We’d come down to Arapahoe, North Carolina with our youth group to learn how to sail. The boys of our group cawed and crowed getting off the bus, pushing us to the side as they made their way down the aisle and spilled into sunlight. We girls huddled down in the front, vinyl sticking and peeling from the back of our legs like duct tape, our fine leg hair pulled violently from the root when we finally departed.
At first, the wide swath of water made us nervous and agitated, not because we feared water in general, but because of the thing that lived in the river. The thing that lived in the river swallowed sailboats whole, would turn human every new moon and steal babies from Oriental and Merrimon. It was actually the thing in the river that sank the USS Underwriter in 1864 off the New Bern coast, not Confederate soldiers like history so inaccurately claims. The locals had tried everything—fishermen from Bermuda, trappers from the Arabian Sea, mystics from the East—but still they lived in fear of the thing in the river.
For five days we burned our hands on hitches and bowlines, raised mainsails and secured halyards, always keeping an eye beneath the boat, questioning each bump and bob, cursing in silence the Neuse River’s thick brown water. At night, the boys talked about capturing the thing that lived in the river. They were going to cart it all the way back to Raleigh and display it over the pulpit in our church, a testament to their bravery and pluck. A great demon defeated. It is our divine destiny, they said.
Yes, we cried, let’s capture the thing in the river, let’s defeat the beast. We’ll set the coast free!
The boys laughed. No, they said, we’ll set the coast free. This task is meant for us. Wait. Your time will come. But it has not come yet.
We bowed our heads and hid away in our bunks, but we didn’t sleep. By flashlight, we whispered to each other. Who are they to make the choice? Their voices aren’t so deep to be so loud.
Think of our mothers, we said. What would they do?
We knew what they would do.
On our last night in Arapahoe, we slunk single file from our cabin. The path to the dock was well-worn, and sand glowed like a torch against the dark, dry grasses. Our hands, chapped and dry with nails broken down to the quick, shook. We had not considered the difficulty of applying our new sailing skills in obsidian-like darkness. Some of us stumbled, tripped, sliced a palm on a rusted cleat. The first boat we loosed kicked around the dock and slipped from our hands, drifted downriver. For several minutes, we sat on the wood and contemplated turning back. No, we said. This is our destiny. We cannot give up.
We worked blind, trusting our fingers and our friends and our guts. Our instincts telling us what’s right and wrong, telling us how to move in the dark. Once all in a boat, we set out and moved fast, the dock house lights shrinking and shrinking, then cutting out altogether. We’d brought a cast net, the largest we could find, and hoped it’d be big enough to hold the thing that lived in the river. We held our breath. Water lapped in a loving rhythm against the side of the Sunfish. We waited. We waited. For minutes and hours and days and years, we waited.
Then the boat began to spin. Beneath us, the river groaned, and something heavy dropped portside, and we rocked, all of us pushing, leaning, holding onto each other. It reached out, cold and oily, working its way around our calves, up our backs. A soft, sucking sound, like a kiss, in the dark. Some of us stayed still and silent, others kicked and screamed and bit back. Then, a hand took up the cast net and we passed the weighted wool down the line—tentacles still caressing our thighs and digging into our stomachs and throats—till we all held the net together and, in as swift a motion as our arms could muster, pitched it across the black river.
We heard the net’s heavy splash just before our own.
Our first fear was the thing in the river. Surely it was nearby. Surely we’d soon be snatched away by hand or foot, never seen again. Then, the water of the Neuse River dropped like syrup in our mouths and pulled at us. Our feet struck marshy bottom, and it held tight to our ankles, the water pushing in from all sides. The thing in the river was far away now; it was not the real threat. We opened our eyes and saw nothing. We closed our eyes and saw nothing.
Many years later, after learning to swim and sail and paddle and float and drift, we reunited on a Florida beach to celebrate college graduation, and we watched a girl die in the sand, drowned. This is not our river, we said, not our creature. The thing could not have followed us so far. Could not, we said, still be so near. But, we saw her lips turn blue, saw the medics stop pumping, their hands defeated, and only then we realized how close we had been, how close we always are to drowning.
But we didn’t drown that night. With burning lungs and frantic, wild kicks, we pushed up and forced the river to release, and then our faces broke the surface and we saw stars. Our hands found the side of the Sunfish, and we sailed back to shore and paraded past the boys’ cabin. Mud still on our legs and silt in our hair, we pulled the sheets back on our flat cabin mattresses and slept like conquerors.