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A Thousand Hummingbirds

Artwork by Michelle Dong, staff artist

How do you be free, when you’re trapped in a birdcage? What happens when the world outside that iron cage of your mind delves into your psyche, infiltrating the guts of your brain and seizing control of all your motor faculties? Granted, the cage is metaphorical, and right now what I’m saying may seem hypothetical, but bear with me for a moment.

Sorry, I just can’t.

Agh, alright. It’s water. The fear of water, to be specific. That’s what’s so paralyzing for me. So what if I can’t swim? It’s fine, really. Not like I’ll find myself drowning at sea anytime soon, right? Right? Well, no. That’s not exactly what happened. I was an incoming freshman at Arnette University, and one of their pre-orientation freshman bonding experiences was a week-long wilderness expedition in the untamed wild of upstate New York. Imagine dragging your clunky water-proofed leather boots through a muddy path in August, peeing in a pile of leaves behind a bush, and taking a number two in the dead of night—a chill draft brushing your nether regions. That’s what most of the trip was like. We did some canoeing and lounging by Massawepie Lake, which was nice. I wasn’t scared of water then. Wasn’t scared of falling in. I had a life vest and other people in the same boat as me. Slim chance of me falling in and not getting any help. In other words, I’d probably be fine.

Things were different on the seventh day. White water rafting day. We suited up in wetsuits early that Sunday, the tight fit nearly making me squirm at first. After an hour of getting used to the wet, clingy plastic wrap feeling I was ready. We got in groups of about five to seven people per raft, with a camp counselor or two in each team. Then, we were off. We enjoyed a nice morning and early afternoon on the lake, rowing and feeling the weight of several hundred paperweights pushing against our paddles. At some point, we reached this particular spot, a ten-foot rock on the Hudson River. It towered above me like library bookshelves at the age of seven, and I felt a knot form in the back of my throat like escargot was making a home there.

“If anyone wants to jump off the big rock over here, please proceed to the front of the boat,” our tour guide, this nice-looking fellow with a blonde beard, said. “Keep in mind, once you’re up there there’s no backing out. There’s only one way down, and that’s to jump.”

I saw one guy with a set of black square glasses rise from his seated position and climb to the front of the raft.

“Excuse me. Pardon me,” he said.

What a brave person, I thought to myself. You, on the other hand, are too chicken.

I watched, my eyes fixed to the glasses guy as he climbed the rock, gripping the face of it with his feet and hands, his eyes trained to the horizon. He still had his glasses on. Ouch. That probably wasn’t the smartest move. I made a mental note to myself to leave the glasses if I was going to do this. He jumped. I stood up.

“You wanna go for it?” the guide asked.

"Yeah,” I nodded, voice still shaky. I turned to one of my groupmates, “Mind holding my glasses while I’m gone?”

“Sure,” she said.

I wasn’t going to let this fear get the best of me. So, I proceeded to the edge of the raft and put one foot out, keeping one foot in. Was it too late to back out now? My pride got the better of me. I grabbed onto the rope offered by one of the other group leaders. It was fastened to something at the top of the rock and we were expected to scale the cliff without anything else. Here went nothing as I put one foot over the rope and began to pull my body weight up the side of the rock, using the same strategies as my predecessor.

Once I made it to the top, my heart was pounding as fast as the wings of a thousand hummingbirds. I was sweaty. The sun’s rays hit me like a shower of warmth and I was, of course, petrified. The instructor’s words reverberated in my mind. Once I was up, the only way down was to jump. So, I leaped with my eyes closed before I could overthink things, forgetting to hold my breath in the process. I gulped down a breath half-full of water as I made impact with the river on my way down.

Gravity pulled me under for a good twenty to thirty seconds, which seemed eternal at the moment. When you’re below the surface, time ceases to exist. Scared and cold at once, I opened my eyes at the nadir of my trajectory underwater. I saw the sun, a vague, wobbly orb of orange and yellow and white directly above me.

The catastrophizing nature in me whispered, “What if your life vest fails now?” and I panicked, taking another gulp of water as I floated upwards. I sputtered water and coughed as I surfaced, heart still beating with the strength of a thousand hummingbirds.

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