The Bolton Strid

Reason says the river turns sideways here: what was broad is now deep, not even the length of Judith’s body across but Mim says it’s nigh on bottomless, that the river here could swallow her whole and forget about it before tea. Mim says it like it might happen, like any old thing might. Like Nat Lofthouse scoring. Like Judith’s mum putting a bit of gin in her milk. Like Danny, with the two dark hairs on the middles of his ring fingers, trying to get those fingers up a girl’s skirt. Danny plays piano with those fingers, Judith knows, can spread his hands wide and move them fast. They had taken lessons, once, on the same bench. Judith quit playing. Danny kept on, plays football, too, plays football like everyone does. Danny’s brother Ross was at that match at Burnden Park, watching Bolton and Stoke. Ross doesn’t play football anymore. Ross’s ankle was broken in the crush and didn’t mend right, but what’s an ankle when thirty-three people died, battered underfoot? Scarcely half a year after the war, after the boys who could come home did and all those others didn’t—thirty-three people dead at a game. The match restarted and Ross stayed because it was too much bother to get out. He said. Too much bother. Not half an hour after the terrible welter, men kicked again at a ball. The watchers, shoulders pressed by so many other shoulders, thousands and thousands, thousands too many, and on that wide green pitch, thousands of meters square, just twenty-two men and the officials.

Judith and Mim and every single person at school has heard the story, has heard the story to death. Is there any other way to hear such a story?

Judith and Mim walk with a whole body’s worth of space between them. The water roars and dives, the trees thick about them. The river was once called Stryth, an old word for strife. Judith feels that, low in her. It’s the same river, Strid and Wharfe. It’s only got a special name right here, here where the water’s narrow enough to span in one stride. Strid. Stride. Like it’s a thing already done. Mim stands beside her and says, Jude. No one else calls Judith ‘Jude’. Mim says, Jude, go across. Judith is taller than Mim, taller by a whole head. Mim’s cheek would rest on her chest if there was less space between. If they were in the middle of more than eighty thousand, corralled between turnstiles and touchline. Or if they were alone, more alone than on the Dales Way where too many other people walk. More alone with each other than they’ve ever been.

What a thing to think with the priory so near.

But the priory’s queer, too: one building, half tight and clean and ready for the whole parish of a Sunday; half a hollow shell of glassless arches, roof of starlight and morning mists. Mim likes to walk there. Judith doesn’t. It cobwebs her. Beside the water, less of that. Only its frightful deepness, to which Mim says, Jude, go across.

Mim bends, dips her fingers in. Judith crouches near. How deep might it really be? The current’s too fast to let down a string, even with a weight as heavy as a horseshoe, as heavy as the other river that runs in Judith. If ever there was a broken branch long enough to tell them something, the local boys have already carried it off.

Oh, it’s deep enough. Deep enough for what? Deep enough to swallow all this and forget it by tea. Judith edges closer, until their shoulders do touch. Bent like this, they’re the same size.

You could cross too, Judith says. I’ll give you my hand. That they’ve done before at the stepping-stones in front of the church. The crossing is wider there, and soft. If you tip over—or if the boys bound out and shove you in—all you get is wet.

I’m too afraid, Mim says, but she faces the plaited river square. That’s what it looks like: one ribbon of water crossing another, a third hurtling atop. Over and over, forever and ever. Mim cut off her hair and Judith thinks she might, too. Mim shrugs out of her sweater and rolls up her sleeve.

If something takes hold of me—

I’ll pull you out. Judith takes Mim’s left hand, and Mim holds it tight.

Judith watches Mim’s hand disappear into the place the water crosses itself. Each rope of water like a limb. Her forearm, her elbow. The water’s cold, that makes her gasp, laugh some. And then she’s sunk to the shoulder, something pulling hard enough that Judith can feel it.

Nothing, Mim says, nothing there, only the current’s so fast. Like it could take us both, and no one would know. Her left hand is still clutching Judith’s. Be the brave one, Jude. Her chin points at the far side. It’s only a step. The distance between Mim’s chin and Judith’s chin is only a lean.

You hold on, Judith says. Though this will make it more dangerous, the hand in hers when she needs to stride out, long. A kind of jump would make it easier. It’s not so far. She knows she can make it. It’s just that one little slip—

I’m holding. Mim brushes her short hair back with her wet hand. The strands stick above her eyebrow.

I’m going.

Over the river, the cold air flies up. Cold air’s not supposed to rise, but where else can it go? The stone on the far side catches her, spray-damp. Mim’s left hand is still in hers, the knot of their hands suspended over the depthless rush. From the sodden ring of moss-smutched fabric at her shoulder to the tips of her fingers, Mim’s right arm shines. Under the water’s slick cast, gooseflesh. Behind Jude, a dense curtain of thicket, waiting.

One step, Mim, like any old thing.

Holly M. Wendt is associate professor of English and director of creative writing at Lebanon Valley College and a recipient of fellowships from the American Antiquarian Society, the Jentel Foundation, and the Hambidge Center. Their writing appears in Four Way Review, Barrelhouse, Memorious, The Rumpus, and elsewhere.