(This appeared in a small collection my stories published by Short Stuff Books about 15 years ago. It’s one of the stories I thought I’d lost in successive computer crashes, but found recently – along with a few other stories – in a folder hidden in layer after layer of folders.)
Hot sun and high water, perfect for a day trip down the Nashwaak.
The four of us had a serious itch to relax and commune with beaver and alders, eagles and backwaters, and whatever Indian gods still cast their spell on river-goers and danced naked with moose and field mice. Not that we were planning to take our clothes off. Hell no! More like hats off to crows cawing from the banks and rocks jutting up from the riverbed, trying to trip us.
I was in a plastic Coleman with my girlfriend, Debbie, later to be my wife, then ex-wife, and finally, good friend and mother of my children. Dylan and Maura were in a wooden Chestnut. Dylan was a friend of mine before I met Debbie. Maura was a friend of Debbie’s before she met me. Dylan and Maura weren’t aware of this connection until a full month after they started dating.
A light but pushy breeze shoved aside waves of heat pouring down like crystal gravy from the electric blue sky. Sunlight etched silver castles on the pinnacles and precipices of cumulous mountains. They were the kind of castles that fill your imagination with jumping off misty towers into sticky white pools of marshmallow icing.
Back on earth, cool wavelets flirted brazenly with our gunwales and mingled with the splish of paddles dipping lazily into the water.
Half an hour downstream, we encountered a series of alder-ringed islands, spliced by three channels. Debbie and I took the channel to the right. Dylan and Maura took the channel to the left. The river laughed: “HA!” and went straight down the center.
There’s a kind of reality game I play when I’m in a canoe. I stare at the water and blank out the passage of trees, canyons and abandoned cars until time turns into molasses. Beer helps a lot with this illusion. I reached into the cooler and asked Debbie if she would like another.
“Um?” Her voice was slow and dreamy, faraway somewhere, no doubt, bobbing in the molasses of her own reality game. I used my paddle to pass her a can of beer. Tears of condensation trickled over its frosty label.
She snapped the cap on her can with a foamy crackle, a sound that was almost thirst-quenching itself. She asked: “How much longer to the end of this branch?”
“Oh, a ways,” I said.
Twenty minutes later, she introduced a new mood into the flow of river and beer. “Are you sure Dylan and Maura are okay? We haven’t seen them in ages.” This was a mood peopled with what I called the Worry Marchers–stark little men that appeared as columns of tiny dark shadows deep in Debbie’s eyes, where they marched and marched until the tromp of their little boots became louder and louder and channeled their sound through her brain and down to her mouth where it manifested itself as: “Carman?”
“They’re fine,” I said. “The river flows downstream. It’s the only place they can go. We’ll meet them at the end of the channel.”
“I’m getting worried.” Debbie brushed a bang of blond hair out of her eyes. The bang said: “No way.” and immediately fell back, almost covering her eyes. But for the few seconds that her eyes were completely uncovered, I caught a glimpse of Worry Marchers tromping and stomping in a panicky melee deep behind the irises. “Maybe we should go back to the branch they took and see if we can find them. They’ve never been on this river before.”
I looked back in the direction we’d just come and figured, oh, maybe three long bends in the channel, a couple of miles paddling against the current.
“No. They’re fine. We’ll meet them at the end of the channel.”
“But what if their branch goes into a dead end. What if–”
More minutes passed with the lap-lap of water lap-lapping and the occasional ba-bump of the metal keel bumping against the plastic hull. Wind tickled the hairs on my forearms. I lifted a cold brew, wet-fresh from the ice, and soaked my throat with a rush of bubbles.
Debbie looked back quickly, the stomp of the Marchers cracking the corners of her eyes with lines and shadows. Tension swelled her shoulders, pushed her arms into the unnatural act of paddling forcefully in an already quick current. Waste of energy. Better to just drink some beer and use the paddles as rudders, to steer only.
“But this is only your second time on this river. Have you ever been down the branch they took?”
“No. But it can only flow one way.” So obvious, it seemed to me.
“Unless it comes to a dead end. What if it comes to a dead end? What if it flows away from the river and takes them–”
Why couldn’t she grasp a concept that was so much like life itself? “It all flows downstream. We’ll meet them at the end of the channel.”
Splash. The Worry Marchers had changed tactics, trading stomping and tromping for slow, perfectly synchronized jumps telegraphed through Debbie’s tensed shoulders, funneled through her arms and hands and into her paddle and–
Her head had become granite–
with opal eyes–
and pumice ears–
She opened her soapstone mouth: “I’m getting really worried, Carman. We should have seen them by now. Can you at least call out their names?”
“And scare the wildlife?”
“We haven’t seen any wildlife. We haven’t seen anything.”
“Hm, yeah, wonder where all the beavers are today.”
“Okay.” I cupped my hands around my mouth. “HEY, ASSHOLE!”
“Just joking. DYLAN! MAURA! You guys still alive?”
Alders and sky gobbled my voice. Not even an echo burped back, a blank response from river, land and sky, almost like Dylan and Maura had been absorbed into the tangle of roots, rock and water that was nature, dissolved into its ineffable void.
I was becoming a bit concerned. Like Debbie had said, it was only my second trip on this river, and the first one had been with a drunken armada of ten canoes full of beer and madmen. To tell the truth, I couldn’t even remember the river forking into three branches. I didn’t say this, but thinking it was enough, all that Debbie needed to pick up on it.
“DYLAN! MAURA!” she yelled.
Mother Nature, always empathetic to the moods of river-goers, nudged the biggest of the creamy white clouds right across the path of the sunlight. Shadows winked from under the crests of wavelets and smiled eerily from stands of evergreens. A cool breeze raised goose bumps on my forearms. And worst of all, my beer had gone flat.
I lengthened and quickened my paddle stroke, a useless exercise since almost no power is generated once the paddle is parallel to the body. I was working against the natural flow of the current, forcing my intent to be downstream before the river’s time.
“Dylan! Maura!” Debbie’s voice cracked the air with lesions of panic. “Carman! Where are they?”
“There’s only one place they can end up, Debbie.” I pointed ahead. “Downstream.” But my tottering certainty was no match for the genuineness of Debbie’s paranoia.
“Isn’t there anything we can do?”
“Just go forward, to where the channels merge back into the main body of the river.”
Debbie dug her paddle into the water.
We raised a high white wake as we paddled vigorously, her muscles and my muscles throbbing blood to the same heavy rhythm. It seemed that we gulped the same deep breaths, filling our lungs with the same energized air, and then expelling it through our arms and into the paddles and into the water and into our intent to be downstream. And the rhythm droned with a
until the inevitable call of the Great God of Paddling clamored in my throat.
“Time for a brew,” I said. Debbie, panting, agreed, and I passed her a beer on my river dripping paddle. We lay down our paddles and snapped open our beers. The smell of pine drifted into my nostrils as we rested and floated, sipped and thought.
“It’s beautiful out here,” said Debbie. The big cloud had passed and the sun was back, the shadows gone, and mercy be, a beaver slipped into the water to our right with a splash of its tail.
“Wildlife,” I said, pointing with my paddle.
“Was that a beaver?”
“Yeah. Big one.” We looked for a couple of minutes to see if we could spot it swimming, but it was long gone. Debbie looked back at me and smiled. “Is that why you come on these trips?” she asked.
“Part of it,” I said.
I was about to say more, but Debbie, satisfied with my answer, turned her eyes back to the shore, the blue spruce, the sun glistening on late afternoon wavelets, the melody of an endless procession of water molecules sliding over each other in a single direction beyond the march of any beat. The rest of it.
“Debbie!” A woman’s voice. It was Maura, waving madly from the river bend ahead of us, where the channels merged.
“Debbie! Carman! Where have you two been? We’ve been worried sick!”