[excerpted first chapter]
am Waterfall Man.
sketchy accounts I gave the docs about what happened November
10th, 2000, were true as far as they went, but this is for
me. Even though I'll write it to a stranger. Because that's
what I'm becoming.
remember how the magic started. A road smoking with frost,
trees trunks like naked thighs in a steam room, the sky
just a rumor of light smothered in oily clouds, and the
ditches like dirty moats full of melting snow the color
of old soap. It was insane to try to ski the narrow band
between the road and the creek. Every time I thought about
it, the phrase "seriously dumb" ended the urge.
But here was the magic all around me on the heavily wooded
slopes outside Sheshebans, Minnesota, and magic makes me
feel invincible. So I leaned a little. At the top of the
mountain I leaned, recalculating the odds. I never did decide
to go. My skis just slipped past the point-of-no-return
and gravity did the rest. Coming down, the hiss of acceleration
rose like applause.
guess I knew from the start I wouldn't make it, because
I kept pushing off the right ski, feeling for the edge of
the road, so that if I wiped out, it would be in the shallowness
of the ditch. The baskets on the ends of my poles were punching
through into sheer nothing. At the least, I was tearing
up the bottoms of a new pair of Fischer
skis, and I didn't care. If it hadn't been the first outing
of the season, if I hadn't been intoxicated with the mist
and all that crystal magic, I might have cut across the
road and leveled off. But what I did was skate blindly into
focused my field of vision, because trackless skiing through
low-slung branches is like a grand slalom where the penalty
for missing a gate is decapitation. I lost sight of the
road. I lost sight of the creek. As the snow deepened on
the lea side of the mountain, I carved my way faster and
faster until I seemed to be skiing on light itself. The
sound of the waterfall crept up on me too late. By the time
I knew where I was headed, there were no more exits. I couldn't
wipe out, because boulders were popping up like army helmets
out of trenches. If I went down, I would break something.
But there was a slim hope that I could skirt whatever lay
ahead. And hope is part of the thrill you take to the White
hope bursts over you, then fades. It sprints in your adrenalin,
then drowns in your perspiration. And there is that oddly
cool moment when you know you've lost control, when the
looming tree or the precipice or the glare ice inform you
that you have to abandon yourself to fate and faith. I've
thought a lot about those odd moments, and I still don't
know whether they represent remorse or arrogance. But they
measure how close to death you come, and somehow that makes
you more alive.
went over the edge of something into the sanctuary of air.
Boulders boiled beneath me. I didn't actually see the water.
It was just the filler between the stones, the oily black
background that took the place of the snow. My feet pushed
as though my skis were levers, searching for a brake. My
poles braced like Lilliputian pikes prodding a Gulliver
of a mountain. The dance was short. A clatter of graphite
and plastic, and a rough pirouette that shattered ice. The
applause this time was the water cascading over me. Thinsulate
and Gore-Tex, polypropylene and spandex, human flesh - all
failed to stop the cold that squeezed me to the core.
instinct was to scramble forward. I was still breathing,
so the waterfall must have been ragged with air, veiling
me but not forcing me underwater. That seems important now
that I'm struggling to believe I'm really alive. The cold
was something else. Those first sharp gulps of air stabbed
at a glacier inside me with the ferocity of an ice pick.
After that, I was numb. Likewise, the struggle to escape
was brief. My left leg was wedged hopelessly in something
that seemed to be chewing on it. Call it a maw, because
by rights I should still be moldering into that mountain.
Mercifully, the leg too went numb.
was a dead man. Despite what I said about fate and faith
and hope, I was a dead man and knew it. Faith has always
been my weakness. I don't think I struggled at all after
the first few seconds. Whether it was seconds or minutes,
time became one more item added to things lost. And eventually
in that limbo of lost time and paralyzing cold, a question
formed dimly in my brain. Why was I still dying? Why was
I still thinking? I didn't believe that this was actually
death, that I had crossed over. I could see the world -
murkier than before, a grotto of millennia-old boulders
and silhouettes, sounds and smells - even with torrents
coming down around me.
tell me there was a bear. I never saw the bear. If it came
there for me, it must have been very discreet about it.
But I heard the bus whining down the grade, and the bus
hit the bear. That's what sent the vehicle hurtling off
the road and into the trees. Nineteen of the twenty-two
aboard, including the driver, were killed. Unbelievable.
dramas in one hour in one little patch of mountain. That
much, at least, was coincidence.
was no feeling in me at all when I heard the crash. I don't
mean just physically, I mean emotionally. A total contrast
to what must have been going on in the bus. The passengers
would have had time to react. All those people coming back
from an outing at Mille Lacs, the icy descent, the curve,
then the bear. They would hear brakes squealing and feel
the surge; they would know what was happening; and even
after they hit the animal and spun out, they would be flung
around like screaming rag dolls until the yellow school
bus broadsided against two trees and burst into flame. Then
the sudden extinction. The nineteen died at the scene. Ironic
that so many were perishing in a fiery holocaust while twenty
yards away a man was freezing to death in a waterfall.
has been suggested to me that I could not have seen the
molten glow, that my eyes probably weren't working at that
point. So why a memory of reds and yellows? Peter Max rainbows
throb in my memory. It must have been the bus. The waterfall
may have distorted it, but if I did in fact still exist,
it was in a taffy-pull twilight where everything looked
like a lava lamp. And there was more. The burning bus isn't
what I remember most. What I remember most is a hole in
don't know what else to call it. It was an absence of light,
and it rushed at me as if it were a figure, as if it had
a will. It did have a will. It hung there, and I knew that
something extremely perceptive swarmed within it. I stared
into its silhouette, which kept changing shape - if that
wasn't also a refractory trick of the waterfall - and I
sensed a malevolent joy pouring out of it. There are moments
when you transcend verbal communication, when you know that
five senses and a bunch of grunts can't contain the universe.
Such was this moment. A coherent presence faced me, and
it was absolutely and utterly commanding. My intelligence
withered before its depth and intensity. At the same time,
I knew it lacked whole dimensions of the human heart. Whatever
it was, it had no compassion. It was feral. It had discovered
me in my hour of agony, and it was delighted. My bones were
cold enough to shatter, but the chill I felt went even beyond
you say? My whole life has been a hallucination since that
day when my identity as Michael Bowden Carmichael ebbed
close to - and maybe beyond - extinction. Maybe Michael
Bowden Carmichael is the hallucination. Maybe what I saw
was a glimpse of the true universe beyond the regional physics
of a small planet around a hospitable star. Maybe the virtues
and vices of Local Planet #1 are just vanity and folly when
you put them up against the cosmos. Give Bogart and Casablanca
credit for the metaphor: worldly destinies don't amount
to a hill of beans in the vastness of the universe.
what did it want, this thing with no eyes and no substance?
Why had it been attracted to me? I wondered, and at the
same time I knew. I stood on the brink of an eternal night
that crackled with furious things - spirits, urges, demiurges.
The lightless specter was master of that domain. It radiated
a passion for chaos, a joy over death. Nineteen souls were
being dramatically extinguished a few yards away; that was
why it was there.
why this feeling of extraordinary discovery over me?
wasn't dead. If snuffed out humans are what excited the
specter, there was no reason to be exhilarated at finding
just one still hanging on. What pierced my dulled awareness,
and what still troubles me fifty-one days later, is that
the only remarkable thing about me is that, if I wasn't
dead, I wasn't really alive either. I was somewhere in between.
And in the last stages of consciousness on November 10th,
the coherent hole in the sky moved directly between me and
the burning bus. Suddenly the translucent waterfall vitrified
completely, and I saw straight through the silhouette as
if it were a tunnel. For one brief moment, the bus of the
dead and my suspended body were connected.
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