Memories of a Niagara Falls Morning, 1856 by Emily Tee

Niagara, 1857 by Frederic Edwin Church
Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

White. Cold. My first noticing was the dense mist.  Not tendrils curling around like fingers but thick like a blanket, moisture-rich, like being inside a cloud.  It would burn off later as the sun climbed in the sky.  I needed there to be good visibility for the crowd. Next, as always, I noticed the noise.  A pleasant natural cacophony at a distance, it became a pounding, rushing freight train as I walked towards The Spot.  We’d scouted it weeks before, using word-of-mouth and triangulating with newspaper reports from a few years back.  The crushing sound, the energy of the spray – it really made me feel alive.

My good friend Itzak was already waiting, well wrapped up in his long greatcoat with the collar turned up, thick padded leather gloves, his long mutton chop sideburns slick with the water vapour and his dark curls were straggling from under his peaked cap.  Itzak’s lips curled into a smile at my approach and he had that devilish twinkle in his eye confirming why he was the only person I could have trusted to help me with this caper.

If – no, when – I made it to the bottom of the Falls I’d be famous.  No-one else had ever managed the journey and survived, and certainly no woman, though truth be told very few had tried, and even then not voluntarily.  The last poor fellows had fallen, one almost rescued then pulled under by the cruel currents.  My journey would be sensational in a different way.  The reporter would be here soon, as would the usual troupes of tourists, as soon as the dense fog lifted to unveil the splendour of the Falls.

“Who’s that? Is he the man from The Gazette?” I asked Itzak, pointing to a tall stranger.  He looked old, probably as much as thirty. The man nodded in our direction but seemed preoccupied as he turned to look at the water cascading over the edge.

“Him?  That’s Frederic.  I spoke with him yesterday afternoon.  He’s some sort of artist, sketching the Falls.  You know how popular it is for postcards and pasting onto tourist tat.”

“He’s not drawing us, is he?” I was suspicious of the detached, aloof stranger.

“No, no worries there.” Itzak flashed me another smile.  “He told me he’s only interested in the Romantic Ideal of nature.  He won’t even paint what he sees, but only the best version of it, he said.”

“Hah! Perhaps he’ll have a new romantic ideal in mind later!”

Itzak smiled again and stepped to the side to reveal the barrel.  It was large, dark, heavy – befitting the seriousness of its purpose.  Painted on the side in large white letters was “Bella D’Angelo, Niagara Falls, 1856”.  Inside, it was packed with soft, cream, newly spun wool.  My playful mind suggested that it would be just like climbing into the clouds themselves, although thankfully drier.

“Are you sure you’ll have enough room in there?”

“We’ve tested it out, Itzak.  There’s enough room for me to snuggle down, for you to add the last soft pillow of wool on top and bolt on the lid.  As long as Bertrand is ready with the boat at the bottom all will be well.”

“Ah, here’s the reporter now. Let me help you in and you can talk to him from there before you nestle down.  That will make it more dramatic.”

And that’s where it all went awry.  It was a combination of the slippery rock under Itzak’s foot as he helped me, the proximity of the barrel to the edge – after all The Spot was the perfect launch place for a reason, that reason being ease of falling – and the power of gravity sucking at the weight of the barrel with me half in it.

I’ll give The Gazette reporter his due. As obituaries go, it was nicely written.  I’d get the fame I wanted but not quite in the way I desired.

This prose-poem / flash fiction, inspired by Frederic Edwin Church’s 1857 painting Niagara, was first published in The Ekphrastic ReviewOctober 20, 2023 in their Ekphrastic Challenges series. Read about ekphrastic poetry in Niagara.


Emily Tee writes poetry and flash fiction, often based on ekphrastic topics.  She is the editor and judge of a series of monthly ekphrastic contests for The Wee Sparrow Poetry Press.  She’s had two nominations for Best Small Fictions Anthology from The Ekphrastic Review, who have published a number of her pieces in recent years.  Other ekphrastic work has appeared in Visual Verse.  Emily lives in the UK.

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