mississippi, and through the Twin Cities it pushed past derelict flourmills and the university. But here I could pretend it was only mine, and only me, floating, numb and aching—singing with my mouth in the air and my ears underwater.
I stopped singing, opened my eyes, and squinted against the sun. The cliff loomed over the lake a few hundred yards away, trees climbing up it, reaching for the lip. I could almost see her up there, Wenona, the men behind her, the lake opening below her, narrowing back into a river and pushing south. She must have known she wouldn’t make it. But the men were behind her, so she wouldn’t make it going back, either. But if she did jump and she did make it, the lake might be deep enough and the river wide enough and long enough that she could swim herself free. I heard the gas station man’s voice saying, “splattered all over the place.”
It was time to get out of the river. I had to drive down it. I had to at least make it to Cordova. That’s where my friend was supposed to be. It was a high rock and a wide leap, but floating on my back, my ears receiving the pulse of the current, I watched her step back towards the men. My neck throbbed as my heart tried harder to push blood around my cold and aching body, but my face felt warm in the sunshine. Looking up through my narrowed eyelids at the top of that cliff, I watched her slow paces as she walked back and accepted her fate, only to turn and run back to the edge and take that flying leap. I rolled onto my belly and swam until it was shallow enough to walk. I waded out of the water to my pile of clothes, shivering as I put them on as quickly as I could. Before I walked back to my car, I stood on the shore and looked again at the space between the rock face and the water. I counted the number of trees. The leap was wide, true, but so was the river, and it didn’t seem impossible she could make it.
Douglas Cowie (@DouglasCowie) is the author of a novel, Owen Noone and the Marauder, and two linked novellas, Sing for Life: Tin Pan Alley and Sing for Life: Away, You Rolling River. He lives in London, and teaches at Royal Holloway, University of London.