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.





You would not believe the shock I felt when I passed by the gallery that winter during my lunch hour. I recognized his name right off. I pushed the door open and took it all in, wondering if it was true.

When we first met Sully was camping next to us, his tent sagging in the middle, his kerosene lamp throwing off a weak light. He was rooting around for something, I couldn’t tell what since he was half-in and half-out of his tent. Maybe that’s why it was about to cave in.

I walked over, licking my fingers clean after enjoying BBQ chicken legs I’d made for me and my two boys. He stuck his head out and looked at me, then the tent collapsed. I stood with hands on hips and watched it fall in on him, nothing more to do but see if he could put it back up right. I found it funny, I admit. He fixed it okay and held out his right hand while his left grasped a camera. The suit coat he had on was as out-of-place as a peacock feathered hat would be for me. There were dirt, bugs and trees out here, not an office complex.

“Sullivan Chambers, Sully for short,” he said with a cheerful smile and nod of his well-shaped head. “I guess you see I’m new at this. Just pulled in a few hours ago. You?”

I wiped my hands on my apron. I hadn’t changed since leaving the city that morning and was a mess. I must have looked strange to him, too. “No, we’re used to it. This is how Tim and Jude and I spend our summers when we can get away. Oh, right, name’s Evie Windham.” I glanced back at the boys who were eyeing this stranger who was chatting me up. “Want to join in a cup of coffee? And a chicken leg?”

Sully did, so we sat on the camp stools while Tim and Jude introduced themselves. After fifteen minutes of chitchat, they were satisfied the man wasn’t a creeper or crook so took off for the river. I waved them off. I had lots of witnesses around. The boys were meeting other teen-aged kids for a big bonfire. I could see the riverbank from where we sat and knew they’d be watching us off and on, too.

Sully and I gabbed easily. A shock. I wasn’t fond of suits and slicked back hair. My ex had a closet full of suits and he was bad business. But this guy was a photographer, said it had become more than a hobby, but not quite a full-time profession. He was here to photograph nature all week-end. He’d left from work and driven straight out, a long drive.

“A happy pastime,” I smiled. “We need those, I guess. I like making crafts.”

“We need our hobbies for relaxation but I have a passion for photography. It’s magic, how you can capture or shape a split second of something and —voila–it’s immortal.”

“Never thought of it that way. I always felt pictures were sort of fake. Camera finding the best thing or making them a lot better, then freezing them in time so that nothing more happens. Kinda weird if you think about it.”

Sully frowned a little, swished coffee around once in his mouth before swallowing it. “I see what you mean. But there’s something nice about that, too, sometimes, right? Makes things more important than we usually think they are.”

We had a deep thinker here, for whatever that was worth. He looked good, but then, I was at the point where any clean and courteous man was a treat. Not that I was seriously looking. I was past that point after surviving a divorce. Not many girls could say that in 1958 but I liked being on my own, in a way.

“Maybe so. Yes, sometimes. Like a memory you want to keep perfect. Special.”

“Right. And it’s art.” He looked around at the campground. “So, what are you three doing out here?”

It was more than a small question. It was mini-investigation, like why was I out here without the boys’ father unless he was fishing and oddly okay with me being unaccompanied in the wilds? Except this was a family campground, tents and trailers and lots of nice Airstreams. Electricity. Running water. Who was this guy?

“Easy answer. We spend most of our time here in summer. It’s a nice vacation from my mother’s place. The boys have a dad; he lives in L.A. He prefers palm trees and glamour and such. I manage.”

Sully laughed big and rumbly. “I see, well, you’re one brave lady, Evie. Two teen-aged boys and setting up house in the forest. This is quite a good tent, big. Me, I work at the water works office in Portland. No wife so I travel on my time off. You from there?”

“Have been, will be when summer is over again. Welcome to the camping life.” I felt fidgety and got up, took a stick to the small fire I’d started before he came over, strained to see the boys. They were getting a little rowdy already. There was a frostiness to the air since the sun started hovering closer to the horizon. I let the damp, piney sweetness fill my nose.

Sully settled his camera on its metal legs,  tripod he said, and fiddled with the lens.

“Mind me snapping a few?”

I shrugged, smoothed my unruly waves and half-turned to set more kindling. I placed bigger pieces of wood around the heart of the fire. It took off and our faces glowed a healthy amber. Sully snapped away before I could stop him. It was embarrassing, me in my rumpled old house dress–the one pair of pants I’d packed were no better. After that, we sat and chatted about camping and the seasons, how his summer had slipped by with a few weddings he was hired to do, a few portraits and nature trips like this one. For me it was all about my mother, how she had a house we shared the last couple years but she was fussy and drank cocktails, one too many, every day. The boys and I were between places until I got a better job than selling housewares at a department store. I knew how to type. He nodded either understanding or approval.

We could hear the kids whooping it up, people splashing in the river.  The fires all around us felt so friendly and Sully said as much. He snapped many more pictures but I was tired and yawned a big one despite wanting to be polite. I needed a long shower and my book. Sully stood and stretched, wiped the dust from his shoes.

He smiled as though we had become friends. “I’d better get back to my tent. Got an early day tomorrow, out to the mountain and then around the lakes.” He picked up his camera equipment. “I’m real glad we got to meet and talk. Maybe you could stop by my office on Fifth and Renton sometime. Coffee is good in town, too.”

In the morning he was gone by the time I got up at six. That was it, I thought. Strangers came and went out there. And I knew little about him. Later I thought about Sully sometimes, but more like trying to figure out a puzzle. I didn’t know what to make of the whole night and wondered if he had just made his life up.

So of course I wasn’t ready for what I saw that day at the gallery. The windows were full of his name and his pictures, the mountains, woods and lakes, people playing and working and camping. Then I stopped.

It was me, that’s right, me, standing before the crackling fire, my back to him so I was a graceful outline, then my face smiling at him in dusk, then my narrow hands warmed by a flickering fire. I saw my shoes cast off, dirty and worn at the heels. But the last one was this: me sitting forward, intense, staring off at the river, still as a creature watching and watched, eyes lit by something unknown. I didn’t realize I had such a lonely, serious look. Yet gentleness was there, too. I’d never guess I could be even a little beautiful, resting in the peaceful dusk and twilight. I left the gallery. I’m not looking for him. What he can see scares me, a good scared, but still. It was so much more real than I imagined.

(Photograph courtesy of Patricia Ann McNair’s blog/photo writing prompts.)