She didn’t know why the river said things to her it said to no one else but she didn’t question it. It had started when she was five, the way its talk reached out to her, told her things with the ease of breezes skimming the rippling surface.
Today Dina was twenty-five, to her surprise. Nothing had changed much, not the watery offerings or her little house or distant, industrious neighbors or the life in the river that knew many secrets and gave much to people. Its tumbling, flowing, often unpredictable energy seemed nearly like her own blood in her body, a nourishment, an ancient force coursing into and out of her heart. So she never ignored its language and it spoke to her every time she was nearby. Not always did it make sense but it offered music if nothing else. And its vital spirit took from her all her awkwardness and fear.
One of the few who accepted her river secret shares as nothing to get too excited about was her aunt. She fished so much, she knew the river talked truth; it was correct in things that mattered most. For Aunt Tandy, that was bodily sustenance and common comfort.
“It talks different to each one of us, see. It tells me where to put that line and hook and when the best times are.”
She nodded at Dina, eyes on eddy and swirl of chilled water, her muddy wellies washed clean as she went a bit deeper. The two women were dressed in wool sweaters, oilskin jackets and sturdy pants and usual boots but snow had not yet fallen again. Instead, it had reached 40 degrees; the lush white blanketing of woodland and meadow from the previous week had gone dingy, from patchy to nothing.
Aunt Tandy was never one to expect the best of things, except with fishing. But she was a moderate, even yielding cynic. This day was a bonus before ice fishing started om the lakes. She’d predicted for the winter cascades of snow and high drifts and days, even weeks of no electricity–“but do we really need it when you get right down to it?”– and a lack of general services as well as contact with others. She deemed it a decent momentous winter, not the worst.
“I’ll get basic needs met. No distractions, just daily upkeep of the cabin. Got a couple of seasoned cords lined up.” Her laugh rang out and one arm flung out to indicate their surroundings. “Oh, the snowshoeing I’ll do!”
Aunt Tandy went on like this, as though Dina didn’t know full well about her independence and work ethic. The buck she had shot already. Her famous toughness. The woman was fully skilled in nature if not a good fit for most people. She had friends and enemies, both but never married, never worked inside, never tried to fit into the community of Marionville. And she’d counseled her niece to do the same, ignore the general populace with their boring opinions, and be glad of it.
That was easy to say. Dina lived among those who chattered and that meant gossip. It meant she was expected to interact. She spoke little and listened to everything. There were many who strove after all money could buy and an elusive true love– while she strove to live simply. Alone. If you could call living on the hill in the woods being alone. There was never a lack of creatures or activity around her. And there were other solitary ones not far off, including her aunt. And Jasper Dye. And Heaven Steele down the lower hill.
“We’re alike but not alike.” Aunt Tandy droned on, “the same blood but runs in our veins in different ways, wayward tributaries of a big river.” She smiled toward Dina then held fast to her pole, responded to a tug on her line and reeled in the captured fish. “So what about your birthday, Dina? Hey! Another fine rainbow trout, I’ll fry ’em up for you later at Jasper’s.”
But Dina had begun to climb up the muddy slope and didn’t turn around, grasping branches to pull herself up until she reached the path. Her jeans were damp on the back from an earlier slip, and her thin blond hair straggled over her eyes; she shook her head so it fell away from her forehead.
She had heard the river; she would pay heed. It was whispering about Jasper, that he was in trouble again with no one near. It disheartened her. He toiled in earnest while his son stayed too busy in town.
Nonetheless, she’d stop first at home, have a strong cup of coffee to burn off the chill. Fortify herself. She didn’t like to rush into things, to bother others until she was ready. People were not that easy to be around and not always glad she arrived out of the blue. Heaven Steele certainly understood how that was but she was gone, in Chicago for business again, an exhibit of her unusual wind chimes and paintings. She’d one day suggested Dina might accompany her but it was shocking to consider. Dina would never set foot on a plane. Heaven smiled at her, as if there could be a tiny possibility, anyway.
She would not leave Marionville, the land and its river. Not unless it was for a funeral, like her mother’s burial last year. And how relieved she was to be home, even though it was only a four hour drive down for two days and then back. Her one close friend, Jean, a librarian, had gone with her.
She always thought it best to know her limitations. To work with what she had. To stay true to her purpose and needs; that worked best. She could not be any other as well as herself, no matter her imperfections. This brought her peace where illusions only hampered her. Her life was what it was meant to be.
Her house was not a house in the usual manner but a large shed that was more attractive than one expected. It was enlivened by a deep periwinkle blue, pretty ivy crept along its front, small windows were trimmed in black. A rock-lined path led to a dark blue door. Towering bare oaks, a scattering of birches plus an ancient willow bounded the deep, broad yard. It had been a gardening shed and then added onto for a dog kennel when Dina was growing up–her parents had bred collies for years.
When Dina was eighteen, her father took off for the Upper Peninsula. Her mother finally left with Linc Harlen, her friend Mary Harlen’s estranged husband. That didn’t work out but her mother stayed downstate, left the place for her to deal with.
So, Dina rented out the main house which sat snug to the road for income while she renovated the reasonably sized shed-kennel, added a simple bathroom and minimal kitchen courtesy of the Jamison brothers. She cleaned their place twice a week for a few months; it was a good bargain. The small wood stove was Aunt Tandy’s generous offering; she sided with her niece on the decision.
Dina wanted nothing to do with that house which her mother stuffed with so-called collectibles, a slew of vintage clothing and moldering magazines and bad memories. Even after she returned north to sell off her things or to sort and ship them, all Dina could see and hear was her father roaring at them both and worse, and her mother roaring right back. The mess was in them to start and it spread. It had been important to stay quiet, be transparent in a room, even more than when Dina dragged to school her worries and her growing stutter. She was mocked daily.
And so it took nothing from her to rent it out; it just brought more freedom and cash.
The stove top percolator burbled away. Warm coffee aroma swept away her pensive mood. Red the orange tabby sidled up to her while Big Dog relaxed on the huge worn leather chair. The place was now a one room home; she’d partitioned off one end for her bedroom with two folding screens. She had lived there for seven years and it suited her. Once Jasper had inquired as to whether she was going to stay stuck there forever or if she had thought of taking the family house back and renting out the cramped shed. He said summer people and hunters would pay a good price for it, though. She’d studied him with brow furrowed until he rubbed at his beard and mumbled, “Well, then…sorry.”
Dina was happy there. Nothing went haywire, nothing made life harder than it should be and she could count on it to be a solace every day as long as she took care. As long as her animals were healthy. And she was left to live as she pleased.
She could only talk alright with her two trusty pets.
“I’m good, right?” she said to Red and Big Dog as she poured a mug of steaming brew. “I have a part-time job sorting and shelving books at the library. Get to read every new book. I have Jean as a friend, Heaven and Jasper. My aunt. It’s good. And you two are also family. But here is this birthday business…you don’t even care. Me, either…”
She got up to put more wood in the wood stove and wondered about Jasper, if his health was taking a dip, if it would hold out. She knew it might not be so sterling, anymore; he was battling loneliness, getting older than he admitted. She worried sometimes.
Today the river had seemed to indicate there was time for her to take a break, so she was, but then she should be quick. The river often offered her both yes and no, this way and that. Nothing was really clear but the currents of pale blue-green when it didn’t storm. Every movement had a counter movement and she had to let it settle in her mind. But her impressions got stronger one way or another if Dina was well focused. Listened beyond whisperings for more revelation, the core of the warning.
At five years of age, when playing by the river banks, she drew back in alarm. She heard from the roiling water, she’d almost told her parents, that a day later Mr. Jamison’s back might break as he did barn work. She had tried to say this again on the fated day: he’ll fall, he’s falling, crying. But when the frantic woman couldn’t sort her daughter’s stuttering words, Dina began to run the distance, pulling her along until they got there and found it to be about true. He’d fractured many bones as he thundered onto the floor and was ever after plagued by back pain and dizzy spells.
She was afraid of the river awhile, as it seemed to never happen other places, and she was afraid to say anything or to say nothing. What if she was wrong? What if she was too late? What if she imagined things like some said? And too, she was afraid it would only tell her bad things. It wasn’t to be so. Dina and the running waters cared for one another . She spent hours on its banks; later she entered the tricky flow for fun or work and learned more of its ways.
Dina liked primarily to talk with animals, mostly her own; she never stuttered–and didn’t have to say one thing. Her job made silence easy, too; everyone knew she didn’t speak unless necessary. All that extra help hadn’t helped her talk well so she was the quiet girl in childhood and youth, then the quiet woman.
It could be restful near Dina with her graceful manner. Her expressions, if guarded, were kindly or noncommittal. So it was all good unless a person was put off by her separateness, the sudden odd pronouncements with a harsh staccato language, and so found her presence unsettling. In that case, she was avoided and this was more frequent than not.
Everyone knew to let her be now. She finally found her life safer than she could have imagined.
Big Dog yawned, emitted a groan, then put his head on his big paws while Red sniffed about her feet with a tiny meow, tail waving. She savored the coffee as she closed her eyes. An image of Jasper came: his leaning back in bed, mouth tight, blankets pulled over his eyes. She got up and gave them each a pat and smoothing of fur, took a last lingering sip of coffee, then set the mug on the round wood table.
“Must go, lovelies. Keep watch.”
She put on her jacket, shut the door fast so neither would get out to follow her.
It wasn’t far to Jasper Dye’s, ten minutes on foot. She had thought about driving but running came naturally to her and she had good stamina. It cleared her mind; she became acutely alert with the steady beat of her boots upon the ground, her breath traversing in and out, in, out. He owned a truck; she could use it if he needed more help.
When she entered Jasper’s neat house, Rags the mutt jumped on her excitedly, then trotted to his bedroom with a whine. She found him lying in the darkened space, and was still a moment to feel the tenor of the air. It felt urgent but not so dire as she had feared.
Jasper thought he was seeing things, an apparition. He was dying, he had probably crossed over. Yellow hair alight with brightness of day, a face round with concern, hands on his forehead like pale flowers lain over his sweaty skin, a poultice of flowers and mercy, mercy and flowers of coolness, tenderness…light of life, balm for pain…
He was too warm under the blankets and he flailed his arms, awash in hurt. She felt him cringe at his imagined weakness, these damned migraines that plagued him more lately or was it some fever or worse? He felt aflame with it, floated in an endless field of sharp stings and stabs that banded together to torment his brain, his body alive with it. He felt the room upside down but her presence righted it some. It had begun three hours ago, had dug in for forever. Where were the magic pills? Where was the end of it? He moaned, heard her speak to him on light waves, sounds carried on a fanning of air… He remembered this: he once visited Florida, sat on a dock, all breeze and sweetness, a bouquet of warmth and salt-tinged scent.. but again that pain, a drowning time, he was sure to meet his end even if he was no longer utterly alone.
Dina found his pills, coaxed him to take two with sips of cool water, then they both sat with him, Rags and her, waiting to see what came of it. She watched wintered sunlight fade, the branches outside grow blacker; saw his breathing slow, his brow smooth. Time melted like snow. She idly wondered about Aunt Tandy’s prediction, if they would have to live by candlelight this winter. Smiled at the thought.
“Dina…birthday…?” he said as he drifted, less tormented as exhaustion took him away.
She patted his arm, smoothed back the scrappy grey mane, studied his good country face. He would be better in a while. For now. He had to do something about this malady, he was under its command. She would talk to Heaven Steele when she came home to see what she knew. What could be done to work out his dilemmas.
“A fish fry…for you, you’re …so…so…”
He fell away from the waking world. Dina put the kettle on to boil and sat a spell more by Jasper’s bed, touched her lips to his broad, veiny hand. Told him he would live to be quite old, no getting out of it.
A sharp knock on the door. Into the stillness rushed Aunt Tandy and Jean.
After they assessed the situation and peered at him, Aunt Tandy put the fine trout in the refrigerator.
“Best not to worsen a man’s condition with fish cooking when he can’t even eat. Good thing you stopped by to check on him and give him his pills! Some big pain, eh? They need to find a cure.”
“It’s h-h-hard since his w-w-wife p-p-passed….”
Jean loped over, hugged her friend, then slumped her six-foot frame on the couch by Rags. “What a birthday dinner. At least we have my salad and warmish buttermilk biscuits. Tandy made you a pie. And it’s toasty in here, thank goodness Jasper made a fresh fire in the wood stove before he got hit with it or we’d be unthawing him bit by bit.”
“Sp–sp–” Dina stopped and went to the cupboard for the box of pasta Jasper always kept on hand. She held it up and announced, “Make this!”
The other two women cheered in subdued tones lest they awaken Jasper, their host, now deeply asleep. Jean got out three bottles of beer for a toast to Dina.
“Here’s to my best friend, the finest, most courageous woman I know!” Jean loudly whispered.
“Here’s to the only niece I’ll ever need around, strong and true as they come!” Tandy intoned in her alto voice.
“T-t-t to t-t-twenty-f-fii—Oh, more life!”
Dina lifted her beer and clinked it against the others as the kettle whistled and Rags yelped in agreement. She shivered with pleasure, knew the coming year would work out right, any way it came.
Still, she would go to the river early in the morning, as was her habit, to hear what she could hear. Then do whatever she might do.
Jasper stirred in the darkness, pain like a film negative, dim and more frail, at last. He heard the murmuring of love, din of laughter and ole Rags’ delight and knew he was saved by the charity of friends, the strong comfort of good women. And Dina, the quiet one, strange and lovely child of the river–Dina had known what was needed once more. He’d cook up that trout for her tomorrow.