Necessary Shelter

Photo: Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Lane had sought refuge, she mused as her eyes swept along an obscured rim of earth, for the last time. At least here, for these reasons. A bracing wind off the ocean whistled about; her mass of coppery hair swirled and fluttered. She was leaning over the edge of a thick rock wall of the old shelter at a viewpoint high above what almost appeared to be everything. She hoped her hair wasn’t notable from a distance, like some fulsome flag heralding an emergency. The thought made her give out a sharp laugh. She would deny it, say it was a lie, both the alarm and emergency.

Was there an emergency? Well, she’d left the office at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, just sent a fast email to her assistant stating that she would be back Monday or communicate otherwise. The Friday morning meeting would have been helmed by Drummond; he’d have liked that as he griped about Lane’s overblown sense of entitlement. She could imagine him settling in place at the conference table, that rasp erasing his normal vocal reediness (too many cigarettes by 9:00).

“Lane Moorland needs a break, well, she takes off and we’re left to tend the messes so let’s just dive in, damn it.”

How he would bask in his substitute power.

Lane just couldn’t stomach it another minute, the upcoming changes, the demands from the board, the tension regarding new salaries. She’d packed a bag, headed to the coast. Checked in at a mediocre motel off the highway after driving for hours. There was a fight between a small hope and futility as she wandered the miles of beach. That she was freed of all that wore her out, the ghosts that nipped at her heels–that was all she wanted.

The agency was a non-profit but it had been profitable, anyway. Fifteen years now, working her way up. The last nine at the helm overseeing programs for the homeless, for the hungry, weary and hurting. She got the money in, she got the action jump started and the right results. You could count on Lane to get the job done no matter how long it took, how many hands had to grasped and smiles exchanged with donors and movers she could barely withstand chatting up over rare beef at one more banquet table. While Drummond was yearning to be in her shoes and she had to placate and fend him off. Lane didn’t care what Drummond’s personal agenda was as much as she cared about an offhand shallowness when it came to greater humanity. He’d step around a quaking teen addict, cross the street without so much as a nod of his head and a dollar or better or offering their own tri-fold list of resources.  But she also knew Drummond had the experience, flair and political savvy to take over, that his biases could be shunted away from his primary goals: to have control at last and to do noteworthy good. His ambition would bring the organization more attention; that meant more progress and golden coffers.

Lane hoisted herself onto the substantial wall edge and sat, hands balancing her weight. Far below here was the powerful ruffling of endless waves, capturing her attention. Two young women sauntered up beside her, shot her sideways glances after they admired the ocean and beyond. They spoke to her, maybe what a gorgeous day, followed by, are you okay? But she recognized French; maybe they were Québécoise travelling the U.S. New adults at ease in nature, perhaps advocates for wolves or clean rivers but likely innocents in the world of politics, even conservation efforts. She felt their goodwill.

They noticed Lane’s exaggerated paleness overshadowing pleasant features, faded purplish circles beneath hazel eyes. Expensive pants, bright shirt and earrings in garrish contrast. They didn’t know how to add all this up or show their fleeting concern so smiled awkwardly. Continued down the trail into the forest, another sunny day in their blossoming lives. Lane wished they’d stayed a few moments longer, shared their optimisim.

The days of sunshine were just half a blessing; she needed so much more, but what? The answer always escaped her. She was less and less inclined to find it. The height from there to here, here to there was serious, vertiginous, the place from which Lane looked down was a marvel and a terror, sumptuous ocean now looking more just like an over-sized pond. Waiting to welcome her. She could swan dive into it, back arched, toes well pointed like the ballerina she barely had been.

She recalled the plane trips Grant had twice enticed her to take with him; he had developed a new hobby. She loved the plane rides even as her breath threatened to vanish. Their laughter spilled over with the adrenaline–riveting beauty below, the danger of his relative inexperience, being encased in metal in mere air. Even then she’d wanted to step out into the sky. In her sleep that night death came on the wings of a raptor.

Grant was perfect her friends said until she began to reply, Great, then please call him, because no, he wasn’t close to perfect. He was dynamic though also abrasive, smart, self-centered and nearly too good to look at. He was more interested in his ideas and thoughts than anyone else’s, he said, smiling, and he meant it. Grant was–she’d discovered this week after four months of dating–a long-time but anonymous donor to her agency. He had finally called her work number armed with a story about knowing a mutual colleague, a delightful person who had long admired Lane. That colleague, it came to light, was someone he’d dated briefly after meeting the woman’s ex-husband years back.

The mysterious person was Savannah, her own sister, who had died barely a year ago.

The pain was instant as he told her this, every nerve flamed and fired up and down her length. She bit her lip to keep from crying out. What sort of man cold-called the sister of someone recently deceased–someone he had even once dated? And then waited to tell Lane the whole true story? He was cavalier about it, irritated by her reaction. The connection was a good one, wasn’t it? She nearly struck out at him.

He went by Grant D. Evans around her city; he had been Dave to Savannah in another place years ago. She had no memory of her sister’s brief dating life after her hard divorce so his name had presaged nothing. Lane was shocked, furious, alone again in the span of fifteen minutes. He would leave little trace in another month or so, that she knew. But she still felt betrayed, and foolish.

What had happened to her life?

Lane sat down on the long rock bench against a shadowed wall. She had taken the sinuous trail up a less demanding part of the mountain for three mornings. Her reward for a sweaty neck and chest and aching thigh muscles–she rarely exercised, there was no time– was this decades-old place, built during the 1930s when the legendary Civilian Conservation Corps was in full force. Lane liked to think about how the men toiled to create trails, preserve forests, erect forestry visitor centers. And shelters for all to enjoy the view. How they must have put up big olive-green tents at dusk. Built a campfire, listened to nocturnal stirrings and calls as they drifted off to sleep. It gave her peace and reminded her of Savannah’s ranch. Which once was hers and now, an uncertain fate as family pondered its end.

Lane always brought a snack, this time an apple she nibbled. She wished it was her shelter alone, that she could put on doors and cover the windows for rainy season. That she didn’t have to leave. Which was absurd, a child’s wishfuless. But the longer she was absent from her high-rise in city center, the more she dreaded a return.

Not many others showed up at the shelter over a couple of hours. It was early September, kids were back in school, families too busy to come to the beach and mountains. A retired couple or two might drift by, greet her kindly and then take out binoculars, exclaiming in whispers over a whale spout. A vagabond or two–she could tell by laden backpacks, worn out hiking boots, wind burned faces. The last were friendly but just briefly. They had so many places to roam; she was clearly not one of them. She was what she felt, caught in limbo.

It got so hot up there much nearer the source of all light. She drank from her water bottle, closed her eyes, lay her head back. Imagined herself flying out over the ocean, her arms magnificent, steady wings, her legs feathered rudders. Soaring, dipping and ascending again, she came close, closer to the sun until her skin was shot through with darts of boiling heat but she kept on. In the distance she saw another who was fleeing the earth. Savannah sailed up to her, kissed her cheeks, informed her, Time to do something, as if this was a prearranged meeting and Lane the elder must listen now. But of course Savannah was long gone. Lane was falling fast.

Her chin hit her chest when something stepped over her outstretched legs and her eyes popped open. She had fallen asleep. Her hand was wet. A big dog was giving it slobbery licks.

“Hello,” she murmured, but the dog owner ignored her as he exited the shelter, his Labrador pulling at the leash, spotting every sort of thing to hunt.

Lane stretched. Sought a gusting wind at the open side of the shelter. Her hair plastered her face so sky and sea were caught in a burnished net. She pushed it back angrily and swallowed rising sadness. Why was Savannah gone so soon? She should be there. Lane couldn’t call her for sensible, sane input; she couldn’t fly to Montana to visit her for a fast week-end, or wrap her arms about Savannah’s angular, steely body, an oddity in their family. From her clear heart and mind flowed acceptance when needed though she was not a talker. Savannah was a hiker, camper and fisherwoman. A horse lover and trainer at her ranch, along with her son Troy.

She was the woman Lane could never become as she tallied those fickle numbers and presided over another circuitous meeting, allotted and ran programs that seemed to barely make inroads. It had been far too long since she had sat in a saddle, known the joy of it.

The infection had been swift with target cited, the end swifter for Savannah. There was no good reason it should have happened to her. A confounding universe.

Forbidden hidden depths of grief roiled and welled and she caught her breath. Held it. She pressed against the sturdy rock wall, then pulled herself up onto it, carefully perched on the flat ledge of it with back against the shelter, knees drawn up to chin, arms tight about them. From here you could see much of the coastal forests and mountains, the bright sandy shoreline that curved around headlands and ocean…an undulating span of silvered blue that hid mysteries less rife with health and less plentiful than even a decade ago. Clear morning light unspooled across the waves, but in the distance the growing fog hovered like a threat.

It is all loss, she thought, everything fading or buckling under or turning out to be lies or vanishing before my eyes. Dying or soon to die. Or to become some beast I don’t understand, like the agency. It was about to merge with two small ones that were faltering. That would ultimately cost programs and decent staff even as her organization expanded. Costs would have to be absorbed, budgets further streamlined. And their patients would line up in longer lines, more often go without, unless Lane finagled greater monies, fought more fearlessly, pushed and pleaded for change, another surgical removal of what wasn’t profitable.

Drummond had that ceaseless desire to push forward, the hunger for the pursuit of more and more. He had the ego and nerves for what looked from the outside as a heroic struggle. But it was human services business, not charity; it got cut-throat like any other business. She had finally seen and known it was true.

Lane was tired. Everything within her wanted to rest. Her gaze followed the horizon and she breathed in salt and pine-infused air. It filled her up with longing, the desire to surrender.

Her heart had been thumping along all these years, carrying her each step along a twisty, bumpy path that was leading to something other than what she expected. What she really wanted. Now it sometimes faltered, she noticed; it was finding it harder to keep in sync with itself and her. As if it was trying to do this one thing but she was trying to do another thing. But what? What was she doing but dragging herself from one day to the next? One event as meaningless as the next despite everyone reminding her they were all somehow critical? To whom was it so important in the end?

Far beyond her reach and yet so close: the etheric transparency of sky was more infinite than the sea, its blueness more penetrable and also less known. It pulled her. Lane needed to do something, her sister had said.  She wanted to let go, to separate herself from the pettiness and meanness, the humdrum machine of life with its intricate schemes, the hunger and satiation and missions accomplished and frontiers not yet named. She didn’t even want to know. She wanted peace. She wanted to her grip to relax, her life to be released from itself and Savannah there to pass timelessness with. Slowly, slowly, Lane stood up and held out her arms. Wavered, then straightened her back. Blinked away tears autumn wind provoked, felt a shift around her as light-governed moments faded, the promise of endless sleep speaking to her narrowing mind where all was darkening, snug and quiet.

“Mama, why is that lady standing up there?”

“Oh, gosh…what now? Come here, Abby. Miss?…you gonna get down?”

“But she’s standing good, she looks pretty strong up there. Think she’ll fall? I don’t.”

“Hush, Abby. Miss, how long you been there…planning on being there? Maybe come down now, hey?”

But Lane was hearing the sea’s roaring inhales and exhales as a pulsing, vibrant thing. It filled her heart with energy even as her sight seemed to dim. She lifted her arms out, caught a sun-scoured breeze in her shirt, felt sore muscles in her legs harden and lock, her balance center in her core and in her being.  She felt something loosen; it tried to frighten her. She then suddenly felt those behind her, felt the question but she was floating, if only she could figure out how to keep it going….everything breathing together.

The older Native woman reached for the tail of Lane’s shirt, afraid to tug on it. She might feel it, yank it away, fall. Abby held her mother’s hand as they held the edge of that soft floral shirt tail, got close enough to grab her legs, the possessed white lady’s calves were right there. But Lynelle wasn’t quite tall or big enough to get purchase and make sure she’d hold her… and then the woman would just fall down the steep bluff, anyway, into the rocks, the ocean. That would be that and on her conscience.

“Hey lady, if you don’t watch out there won’t be any tomorrows left!”

Lane heard the child’s voice as if a brass bell was rung, as if a horn blasted a fierce high C, as if someone called her name across a busy street in a storm. She turned her head to see a young girl with snapping dark eyes opening wide, her brown, dusty hands held palms-up in emphasis. Lane looked back down at the ocean and shivered, lowered herself to a sitting position, then jumped off the wall, landing in a crouch on hard-beaten ground.

Abby and her mother crouched down with her, hands on knees. They looked at Lane hard, but the older woman lowered her eyes. She didn’t care to see what she saw, the ache and tipping toward more. The child spoke first.

“I knew you’d do it. You looked good and strong. But not so smart.” She uttered a belly laugh.

Lane shook her head, more to clear it than in agreement. “Sorry if I scared you…”

“You didn’t, not really.” Abby smiled, a missing front tooth making it even more friendly.

The mother of Abby stood up. “You did, you scared me plenty, I couldn’t get a good hold. I thought you’d take a dive, then what? How would I manage with any more? I’ve got good shoulders but I can’t be responsible for everything.” She raised thinning eyebrows, widened her small black eyes at Lane. “We all have reasons to feel tired out. I see you got yours.”

Lane stood on quivering legs, found the stone bench inside the shelter and sat.

“What was that you told me, child?” She addressed the girl though she stared out at the scene.

“Name’s Abby, first off.” She sat beside Lane, her mother to her left. “I said: if you don’t watch out you won’t have more tomorrows.” She shrugged, slight shoulders pumping up and down twice.”It’s the truth.”

“How did you know to say that to me?”

“Oh,” her mother interjected, “she says that ’cause that’s what’s told her when she puts things off, tells us ‘Tomorrow I’ll do that, tomorrow I’ll do this.’ Or she does something foolish, unsafe. I’m Lynelle Crooked Tree.” She reached across Abby, opened her lined palm to Lane’s hand, who took it. “You need to watch it like she said, you’ll be out of chances. See it all the time.” She squinted at the stranger. “Got a name?”

“Lane. You have quite a girl here.”

“Yeah, she’s a wildcat, that one, sneaky-smart.”

Abby found her way under Lynelle’s arm and gave her a hug, then she leaned over the other way, pushed Lane with her narrow shoulder. Surprised, Lane pushed back, very gently.

They sat quietly, Abby swinging her legs slow and fast, Lynelle Crooked Tree taking off her sandals, rubbing each foot, putting sandals back on, then putting hands on wide hips. Then they got up, first Abby, then her mother, then Lane. They started down the trail. Lane looked back at that shelter and hesitated, then thought about the two of them turning up like good fortune. She’d been half-uncertain what action to take, she had to be honest. She didn’t know where they were headed next, but she had to make a decision of her own that she could stick with and find worth it.

They walked along, and Lane followed without more thought. In a short time, they came to a fork in the pathways.

“This is where we turn off, the parking lot is that way. Okay now, later Lane, Creator willing.” Lynelle Crooked Tree gave a small wave, took Abby’s hand. They tunneled deeper into the verdant cool of forest.

“Wait, how can I thank you?”

But they were walking as if in a hurry, blended into greenery’s slinky shadows and dappled light like small birds, flickering, rustling, gliding away until there no more.

Lane walked on, blinking along dim pathways between the old trees. She knew what she had to do. Drummond would have his spot at the head of the table. She would find another place, maybe at Savannah’s ranch where she might be of use, helping her bereaved nephew with accounting matters or the most menial of chores. Just sitting with him at the fire pit where they used to share stories of their day, maybe dreams, but their worries were mostly left to the ashes. The prospect of it spurred her into a powerful run, and all that red hair threw off its own light in the watchful forest.

Photo: Cynthia Guenther Richardson
Photo: Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Bus to Parts Unknown

weeki_wachee_spring_10079u by Toni Frissell
weeki_wachee_spring_10079u by Toni Frissell

Every ridge and pothole on the state highway broke up his rest. It hadn’t been an easy bus ride–twenty-two hours, fifty minutes total to get from Omaha all the way to Portland–and  now they had hit a bad stretch of road work. Tim readjusted the inflatable pillow bought at the last minute, en route to the bus station. Gran Eccles had suggested and paid for it, along with a sleep mask. He thought she was overdoing it and hung back, embarrassed, as they checked out. Now he was thankful as he moved the black fabric onto his forehead.

“Hey, I’ve got an extra apple.”

A huge red apple was inserted into his peripheral line of sight. Tim glanced from the corner of his right eye. This kid with a mess of straw hair insisted on trying to make friends with him when all he wanted to do was read or doze. He was much younger than Tim, maybe fourteen, and he listened to rap on his iPod. Tim caught the heavy bass beat and had asked him to turn it down. The kid agreed but kept gabbing at him. Tim didn’t want to babysit. He was intent on getting through the hours with as little stress as possible. Buses were worse than cars (he’d sold his to buy the ticket and have some reserves) but better than planes. Trains he hadn’t even considered; too many accidents lately.

“Naw, I’m good.” He waved it away. “Thanks, man.”

The teen closed his eyes, then settled his head back on the bench seat and turned up his music. He stuck his hands in soiled windbreaker pockets. The jacket looked like it had been worn on a year-long camp-out. Tim tried to imagine the kid with rap music on. sitting with others around a fire, roasting marshmallows.

Not that Tim was much better off. He hadn’t bathed in a couple days, though he’d brushed his teeth. There had been no time to get his shoulder-length long hair cut before setting off for cousin Hal’s in Oregon. A shave might be good; he could do that at the layover in Baker City. But it’d be after five the next morning when he arrived in Portland. Hal wouldn’t pay that much attention. He’d drop Tim off and go to the law office, leaving him in the professional hands of Marie. Really. She was a hand model. The thought of someone who did that weirded him out. Hal had suddenly gotten married in Vegas and no one knew her so were taken aback by the picture of her at a turquoise pool in a white robe. Her hair looked persimmon-red, Gran said with a laugh but you could tell it worried her. It turned out to be a wig just for fun, they chortled on Skype. She sported very short auburn hair. Tim wondered who she truly was.

Hal was his own man; he didn’t explain things to anyone, naturally called the shots. He had ordered Tim out to Portland, saying only that he had to return to college. Hal and Marie had an extra room in their condo in the Pearl district (a place Tim looked up: glittering with money and high rises, crazy) until Tim found a job. He could help him find one if necessary. He made it all sound like a foregone conclusion; he was very firm about things in real life and business.

Unlike Tim. Twenty three years old, college drop-out, last working at Mac’s Feed and Seed the last two years, right after being sprung. There had been possession charges. An ounce of weed and some coke residue. Mac, who had known Tim’s grandmother his whole life, fired him after Tim was about to borrow a couple of big bottles of weed killer for a neighbor. He had wanted to do a good deed, he protested, he’d pay him on payday, but Mac called him a common thief. Gran told him it was time to move on and start fresh. It hurt Tim a lot more than her to go. And what would the payback be with Hal? Would he be like an beholden lackey? He shook it off as he repositioned himself on the bus seat.

A heavy man up a few seats roused himself from a snore session and squeezed through the aisle, working his way toward the restroom.

“You might try going sideways!” another guy yelled, snickering.

“You might keep advice and opinions to yourself in a public place,” a tall Native American woman across the aisle muttered.

“Don’t act so sensitive, lady!” he said as he looked her up and down.

She threw a frown at Tim. He half-lifted his hands in a submissive movement. What could he do about jerks on buses? He had things to add but seldom did. He didn’t want more trouble, period. Bus stations were even worse, random people loitering and sleeping, aggravating those who got to leave. He got it but he didn’t like it when he was minding his own business.

There wasn’t a full load on board but it was still way too much humanity. Only two had gotten on at Twin Falls, women more his age. They wore skirts with bare legs, cowboy boots and puffy down jackets, a combination he found odd. They sat behind him, made a few comments on a dramatic sunset but fell silent as it got darker. Tim heard rustling in a bag, something found and pulled out, he guessed. A book, maybe, a snack. He smelled banana mixed in with the ground-in staleness of the bus which was laced with citrusy air freshener. A small light above the seat was switched on.

The roughness of the road smoothed over as the countryside disappeared little by little into blackness. Tim liked sightseeing this way, structures and vehicles and geography a constant stream of colorful shapes and blurred edges. He’d tried to focus, though, to snap a picture of unique sights he might recall when he worked it out in his sketchbook later.

He hadn’t realized he could draw well until jail. That was something for the trouble he went through. There was so much time; he had to fill it to make it tolerable. Granny had brought a flimsy sketchbook and pencil with half an eraser and he used it daily, sketching memories, dreams and people he saw or missed. Practice was an exercise in discipline he needed. A semblance of solitude helped.

On the bus he felt constrained, physically uncomfortable. The kid–Louis?–would watch every stroke and ask too many questions. Tell him how good he was when Tim seriously doubted it was all that. Or critique what he didn’t know. Maybe Louis would insist on drawing something of his own, interrupting Tim’s flow. Everyone had to share their ideas, make a statement in this world. He had done the same at times. It hadn’t gotten him many strokes except an undercut to the chin.

Tim put the mask over his eyes to oust the lights and shadows that played on surfaces as they passed though Boise, then Nampa, Idaho. At night it was quiet. He felt anonymous, good. Too, there was something comforting about sunlight hiding out there until it arrived with fanfare once more. Tim had always liked being awake in the dark, just another night creature, sitting still with no bother to anyone or thing on Gran Eccles’ broad porch. Or by the kitchen window with a mug of bitter, heated up coffee and a last apple muffin, hearing, smelling, eyes affixed to the starry canopy, examining weather behaviors. Sly raccoons, feral cats and quick dark birds gabbing–getting on with their work. He felt part of the night. The night accepted his uncertainties, gave him peace.

“But–I still miss Emily,”  one of the women behind him said with a wispy voice.

“She should have come. Was supposed to.”

The second woman sounded peppery. Edgy.

“We planned this trip for six months. She was so sure she’d come, back then.”

“Goes to show you. Never plan too much that you might have regrets. Things change in a flash.”

“It’s worked out for us, so far,” Wispy said.

“That’s because I couldn’t let it go wrong! Who wants to live in Twin Falls their whole lives?” She muffled a cough with hand or sleeve. “Smelly in here, don’t they clean? I know, you had doubts, but everyone has doubts about changing things up.”

Louis squirmed in his seat, opened his eyes, closed them again. He slouched, feet under the next seat. The iPod started to slip from his hands. Tim eased it away, put it on the seat. Rap music played on.

He crammed his head into the pillow against the window and pulled the mask over his eyes. He hoped the women would get quiet, that everyone would chill. He had hardly slept the night before, not more than a half hour at a time for about three hours. He’d wished he could’ve smoked some weed when he transferred at Denver but of course he did not. He didn’t have it. It wasn’t his intention to locate any again. But he still wanted to sleep better, on buses and in beds. He wanted to be in excellent again. His cousin had promised in Portland it would be different. Mountains, rivers, forests all over the city, everyone working hard to get and stay healthy. As if Nebraska was nothing but a little concrete rolled out among corn fields. But Tim was ready to try anything that might ease the tension he felt in his chest, morning ’til night.

“I will never forget it,” Wispy said.

“Yeah.” Cough subdued.

“I mean it, wasn’t it too weird? I have sort of…dreams that are like nightmares. I never told anyone that.”

Tim heard fabric slide against the seat, one moving about. Then maybe looking right at the other one.

“I do, too, but they don’t bother me. You?”

“It’s not what happened so much as how she was.”

“You mean, looked?” Pepper cleared her throat hard. “Half-dead?”

Tim thought she was about to get emotional on top of being allergic.

“More how she acted. Like, in her own world.”

“She was in her own world. That was the whole problem. Nobody could figure her out before and then after–”

“Shhh, not so loud. Is and can, you mean, not could and was. She’s still alive.”

Silence. Tim thought Pepper had turned away, was looking out at the whizzing blackness that let loose a few stars. They flew across the sky. At least that’s what he had seen and would draw. He itched for his pencil and a table top with good light.

“I thought she was gone right off. From the tent when I got up all I could see was a nose and chin.” Pepper said. “Who wouldn’t be after bobbing around out there awhile? That spring got so deep, it was too cold, no one was with her, we were asleep when…”

“…you got up and got me to go with you to the spot where she was. Floating.”

Tim opened his eyes underneath the mask and saw her, Emily, in the spring, her nose and chin pointed up. Hair slicked back to her head, skin shiny with water. Regal and still. He crossed his legs at the ankles and his arms against his chest to stay still.

“She always loved to wear long dresses. Wears, I mean.”

“Why do you mention that?”

“Because I thought about how the dress might weigh her down and she’d go under fast if I didn’t go out there. No shoes but that long cotton dress from the sunny day before. She hated pants. So impractical. Especially when camping. Honestly!”

“Hates. Present tense, okay? She is not a sporty girl but she loves nature.”

Wispy acted unnerved by the talk. Like it had happened yesterday when it seemed it was some time ago.

Tim sat up taller. The pillow slipped away.  He let it go. He should try to not listen so he leaned against the thick glass. The window was cool on his cheek. It had gotten so dark that even the birds couldn’t see, he thought. Only bats could manage. They liked the pole barn rafters at Gran’s since he was a boy. Their navigation powers seemed extrasensory in a way that Tim admired yet brought him unease. He’d watch them come out at twilight, try to keep track of them but always squatted on the ground when they swooped around the yard. They were smart predators. He’d felt so big and slow, dumb in comparison.

He had the same feeling now. He wanted to know what happened to Emily in the cold spring. Why she was floating. Who she had become out there. But it made him anxious, too. And he felt incompetent when that happened, still. It was the similarity to something that had happened to him, maybe. He had dropped off a rope swing and landed too forcefully, went too deep, thought he would never get back up to the air and sunshine. But he did–after an eternity of adrenalin-charged propulsion to the distant surface of river. Sputtering and coughing. And he stopped going there that summer, afraid of breathing water.

“Here’s the thing,” Pepper went on. “She’d just been floating awhile, that’s what she said. Trying to reassure me. After she dove in and thought about not ever coming back up. She had thought about that the whole time we camped out there. It makes me sick to think about it even now. But then that…that thing happened.”

“We’ll never know exactly what she saw.” Wispy’s voice became more delicate. “Along the bottom, a glimmer that grew, she said, a light that took on a form…or was already something. And it grabbed her and pushed her up.” She paused several seconds, breathing was audible. “A water angel, she said. A water angel!”

“She said. She said! She was about half-drowned. She had thought about suicide! Crap. Maybe she totally lost her mind down there, do you think of that? Huh?”


Tim took off the sleep mask. He could see their friend, fragile, astonished Emily, as clear as could be. Her feet drifting under the water, hands lifting and falling, long dress graceful but maybe deadly as it caught currents, pulled at her body. But she was stronger, afterall, and resting, face an oval of luminescence above the surface of water, her body calm. She was not afraid. She had seen an angel in the sheerness, the clarity of the depths and it had changed her.

He was about to turn when Pepper spoke again, voice in a near-whisper as if telling a secret. But it was no longer hidden to Tim at all.

“It’s just this: she almost died, I agree, something happened in that spring. She’s not the same person today. It’s like she did die…came back someone else.” She gave a gasp and shudder that sounded like the awkward start of tears. “She seems religious now, that’s what everyone says. Not at all like before. So we have to let her be. Let her go, even.”

“Maybe she just woke up from her misery. With God’s help.”

The sound and force of his words threw him off as much as it did the shocked young women. He turned around in his seat. “Maybe Emily had gotten so sick and tired of being sick and tired that she knew something big had to happen to her, even get close to death. She was tired, let her body sink and sink. And then she was, well, okay, yes–saved. Right? Because she had to live differently or nothing would be good, nothing would even be left of her. And now she can start again.”

Louis stirred and sat up. “Man, pipe down! What’s up?”

“Eavesdropper. Really!” Pepper glared at Tim.

“Well, I don’t know, he’s probably right,” Wispy breathed.

“I agree,” the Native American woman added, sitting with elbows on her knees as if she had been like that awhile. “If we’re offering opinions, afterall.”

The heavy man paused on his way to the back again, waited for the Native woman to let him through. He studied her and Tim, then continued.

Pepper turned to the window. “Me and my big mouth.”

Wispy fiddled with her hair. Looked down.

“Sorry,” Tim said as he turned back around, embarrassed by his intrusion. But he had to say what he felt about it since it was out there now, Emily’s story, the woman’s life being torn apart by people who didn’t understand. Or were unwilling to accept.

“That was good.”

He looked across the aisle at the woman with the black shoulder-length hair and dark bright eyes and shrugged.

“Good story, I mean. And your understanding. Appreciation.”

“I feel for that Emily, is all. I get it.”

“Me, too, man. Me, too.”

She left her eyes on his a good few seconds. He thought they smiled so he let his crinkle up some. His face and neck prickled with warmth. He slouched into his seat.

The big man came back. “So you know: in Oregon now. Ontario, then Baker City, La Grande. By Pendleton it’ll be a new day, just after midnight. I’m off at La Grande. Have a good one, wherever you’re going.” His thick lips spread into a grin, revealing straight white teeth. He plopped down at his spot.

Louis yawned, took the ear buds out.

“You headed to Portland?”

Tim lifted his eyebrows. The kid going there? Good for him. Maybe his mother or dad or both lived there, would make him a good breakfast. He could use more meat on him.

“Cool. Me, too.” He turned up the volume and plugged back in.

Tim stole a glance at the Native American woman across the aisle. She seemed to be sleeping. He put his eye mask on, positioned the pillow. It sure was a long ride. Pretty uncomfortable but it was going to be worth it, he felt. He thought about Emily, hoped she had found her way, at last. Thought about Gran, how she’d tried her best to help him.

“Yeah, me, too. Portland. Quite the journey, huh?”

Her confident voice slid through the dark, crossed the aisle between the bench seats and met him like a friend. He felt tears rise up from a place he had long forgotten. Tim let a couple seep into the mask, then a few slid into the darkness, granting relief. Sleep at last.


Hat’s Haven, the Banks of Burnt River

From Top of the Lake
From Top of the Lake


All I could think of was No, no, no. Who wouldn’t, unless they weren’t in their right good minds? It was our family place, our hand-hewn cabin enjoyed for decades of summers and week-ends, and now, recently, for me full-time. And Grandpa Hat wouldn’t be okay with the plan. But Jenks rarely listened to me despite my being ten months, fifteen days older. Anymore, I felt like a doorstop on his way in or out–I was there to make sure the way was clear for him and also to keep good air in or sweep bad air out, depending on his mood. He’d disagree but what does he know?

“I’ve got these buddies from work, “he said, “you know, the guys who like to ride with me on week-ends. I’m bringing them out for my birthday, so can you disappear for a couple days?”

I was holding the phone with one hand and scrubbing the porch with another. I’d let slip a whole plate of spaghetti when he called. I hated the wide planked pine boards to soak up any more stains.

“Not a chance, ” I muttered, phone pinned against my shoulder. “Marilew is coming over early Saturday with her son. You guys will be snoring away, hung-over and incapacitated until after least mid-afternoon. Try next week-end. Your birthday isn’t until Tuesday, anyway.”

“Tamson Louise, we’re coming. I’m turning thirty and I want to celebrate there!”

“I don’t even like your friends, Jenkins Harper.”

Jenks started talking to someone else. I could hear heavy machinery and people shouting. My brother was crew boss for a construction company. I was impressed with his success but not enough to feel generous.

“Sorry–I’m working, Tam, but don’t think I didn’t hear that. We’ll be up there by around seven. How about you and Marilew hang out at her place? We’ll be gone by tomorrow night.”

He’d told me, I heard him and that was that.

“Don’t dare bring any girls,” I shouted over the background noise.

Jenks laughed. I like his laugh. It leaps up from an easy place and usually makes me feel better. “Don’t worry. Five fools will be enough for one week-end.”

“And me, that’s six because I’m not budging.” But he’d hung up. “But I’m no fool,” I said to Aster, my recent boarder, a stray grey cat who seemed done with travelling. She yawned and studied the river about one hundred feet from the cabin’s porch, or the bugs hovering over it.

My brother Jenks isn’t a bad guy, but he had trouble becoming what you’d call domesticated. He’s more settled since he’s worked steadily. It took a couple years to get himself on the right path after he got out of prison. It wasn’t so dangerous what he did, just ignorant, wild and ill-conceived, as Grandpa Hat kept saying, a robbery of the local gas station that went awry within the first couple minutes. Jenks was waiting in a getaway car and that was bad enough. Tom Harkins, owner of the station, had a heart attack when the two guys in tiger masks barged in, one with a loaded shotgun in hand. Tom about died on the spot, for six hundred dollars in the till. Jenks had an attack of conscience and called 911 as the other two took off, then were apprehended. It wasn’t the first time Jenks had done something stupid but he was seventeen. Tom decided to forgive him. The jury did not. Three years and two months later, Jenks got out, hitched a few rides and broke into our cabin. He waited for Grandpa Hat to come home from grocery shopping. That was a mistake.

Grandpa Hat comes by his name because he will not now or ever take off his fisherman’s hat in the company of others. He says he can’t fish or think without it on. It makes him look sweet-faced but he is not quite that. So when he arrived home and Jenks was dozing at the table, Grandpa Hat grabbed his fishing pole and hooked Jenks on the collar. When Jenks startled awake, Grandpa Hat reeled him in tight. He made certain Jenks knew he didn’t want to see him there until he’d made something decent of himself.

My brother did that but they’re still not on the easiest terms, so I consider telling my grandfather about the week-end plans. Even though Marilew would have me, it was point of principle. Last year I’d unofficially staked my claim to the cabin. He didn’t appreciate it at first but he wasn’t the one who took care of the place. My mom and I did. Mostly me. Grandpa Hat was staying in town due to worsening eyesight and gout. So I thought of the cabin as mine for the time being. I’d been the one to give it a name as a kid: Hat’s Haven. It was the one place I could stand to be alive, anymore.

By Friday evening I’d tidied things up even though I knew it would all be undone. I made a big kettle of beef stew because Jenks liked it. I had a card and a gift for later. I thought about telling our mother but, well, let’s just say she doesn’t have much room in her life for Jenks. He reminds her of my father.

They arrived at seven forty-five. I could hear them long before I even saw him front of the line, his Harley leading the way. It almost made me miss riding with him. Aster’s ears wiggled about, then she raced off the porch and up the big oak tree. I waved at him and thought there were just too many of them. Inside I set the table. He flung open the door and gave me a brief hug.

They lined up and sat down, a solid wall of men, the kind you’d expect on a construction crew, the kind you’d look for a trail of ill-begotten deeds behind them. I acted as if they were invited guests, because they were. My brother’s. He introduced everyone. I knew two, Walt and Cole. The new guys looked tougher, Lonnie and Mag. I hated to think what Mag was short for, but he beamed at me like I was a love goddess with my stew and clean cabin. He was the oldest, in his forties. Knees of his jeans all ripped out, had a graying goatee and mustache, grimy shoulder-length hair. I avoided eye contact. and tried to be tolerant.

“Hey, this is some crazy good stew. Did you kill the bear and potatoes yourself?” he asked, cackling. “You got magic in that pot–I’m under your spell, girl!”

Everyone agreed, though Jenks gave him a hard look.

“Tam, it’s lookin’ good here! Place has never been so shined up. Did you make all these new curtains?”

I smiled back at him. I’m a costume designer– was, that is, in another life. Jenks always praised me for my skills when I was a kid. He brought me old clothes I could redesign, interesting buttons he’d found at a flea market. A high school play he was in got me started on the road to success. He’d liked acting before he got in trouble, but after two roles he said things moved too slowly. Guess he thought he liked acting the thug better.

Walt and Cole had joined us for dinner out in the city once. Cole had acted interested but I was not, having just divorced. I still wasn’t but he was a friend of Jenks’ I liked, a carpenter who made furniture on the side.

After dinner, Jenks had me take a picture of the group. He was on the left, then Walt, Mag, Lonnie and on the other end, Cole. I couldn’t get them to smile; Jenks fully repressed one. He, Cole and Walt went to the shed to look at some fishing poles and to get camp chairs. I headed to the river with Aster, who had come back down. I looked back and saw Lonnie and Mag settling in with their beers and a deck of cards. Mag caught my eye; I turned, walked faster. I truly hoped they’d leave for the bar before long.

Burnt River was part of the beauty of Hat’s Haven. It had taken me into its beauty as a child. I’d sit on my haunches and cast stones or a fishing line into the black-blue water and daydream about horseback riding and fairy glens and our dog Henry talking to me. Or maybe he did. Jenks would creep up and push me in the water but I’d get him back. We’d grab a couple tubes and float in the sun’s golden heat. Once we built a raft from old two-by-fours and cracked inner tubes from the shed. We made it almost a half mile before we sank but what a ride! The world passed us by, a silky summer mirage. We swam ashore and doubled over with glee at our questionable triumph, then made a better one. Jenks and I did have our good years.

I now listened for Jenks’ voice, hidden by bushes and grasses, then stuck my toes, sandals and all, into the cool, dark water. In the distance, thunder. I wondered how it would feel if I went swimming in a rippling spring current in the rain and I leaned toward water’s edge, then stepped in, my jeans getting wet, toes mucky.

Then his hand latched onto my arm and pulled me back, tight to his belly. His other arm went around my waist.

“Well, well. What sort of sister does that Jenks have here, hid away from everyone?”

I pulled hard but his grasp was too much.

“Let me go, Mag. I’m enjoying the river, and want to be alone.”

He pressed into me, his breath sour and hot on my neck. His hands shot to my hips. I wasn’t surprised he’d followed but he moved so fast. I tried to yell but nothing came. Aster meowed twice from under some bush. The water was rushing past. Sunset cast a peach and tangerine hue behind the trees while my heart was thumping hard. I felt his thoughts and was terrified. Mag let loose a low cackle as his hands crept to my chest and groped, but then he jumped back.

“What the-? What are you, anyway?”

He had met that sweep of emptiness, my changed flesh, that place where my breast had been, now gone six months. The cancer gone with it, maybe, but percentages meant nothing to me after this second bout. My horror was followed by relief and nausea. I fell forward into Burnt River, let my body be taken into it, legs sinking, arms half-heartedly attempting to keep me afloat. Maybe best to let them fall and my body disappear into the strange and damaged night. To join angels or faeries, the great starry deep, the only sanctuary where bodies were no longer needed. Where I would be free. I sank through the shimmering surface, saw the sun hide beneath the rim of earth. Nothing but water knew me.

Shouts, arms, hands yanking me. Head to my chest. More people running and yelling, the sickening sounds of fists and feet meeting muscle and bone. Sharp cries. Aster, I thought irrelevantly, has surely left me. Not even a stray would stick around for this.

“Tams!” Jenks pulled me up out of the water and close to him. “Don’t worry, it’s okay. Tams, I’m so sorry, more sorry than I can say! Tamsie, do not leave this damned world without me! I’m here, I’m here now!”

He carried me into the cabin. The others left, their bikes an explosion of sound. All but Cole, who had seen us, then taken Mag down and put him out before Jenks might kill him. I changed my clothes and Cole put on the kettle. Jenks built a fire; though it was too warm for that my teeth were chattering. We sat in silence. I let the tears fall but refused comfort other than Jenks hand atop mine. Soon I fell asleep in Grandpa Hat’s rocking chair. The next morning they were on the floor covered with blankets, the fire cold. Cole brewed coffee, Jenks whipped up eggs. My gift was to him was two tickets to a play. Jenks made a fool of himself thanking me ten times. But I was glad.

Can I tell you everything was fine after that? I cannot. I can tell you that Jenks really came back home, in the right way, that night. That Cole has come around and we have floated the river and talked. That I have come to be at peace with it, the lost breast, and my lost belief in life happily ever after. You might think it a small thing that Aster left for good but I haven’t the courage to seek another creature. The summer was too hot and dry and Burnt River ran so shallow fish died, then it stormed and it rose to the porch steps and washed away the shed. Grandpa Hat finally lost his sight. We read to him and share jokes. But he never knew what happened. No one did but those who were there. It was bad enough, but I know what worse is and that wasn’t close. Not keeping on is, and one thing my family does is just keep on. So here we are: Burnt River running fast or slow by Hat’s Haven. Family, a few friends. Me, and the future as it comes to us.