Running the River
by Quinn MacKeen
When I was a kid, I nearly died. Often.
Asthma attacks. 90 minutes in the ambulance down the old #1 highway. They say the roads back home were laid out by snakes, because they followed every brook and hollow. I’d turn blue, the people I lived with would phone the hospital, then phone my Dad, we’d wait, the ambulance would come, then I’d have that long twisting drive, not really able to breathe, neither in, nor out, my Dad sitting beside me, trying to keep me calm, his hand on my chest. Big as my chest. His voice. “It’s ok.”
Eventually, when it kept happening, him having 8 other kids and my Mum and a farm to run, I’d go alone. I remember the red light inside the ambulance. Like those night lights they put in kids’ bedrooms. My Mum never came. She was pretty troubled. This was when I was 3, 4, 5 – before I moved home to the farm with the other kids. ‘Til then, I lived with this retired family, about a mile away or so.
The day I moved home, I went for a walk from the main house over to the farmyard. 100 yards maybe, along the dirt road. I knew the other kids would all be over there, playing. 22 of us, eventually, on that farm, 4 families. I’d known there were all these kids there. That’s why I’d been so desperate to move home. Walking over to the farmyard that first day, I guess I was pretty excited. There was this big green plow right in front of me, must’ve been thigh high. I tripped directly over it, smashed my face on the far-side of the blade, cut my legs all to hell too, as I flipped over top. Got up, shocked and crying, turned round to head back home, and proceeded to fall directly over it. Again. Going the other way. Welcome home kid. Keep your head up.
I was pale, weak, bled a lot, asthmatic. When I say pale, I mean… that white you get in skim milk. Hair so thin and white you almost saw through it. Like on old people. There’s only 3 pictures of me before I started school. The clothes I’m wearing show up – red overalls. But the rest of me just disappeared into the refrigerator. White on white, with blue eyes. Oh. And nosebleeds every day. No kidding. Every day.
But my legs. That was the worst. They bent inward. Knees basically hit. They put me in these knee-high, specially-reinforced boots. I hated them, and they didn’t work for shit. My Dad had a different solution. He made me take them off once we’d left the house and gotten to the safety of the farm. Go barefoot. As I’d walk around after him, he’d tell me, “Walk on the outsides of your feet.” Then, he made up these exercise-game things. Made me run. But not just run across normal ground. Always across uneven surfaces.
The one I remember best is plowed fields. When you run across them, you have to hit every overturned row of sod, right? I can still feel them give as I ran over them. They were curved, soft, springy, reddish-brown. Hit them with your heel and you’d cut right into them, your foot would stick… and you’d go down. Overstep them and you’d hit the hard bare furrow, lose your balance… and go down. Well, maybe you wouldn’t have. But I would’ve. Did. Each time I’d go down, I’d come up crying, and he’d encourage me. Then, after we’d walked along a bit, he’d spy something else and say, “Why don’t you take a run at that?” So I would.
I did this all the time with him. And then, on my own. Eventually I couldn’t see a field, a hill, a pile of rocks, or even a ladder without running them. A ladder standing against a barn? I had to go run it. Hit every rung, never use your hands, turn at the top, run back down. I’d run across hayfields, hitting every bale, vaulting over them. Running downhill was good too, you had to lose control in a way, let go, move faster and faster, legs windmilling, hit the high points as you flew, but concentrate, never miss a step, ’cause the wipe-out would be hellish.
By the time I was 9, I guess I’d outgrown my asthma. I started thickening out – on my way to 6′ and 200 lbs. And my legs… well, I could run forever. Knees still a bit knobby, slightly tilted, but I could run anything. So, I started running the river.
Our river’s not like anyone else’s. Really. It’s tidal, for starters. Not just tidal, the world’s highest tides. When it goes out, you’re looking at nearly 2 miles of mud and mudflat until you reach the water. When it comes in, it rises 50 feet or so. The tide comes funnelling down the Bay of Fundy, then has to squeeze past Cape Split. Where it does, there’s more water moving through that channel than through the world’s 10 largest rivers, all at the same time. At the bottom of that channel, there are boulders the size of houses, and they churn and turn and grind from the power moving through. Then the water springs free, into my Basin, and flows into the Avon River. That’s my river. I adore it, it loves me, it can be warm and lazy, but it’s like nothing else. Don’t let it fool you.
I used to go there all the time, even in Winter. And the tide would carry in these ice floes, by the thousand. Not big icebergs, but these littler floes. Sometimes big ones, 10 maybe 20 feet high, that you could climb up on and ride. But usually just little flat ones, a foot or so above the salt water. Maybe 4 or 5 feet across, sometimes less, sometimes more. The River would have thousands of them. All jostling about, never jammed solid, because the tide was always rolling one way or another. So the floes would dip and splash and rise and submerge, pale white, almost see through, into the black water underneath. When you got on these little ones, you’d have to move fast, keep an eye out, jump to the next. The other kids would do a couple, then jump back to shore.
I started running across them. Full tilt. Straight out into the river. 9, maybe 10 years old. I’d race. I did this again and again, through, I donno, 4 maybe 5 Winters. Head half-down, you had to make sure every step was right, because one miss, and you were in, soaked, frozen, done. But the same as with running the furrows, you learned to keep your vision half concentrated on the exact spot you were landing, and half scanning out ahead. Because you had to see the next one or two floes coming, see a path forward, fast, take it in in one flash, patches of pale white you had to hit, or else you’d run yourself into a dead end. Or bare water. And when you were going at high speed – which was my aim – you couldn’t afford that.
Sometimes I’d just be so intent on running… faster faster faster, no mistakes, no slips, hit step fast jump breath hit step fast jump breath twist look run jump breath, each ice floe moving as you hit it and then you took off for the next one, water sloshing and you had to miss the big sloshes, faster faster, like a bird if you did it right, like a bird, fast, barely touch, leap, fly, go faster faster… I only eventually thought to stop after quite a while had passed.
And found myself a mile, nearly two miles, out in the river. I’ll never forget the feeling that day. I just stopped to catch my breath and looked up. Realized I was equidistant from each shore. Standing on a little 3 or 4 foot wide slab of ice. It tipping and rocking in the tide, 50 feet of black water deep. And realizing that if I made one slip out there, I’d die. Freeze to death. It was that simple, and I wasn’t stupid. Or at least, not stupid in that way.
But that day, the absolute thrill that ran through me. My legs hadn’t betrayed me once. And I knew they wouldn’t now. Not once. My lungs were heaving, but… breathing. None of that metallic taste in my mouth, no tightness in the chest. No spitting blood. Just me, running – on the river. This unbelievably big river. And I could do it like nobody else. I was standing where no one else had ever gone. Or could go.
I ran back in over the floes, down the road and up the lane to the house. I ran inside to see my Dad.
I tell people now how he taught me to walk. Shit, that man taught me to fly.
Quinn MacKeen is a writer living in Toronto