Mabel's sudden shrieking as she belly flopped into the river jerked Johnnie Mae back from her thoughts. Lula followed Mabel into the river and the log shifted and bucked as she springboarded into the water. Johnnie Mae bounded onto the log and ran its length, maintaining her balance as perfectly as an aerialist. She swooped past Hannah and Tiny, nearly knocking them off as she launched herself as far out into the river as possible. The water was of uncertain depth here, but Johnnie Mae was not at all concerned with depth, just breadth. It was her foolish thought that the far bank of the Potomac was within reach of her strokes. And the water was cool, blessedly cool.
Clara sat quietly, watching Johnnie Mae and the other girls. Her quiet allowed them to ignore her . She was a constant appendage to her sister and seemed content to be so. None of the other girls noticed Clara moving along the log to the high end that jutted out over the water. Hannah and Tiny slid off the log into the water, causing it to shift.
Clara maneuvered herself along the log to get a better view of the other girls. They swam together in groups, weaving in and out of each other's arms. They dunked each other's heads and cannonaded each other by slapping the water's surface. Mabel, the oldest, pulled her wet swimming suit away from her chest to show the others her nipples, tight and wrinkled with excitement and cold. The girls giggled, they laughed uproariously, they didn't notice Clara.
Johnnie Mae was obliged to remember Clara. It had been her responsibility to watch Clara ever since Clara was a baby. But Johnnie Mae's mind was elsewhere. She was, right then, considering swimming straight across the river to Roslyn on the opposite bank. It didn't look too far. It looked like some thing she might be able to do.
Johnnie Mae did not hear Clara splash into the river when the rotted log collapsed. Johnnie Mae ducked her head under the surface of the river, her shoulders following, then her back and hips. Her flapping ankles churned the water's surface. She arched her back and pulled up to the surface with long, graceful arms. The splashing sound, she thought, was her own body slicing the water.
But it was Clara's body that slid beneath the water. The fingers of the undertow swooped her . The others did not see her go down. They looked at the place on the bank where Clara and the log had been, and now Clara and the log were gone. It was as though the log were a hobbyhorse and Clara was riding it. The canopy of leaves draping the bank seemed unmoved by Clara's sudden absence. The effect was of viewing a scene through a stereopticon: The first image contained Clara and the log, and the second did not.
Johnnie Mae dove twenty times before the others realized what had happened. Johnnie Mae rose to the surface, tread water, and screamed wildly . She filled her lungs with air and she dove again. The other girls grabbed her after it became clear that she would continue to plunge. The girls grasped arms around the struggling, screaming, exhausted Johnnie Mae and drew in close around her, like petals on a daisy. Johnnie Mae thrashed against them at first, then collapsed. They swam in tandem to the bank. A white ribbon off Clara's plait floated on the surface of the river.
1999 by Breena Clarke