“Don’t jump, don’t jump,” Bryan’s voice was coaxingly gentle.
It was the sweltering hot summer of 1966, and he didn’t want to frighten the girl because she was sitting so close to the rim. One false move and she would be over. Bryan recalled his training as a park ranger in which they were given counsel on how to spot and respond to visitors who appeared to be intent on suicide. Their training ranged from learning to look at steering wheels in parked cars for last adieu notes; to spotting people standing on the rim contemplating their jump. The girl’s proximity to the rim and her pose fit the description of someone about to leap.
Bryan loved the splendor of the Grand Canyon and had often wondered why it attracted suicides. Was it the steep drop with its promise of an answer to the nagging question of what goes through one’s mind as one hurtles through space into oblivion? Happy though Bryan was, he had entertained this thought himself, and had often spent time on the rim pondering what thoughts would pass through his mind and whether time would move slowly as it was purported to do at such critical moments. Or, he wondered, would the fall be so quick that one would scarcely have time to reason. The answer had never seemed important enough for him to jump.
Bryan also knew that some authorities maintain that the suicides are attracted to the beauty of the Grand Canyon wishing to meet their end in a place flooded with the serenity of nature and the vastness of the universe. He wondered whether the awesome impact of the place somehow brought the suicides closer to the finality of what they were about to do and, in doing so, gave them courage and peace. Long ago, he had determined that he, like most people, preferred to admire the beauty rather than embrace it.
The girl had started when he spoke, but otherwise ignored him. She was sitting on a small box-like suitcase approximately one foot square. She had her head in her hands and her elbows on her knees, almost Rodin’s thinker’s pose. She wore an unusually immaculately clean white shirt and a pair of khaki shorts. Her arms and legs were long and tanned golden. Her hair hung in two fat ginger braids down her back. Her form was silhouetted, golden, in the oblique rays of setting sun on the west side of the canyon. Bryan cautiously stepped closer and made his voice as tender as possible.
“Don’t jump, don’t jump,” he urged.
This time she responded and turned to face him. “I’m not going to jump.” Her voice was melodious with a distinct English accent. He stepped closer so that he could reach and touch her or restrain her if she tried to jump. “Then, why don’t you move a little further back?” he pleaded, “Then I could sit beside you – that’s if you don’t mind.” She rose and, for a split second, Bryan thought that she was going to jump; but she turned and picked up her makeshift seat and moved it a few feet back from the rim next to a large boulder. She didn’t look at Bryan merely took up her seated position again. Bryan followed her cue and sat on the boulder beside her.
Sunset in the Grand Canyon is stunning as the oblique golden rays silhouette individual rock formations teasing glorious color from their forms. For some time they sat beside each other marveling at the beauty before them and watching the depths gradually disappear into the shadows below. As they watched, Bryan still wondered whether she was contemplating suicide and had merely delayed things to placate him. He had watched the sunset over the Canyon many times, always with a sense of wonder; but this time his heart pounded unnaturally whether because he sat next to a potential suicide, or because she was so young and beautiful or perhaps a combination of these factors. When the sun finally dipped below the horizon, he looked at her again. She was now more erect and was rubbing her hands together in an action which conveyed an anxious mind.
“Don’t think about jumping. Please don’t jump. Tell me how I can help.”
This time that she spoke her voice was matter-of-fact and a little dismissive “Don’t worry; I’m not going to jump. I came to see the Grand Canyon and marvel at its beauty. I have no intention of jumping.”
“That’s good to hear, but you do seem worried. I’m right you are worried aren’t you?” She gave a slight affirmative nod, so he pressed on “Tell me what’s wrong, perhaps I can help?”
She now turned and looked him in the face, “You are right. I am worried, but not what you might think. I am only worrying about where I shall spend the night.”
Her eyes were like deep pools, as dark as the shadows in the canyon. Bryan was drawn in, “What do you mean? There is lodging on this side of the Canyon.”
She nodded, “I know, but everything is full, even the camp sites. You see I came in with friends on the bus which arrived at three this afternoon and the last bus back to Flagstaff left at five. They took it but I couldn’t entertain the thought of coming so far and only staying two hours so, although I could not find accommodation, I could not leave on that bus.”
“You couldn’t find lodging anywhere?” There was a hint of disbelief in his questioning voice.
“No, everything’s full. I should have booked a long time in advance but that wasn’t to be. I’m a little worried, perhaps even scared but,” here she intensified her gaze, “I’m sure I’ll be okay.”
“You are going to be okay because you can stay in the ranger’s cabin.” Bryan knew that this was against rules, but he had to offer. Surely, he thought, some rules are made to be broken.
For a moment she was silent and looked back over the Canyon. Then she turned to look at him again, perhaps really seeing him for the first time, “Thank you. That’s very generous, but you realize…..”
“Yes, yes,” he interrupted, “you will be fine, I’ve got a sleeping bag, I will sleep outside. No one will hurt you! You can trust me! By the way, my name is Bryan.”
“Mary,” she stretched out her hand for a handshake, “pleased to meet you.”
Bryan felt a tingle of pleasure as their hands touched. He was glad that it was now dark so that she couldn’t see his flushed face. He spoke again, surprised at how husky his voice sounded, “Now that the sun has set why don’t we go back to the cabins? We are having a hot dog cook-out this evening I invite you to join us.”
Mary acquiesced. Together, they followed the rim until they came to the place where the park rangers had set up their hot dog picnic. Eyebrows were raised as the other rangers were introduced but Bryan protected Mary as though she were his sister. The night was balmy and the stars bright, the sort of night when a boy and girl can fall in love. They talked all evening as they discovered more and more reasons to justify their mutual attraction. Mary told him that she was an English architectural student travelling the US on a greyhound ninety-nine dollar, ninety-nine day pass. Bryan was astonished for he was also an architectural student and was working as a ranger over the summer. When she told him of her home town of Durham he knew the cathedral and told her that he fully intended to visit it the following summer. She told him that she would love to host him when he came.
When they turned in Bryan kept his word and escorted Mary to his bunk in the cabin without making an advance although he dearly wished to kiss her. It took him some time to fall asleep on the ground in his sleeping bag but sleep he did.
They were in Durham Cathedral it was as magnificent as Bryan had learned from his architectural history classes. The giant carved stone aisle columns rising to the stone vaults above and the east-end rose window casting an eerie light. They held hands as they went to the north-west corner of the north transept and bought tickets to the tower from the red-robed verger. They almost ran up the stone steps until they came to the attic over the roof. Here they paused to wonder at this space as they followed the way to the last stairs up the tower located immediately over the crossing. The tower stairs were steep and narrow. Each tread was worn into a concave dip by the passage of many feet. Mary went first, Bryan followed behind. A final twist and they passed through a narrow door onto the gallery on the top of the tower. Mary took his hand and led him around pointing out landmarks in all directions; her home, the castle, the river, the market. A breeze came up and she stood with her face into the wind and loosened her hair so that it flowed behind her. Then she took his hand and climbed up onto the parapet. They stood together leaning slightly into the wind. Bryan murmured,
“Don’t jump, don’t jump!” But he already knew that they were going to jump.
Her eyes sparkled, her voice teased, “Yes, jump, jump!” and she swung up her arms as she leapt. Bryan went with her. They floated gently down and all he could think about was how happy he was to be holding her hand. For a moment everything went blank; and then his body shook and he felt a gentle kiss on his face, and then on his lips. He wondered if this was the kiss of death, thinking that it was too enjoyable to be death.. He could still feel her hand, but it was backward. He opened his eyes. Her face was next to his, ever so close, her hand clasped in his. He was lying on the ground. “Where am I?” he asked.
“Good morning!’ she laughed, “You are here in a sleeping bag on the top of the Grand Canyon. Thanks to you, I had a great night and managed to rise in time to catch the dawn over the Canyon. It was magnificent. Sitting on our boulder listening to the birdsong and watching the sun picking out individual formations filled me with the wonder and love of life. It made me realize how lucky I am and how special you are, Bryan.”
Bryan breathed in her vitality and vigor. He sat, releasing her hand and took her in his arms. He grinned, “Yes,” he murmured, “good morning. It is a good morning isn’t it?’ He hesitated, and gently commented, “I was dreaming. I was dreaming about you, Mary, and about Durham Cathedral.”
Mary waited while he dressed and prepared for the day. She planned on a short hike down the canyon with a return in time for the five pm bus to Flagstaff; and he had to take up his Ranger duties; but they found time to return to their boulder for a few minutes. As they sat filled with wonder at the scene before them they both realized that they had jumped. The leap which they had taken would be as life changing as a jump off the rim, although it promised to be infinitely more enjoyable.
© Copyright, Jane Stansfeld, November 2013