I learned to swim at Indian Falls. It was a special place. A large plateau of rock crossed the width of the creek creating a 6 ft drop as the water cascaded down a chute into a deep pool below. The water lulled there before gaining speed again around the bend behind Timmy and Tommy’s.
Above the falls, cut into the rock, were a number of deep, smooth holes carved with stone pestles by generations of Indian women who crushed maize grown in the open flat spaces of the soft rolling hills that surrounded it. The Susquehannock Indians once had a settlement in our very neighborhood and lived undisturbed, by the white man anyway, until 1608. Captain John Smith encountered them while exploring the northern reaches of the Chesapeake where the Susquehanna River flowed into it. Captain Smith’s Algonquin-speaking Indian interpreter dubbed them the “Sasquesahanaough.” It meant ‘people of the falls’ or ‘people of the muddy river’ because they lived along the Susquehanna River. They were hunters, trappers, and farmers who grew maize, beans and squash and in the summers fished in the bay and gathered shellfish.
Captain Smith commented in his journal that they were giants with deep voices and heavily armed with an assortment of impressive weaponry. At one time, the formidable Susquehannock had as many as twenty fortified villages along the Susquehanna River all the way to New York State. For four hundred years they fiercely defended their waterways and land, fighting with the Iroquois, the Mohawk, the Delaware and the nearby Chesapeake Algonquin tribes. Their population was decimated by the increasingly deadly Indian wars and epidemics brought here by the Europeans. By 1669 they were defeated by the Iroquois and a second wave of Small Pox and numbered a mere 300. In another hundred years they would be gone. The missionaries baptized them and they lived in a Christian village at Conestoga. Sadly, the last twenty identifiable Susquehannocks were murdered in 1763 by the Paxton Boys, a vengeful mob of settlers from Southern Pennsylvania in retaliation for Indian atrocities against white settlers in the recent Pontiac Rebellion.
The holes in the rock at Indian Falls were the only thing left behind by the once mighty Susquehannock. Although, I found a warrior’s arrowhead churned up in a freshly plowed field behind Elizabeth’s house and still have the sacred stone in a tin box in my studio.
Indian Falls was our swimming hole where my friends and I spent our afternoons hanging out on hot summer days. When we were too hot to run home to put on our swimsuits, we would swim in our underwear, including Elizabeth. We piled our clothes in a heap on the sun-baked stone and jumped into the clear pool below. Blackie would join us of course and swim circles around us and retrieve a thrown stick when he felt like it. I couldn’t really swim but learned to do the doggie paddle (Blackie could do it, why couldn’t I?) and managed to keep afloat when the bottom of the creek bed was below the reach of my toes. We would climb back to the top of the falls and after Blackie shook his wet off on us, we’d lay on our backs until we were dry. You didn’t want to put your clothes on over wet drawers because it looked like you pissed yourself.
Elizabeth wasn’t self-conscious about being bare-chested. In fact she wasn’t shy at all about anything as we found out. She surprised us after a swim when she said, “I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours,” as she pointed below. Wayne and I thought it was funny because we giggled and shrugged in reply. She pulled off her wet underwear and stood there waiting for us to join her. So we did. I had three sisters and had seen them naked plenty of times, so it was really no big deal to me. I was standing there naked and apparently that was no big deal either! Ha, ha. But Wayne didn’t have a sister he’d seen naked and was fascinated as he took a good look at this mysterious difference in anatomy. That was harmless enough at first glance, but it didn’t end there. Elizabeth pressed herself against us and touched us down there. Wayne and I suddenly had chores to do at home and yanked on our clothes quickly, wet underwear or not.
Elizabeth liked touching us.
When we went to her house we would watch TV in the dark with a blanket over us, with Elizabeth in the middle. Beneath the blanket her hands would roam. She even reached down my pants on a bus ride home from school and pulled my hand up her skirt. It was getting weird. I told her to stop it because I was worried about getting caught and I knew enough to know it was dirty.
This was a disturbing and unexpected detour from our childhood.
I found out why when Elizabeth told me. Her father had stolen her innocence and childhood from her. How could he do this to her? I hated the bastard. He was a short sinewy guy with thinning black hair who never smiled. I recall him always wearing a white tee shirt with navy blue Carpenter’s pants and heavy work boots. Mr. Brown reminded me of Lee Harvey Oswald.
I once liked Mr. Brown because he helped me out of a jam.
Elizabeth and I were poking about looking for stuff when we stirred up a nest of snakes under the bridge behind the Brown’s house. I overturned a log with my foot and didn’t see it. Camouflaged in the dead leaves was a large Copperhead frozen in a thick menacing coil, its head up, cocked and ready to strike. Its tail vibrated like a rattler’s without the noise. My foot was inches away from it when I saw it. I recoiled with a rush of primal fear but the copperhead struck lightening quick and buried its fangs into the rubber side of my sneaker the second I moved it. The snake was snagged momentarily then twisted itself off. I pinned it down with a stick and held it hard, too afraid to let it loose. In the meantime the baby snakes, 10” long and tipped with bright yellow tails roused and slithered out in every direction. Elizabeth screamed bloody murder and ran off while I tried to keep the snake down. It bit into the stick and twisted violently, thumping it’s muscular body against the ground and coiling around the stick to pull itself out from under it. Mr. Brown appeared out of nowhere with a shovel, then beheaded the big snake and kicked it aside before killing her babies, still in the open.
A few weeks later I found out the Brown’s dog had puppies. Mr. Brown drowned them under that same bridge, in a tied-up burlap bag he tossed into the creek. I never saw them but wondered if the puppies were black.
I didn’t like Mr. Brown for so many reasons.
He yelled at his wife all the time, even when Joe and I were there. Never in front of us, maybe he thought we couldn’t hear, or he didn’t care. I couldn’t figure that out either because I thought Elizabeth’s Mom was really, really nice. When we came into the house she gave us snacks like cut up apples, marshmallow sandwich cookies or ginger snaps. This is how I’ll always picture her: We were sitting in the kitchen eating a snack on a sunny afternoon and I watched her iron a dress. She didn’t talk much but would glance over occasionally with a warm quiet smile; pleased I was enjoying the snack. I guess because I was a kid, Mrs. Brown wasn’t self-conscious either. She was wearing a silk white half-slip and was barefoot. The afternoon light backlit her when she stepped back to examine the dress for wrinkles. I could see her form through the transparent slip as her whole body glowed. She was slim with a tight stomach, had mascara-painted eyes and shimmering auburn hair that rested softly on her shoulders. She reminded me of Sophia Loren, who I already had a kind of crush on.
How could Mr. Brown do that to Elizabeth when his wife was movie-star lovely?
When Mr. Brown skulked into the room he brought with him a tension that was palpable. He snapped open a beer he retrieved from the refrigerator and pulled up a chair. He looked stern and we worried he would start yelling about something. No one said a word as he drank from the can. Elizabeth, looking nervous, forced a smile and hugged her dad in front of us for show. Her father was indifferent, as though a cat had butted against him, waiting for a friendly pat of acknowledgement. But there was none. It was like no one else was in the room. He finished the beer in one last big gulp, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and got up. I was relieved when he left. Elizabeth stood beside the chair holding on to the side of it and looked at me silently with those sad eyes.
A year later, after we moved down to Bainbridge, I heard her father broke his back. He lost his footing and fell off a ladder in the barn when he knocked down a large wasp nest nestled in a high beam above. He lay below unable to move as the wasps found him. He almost died. Pity.
He wasn’t going to crawl on Elizabeth anymore.
I wondered what happened to Elizabeth and hope she found happiness and a good man she could trust. It wasn’t her fault what happened. I know she knows that now. God Bless You, Elizabeth!