“Epap, I don’t know!” Jacob says. “The river’s flowing too fast! We might get swept away, separated, pulled under!”
“We have no choice!” he shouts back. “Everyone hold onto this rope. If you get pulled under, if you get swept away, just hold onto this rope!”
“We’ll still get swept away!” Jacob shouts, shaking his head.
“No!” Sissy barks back. “Epap’s right. We have to jump.”
With one loop of the rope circled around our chests and wound tight under our armpits, we tiptoe to the edge. Sissy turns to me, her mouth right at my ear. “You and me. We have to stick tight together.” She checks my rope, pulling it taut, with wet, white knuckles bulging from her hand. “The others. They can’t really swim. David and Jacob, a little bit. But Ben and Epap will be dead weight. Do you understand?”
I nod. The speed of the boat is now terrifying. For a heart-stopping second, the boat goes airborne before pummeling back down.
“Everyone on my count!” Sissy shouts. “Remember: Don’t let go of the rope. Kick with your legs, don’t use your arms. Your hands never let go of the rope, understood? Never let go!”
I stare into the river, the water a swirling madness. It’s not going to work; we’re going to get swept away. Jacob is right. The current’s too strong now.
“Three…” Sissy shouts.
As soon as we hit the water, we’re going to get sucked underneath, then pulled in six different directions by deadly undercurrents. It’s a dark, watery death hole we’re leaping into.
Next to me, Jacob stiffens suddenly, as if realizing something.
“One!” Sissy’s knees bend, preparing to leap into the black river. Down the line, the others are gray smudges readying to leap.
I bend my knees, jump—
“STOP!” Jacob shouts, thrusting his body away from the edge.
The rope pulls taut, catching me midair. I’m wrenched back, an oomph escaping my mouth, then I’m crashing on the deck. Seconds later, like delayed echoes, comes the sound of the others hitting the deck.
“Jacob!” Sissy yells. “What are you doing?”
“We’re supposed to go over the waterfall!” he shouts. “We’re supposed to stay on the river!”
“What are you talking about?” Sissy yells, rain smacking her face.
“Look, the hunters can’t swim!” Jacob shouts. His eyes are brimming with excitement. “They drown easily in water. That’s what the Scientist told us. Remember? He said a panic reflex kicks in if the water goes above their jawline. They freeze up, drown within seconds.”
“So what?” Sissy says.
“So think about it. For them, a waterfall is certain death. They would never venture farther than this, it’s suicide. But that’s not—not necessarily—the case for us. We swim. We can survive a waterfall. It’s like a keyhole that only we can fit into. It’s the bridge to freedom only we can cross. That’s why the tablet instructs us to stay on the river.”
“I don’t know,” Sissy says.
Jacob is not deterred. “I think that’s why the Scientist taught us about waterfalls. To prepare us for this. But remember, he always described them in a scenic, beautiful way. Like it’s a gateway to paradise.” His arms flail excitedly about, and suddenly I’m remembering the sketch Epap was working on yesterday. It was a beautifully rendered waterfall, an oasis of beauty. “We’re meant to go over the river,” Jacob says. “And down the falls.”
“You’re not thinking straight, Jacob,” Sissy says. “That’s a waterfall ahead of us!”
“I know, I know, I know,” he says, eyes squeezing shut. His hands clench and unclench. “But we’re supposed to stay on the boat! I know this.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Stay on the river!” Jacob shouts. “That’s what the tablet says! That’s what the Scientist wants us to do. Stay on. Keep heading down.”
“Within reason!” Sissy says. “That’s a waterfall coming! What you’re suggesting is sheer lunacy.”
“Please, Sissy?” Jacob says, his eyes pleading. “Let’s not deviate one bit. Let’s do exactly what the Scientist instructed us to do. Stay on the river and not get off. Because it’s what gets us to the Promised Land. To the milk. The honey. Fruit and sunshine. To streets filled with other humans, sports stadiums, playgrounds, amusement parks with thousands of kids milling about. We stick to his instructions, we get there.” He shakes his head violently side to side, tears coming out. “It’s all worth taking a chance for. Please, Sissy?”
Sissy bites her lower lip, stares ahead at the river, her face racked with concentration. She looks at Jacob. “We always stick together, don’t we?” she says to them.
“Always, Sissy,” Jacob says, his voice thick with emotion.
“So whatever I decide, we’re all in, agreed?” she says. He nods. “You trust me, then?”
She draws in a deep breath. “We’re getting off this boat. Now.”
Jacob’s shoulders slump.
Lightning suddenly streaks across the sky, silhouetting the eastern mountains, a hunched, black colossus, so close now I smell the musk of a mahogany forest. For a millisecond, I see the river. Bands of water slide forward with terrifying speed and eagerness. It is a raging beast now, surging and frothing with anger straight into the mountain. Not around it, or through a steep narrow pass. But somehow right into the very heart of darkness.
I put my hand on Sissy’s arm and shake my head. “It’s too late, Sissy. The river’s a grave now. We’ll surely drown.”
Her eyes narrow against the wind and rain, her lower jaw jutting out with frustration. She knows I’m right. There’s nothing more to say. River water mixes with the cutting wind, drenching our faces. We stare forward, wondering what awaits us.
* * *
Five minutes later, the rain suddenly stops and the temperature plunges. The night becomes darker, black ink dousing us. The river roars in our ears now, an echoic tenor that rumbles.
We’ve entered something. A cavernous black tunnel. Inside the eastern mountains.
“Can’t see anything, can’t see anything,” David murmurs next to me. “We’re in the mountain, we’re in the mountain, somehow we’re inside the mountain.”
I close my eyes. Open them. It makes no difference: just the same impenetrable black then black then black then black until the disorientation almost causes a physical panic. Everything is blacker, faster, wetter, louder now. The roar of the waterfall is deafening.
“Get ready, everyone!” Sissy shouts. We’re crouching together, arms linked, the rope connecting us. “Get on one knee! Stay low on one knee! Be ready to leap outward—”
Her voice is drowned out. I pull myself up on one knee, lifting Ben up next to me. I feel a mist of fine spray on my face. We must be mere moments from going over.
“When we go over, jump as far from the boat as you can!” I shout, not knowing if they can hear me over the din. “Curl your body into a ball, don’t let go of the rope. No matter how far we fall, don’t let go of the rope!” I look over to see if anyone’s heard me. But I can’t see a thing. I only feel the tension of their bodies, the fear pouring off them in droves.
Then we’re at the waterfall. The roar is deafening.
I open my mouth to scream but even fear has fled away.
The boat tilts forward and in that instant before we plummet over the precipice and the sick vacant falling sensation hits, all I want to do is grab Sissy’s hand; and somehow in the darkness we find each other’s hands and our grip is fierce and untidy and blood-warm human. And then the waterfall is here, then it is not, and then we are falling down a throat of blackness.
We fall for what seems like forever.
THE WATER HITS us—just when I’d given up on ever hitting bottom—with the concussive force of a concrete sidewalk.
And then I’m in a world of murky underwater darkness, the swirl of bubbles, the deafening churn of water smashing water. The rope looped around my chest pulls taut as metal, whiplashing my head backward. An arm claws across my face; somebody’s leg kicks out at me. I don’t know which way is up, which way is down.
Follow the bubbles up, I tell myself. I do, kicking hard. I feel the tug of rope against my chest. They’re all under me. I’m pulling up the whole chain of bodies myself.
Then I’m breaking surface, from liquid black to empty black, stroking and kicking furiously. There are no shapes to be seen, only black-gray silhouettes. I push forward, reaching for a blackness that is darker than the surroundings. My hand hits something solid, and it is the feel of salvation. I grab it with two hands, and hoist myself up. I’m on a rock.
I spin around, start pulling the rope toward me. And like a miracle, they surface, one by one, sputtering, crying, cursing, coughing.
THAT NIGHT, WE lie in a crumpled heap on that hard limestone rock. We have no idea how large or small it is, nor the inclination to find out. We are only too glad to be alive as we huddle together, sobs of relief racking our bodies.
“We wait till morning,” Sissy says. “Wait for the light.”
Nobody says anything. Not then, not for the next few hours. But I know what we’re thinking: What if Sissy has it all wrong? What if morning doesn’t bring light? What if in this womb of darkness, morning offers no reprieve from the unremitting black?
* * *
“Whoa,” David says, the first to wake up. Turns out, we’re on not an isolated rock, but the actual bedrock surrounding the plunge pool of the waterfall. Around us, countless shafts of sunlight shoot down from hidden openings in the ceiling. These shafts are so defined, they are like physical columns holding up the massive cave. And massive is too gentle a term: the cave is a behemoth. More sunbeams form, shooting down hundreds of meters in every direction, exposing the cavernous lay of the interior.