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Authors: Jame Richards

Three Rivers Rising

BOOK: Three Rivers Rising
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to Mom and Dad,
to Grace and Frances Mae,
and to Franny


South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club

Lake Conemaugh


Father says he comes for the fishing,
but in truth he comes to keep an eye
on other businessmen.
I have never seen him hook
a worm or tie a fly.
I cannot imagine him gutting a fish
or scraping scales.
The only scales he knows
are for banking and shipping.
But his partners and rivals decided
it was time for fresh air,
peace and quiet,
away from the filth and crowds of the city.
So, even at this pastoral lakeside resort,
my father will not miss
the glimmer of a business deal
spoken over rifles or fishing reels.

Mother likes the sociability of the other ladies
though they cut her with their tongues.
She does not always follow their jokes
but laughs along.
The gentlemen come to hunt animals;
the ladies come to hunt other ladies
of a weaker sort.

Estrella shines—
glossy dark eyelashes
and smooth pink cheeks.
My parents’ favorite,
and, at nineteen, my senior by three years.
She starts each day in a steamer chair
with plaid blankets and a book.
She plays the part of the lovesick sweetheart—
her beau, Charles, learns the family business
back home in Pittsburgh—
but her natural buoyancy is not long repressed.
Fun always knows where to find her.

Just now, an errant croquet ball rolls under her chair.
She laughs and runs to the game,
the dappled sunlight,
and the jovial golden boys.
Handsome Frederick
meets her halfway,
extending his arm.
Frederick with his shock of blond hair,
broad shoulders,
and skin glowing with health …
Poor old Charles
with his consumptive cough
better arrive soon
if he wants to find his intended still betrothed.
He cannot compete with the gaiety
and romance of our sparkling little lake in the mountains.

Now about me—
if I am not the fun-loving beauty,
then I must be the serious one,
the one who would toss the croquet ball back,
wave and sigh,
but be infinitely more fascinated
with my book
than with the superficial cheer
of the society crowd.
The one who gets the joke
but does not tolerate it.

The one who baits the hook
and guts the fish
with Peter,
the hired boy.


Papa says, “It’s unnatural—
lakes weren’t meant to be
so high in the mountains,
up over all our heads.
Rich folks think
they know better than God
where a lake oughta be.”

He’s talking about South Fork Reservoir,
miles of icy creek water
held in place above our valley
by a seventy-foot earthen dam.

The owners call it Lake Conemaugh.
They raised it up from a puddle,
built fancy-trim houses all in a row
and a big clubhouse on the shore,
stocked it with fish,
and now they bring their families in from Pittsburgh
every summer season.

Most of them stay in the clubhouse,
like an oversized hotel
with wide hallways,
a huge dining room,
and a long front porch
across the whole thing.
Dozens of windows, too,
so every room has a view
of the reservoir—
I mean, the lake.

Papa says, “They can’t stack up enough money
against all that water.”

“Oh, Papa.” I wave off the idea.
Everybody in Johnstown
kids each other about the dam breaking.
We laugh because it always holds.
Papa says we’re laughing off our fear.
Folks think he’s something of a crank
for always bringing it up.

I don’t say anything more—
at least until I can think how to tell him
the sportsmen’s club
up at the reservoir
is my new boss.

Papa says, “Don’t go up there.
Being around all those rich folks’ll only give you ideas
of things you can’t have.”

He looks at Mama’s picture.
I know he’s thinking of ideas she had
for things he couldn’t give her.
That was before she went to rest underground
in the cemetery on the hill.

Papa works underground
in a different hill,
digging coal for the Cambria Iron Works.
Papa says the mines are graveyards, too,
only without the resting and the peace.
His tears are black
and his cough is black.

I try not to smile. “I bet I won’t hardly see
any rich folks,
they’ll have me working so hard,
and pruning
and lugging stuff around.”
I see him considering but
I pretend to give in.
“Oh, okay, Papa, I’ll just come to work with you, then.
Ask the foreman to find me a spot on the line.”

He shakes his head,
coughing over his grumbling.
“No, you go up where the air is clean.”
We both know,
now that I’ve turned sixteen,
I’ll be in the mills soon enough,
putting in ten-hour days or more
on the Iron Works payroll.
Why not have one last summer of sun and fish?

He packs me a lunch bucket
with enough for several meals
and hands me his good wax coat.

Papa walks me to the edge of town,
our boots nearly left behind with each step
on this slop of a road.
Mud is just
part of life
in the valley.
Johnstown sits at the junction
of the Stony Creek
and the Little Conemaugh River,
which is joined—
above us, to the east—
by the South Fork Creek
after it fills the reservoir.
Due to the sometimes quicksilver activity
of these three rivers
after heavy rainfall,
Johnstown is no stranger to spring floods.

Papa claps his arm
on my shoulder
in place of goodbyes.
He looks like he wants to say something,
to say a lot of things,
if he could,
but we just look up the mountain pass together.

Right here where we’re standing
a long-ago river flowed,
carving a deep channel
through the rocks and mountains,
paying no mind
to the wildflowers that’d grow
or the little wooden towns
that’d spring up in the valley,
or the miner and his son
and the words they can and can’t say.

The shadow of that old-time river
ripples over us,
and I leave Papa behind
on the road.


How might a girl like me,
who loves only books,
find herself wrist-deep in fish entrails?
With a boy
not of her rank?

It all began with the need for quiet,
a place to read
without the insufferable incessant prattling
of Mrs. Godwin
and that vicious little wig with teeth
she calls a dog.

I scouted a mossy glade
near one of the feeder streams,
relishing the exercise
but, even more, enjoying the solitude.

A rule must have been declared
at Lake Conemaugh
that no one leaves you alone for long
when you are enjoying yourself.
So about the third time the hired boy, Peter,
walked by with his fishing pole,
I spoke up: “The fish not biting today?”
“Well”—he looked at his shoes—
“this used to be my favorite spot.”

I thought it was only fair
to invite him to set up here,
though Mother would have fits
if she knew I was ten feet away
from a strange boy
without a chaperone in sight.
without a parasol—
she begs me not to freckle.

Unlikely that anyone would happen by
and report my transgressions to her,
so I took a chance.


I told myself it was the sun
playing tricks on my eyes,
that fancy rich girls all in white
don’t sit around between tree roots
on the muddy banks of a creek.

So I went back
to look again.

And there she was.
Like she belonged there.
Gave me that feeling
like when you see
the first snowflake of winter:
You knew it’d come eventually,
but you’re still taken by surprise.
And you look at it,
hard as you can,
for that second
before it melts,
because you never want to forget it.
It’s one of a kind.
And it reminds you how every leaf,
every tree,
every everything
is one of a kind.
And you always knew it,
only maybe you stopped noticing it
so much.

I just looked
hard as I could
at this one-of-a-kind girl
like she was gonna melt
and I didn’t want to forget her.

My mouth went dry
and I think I dropped my fishing pole.

She spotted me
and smiled.


Curiosity led me back
the next day.
And the next.
Each day he ambled by
and acted surprised to see me.
Each day I smiled into my book
and sneaked looks over the page tops.

“Would you mind very much, Miss,
if I turned up my sleeves?” Peter puts down his bucket and pole.
“Not at all. The sun is quite warm today.” I look away discreetly,
but I see without quite looking
as he unfastens one cuff
and rolls the fabric up to the elbow.
Then the other.
When he takes up the rod again
I finally glance:
sun brown
like bread baking
in a hot oven.

The sun has heated me through.
My eyelids feel heavy
and I am dreaming of a warm golden hand
tracing the curve of my face.
A sigh escapes me.

“That must be some book!” Peter’s voice jostles me awake.
“Oh…yes.” My cheeks turn to flames.
“The sun might be too much for you today, Miss.
I can see from here you’re red.”
“You are right. I should go.” I start for the trees,
stopping to steal one more glance
to hold me over until next time….
Will there be a next time?

He stands with one foot on a rock,
leaning on his bended knee,
watching me.
When I turn, he laughs.

“Tomorrow?” He straightens.
I feel utterly exposed.
Looking straight on
at a boy,
and him at me.
I nod.

Peter fishes,
I read,
mostly in silence.

Soon I read a few pages aloud,
reclining on a rock,
one hand trailing in the cool water.
When I look up from my book,
he is staring right into my eyes,
apparently unaware of the fish tugging at his line.

I cannot look away either,
but I suppress a smile.
“It appears you need some help.”
I stand and reach
for the line,
revealing a
wriggling fish
glinting in the sun.
I look up at him. “What now?”
His face is close.
“I’ll show you.”

After the fishing lesson,
I hand Peter my book in trade.
He must perceive some hesitation.
read.” He pulls the book toward him.
“I…I never said …”
“I went to school.”
“Of course.”
“My mother was a schoolteacher,” he says,
“before she married.”

“A teacher—what could be more wonderful?”
“She was sad to leave it, so I became her pupil.
She’d traveled, brought back dozens of books.
She started to teach me Latin, but …
well, she’s been gone a long time now.”
Peter looks away.
“I am so sorry. What was her name?”
“Were you very young?”
Peter nods. “Any age would’ve been too young.”

As the summer sun intensifies,
our conversations follow suit,
many of them conducted
while treading water
in the furthest recesses of the reservoir.

BOOK: Three Rivers Rising
7.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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