Woman in a Barrel, About To Go Over Niagara Falls by Kathleen M. Heideman

Annie Edson Taylor
Annie Edson Taylor about to go over Niagara Falls. Photo courtesy of Niagara Falls Public Library

Some math problems, they come with assumptions and pencils
e.g.: here’s a black and white photograph, with blank spots to fill: _______.
First, you’re standing in it, the river equation. “It” in this case is a boat above Niagara Falls,
X, hundreds of feet above the point of falling. You’re holding something – a floating barrel.
A woman’s head is still visible. Solve for her heart, friend

– it doesn’t matter if that’s a pencil in your hand, or a nail. The barrel wants to move,
it’s rushing by – your life, her life! You start to say something, but the woman is
humming. No words – just open throat and breathing. Your heart is
hammering against the barrel of your chest, “uhm uhm uhm”……
Well, maybe no drumming but the thunder of water. Hard to tell,
but there’s a shoreline. You’re on the edge of something large here,

like it or not, and let’s not forget to mention it’s autumn. She’s hungry.
Did I mention harvest? Not all women are equal – elsewhere, at dawn, your mother
was kneeling midway down in a long row of frost-bitten tomatoes,
perfumed by crushed vines, each fruit twisting until it released itself to hunger.
Some women – their house holds a kitchen table full of mason jars, an ordered emptiness
longing for content. And the woman in the barrel?
Call her anything you want: Madame Need. Ms. Curiosity.

She’s humming, yes – can you hear her? That old cellar song.
“Uhm” suggests hunger is a factor in this math equation. No apples,
so she fills the barrel with herself. The hand holding onto the barrel has an impressive vita,
a man who knows how to hold a hammer, pick tomatoes, paddle, use a pencil.
His hand, I mean, should know this gesture – how to solve for X.
You ask “why the Falls?”, you repeat yourself, but there’s no reply…
Sound of thundering water. She fell for him. The problem is like a blank postcard,

a long letter just finished and you’re about to send it
but all your barrel-thinking ends in sudden doubt:
What will happen to the barrel? His hand… her head?

        Full or empty, still or moving? Hand > Select All + Press Delete.
        File > Close.
        Kiss her? Save her before closing the lid? > No.

Why sing of these things, a message with no message in it?
An empty barrel is debris, not a stunt. Restate the problem.
Assume that “it” = anything, and the current is relentless, tugging.
Okay, so there, I’ve said it. Anything. Why risk, why do anything?
Do nothing for a while, sure, but you’d have to remain very still,
maybe forever. How long are preserves well preserved?

Waiting in a barrel. Her leg muscles would atrophy, eventually.
It’s a problem. Someone sympathetic would need to roll her over,
or one side of the body would soften in spots, pressure points,
a heavy tomato resting on damp soil. The heart is a muscle too.
Red organ, susceptible to weakening, fear, grace. Could you do it?
I didn’t mean to give it away, how X is the current, life, and she’ll survive,

and only the man’s oars, fighting the current so long, grow rotten.
But hasn’t the answer always been in the current, something audible
and humming, something you are holding onto, something you can smell
in the crushed veins of the fall’s last tomato? In the barrel, her heart is ready
to go with the flow. It doesn’t matter if your hand can’t solve this problem, friend.
No one knows what will happen. Just climb in with her.

If you are a coward, fine. Still – be a friend. The sort of fellow who takes a hammer,
nails down the lid, lets her go.

Source: The author, 2004.

“Woman in a Barrel, About To Go Over Niagara Falls” was first published in Three Candles online poetry journal (ISSN: 1534-6641. Editor Steve Mueske), and was nominated  for a 2003 Pushcart Prize.


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