SEVEN STARTS TO THE WOMAN WHO WENT OVER THE FALLS IN A BARREL
Annie Edson Taylor, 1901
Picture the cold dark inside of the barrel. Annie feeling her way over the padded mattress to a harness hanging from the side. The barrel sways in the water. Picture her fastening herself upright into the harness, pulling the leather strap tight across her chest. Picture Annie flailing about, she can’t find her lucky heart-shaped pillow. Now picture the barrel picking up speed, with the current, heading straight towards the falls.
It’s not as if falling was something new. Early on, I fell from my crib, I fell through haystacks, I fell from grace, I fell behind the church to kiss the bridesmaids, I fell between heaven and hell then into marriage and when my good husband was taken off to war I fell into despair. When cholera came and took the baby I fell so low I did not know I’d fallen. I fell short of loving men. I fell into debt. I fell about the house; birds beat against the windows, mold grew upon the cheese. Yet in the dark I dreamed that fame could come with falling.
Us boatmen watch the wind fall. Then we anchor by Goat Island so we can get Mrs. Taylor and the barrel ready without too much sway. When she begins undressing, we turn our backs. Let the oars rest in the locks, listen to the falls. We’d done talking. We’d told her no one has ever survived going over in a barrel, it was madness it was. She was killing herself and on her birthday.
We turn around. She stands there, a man’s coat flung over her shoulders. A big flowery hat on her head. Can’t help but stare. The long barrel begins bobbing alongside the boat. Later it’ll have white letters painted on it. Heroine of Niagara Falls. But we don’t know that now.
We spit on our thumbs, hold them up to see which way the wind’s coming.
If I hide my grey hair under a hat, if I lie about my age, I have my good reasons.
My poor head is full of measurements. The length of the barrel staves, the circumference of the iron hoops, the position of the bunghole, the exact weight of the anvil at the bottom so the barrel floats upright during the ride. I look the barrel maker in the eye. I tell him I have every expectation of surviving.
Night comes. I talk to my lucky heart-shaped pillow, I talk about the barrel maker, the boatmen, the beef-faced newspaper men, I talk about their buffoonery, their banter, and blather, I talk about the Buffalo Exposition, the crowds that await me, how lucky the timing was for my stunt, and I go on talking while candlelight gives such a ruby glow to the pillow I push my cheek into the plump mounds of silk and Maude, Maude, Maude I breathe though I don’t know any Maude, not even a bridesmaid Maude and later, to knock some sense into my God-fearing self, I draw my knees up to my chin, listen to the noise of the falls and brace, brace, brace, I cry.
A huge crowd had gathered on the Goat Island bank. Some had been there the previous day when the wind got too fierce to get the barrel out. Over the noise of the falls, we hear snatches of a voice shouting from the wharf. Mrs. Taylor, refined teacher of New York …What are the bets …Will she take the plunge… We head around the inlet into view. The crowd erupts in cheers. Horns blast the air. We pause a bit as Mrs. Taylor stands in the boat, big hat on her head, her arms held out to the falls.
The noise from the falls grows louder. You are in a barrel heading for the plunge. You are still upright in the harness, arms crossed over your chest. Your lucky heart-shaped pillow, wedged under your chin. The barrel begins to spin. You are prepared, you tell yourself. You have planned for this. Below the boatmen are waiting. Below is your new life, fame and fortune. The noise is deafening. Happy birthday, you breathe into the red silk pillow. Happy birthday, you.
Frankie McMillan is a poet and short fiction writer. Frankie McMillan’s latest book, The Father of Octopus Wrestling and other small fictions (Canterbury University Press), was listed by Spinoff as one of the ten best New Zealand fiction books of 2019.
Read more from Cleaver Magazine’s Issue #35.