This river is not one thing or another. It is both. The Potomac River has a face no one should trust. It is as duplicitous as a two-dollar whore. It welcomes company but abuses its guests by pitching them silly on small boats.
Legends abound that the Potomac River is a widowmaker, a childtaker, and a woman-swallower. According to the most famous tale, the river has already swallowed three sisters — three Catholic nuns. Yet it did not swallow them, only drowned them and belched them back up in the form of three small rock islands. They lie halfway between one shore and the other, each with a wimple made of seabirds' wings.
The Three Sisters is a landmark. When you say "the Three Sisters," people know you're going to tell about something that happened on the river to cause grief. And it isn't really clear whether it's the boulders or the river at that spot that causes the grief. Nobody in his right mind goes swimming near the Three Sisters. The river has hands for sure at this spot. Maybe even the three nuns themselves, beneath the water's surface, are grabbing ankles to pull down some company.
The girls were not supposed to go in the river. Parents regularly warned their children not to swim there. Alice and Willie Bynum, knowing Johnnie Mae's fondness for swimming, had warned her off the banks of the Potomac. Nobody trusts the Potomac River. It's not benign like the aqua-glass swimming pool for the white children up on Volta Place. It is not plodding and dirty like the canal. It is treacherous. It is beguiling. Just walking along the riverbank can be dangerous if you've got a worry spot or a grief stone or an anger or resentment that you can't quite name.
At first the girls stood there. Then they sat among the tall weedy grasses of the littered bank. Much of what gets discarded in Georgetown ends up here, twisted and tangled among black-eyed Susans and Queen Anne's lace. Splintered planks with nails sticking out hide in the shin-high grasses. "Watch where you steppin'! Look out there!" Lula suddenly adopted a big-mama voice and broke the hypnotic silence that had brought them wordlessly to this spot.
"Clara, look where you walkin', girl! You hear me?" Johnnie Mae's voice was an echo of Lula's - a reflex exhortation - a pit-of-thestomach reminder that they had no business here and were tempting fate just by stepping, just by breathing. The earth closest to the river edge was mud. In twos and threes — Hannah and Tiny, Mabel and Lula and Clara, Johnnie Mae and Sarey — the girls sat at the river's edge and dangled their feet in the muddy, gunmetal green water. A rotting, downed tree branch covered with terraces of toadstools jutted out from the bank diagonally into the water and provided a place to sit. Rows of ants marched back and forth along its length. Clara sat cautiously on the low end while Mabel and Lula scooted along the log until they were several feet from the bank, swinging their legs out over the water. Hannah and Tiny climbed aboard the log between Clara and the girls on the outer end. Johnnie Mae and Sarey leaned against the log with their ankles mired in cool mud. Johnnie Mae thought about the glistening girls in the swimming pool on Volta Place. Those girls sat on the sides of their pool and only dangled their ankles in the water. The slimy, cool earth banked her anger.