Sunday, February 27, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 244: Biomythography - Note 20, The One Who Got Back Up

Biomythography - Note 20
The One Who Got Back Up

When dusk fell, I hiked to the creek. I'd stuffed my backpack with trash bags, blankets, and two bottles of wine.

It was a party like many others. In years when I didn't have my own apartment, I hosted events in abandoned parks. It was the usual plan. A couple of friends met me on the trail. We cleaned up the area, hung the half-full trash bags in the hope that others would use them, laid out the blankets, and started a campfire. After that, our guests started arriving.

Most of our parties smelled like fresh water with a hint of algae and a smoky fire on the side. That was the atmosphere of the swimming hole, one of the deepest spots on the creek. My friends and their friends understood these events were never elaborate. They were low key, meant for folks who were comfortable sitting on a log with a beer or a cup of wine. Maybe we would offer hot dogs or marshmallows. On fancy nights, we hiked in chips and desserts.

That evening, I'd invited everyone to use the rope swing. It was a thirty foot hemp cord, an inch thick, with three knots for handles. My neighbors had re-built it on a high branch from an overhanging tree on the less-campfire-friendly side of the swimming hole. It was hard to tell which neighbor had done what, actually. The swimming hole was part of a public park and technically we weren't supposed to be there after nightfall. We weren't supposed to have a rope swing. Park rangers had given up on our area, though, so the creek was largely left to the neighborhood, plus the occasional hard-partiers willing to drive a few miles for access to the combination of outdoors and seclusion. (Those transients were our main source of litter in the park, hence the need for trash bags at the start of every party.)

"Have you tested it?" asked one of the guests. She wore a t-shirt and shorts with something form-fitting underneath. It might have been a swim suit.

"The rope swing?" I followed her gesture to the sixty foot tree across the creek. "Sure, last weekend."

"Is the water deep enough?" That was a reasonable question for most of the creekbed, which averaged fifty feet wide but only two and a half feet deep. The swimming hole was an exception, a dark, blue-green oasis.

"Unless you let go too early, you'll hit the water at eight to ten feet deep." That was a conservative estimate. We'd had rain a few days earlier, which had probably added another half-foot. "You won't touch the bottom."

"No trees underneath or anything?" She seemed more interested than usual. Most of the women did this evening, I'd noticed. We were in the middle of a hot summer and we were sitting around a cooking fire.

"If you swing out far enough to the right," I imagined, trying to engage in full disclosure, "I mean deliberately trying to hurt yourself, I'll bet you could bust up your leg on the fallen tree."

"No, not even if you tried," said a friend of mine. He sipped his beer. "You can't launch at an angle from the branch. No way." He had been with me last week and had attempted all sorts of ways to hurt himself with the swing. He would know.

Conversation drifted to more mundane things like food and drink. But soon enough a half-dozen guests started twisting my arm, asking me to take them across to the swing. When I finished my drink, I led a group wading through the shallows and over a fallen tree. I clambered up the main willow-oak.

"Make sure you get a grip over the top of a knot," I warned them as I stood with fake confidence on the tree branch.

"What if we scream?" Only girls asked questions like that although guys screamed plenty when they launched. "It looks scary and I'm not even up there yet."

"That's fine."

Thing is, falling out of the tree scared me, too. It paralyzed everyone for a moment. The sensation of plunging to the ground lasted for part of a second before the swing started to pull you forward above the mud flats but it seemed longer. It was adrenaline-pumping time. Then came the scoop over the mud, then the water. Finally, you had to let go when you were near the peak of the rope swing. If you froze up and didn't let go, you dragged backwards through the water if you were heavy, or back and forth over the water like a pendulum if you were light. I'd seen a girl the week before freeze up and refuse to get down until another guy and I waded out to catch her by her hips and help her down, still trembling.

Even worse were the folks who released too late. Those young men and women meant to let go earlier of course, but if your hand didn't quite believe you and didn't unclench for a second, you swung too far back. In the worst case, you would swing all the way to the mud before you came off the rope. Then you would hit like you were falling off a bicycle. You bounced. People laughed. And it stung like hell.

"Oh my god, that looks great!" a woman shouted after I landed in the deeps of the swimming hole.

"Yeah!" It felt great, too. When you did everything right, the rope swing was wonderful.

We took turns for thirty minutes and, perhaps foolishly, we kept going longer. At first, everyone swung high, let go at the peak, and cannonballed into the depths of the creek. About half of them screamed in panic but they were having fun. They kept at it. At some point, though, we wore down. Folks started to lose their grip too soon and bellyflop into the shallows. We saw one girl stutter-release. One hand obeyed her but the other re-gripped the rope for just long enough to drag her backwards at a weird angle. She splashed and sputtered with outrage and everyone chuckled.

We were tired. I led the group back to the beer, wine and campfire. On our way, we met another group from the creek party headed for the swing. We also met a couple of friends rolling dead stumps along the trail to serve as extra seats. We needed to add spots and expand the fire because our party, even with early-arrivers leaving us, had grown to over thirty people.

"Hey, bro." Waiting for me in the campsite was a friend who had brought his new girlfriend. He introduced her and a couple other female companions. For a while, we talked about herbs, forestry, and the homemade rice wine I'd brought. I remember becoming aware, during the conversation, of how bright the girlfriend was. It's the first smart one in years, I thought.

Then someone asked me to sing Robert Frost's "Fire and Ice." They knew I'd memorized it. It started everyone else taking turns drunk-singing pop songs and slandering everyone else's favorites. Through it all, I kept feeling impressed by the smart one's insights. She knew medieval song lyrics. When she didn’t know something, she showed that she could figure it out.

For the past two years or so, I had started trying to date differently. I was looking for women who wanted to have children or who at least might make good life partners. In actuality, I kept sleeping around with goth girls because, really, you choose from the ones who like you. My problem, basically, was I hadn't found a special someone who wanted to raise a leather-clad baby with spiky hair and chains.

I'd tried a couple of jock women. They had a lot of appeal. I liked their muscle and gutty attitudes. I was dating one, off and on, having unprotected sex with her but otherwise having no luck. She was seven years older than me and she hadn't been able to have children with her first husband, so maybe it wasn't me. Regardless, as a couple we weren't catching.

There had been a couple of lesbian affairs in my recent past as well, but those relationships always involved birth control and, in one case, the need to hide from family ("I don't want to mislead them") and friends ("I don't want them to think I'm dating men").

Obviously, the smart girl was interested in someone else. That someone was my friend and it put her off my list. Besides, she was too young and probably didn't want kids. My hope was that she might have a bright older sister. Plus, she seemed familiar. I’d seen her before and my unconscious mind was insisting that it could tell me more.

"Someone fell in the mud," a woman announced. She pointed across the stream. Staggering to her feet was a younger woman I didn't recognize. She must have slipped from the rope too late or too early.

From our spots around the fire, a dozen of us watched the folks on the rope swing as they acted tired. The woman who had tumbled from the rope came over to complain, dry off, and have a drink. As she took a swig, another woman in the dark across the creek from us slid down the rope into the mud of the riverbank.

We all winced. She hadn't been holding onto the knots, I figured.

"It's really slippery out there," said the first woman who had fallen.

"It is? Oh, right." I'd forgotten that deposits of clay lay in the riverbank. Those deposits made it hard to climb out of the water.

If you've come across clay in the wild, you know it's different from other soil. It's usually not the same color as the ground beside it. Along our creek, most of the soil was red or brown. This clay was grey, almost silver. More importantly, the clay stuck to itself while simultaneously developing a thick coating of a mud. The loose, wet mud covering is what potters call 'slip' when they use it. It's called 'slip' for a good reason. You can't walk on it. You can barely hold it. Potters use it to give their creations a smooth surface or to fill in cracks.

Sure enough, the woman who had tumbled onto the riverbank fell again when she tried to stand. Her boyfriend reached out to help her up. He fell down.

"Wow." Someone snorted into their beer.

We talked, laughed, and lazily watched our friends fall from the rope swing. One guy looked like he was holding tight with his arms and legs but, as the rope carried him over the water, his fingers lost hold while his legs stayed on, so he flipped over and dragged his face through the water before he splashed. Another guy did a tarzan move straight down to planting his butt in the mud.


"Bro." A friend tapped me on the shoulder. "Come on, let's go over and show them how it's done."

We headed back through the brambles and darkness. With us came my friend's three girlfriends or whatever was going on there. One of them was his actual girlfriend, the smart one. On the cross-stream log, we encountered a couple of surly young men, the ones who had just fallen. They warned us that mud was muddy and water was wet. It was something like that - I didn't really listen. Everyone so far, I noticed, had decided that a single slide into the sandy bank or an upside-down landing in the creek was a sign to end the fun. By universal agreement, they gave up playing in the water and returned to the campfire for drinks.

The moon had edged to the top of the forest horizon. It wasn't visible through the trees but we could see by the light of it, especially along the creek. The swing and the land around shone with a silvery glow. I tested the mud at the base of the willow-oak and felt my feet try to slide out from under me. Tricky.

After I climbed the tree and stood on the sturdiest branch, my friend passed the rope to me.

"Careful, man." He shook his head, looking puzzled. "It feels greased."

As soon as I launched, I knew I was in trouble. Earlier, the hemp had been rough and easy to grab. Now it was slimy like someone had pranked us by painting it with lubricant. My fingers never relaxed their grip. In fact, I clenched extra hard, ready for the worst. Falling looked painful, not to mention embarrassing. But the weight of my body plunging to the earth squeezed my still-closed hands over the highest knot like the heel of my palm was a snake swallowing a mouse. Fortunately an instant later, my arc carried me forward. The forces that had tried to pull me off the swing eased. I waited for the peak, as usual, and let go.

"Good one!" My friend's teeth flashed in the moonlight as he smiled. A couple of his girls clapped as I bounced to the surface.

"That rope really is greased." As I swam back, I started to put together what happened. 

It had to be this: someone from the second group of revelers had emerged from the creek, fallen down at the shore, and put their hand into the clay. The clay turned to potter's slip when it had enough water. The same person climbed up the tree, hands mucked with slip. Probably, they became the first person to fall off the swing. But others kept trying. More folks touched the wet clay and smeared it on the rope. The hemp surface got too slick for the ones with weak hands. Soon, it got too much for anybody.

"Pass me the rope." My friend was already up in the tree.

"I don't know if ..."

One of his girlfriends caught the rope and tossed it up to him. He tested it. He rubbed the hemp with the bottom corner of his t-shirt. He tested it again. This time, he decided it was fine. While I was clambering out of the water, careful to avoid the patches of clay, he launched. As he swept by me, I saw his hand slide down below the knot. Over the water, not quite at the peak of his arc, he let go.

"Dang," he sputtered when he came to the surface. "Now I see why everyone's been having problems."

"I want to go next!" two of the women shouted at us.

"Clean the rope," he yelled back. "You have to clean it."

The smart girl went after the rope. It took her a moment but she caught it on the backswing. The other two started scrambling up the willow oak. The younger, blonde one made it to the launch branch. She demanded the rope, got it from the smart girl, and hesitated.

"You have to clean the rope."

"I've done this before," she protested. She gave the hemp cord a token dab with her shirt. Then she lifted her shirt higher to show us her belly and bra. She pulled the shirt down, shifted her grip, and launched.

She started slipping instantly. She swung her legs forward. To my surprise, that worked. At least, it helped thrust her forward over the water. An instant later, the rope seemed to throw her off like the fly from the crack of a whip. She flew in a pose that could best be described as 'last place ski jumper' and landed with a squeal of protest. Maybe she got water up her nose. The important thing was, she didn't get hurt.

The next girl didn't even clear the shoreline. Her hands might not have been strong enough, not even for a dry rope swing. Coming off the wet swing, she slid at an angle, knees-first into the mud. A fraction of a second later, her momentum pushed her face-first into the water. Nobody laughed.

The smart one climbed up the tree. She looked light enough to do well on the swing but not strong enough, not even for her own tiny weight. I could tell she and her boyfriend were worried. She let him try to clean the mud off the rope. But she was determined to take her turn. Aside from the simple fun of it, the three young women seemed to be competing with one another on some level. I shook my head as I watched.

A few seconds later, the smart girl took her turn crashing into the mud. She landed on her back, which didn't look too bad. On the other hand, she bounced.

"Ugh." I helped the others get her to her feet. We made sure she was okay. Now we were all covered in mud and clay.

"Maybe the rope isn't any good anymore," my friend guessed. "Do you still want to take your turn?"

"Sure." He was giving me an out, which was weird. If the girls could stick it out after taking a drubbing, I felt I had to try. I desperately didn't want to take a beating myself, though. To make it worse, the smart girl caught the rope and passed it up to me.

"I want to see how you do it," she said.

Great, now I was supposed to set a good example. In my haste, I forgot to wipe the hemp. It felt better than when I leapt to my earlier attempt, so I focused on gripping tighter. I leaned forward and dropped. My stomach leapt up. I pulled my feet in. I swung to the top of the arc and let go. That is, I tried. My fingers cramped. I'd been gripping the rope too hard. My hands obeyed me a fraction too slowly. As I let go, I tilted backwards. I landed in a cannonball and sent an explosive burst of water out to one side.

"A little late, there." My friend called. He'd noticed right away.

"How did you do that?" said two of the girls. As far as they were concerned, I had magically held onto the rope. Maybe I had done the cannonball move deliberately. I felt like quoting Pee Wee Herman, 'I meant to do that.'

After some discussion, my friend decided to get back on the swing after he cleaned the rope. On his try, he slipped off early but he made it into the water, no harm done. The young blonde girl took an awkward landing on her try, too.

The next woman, his not-girlfriend who had fallen said, "Nope, no way."

Like everyone, she was one crash and done. My friend tried to hand the rope to me. But his real girlfriend, the smart one, reached for it. She had a determined look in her eye.

"It's my turn," she said.

"Uh, I'm not sure you can hold on." He put up both hands in the air, as if patiently explaining basic reality to a crazy person.

"Help me get a good grip," she said. "I want to try it again."

Suddenly I knew what I admired. I liked this girl who took a fall, got back up, and took another swing. She was the only one. But as I helped her climb back up, even as I placed her hands above the biggest knot in the rope, I felt some doubt. Her fingers looked thin compared to everyone else. I wondered about her grip strength.

Sure enough, I could see the problem as she launched. Her top hand slipped off, probably due to the mud. Her right hand, one knot lower, lost its hold slower but it still didn't last long enough for her to reach the water. Falling sideways, she cracked against the mud.

"Do you want another shot?" her boyfriend asked after he helped her up.

"Nope," she said. "Guess not. I wish I had started earlier when the rope wasn't slippery."

How about that, she was sensible, too. I would have felt uncertain about anyone who didn't realize the situation after the second try. But when her best shot didn't work, she wasn't stupid about it.

I was up in the tree, so the blonde girl wanted me to swing. Then she wanted a last shot at it, too. On her last attempt, she slipped and fell into the shallows. We all wiped ourselves off and decided to head back to the fire. As I gave the women assistance climbing up onto the stream-crossing log, I asked the smart one,

"You said everyone calls you Dee. What's your real name again?"


"Right, thanks." I filed it away as something that might be important. Because she was the one who got back up and took another swing.

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