River Sin by Shelle Stormoe
I remember the act of dropping the paddle with a mystical completeness. I don’t remember which river, or which race, or exactly how old I was—twelve or thirteen. But I remember the unimaginable emptiness of my hands.
I leaned forward over the bow of my father’s racing canoe, planning to execute a maneuver paddlers call “eddying out.” My arms stretched almost perpendicular to the boat. I stuck my paddle through the water, into the rocky riverbed. The canoe swung completely around with my father’s help from the stern. We faced upstream, toward two poles hanging from cabling over the river. They were striped in red, telling us to move upriver, against the current. Our goal was to slide through the spaces between the poles without touching them, and then immediately turn downstream.
I had done this a thousand times before, it was muscle memory. I knew just how to lean, just the right amount of pressure to move the blade through the water. I’d been my father’s tandem partner since I was five. We’d practiced the course that morning, before the races began. We had a decent first run of a minute and a half. But this time memory, inexplicably, failed. The paddle wedged between two rocks on the river bed, my hands came loose, and the paddle floated down the river behind us. Dad gasped from the stern seat, wondering how in the hell I could be so stupid.
He struggled to turn the boat without my bracing, but the current was too strong. He spit out a hysterical grunt. We were slipping back downstream, back through the gate, back.
I didn’t think; I just leaned upstream. I used my hands to “swim” us through the gate. We spun in a circle when we hit the current, I smashed both poles with my elbows, but I kept dragging. Dad guided us through the gates as I pulled. Six or seven gates we raced with the canoeist’s equivalent of one leg. Dad steered. I was the brute strength.
The judges watched our run from the riverbank, and counted the pole-touch against our time. They were divided on whether or not the run should be void. A canoeist without her paddle is truly worse than useless. She is nothing but a passenger, at the current’s mercy. We meant, after all, to defy the current. In the end, they counted the run. The lost paddle cost a couple of minutes, but worse, it cost us the race.
Afterward, I remember my father’s silence. We packed our gear into the truck and drove back to our home in Russellville, Arkansas. I slept on camp pads under the truck bed cover on the way home, so that finally crawling into the house seemed like a dream. I woke in my bed as if I’d been there all night.
Dad refused to speak to me. He never said it directly, but I knew he didn’t see the lost paddle as an accident, a complicated move gone bad. He thought I’d deliberately thrown the race, that it was a little scheme I’d cooked up to get out of racing at all. I had sinned against the river. I became the preacher’s daughter, caught in the hay loft.
Dad has reason to suspect me, I suppose, of sabotage, but he gave me too much credit. I wasn’t particularly moral. I could have seen the perverse joy in throwing a race, if I’d thought about it. I just wasn’t very smart. Still, I understand why he thought the worst.
I was a surly pupil. I was surly because I was almost a teenager, filled with hormonal insanity. I was surly because I was sick of racing every weekend. One race was every race. I lost track of the rivers, the courses, the days. I was never good at keeping stats. Racing was like going to church. It was habit, a genuflect, prayer for forgiveness while mentally composing a shopping list. I endured it. I acted out complicated moves with boat and paddle only out of the force of my training. For dad, a well-run race was the definition of sublime. He became, afterward, like a river evangelical, a true devotee to belief in our ability to transcend the will of water. The water had gotten the best of me.
For weeks the most he said to me was, “change the channel” or “get these dogs out of my face.” We never discussed the race. Speaking about the sin gave it power. Instead, we waited for it to rain, for the rivers to come up, for the current to let us atone.