I didn’t believe in the inexplicable, until the day that I did.
It was cold up there, at the top of the world. I stood only in my swim trunks, which were sticking to my skinny legs like wet paper, since I had already been in the water that day. When summer came full force into Saint-Julien, every girl and boy was in the river Les Rosiers from sunrise to sunset. The heat in town was unbearable, and our mothers couldn’t stand wet children in the house, so the river helped us escape our chores.
They used to say everything in Saint-Julien was old. We had none of the bright lights and busy streets of Paris or Marseille, and none of the great seas of lavender that span the countryside. Our Saint-Julien was as if you took Paris, shut it off, and stuffed it into a dusty suitcase. The houses were squished together like sardines, so close that if you punched a hole in your wall you might see a neighbor on the other side. The cobblestone streets wound unevenly through the town, so narrow that if four of us went out on our rickety velos, two had to ride behind. Everyone in Saint-Julien biked; if you saw a car it was always a tourist, and usually a lost one.
But Les Rosiers was different. You rode to the edge of town and suddenly the world opened up wide. Once you were out of the labyrinth of cramped houses the sun shone brighter and warmer on your tanned skin, and there in front of you was the dark sand of the shore that the river gently lapped upon. Les Rosiers was not a fast river; it was kind and gentle, I thought because the only people that ever swam in it were children. All the adults were too busy in the summer; no one had time to swim. The river was a place for children, and in Les Rosiers everyone was equal; everyone except for the gang of older boys. They ruled the river, because they were brave enough to jump off of l’aqueduc.
L’aqueduc was a great stone structure that sat high above the river, casting it in a shadow that protected us from the stifling summer sun. It was a series of arches, the first being larger than the one after it, and each arch getting slightly smaller as the structure moved past the river. This was so the thick slab of stone in the shape of a slide that sat on top of the arches would be tilted downward. In the time of les Romains water used to rush down those great stone slides for miles, bringing life and prosperity to the people to whom it was delivered, but the stones had long since been bleached by the sun.
The baked rock surface of l’aqueduc burned the soles of my feet, but the rest of me was freezing from the way the wind blew all the way up there. I had thought the climb up would be terrifying, but I eased myself into a steady groove. For the first and only time in my life, I was leading the precession of boys up l’aqueduc. On every other day, the oldest under eighteen would climb up in front, because he would always get to take the first jump. But on the first day of summer, anyone who had turned thirteen over the year got to climb in front, to take the first jump of the year.
In the climb I had forgotten the task ahead, but it was very much present in my mind when I reached the top. One of the older boys, showing a rare bit of compassion, had warned me not to look down once I got to the edge. It wasn’t that I ignored him, but my eyes slid down before I could stop myself. I had been looking up to the top of l’aqueduc for my whole life, but somehow it looked so much taller from above. My lungs seemed stuck in my throat, and I could not make my limbs move.
Suddenly a deep voice piped up from the back. “Today is the first summer that Enzo is thirteen.” I turned around and saw Pierre, the oldest in the group. He would be eighteen in a week, and after that he’d never jump again. “Enzo will be the first jump of the summer.”
I remembered growing up in that river every summer, and for as long as I could remember I had been living in the shadow of those boys. You were in the water and a great shout would come ringing from miles above your head. When the cries came out from the top of l’aqueduc, everyone knew to give the deepest part of the river a wide berth. This was the very center of the river, where even the tallest boys felt the slimy rocks slip out from under their toes and give way to empty water. The river was wide, and the empty center comprised the majority of its body. I had been swimming in this river my whole life, watching the older boys jump off of l’aqueduc every day. No one had ever missed.
Before I was even old enough to jump, I had started spending time with this boy who was a few years older than me, Gabin. His birthday was in the summer, so he got to do his first jump right when he turned thirteen. I was jealous of him, because my birthday was in October, so by the time I would get to do my jump I would have been thirteen for almost a year. It was Gabin who first told me the story of Bastien.
Bastien was a boy who lived in the village ten years before any of even the oldest boys in the gang were born, but his story was so legendary that it had been passed down to anyone who would ever dare to take the plunge from l’aqueduc. According to the tale, boys were jumping off in Bastien’s time in the same way they were today. When you turned thirteen, you had one chance to jump on the first day of summer, with every other boy who had jumped with you to bear witness. If you jumped, you became part of the gang, and got to do everything with the older boys. Jumpers were the top of the food chain in the one ecole in Saint-Julien, and they never had any trouble with the girls. Fail to jump, however, and it all ends there. The boys will never let you climb l’aqueduc again, and you’ll be remembered as a coward.
Those were the choices back then. You either jump and become a hero, or you don’t and become a coward. Bastien was the first person to end up taking the third route. Bastien had turned thirteen in the spring, and it was finally his day to prove himself. With determined movement he climbed the great slabs of stone, with every boy who had jumped before him in tow. The climb was a struggle, for even down on the ground that summer day the wind blew ferociously, sending dirt into the open doorways and tugging at the hair of young girls. But every boy made it to the top, and for the first time Bastien saw all of la France stretched out before him. He planted his feet at the edge of the great aqueduc, and with the whole world at his feet, he jumped.
This is where the story got a little jumbled. Gabin told me it was because the winds were too strong that day. Another boy said it was because he had jumped headfirst instead of feet first, and still another said he was pushed off the edge and ended up just a little too far to the left, but for whatever reason, Bastien missed that sweet spot in the center of the lake, where the empty water catches you in its icy embrace.
According to the story, the crack could be heard all the way to the church in the center of town, so loud that it woke the priest from his afternoon sieste. Bastien’s head plunged into the water at speeds that rivaled the hawks that dive for fish, and the rock that it met killed him instantly. This point in the story comes with some controversy as well, because one group of sixteen-year old boys was adamant that it took Bastien five whole minutes to die, and that he thrashed around violently in the water the whole time before finally quieting.
It seemed that the only part of the story that everyone agreed on was that no one touched Bastien. He was an orphan, living in alleyways and back stoops, off of the generosity of table scraps. When he fell, dead or thrashing, no one moved to help him. He was not pulled out of the water; his name was not even spoken. Every child in Saint-Julien watched in silence as his lifeless body was slowly carried down the river, until Bastien was out of sight. No one ever saw the body again, and most of the boys could agree that no one looked for him.
I didn’t know how long I had been standing there, but the boys behind me were growing impatient. “Come on Enzo” Gabin whined. They were probably as cold as I was, and the sweet childish laughter coming from the river below was wrenchingly taunting. Every moment of summer was precious, and these boys would not let me waste their time for much longer.
“Now or never Enzo.” Pierre called, with a voice that was soft with understanding but flat with urgency. He must have been itching to jump more than any of them. The prompting by Pierre was enough to finally make me remember where I was, and almost without thinking I stepped off the edge of the Earth.
The fall was somehow slow and fast at the same time. I felt like I was moving faster than I ever had before, but I was approaching the water like a feather floating on the breeze, able to watch the surface coming closer to my pink, sunburnt feet. I could feel the moisture in the air, so cold that it hurt as if millions of tiny pieces of ice were being dragged across my skin. My vision was blurry, but I was only thinking what a miracle it was that I had my eyes open at all. Maybe the bravery of l’aqueduc boys had been instilled in me the second my feet left the Earth. In the air I felt less like a boy and more like a man.
The water came like a giant hand slapping every part of my body. My muscles jerked reflexively from the pain, a stinging sensation all over me. The worst was in my feet, the place of impact, which felt like they had been struck with la religieuse’s ruler over and over again. During this, my first jumping summer, I would later learn to point my feet in the air to avoid the “slap landing” as we all called it.
Everything slowed down for a moment after that. The cold of the river had shocked me, but I already felt myself warming to it. I felt the bubbles created by my landing skimming across my arms and legs in the dark.
In the dark. I opened my eyes. Closed them. I couldn’t tell which was which. This was when my slow moment ended, and panic took over. I felt like I had rolled in the water after landing, and now I had no clue which way was up. I was very deep in the lake. I tried to swim, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was swimming down. One thought kept nagging me, that I had hit my head just like Bastien, even though my stinging feet proved that I hadn’t.
With frantic movements and straining lungs, I finally breached the surface of the water. I gasped for breath, heaving in and out, coughing a considerable amount of Les Rosiers out of my lungs. When I first opened my eyes everything was just dancing shapes and colors, but after a few rubs things began to come into focus. As they did, I caught a tiny movement out of the corner of my eye.
In the bushes at the edge of the river, deep in the shade of l’aqueduc and far from where the children swim, stood a boy. I had never seen him before, and everyone knew everyone in Saint-Julien. The boy wore swim shorts like most other boys here, but his looked strange, old. The boy didn’t try to say anything to me; he just stared into my eyes. It was almost as if he knew something that I didn’t.
“Enzo! Enzo! Enzo!” I craned my head up to the heavens. The sun was shining too bright in my eyes, so I could not see the top of l’aqueduc, but I could faintly hear the screams and cheers of the boys chanting my name. A feeling of elation washed over me, a pure joy in having finally touched the sky. As the boys cheered, I turned my head back to my other audience, then stopped.
The boy had gone.
Biographical Note: Isabella DePhillipo is an emerging writer from Southern California, completing an undergraduate degree in English at California Lutheran University. Any spare time she gets is spent reading, writing, or in the kitchen with her mother.