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Freed from the currents

This is the last waterfall hike of the day for us, and I'm hoping one more shot of beauty will help us smooth things out.

I'm pretty sure this is the last family vacation we'll be taking together. My older son is already a junior in college _ way past the age when any of his peers are taking a trip with mom and dad. My younger son has just graduated from high school and is more than ready to go exploring on his own.

We had all agreed that we wanted to take our annual trip to our family home in the mountains of North Carolina. But sometime over the last couple of days, long-standing anger and stored resentment carjacked our family vacation. They muscled themselves into our little tour group and are squatting in the backseat, breathing down our necks. All of us are aware that malignant feelings are riding with us, but we're not really sure what they are, yet. We're not talking about them; we're just looking for waterfalls and pretending we always drive around in silence.

Somewhere beyond the bend of the mountain, I can hear a car approaching. That's good, because we think we've missed the trail head for Minnehaha Falls. The waterfalls map told us to travel over the dam "from Bear Gap Rd. sign, park on left shoulder and walk to steps leading up on right. About 300 yards easy walk to falls." By now we know that "steps" means some slashes cut into the mountainside, leveled hard with clay. Here where the mountain shears down to meet the narrow, one-lane road, we've seen several rough, ladderlike footpaths that could be "steps."

The sounds of a motor and thrown gravel get louder as a car rounds the bend and slows to my waving hands. A middle-aged couple peer out of the open windows.

"Is this the way to Minnehaha Falls?" I ask.

They both immediately look at each other and start grinning. "This is it," says the wife, "but you'd better hurry."

"Why?" Everyone in our car leans out the windows.

"Oh, you'll find out," says the husband. They erupt with giggles, then rumble away in a spray of red dust.

Suddenly the four of us are facing an adventure. "What do you think they mean?" asks my younger son.

"I bet a bunch of people are skinny-dipping," ventures my husband.

"Or maybe they're smoking weed," says my older son. Anticipation hangs like wood smoke in the air.

A minute or two down the road, we see the recognizable slashes ascending into a thicket of rhododendron. But this is no "easy walk" _ these steps go straight up the face of the mountain, and I'm huffing by the time we reach the top of the trail. A whooshing, tumbling music lures us through the woods to the foot of the falls and there, three stories up, crystal water is catapulting down from heaven. Water is flinging itself over an edge of sky and roaring into the basin below, where its deafening splashes meet the granite slabs and boulders which are the bones of the mountain. Working its way through the granite maze, the water calms and meanders in rivulets that mingle and slip away as a murmuring stream.

We stand awe-struck. Light glints through the trees and off the water like isinglass. But it's not just the majesty of the falls that has stunned us: There in the midst of the plashing basin, amid the age-old boulders and water-worn slabs, there in the summer sunlight and spray, is a young woman. She's standing there smiling out at the surrounding forest. There's a creamy gardenia tucked into her dark, shoulder-length hair. Her skin is rosy gold, glistening with the mist of the falls. Her arms are outstretched, hands turned up to catch the air. Her arms and legs are firm and shapely. She is wearing a black bikini and smiling, smiling. She is hugely pregnant.

What in the world? I think. Then, When is she due? Then, How did she get up those steps? I follow the gaze of the mother-to-be to a leafy spot a few yards beyond me. There, another young woman is hopping around behind a camera and tripod. Spread on the ground at the photographer's feet are shots of all kinds of pregnant women in myriad watery settings _ beaches, lakes, pools. I realize that the photographer is snapping shots, adjusting the settings, calling out, clicking. Across the din of the waterfall, the photographer is suggesting poses and postures, and urging her model to hurry _ but be careful! _ the light is going, going.

My family and I watch the pregnant woman step gingerly from one slippery granite pedestal to another. For a moment, we are spellbound by the sheer surprise and strangeness of this scene. How did she get out there in the middle of the water, we're all thinking, and Do women's stomachs really get that enormous? Then, as if to shake himself free, my older son dashes onto an upper trail and into the woods. My husband, because he doesn't want to be rude by staring at the woman (and to look at the falls you have to stare at her!), follows him. My younger son clambers downstream, crisscrossing from bank to bank on smooth stones, and casting furtive glances at the model.

Only I stare openly. I sit down on a fallen log and just gape. The fact that I am a mother seems to give me permission. And she is so lovely, so unself-conscious as she stands atop the granite with a gourdlike silhouette. Behind her, in the light and airborne water, a rainbow materializes.

She is standing at one end of the rainbow and I, 20 years ahead of her, am at the other. Her femaleness announces itself before her; mine is invisible, lost to the surgeon's knife 10 years ago. She has yet to look for the first time into a little prunish, red face and feel her heart instantly shatter with love. But my mothering days are waning, I know. They've become thin as a crescent moon.

I watch her, delaying for a few more minutes our reunion with those intruders waiting for us back at the car. We don't yet know the terrible things they will do to us. I sense, and I'm correct, that they'll choose just the wrong time to wreck our entire venture _ our trip, our family, the whole deal. The pregnant woman kneels in the backsplash of the falls as it streams over her breasts and the belly where her future lives. I watch the gurgling waters slip downstream. I hear the voices of my sons calling back and forth through sunlight and my fault-lined heart opens like a dam.

Gianna Russo is a poet and creative writing teacher at Howard W. Blake Magnet School of the Arts in Tampa.

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