Swift River

Essie Chambers

June 6, 2024 
The following is from Essie Chambers's Swift River. Chambers earned her MFA in creative writing from Columbia University and has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Vermont Studio Center, and Baldwin for the Arts. A former film and television executive, she was a producer on the documentary Descendant, which was released by the Obamas' Higher Ground production company and Netflix in 2022. Swift River is her debut novel.

Picture my Pop’s sneakers: worn-out and mud-caked from gardening, neatly positioned on the riverbank where the grass meets the sand. This is the place where the Swift River is at its widest and deepest, where a jungly mix of trees makes you feel like you’re all alone in the wilds somewhere, even though the road is so close you can hear cars humming on the other side. We’d come here as a family on hot summer nights—the one spot where we could splash around freely without people staring at our black, white, and brown parts. Ma even swam naked sometimes, her pale body like a light trail moving through the dark water. Pop couldn’t swim. He’d stand hip-deep, hold me high in the air, and launch me out from his arms like a cannonball. Over and over again I’d paddle back, his proud, fluorescent smile my beacon.

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July 1st. The current is extra strong and the water is churning—restless, as my Grandma Sylvia would say, from summer rains. Pop leaves early that morning, long before Ma and me are out of bed. He forgets to make me breakfast before he goes. He leaves the car in the driveway. When Ma comes downstairs she frowns at the door, wrestling with something on the other side of it. She moves to the window and beams her worried look out into the distance. I decide not to put sugar on my cereal even though no one’s paying attention. Answers come to questions I don’t ask: There isn’t enough gas in the car for both her and Pop—she has to get to her job and he has to go find one. He must be off on foot somewhere.

Two days later, his shoes turn up. Tucked inside them: his wallet and house keys. Pop is gone.

All through the next week, men in boats drag long hooks and nets across the river. They look like the fisherman we saw in Cape Cod two summers ago, except these nets are out to snag a person, my person. The men pull out a tricycle, a mattress, and a dead deer whose antlers were stuck in mud. But no Pop.

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The search moves outward from the water, farther and farther away from those sneakers—to the deepest parts of the surrounding woods, to the abandoned factories up and down the river, to hunters’ cabins and tool sheds, under porches, and inside our house, all through the dank, dirty basement Pop wanted to turn into a TV room one day. Then back to the water again, where it fizzles. Soon summer is gone, too.

Fall comes and I start the fourth grade—life snapping back to its normal ways as if I don’t have a missing dad and a mom who’s afraid to let me leave the house but also forgets to feed me. At school, we read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I am the tallest and the smartest one in my class. I am also the only Black person at school, and now that Pop is gone, the only Black person in the whole town. The kids call my dad “Nigger Jim” because: he’s Black, he’s somewhere in a river, and he has no shoes. Mrs. Durkin hands out detentions, hugs me, and pulls her long fingernails through my knotted curls, saying, Kids can be so cruel but if you just ignore them they’ll leave you alone. I cry into her chest because she’s so nice and so wrong, and I wish I didn’t know this with such certainty. Pop stays gone.

Gone hangs in the air without landing and, after time (a summer, a fall, a summer), gives permission to fill in gaps with meanness and nonsense.

Like: Pop was murdered by a racist serial killer who scalped him and used his Afro as a dust mop; or, he went for a swim and was pulled out to sea by a water Sasquatch; or, he faked his own death and is off somewhere with stolen money, a new life, and a new white wife.

Years pass and the story turns one last time. Now Ma and me are the beasts. We hitchhike through town seducing men, robbing them and jumping out of moving cars. We wander along the banks of the river at night, looking for some secret thing my father buried before he took off. When the fireflies are so thick they look like mini lanterns, and a stray pulse catches a passing car, they say that’s us—Diamond and Ma—up to their old tricks, out with their flashlights digging for treasure.

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I don’t hear this dumb shit until I am long gone from that place.


Back to us three. Before I am a riverbeast, before the kids hold their breath as they pass my house, before I lose my name altogether. Before all of this. I am a small brown girl in the back seat of a VW Bug, watching the pavement flash through the rust holes in the car floor like it’s TV. Ma and Pop are in the front. “Cut that out,” Ma says without turning around, as I toss things through the holes experimentally: a smooth stone from the river, a penny, a broken Happy Meal toy; they clack against the bottom of the car. We are on one of our Sunday two-days-after-payday-full-tank-of-gas drives, a family luxury. I lift my head to catch the side of the road action flying by: farm stands and yard sales, wood piles and jerry-rigged rabbit coops, dumb dogs tied to trees, choking themselves trying to nip at our tires.

“What if we just keep going and never come back?” Pop asks us.

“What about my toys?” I say after some thinking.

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“Come on now. We can always get more toys,” he says, winking at me in the rearview mirror.

“We can’t leave my mother alone in this town,” Ma says. She’s not in on the joke.

“We can always get another mother,” Pop says.

I can’t see Ma’s face, but when Pop reaches out to touch her cheek she swats his hand away.

“Diamond and her toys need space in the back seat, so we’ll have to strap Sylvia to the roof,” he says. I picture one of Grandma’s beige stockinged legs, thick ankles puffed out around her sparkly dancing shoes, dangling next to my window. Ma tries not to crack, but when she chuckles, her whole body shakes.

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Time is bent. Everything I could ever want is in this car, except for Grandma Sylvia. I calculate that loss and decide to embrace what’s here—Ma’s feet out the window, her donkey laugh. Pop’s off-pitch humming of no recognizable song, his big hand rubbing the back of Ma’s neck with careful fingers, like he’s afraid he might snap it.

Time is shaken. We’ve never even lived in this town; we’re just passing through. Where we’re from, all the people are kind and brown like me.

Simon and Garfunkel on the radio: “The Only Living Boy in New York.” I am the only living girl in Swift River Valley.

A mosquito trapped in the car chomps out a constellation on my legs. I dig into the pink bumps with my nails, carving out tiny blood crosses. I’m excited for the scabs to come so I can pick them.

“Should we keep on going, sweet pea?” Pop says again, looking in the back seat at me. Ma the nag is locked out of the conversation now.  Yes! Yes! Yes! I say, stomping my feet against the front seat partition. Keep going!

Time is folded in half. There is no “us three.” Black people live here, they call this town home. They are millworkers and cobblers, carpenters and servants. A “Negro” church sits next to a “Negro” schoolhouse; the mill bell carves up their days. They fill the streets of The Quarters, voices calling out to each other Mornin’ and Evenin’; clotheslines stretch across yards like flags marking a Black land.

In one night, they’re gone. Those were my people.

This isn’t a mystery or a legend. It’s a story about leaving.

It starts with my body. My body is a map of the world.


From Swift River by Essie Chambers. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2024 by Essie Chambers.

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