I imagine your last few minutes. The group of helmeted kayakers
bumping and gliding down the river, swift even in autumn,
white waves curling toward you like an ocean, water at the mercy
of ages-old rocks, and that’s why you were all there, experienced
in whitewater ways, a culture aware of its ceremonies.

Boulders frame the banks, a heavy scattering crouch in the path
of the onrushing river that thrashes and smacks its way through.
That’s the point, the thrill, digging your paddles, guiding
your small sheltering shell through the maze of thundering water
in a conga line until the river flattens and you can rest.

The Cheat River’s class 4 rapids deliver a life-affirming euphoria,
and just ahead is a ten-foot waterfall. Everyone jokes and shouts,
getting ready. The roar grows and you’re all yelling at each other,
the drop looks like an edge of the world and you know the tumble
down will make you feel like a fish or an otter, a creature who belongs.

Then the paddler ahead of you gets snagged in an outcropping,
the thirty miles per hour current battering and trapping her boat.
You paddle over to assist and lose control of yours. It plunges over,
and you pierce the water like a spike, you never come up,
never breathe again but circle round and round in the hydraulic,
the few minutes it takes you to drown you see flashes of golden water
through bubbles as you get close to the surface you can never reach.

It is the strangest thing, this theft of more than half a lifetime owed,
striking fast and loud like a gunshot. The cries and moans
of the living follow, then a long, bewildered silence remains.