The Fourth River

Fiction: “We Were Young and Strong,” by Leslie Maxwell

By on September 23, 2016

From The Fourth River, Issue 11


Listen to Leslie Maxwell read “We Were Young and Strong”


One July day, summer-vacation bored with our parents at work, my sister and I decided to dig a hole to China. Nothing that any kid hasn’t thought of at some point. We took two shovels from the shed and started digging. We dug until our backs ached, our arms were limp and our mouths and ears and noses were filled with dirt. We unearthed a mound of hard clay and gravel and tree roots so tall that we abandoned our plan to go to China and decided to scale our manmade mountain instead. Even though Annie was 10, two years younger than I, she climbed ahead of me, and we stretched our bodies to reach the next hold. It took hours. Annie reached the apex and sat cross legged, waiting for me. At the top of our mountain, which seemed manageable from the ground, we had climbed higher than the brown-shingled roof of our house, higher than the tangle of telephone and power lines, higher than the steeple of the Presbyterian church two streets over. We could see downtown, the courthouse where our mother had taken us once when she planned to fight a speeding ticket.

I lay like a pancake on top of our mountain watching clouds, while Annie perched close to the edge, looking off into the distance.

“That cloud looks like a cat,” I said.

Annie didn’t look up. “What if we could jump off and fly like birds?” she asked, holding her arms out like a T. I knew it was impossible, but I don’t think Annie did.

When our parents came home from work, they didn’t notice the mountain at first. Moments after walking in the front door, they ran frantically back out, calling for us, their mouths forming our names in an exaggerated, slow motion: Annie. Brian.

We’re up here, we said, and they finally noticed the mountain, and they finally looked up. We waved.

A helicopter rescued us two hours later. At the hospital, nurses cleaned our ears of dirt and told our parents that we were fine. A police officer told Mom and Dad that he didn’t know how we could have made or climbed a mountain so tall.

On the way home from the hospital, Annie slept across the bench of the backseat. My mind whirred like the sounds of helicopter blades, like the tires humming under my feet. I looked out the window beside me, and in the reflection of streetlights on the tempered glass, I saw the mountain, our mountain, and I saw it standing for years, and I saw us in front of it, wearing graduation caps and gowns, wearing suits and ties, going to funerals and marriages, and I saw the brown, dead grass that would appear only when the mountain eroded away, years from now, when we were gone.



Leslie Maxwell is a graduate of the MFA program at George Mason University in Virginia. She teaches writing to college students and community members in Durham, N.C. Her writing has appeared in Rappahannock ReviewJuked, and Blunderbuss Magazine, among other publications, and is forthcoming in Fourth Genre. Find her online at and on Twitter at @TheLeslieMax.