What love awaits beside Cumberland Falls?

Hopes and love have lived and died at Cumberland Falls. Photograph: FCEtier
Hopes and love have lived and died at Cumberland Falls. Photograph: FCEtier

THEY MET ON THE SHORELINE beside Cumberland Falls as the moon was leaning toward midnight. Only a thin shaft of light separated them.

Carson lived on the western side of the falls, and the girl’s father’s owned a cabin nestled within the woodlands of the opposite shoreline.

He sat on a log, watching her for a good while as the final shadows of daylight crept out across the clearing.

Carson was old beyond his years. He was only thirty, but life had been hard, and he worked the hard ground alone, plowing by hand among the rocks beside his daddy’s grave and praying that the seeds would take root.

Sometimes the Good Lord listened to him. Mostly He didn’t.

Sometimes the drought burned the seeds where they lay in a promising earth.

And sometimes the floods washed them away.

Kentucky had been the Promised Land. That’s what his daddy always told him. Kentucky hadn’t kept any of its promises.

The girl had walked from the clearing, carrying an empty water bucket. She was tall and slender, wearing a feed sack dress, the blues and green stripes faded by too many washings. It had probably been old when she put it on for the first time.

Most everyone wore hand-me-downs.

Carson simply wore his father’s old jeans and cotton shirts.

He had seen her before.

She had smiled at him.

Neither had spoken.

She simply filled her bucket while he stood beside the plow and walked back into the woods on the far side of Cumberland Falls.

By the time Carson decided he should smile, too, she was already gone.

She paused when she glimpsed his form silhouetted in the gathering darkness, startled, perhaps, but not frightened.

“Evening,” she said.

He nodded.

“Hard work,” he said.

“What is?” she asked.

“Carrying water.”

“I’m used to it,” she said and smiled again. “Mama needs washing water.”

“The buckets get awful heavy.”

“I manage.” She looked away. Her face was soft, thought reddened by the sun. Her hands were callused. The wind had tangled her blonde hair, and it lay gently upon her shoulders.

“Name’s Carson,” he said.

“I’m one of the Cook girls,” she said.

“Which one?” he asked.

“Norma.”

“You plan on staying on that side of the river all of your life?” Carson asked. He pushed back the straw hat that had been shading his face.

“I guess so unless the river runs dry,” she said.

“You can swim across.”

“Why would I want to do that?”

“See what’s over here.”

“I can already see what’s over there.” Norma shrugged. “Not much different from what’s over here,” she said.

“I’m here.” Carson smiled and pitched a small rock back in the river. “You got to fall in love sometime.”

“I’ve got time.”

“You can wind up an old maid out here in a hurry,” Carson told her.

“I’m just sixteen.”

“By the time mama was sixteen, she had two boys and was giving birth to another.”

“What happened to her?”

“She died.”

“Childbirth?”

“Complications.”

That’s what his daddy told him.

“You the oldest brother?’

“I’m the last.”

“I don’t want to be like her,” Norma said.

She filled the bucket and began walking back toward the forest.

Carson called after her. “Will I see you again?”

Norma laughed.

“I’m down here every day about this time,” she said.

“I’ll be waiting on you.”

“Won’t do you any good.”

Carson shrugged.

“Maybe the river will run dry,” he said.

“I wouldn’t count on it.”

“I’ll make a deal with you,” Carson said.

“What’s that?”

“If I come over to your side, will you marry me?”

“Daddy won’t let you on this side of the river.”

“He can’t stop me from coming.”

“He has a shotgun that will.”

“Tell him you love me.”

“But I don’t,” she said.

“But you will,” he said.

The tall, slender girl with blonde hair was almost out of sight, but he heard her voice even above the roar of the falls.

“I come down to the falls every morning, too,” she said.

Carson grinned.

He ambled back to his painted pony and climbed into the saddle.

Life was good, he thought.

Life was as good as it had ever been. Life would be absolutely perfect if he didn’t have a wife waiting for him back home.

**********

F.C. Etier wrote of his artistic presentation of Cumberland Falls: “Some of life’s most rewarding journeys don’t begin until the trail ends. The Kentucky State Parks Service built a boardwalk that leads visitors over half a mile down the banks of the Cumberland River. We didn’t stop at the end of the trail. Continuing on for the length of several football fields got us to a pile of tree trunks and other debris that created the interest in the foreground here for Cumberland Falls, the ‘Niagara of the South.’”

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