“I dreamed a river rose from its bank and reached out to me with long arms, like a mother reaching to her child, and I knew then that the story was true.”
By the bank of a winding river near the mouth of a mountain canyon lived a woman named Riverine. Which river she lived near, you must imagine for yourself. Any river that comes to mind will do, as long as it flows from a wild place with untamed edges ravining its course. Just picture the river you know best, even if it’s only the river you see when you close your eyes, and there you will find Riverine.
Riverine’s cabin seemed just another element of the rocks, soil, and sand that channeled the water in its banks. Built of logs long ago and surrounded by trees, her home was more of the river than on it. Yet whoever had built the cabin had sited it far enough on the upward slope from the river to protect the house from floods. In all her years growing up by the water, Riverine had never seen the floodwaters rise high enough to threaten her home. She hoped never to see such a thing but was grateful for the protection just the same. From her cabin porch, she could greet the river first thing every morning and fall asleep to the sound of its coursing last thing every night.
Riverine, too, was of the river. She moved like water, neither fast nor slow but exactly like a current fitting itself to the boundaries of where it needed to run. Like shadow pools watching the world from their depths, Riverine’s dark eyes tracked all motion with neither suspicion nor judgment, following even the tiniest movements of a face when greeting someone in the store or on the street of the small gateway town to the canyon in which she lived. She could not be pinned down, that Riverine, but took each person she met in stride so that none felt slighted nor favored by her attention. Nor did she inspire concern or pity or curiosity. Seeing Riverine in town was like observing the clouds in the sky. She was always herself, as natural as a crow on a fence post or a bee working a dandelion. While folks kept an eye out for her, they never worried about her. They knew where she lived and they knew she could take care of herself. She was Riverine, as deep and constant as the water after which she was named.
When Riverine was little, her parents would take her in their canoe to quiet coves on the river where the fishing was good. Riverine learned how to sit quietly as the boat gently rocked away from the current so that she wouldn’t scare the fish. She leaned carefully over the side of the boat to watch water bugs waltzing on the surface; sometimes they waved at her with their long legs. Sometimes she saw the fish swimming toward the hooks her parents dropped into the water. The fish were curious, Riverine decided, just like she was. Part of her wanted them to get away and another part couldn’t wait to eat the tender flesh under crispy skin when Mama or Papa cooked them over the fire before they headed back home. The longer they sat in the canoe, the more Riverine’s stomach would growl in anticipation of their river meal until, finally, her parents would decide they had caught enough fish for the day. Then they would row to the shore and lift Riverine onto the good riverbank where she could help gather sticks for the fire or run in circles to stretch her legs again, but always careful to stay away from the flames while the tasty fish cooked. The three of them always said thank you to the river and its creatures before eating, and they tossed whatever they didn’t eat back into the river for other creatures to find. Only her parents knew about these secret spots on the river where the fish could be caught. As she grew up, Riverine learned how to find them too. Riverine’s parents taught her to find her place in the natural world and love all seasons in their time, but it was the river that taught her to live without boundaries between inside and out.
Riverine grew up amongst the townspeople but was not part of them, not fully. She was an only child, and even as a young girl, seemed self-contained. She tended to be overlooked when invites were sent for the other children’s birthday parties. She didn’t join groups that met after school, either, but instead rode the canyon bus home each day, sitting alone most of the time. At school she worked independently or in a group when necessary, neither happy nor unhappy but rather content with life in the moment. She played with other children at recess but never made a close friend, never stayed overnight at anyone’s house or invited friends home. She did well enough in her classes that her teachers never worried about her; she answered when called on and turned in her work on time. They never needed to send notes home. Indeed, she was as normal, bright, and thriving as they wished any child could be. As to her future, they gave it little thought. If she became more of a loner as she grew up, they recognized her self-sufficiency and didn’t worry.
The spring before Riverine turned eighteen, her parents disappeared. Her mother had not been well all winter and Riverine’s father was worried. He always said that her mother’s heart was too big for her own good. Why else would she choose a good-for-nothing fellow like me? he’d joke with a wink. But then he would turn serious. Sometimes, he’d say, her heart needs a rest. Only days before, he had told Riverine that her mother might need help and the girl agreed, so she wasn’t surprised when one day she returned home to find them gone. Except for grocery shopping or a quick trip to the hardware store for some bulky necessity, they rarely took the truck. They preferred to walk miles along the river to the bridge that crossed into town. And now the truck was gone too. As Riverine went about her after-school chores, she listened for their return. But when night fell, she began to worry that they had left for something more than a shopping trip.
Feeling like an intruder, Riverine went into her parents’ bedroom. As always, the bed was neatly made with the old Goose Tracks quilt on top, sewn by her mother from scraps she’d saved in her sewing basket for years. When Riverine was little, she liked to point to the different fabrics to hear what they had been in an earlier life.
That was your first dress, her mother would say. Or, That was your father’s favorite work shirt when we moved to the cabin.
Now the pieces lay together on the bed, silent without her mother to speak their names.
Riverine opened the door to the small closet in the corner of the bedroom. Clothes still hung on hooks and hangers but the overnight bag that usually sat on the top shelf was gone. Riverine ran her hand along the shelf to be sure the bag hadn’t been pushed to the back. Nothing. She looked on the floor among the shoes and boots neatly lined up in rows. No bag there either. Riverine knew her parents wouldn’t have taken it unless they planned to be away for a while.
Sitting down on the bed, Riverine saw her own reflection in the dresser mirror. She looked the same as she always had: same dark, wavy hair curling around her shoulders, same dark eyes seeking what was true. Her eyes scanned the room for clues. Her mother’s brush lay on top of the dresser, along with the lotions and herbal remedies her mother made from plants on their land. Under the brush lay a folded piece of paper. Riverine wasn’t sure she should read it. Maybe it said something that wasn’t meant for her. But given the strangeness of her parents’ absence, her curiosity—or was it fear? —drew her to the note.
Unfolding it, she found only two lines of numbers written in bold, black lines:
Like a code or a cipher, the marks surely meant something important for Riverine to know. She searched her memory but couldn’t remember any connection to what the numbers might mean. Instead, she remembered how her parents loved to write notes to each other in code. It was their way of keeping secrets from her but also of sharing a private game between just the two of them. Riverine remembered her parents giggling together by the fireplace on dark winter nights. In the picture of them in her mind, she saw her mother holding a blue notebook on which she wrote notes she would pass to Riverine’s father, who made a big show of crossing out what was written there and laughing. Riverine’s mother would pretend to protest, but her eyes would be smiling. Where was that notebook now? Maybe it held a clue.
Riverine looked through the drawer of the desk in the corner of the living room where her mother kept the notebook, but it wasn’t there. Nor was it in any of the other desk drawers. Next Riverine searched the bookshelf by the woodstove. Woolf, Whitman, Morrison, and other family favorites lined up as they always had on the shelf, but no notebook joined them. So now she had three mysteries to solve: Where was the notebook? What did the code mean? And most importantly, where were her parents?
These questions were big, but an even bigger, scarier question lurked behind them in the shadows so deep and dark in her mind, she could hardly bring herself to ask it. Yet there it was, impossible to avoid: Would they return? Riverine wasn’t sure, but, for now, she would wait. She wasn’t a child, after all. She would be eighteen soon, an adult who could live on her own. Her parents had taught her self-sufficiency, a trait they emphasized as much as anything she learned in school. She knew how to take care of herself. Until they returned, she resolved to do just that. Yet she couldn’t help but worry that something was wrong.
As her first days alone passed without her parents’ return, Riverine kept busy going to school, tending the new garden, and cooking simple meals for herself. Through it all, she thought about the numbers in the note left on her parents’ dresser. If they had written the note in code, maybe that meant they were afraid someone other than she would find it. Her parents were always hesitant to involve others in their business. They kept to themselves, except when they needed something at a little shop in town or when they ventured out to Riverine’s school programs.
She’d looked at the two rows of numbers so many times, she knew them by heart.
The number was too long for a lock combination. Could it be a number for a bank or other account? Riverine didn’t think so. Her parents liked codes in which numbers stood for letters. The numbers must stand for words in some way. The fact that it included the number one seemed important. In codes where numbers could be substituted with letters, sometimes the letter corresponding to number one was the key to the whole code.
If the code were meant for her, Riverine figured, it might contain a word that was personal to her. She stared at the rows of numbers again and then closed her eyes, trying to bring a pattern into view. In the second line, the first and fifth letter were repeated, as were the second and sixth and the fourth and last, with eight letters altogether. Three pairs of repeated numbers. Three pairs of repeated letters. Somehow that pattern seemed both unusual and familiar. Think, Riverine, think. Her mind moved back in time to when she was a very young child sitting at the table with a pad of paper and thick pencil, learning to write her name. An eight-letter word with three repeated pairs of letters: two Rs, two Is, two Es. Her name had been especially easy to spell because of those pairs. Riverine. And, of course, that word made perfect sense as the key to a code left by her parents. For what word would be more personal to her than her name?
Excited, Riverine took a piece of paper and pen from the top desk drawer and wrote the alphabet across the top. Then she wrote a 1 next to the R, 2 next to the S, and continued through the entire twenty-six letters. Next, she wrote her name in a vertical line with the corresponding number from the substitution list.
R = 1
I = 18
Riverine laughed. It matched! The first row was her name. Not such a hard code, after all, and probably a code that anyone with a little skill could solve. Why not just leave her a note with the message rather than code it? It was just like her parents to challenge her a bit while protecting the note from any casual interloper. Now all she needed was the second line, and that was easy since she had the key.
Riverine, hang tight. So that was it. The note was just for her eyes alone. Her mother and father were telling her not to worry and to stay where she was until they returned. She was glad she had followed her intuition and not reported them missing. Solving the code for the note made her feel better, but now that she knew they had left purposefully and had taken the time to communicate with her, the bigger worries came back.
Questions and more questions formed in her mind. Why did her parents leave her? Where did they go? When would they return?
On top of those practical questions, she couldn’t help but wonder about matters that were much more personal, anxieties that tore through her heart, as well as her mind: Did they still love her? Did they still care about her? How did they know she would be all right without them?
And then the hardest question came, the one she tried not to let into her mind on the dark nights she lay alone in the cabin and cried: How would she possibly go on alone?
In the months that followed, Riverine turned eighteen and finished high school. She was sad that her parents had missed these milestones. Still, she went about her days as if her parents would soon return. In town, no one mentioned their disappearance, but they kept an eye on the young woman, just in case. People in little towns like that might gossip, but they don’t interfere. If Riverine minded living alone, she didn’t show it.
In truth, she wasn’t really alone, for Riverine made friends along the river with creatures who counted on the river as much as she did. Muskrats dug their burrows deep into the banks of the river, leaving holes for Riverine to find. If she sat on a rock near the water, she wouldn’t wait long before a muskrat swam by, its nose poking above the current and its long tail streaming behind. Muskrats were friendly creatures and industrious. They didn’t mind Riverine greeting them from time to time as they trundled food into their cozy homes.
Many of Riverine’s friends were of the avian variety, from the tiny finches that nested in the trunk of hollow trees to the great-horned owls that hunted from the giant cottonwoods along the water. Sometimes a crow would perch on the railing of her porch and caw for her to come and play. Crows are smart birds; they recognize human faces. Riverine knew they recognized hers and trusted her, too. When she left food scraps on top of the tall stump near her cabin, the crows let her come near to watch as they tossed the bits back and forth between them as if it were a game.
One day a striped cat showed up at Riverine’s cabin, its ribs seen through its gray fur. It meowed loudly until Riverine came out to see what all the commotion was about.
Who are you and where did you come from? she asked the cat. You’re lucky you found me before a coyote found you.
A saucer of milk and a blanket by the woodstove was all it took for Lucky Cat to move in and keep Riverine company. Riverine kept an eye on Lucky to protect her feathered friends, but she also knew nature made its own arrangements for creatures and their rivalrous needs.
One summer day, a letter arrived in her mailbox in town, informing her that her property taxes had been paid through the next assessment. In her worry at her parents’ disappearance, Riverine hadn’t even thought about something as practical as taxes. She’d never had to take care of transactions like that before—her parents had always kept track of such necessities. She’d been paying other bills like electricity and groceries from a bank account she’d shared with her parents, one that, she’d discovered, had a comfortable balance for her to live simply. Her parents had never spent much money and most everything they’d earned from their crafting and handy jobs had been put in the bank.
Riverine was curious, though, about how her taxes had been paid. She went to the town clerk’s office to inquire. All they could say was that because her name, along with her parents’ names, was on the deed to the property, in their apparent absence she owned it free and clear, and tax payment had been sent from a private fund through the local bank. But when she went to the bank for answers, all they could say was that her parents had established this property fund years ago—many years before they disappeared, in fact. All tax bills were sent to the bank and paid from the fund. They couldn’t tell Riverine how much was in the account, only that it should be sufficient for decades to come.
And then Riverine knew that, whether her parents had left her intentionally or not, they had provided for her in this forethoughtful way. She hoped it brought them comfort, wherever they were, to know the land would remain in her hands. She resolved more strongly than ever to stay in her cabin near the river, no matter what it took to survive.
How had Riverine’s parents gotten the cabin? Did they win it in a card game, inherit it from a grandmother, steal it in a land swindle, barter it in exchange for a horse? As far as Riverine knew, they had never been outlaws, but she had always suspected they’d been running away from something. Perhaps their families disapproved of their pairing—one dark-skinned and the other not. Riverine knew nothing about her grandparents or any family members. Her parents never spoke of them and would only say that no one was left when Riverine had asked as a child.
As she grew up, Riverine liked to imagine her parents stumbling upon the cabin in their hippie days and deciding to make it their home. Maybe they had thrown their sleeping bags down on the leaf-strewn floor their first night, trying not to hear the rustlings of mice. In the coming weeks, they would plant a garden, dredge the well, fix the pump at the kitchen sink, clean the outhouse, chop wood, and chink between the logs to keep out the dry wind. They worked hard for months until one day they knew they had made the land their home.
Whoever had built this cabin picked the right location: this site had water, light, trees, and a sunny spot for growing food. It was far enough from the river and high enough above it for protection when it flooded, which it did during snowmelt each spring. When the weather warmed, it released all the water stored each winter in the form of snow. Sometimes it roared down the river as a torrent, picking up boulders that smashed the riverside along the way. Other times, it rushed less tempestuously, placidly overflowing its banks without threatening their solidity.
Alone, Riverine suspected her parents had been looking for peace and quiet, a place to be together in the ways only they understood. When they found the cabin, it became theirs. The land title said so, but not how they came by it. At some point, they added her name to the deed. Now it was Riverine’s. And her parents, wherever they were, were helping her keep it.
Riverine knew from school that other young people went out into the world for college or travel or a job. She had talked about those things with her parents but had never made any certain plans. She’d thought she had plenty of time for that. Things were different than she imagined but the note to her had been clear. Hang tight. The world would wait. For now, Riverine decided she would stay.
Whenever Riverine went to the river, she brought a small offering in a pocket or small bag she wore at her side. Sometimes a nut, a leaf, or a piece of bread baked in the old woodstove, these tokens spoke of her gratitude for the river’s relentless power to shelter her, even while it contained the threat of deluge within its banks. Each time she approached the river’s edge, she knelt before the bubbling water with words of thanks before letting the gift slip from her fingers into the dark stream to make its way below. In these moments, Riverine felt the river’s presence as a living thing with a spirit of its own and she believed it understood her and knew why she must stay. The river was like a mother in its constancy but not a mother in its fickle whims. Riverine learned to live with both.
Spring was a busy time with the planting of the garden, the cleaning out of winter’s passing, and the tending of the creatures with whom she shared her land. She wore her mother’s old wool sweater while she turned over the soil and worked in the compost that had percolated all winter beneath the snow. She weeded the spinach started in the garden the previous fall, now reaching for spring sunshine and glowing green against the brown earth. As soon as the tender young leaves were as big as her hand, she would pick the spinach and barter with a woman in town for eggs that she would use to make an omelette. The hens, too, were emerging from their winter’s rest when the short daylight hours bring a respite from egg laying until longer days signal eggs again.
As Riverine worked the soil, she watched for birds returning from their winter holidays in warmer climates. She watched for nests in the tree branches and long grasses along the river. She listened for their calls.
When the trees broke into blossom, she kept an eye on the weather and the buds. A hard frost too late in the spring could kill the tiny fruit trying to become an apple or a pear. A nip in the bud meant no delicious fruit or cider for Riverine, but it also meant no food for the bears in the fall. She hated to think of those hungry bears roaming down to town to rummage in people’s trashcans. Too many bears were lost that way.
But for now, the weather and the buds held. Riverine seeded her spring garden with more spinach and lettuce, peas and radishes. As she dropped the seeds into the furrows, she recited an old verse her mother had taught her: One for the rook, one for the crow, one to let rot, and one to let grow. She smiled at these words of long ago because they still held true. Planting seeds felt like holding her breath. Each spring, she counted on the sun and rain to do their work and promised the seeds she would do hers too. Until her tiny plants grew, she picked dandelion greens for a bitter salad with the minerals she craved now that spring was finally here. And as she watched the plants re-emerge from their winter’s sleep, she tried to puzzle out her own emergence, too.
When Riverine turned nineteen, she decided that her parents would never be coming home. She knew that she had to quit waiting for them to walk through the door of the cabin, had to quit looking up at the slightest sound, had to quit watching for their arrival by the river or the road. They were gone, she was sure, trusting her to make her way. Still, she missed them. The cabin was lonely without their steady presence. Why did they leave so suddenly? And where could they have gone? Riverine supposed she would never know. Hang tight, they had told her. Hang tight to her memories is perhaps all they meant. Her heartache now became a familiar, even welcome, presence; she carried it inside her every day to keep her parents close to her heart.
Riverine peered over the edge of the sharp bank that cut along the river twelve feet below. This was one of her favorite places to fish. The river pooled here in a pocket where some long-ago flood had sheered the thrust of crumbling land. Careful near the edge, she cast her line into the circle below her. She knew that fish liked to gather there in the sun’s warmth; on this sunny day in early spring, perhaps some fish would be ready for her bait.
But she wasn’t there to fish. Instead, she asked the river for answers to the same questions she always brought to its shadowy depths: Why am I here? Why am I alone? Shall I stay? If I leave, where will I go?
And, as always, the river was silent except in its rushing and rippling, as swift water will do. But she knew what it would have said if it could: You must find the answers to these questions yourself.
Riverine understood something of the world beyond her cabin. In school, she had studied geography. She played guess-the-spot-on-the-globe games; she drew maps of places near to her and far, far away. She learned about continents, oceans, and countries, just as any child in school would learn. She wasn’t naïve. She knew the world was a fantastic planet of breathtaking beauty and devastating risks, but she hadn’t traveled to experience these things for herself. Until their final departure, her parents never left the river. Now that she was on her own, she knew she could leave, if she wanted to, yet something tied her to this place. At least for now.
And so, she waited for the seasons to pass as her future arose to meet her.
By the time summer broke, Riverine knew green. She saw in green as many hues as the plants growing all around her. She knew the dazzling chartreuse of mountain locust and cottonwood along the river; the earthy sage of shrub willow and shimmering tea of river grasses; the mossy green of alder and the midnight green of birch. She knew the cool jade blue of dusky spruce and the cat’s emerald eye of fir.
As Riverine made her way up the narrows of the canyon past the earthen dam built so long ago it had become part of the landscape, she kept the river in her sights. She knew the terrain of these woods as well as she knew her own land’s topography, but she liked to hear the clamor of the current as she walked along. The weather was warm for June; the cool shade of the trees kept Riverine to a leisurely pace. Even in her mom’s old boots, she could feel the spring of each step on the decomposing needle and leaf humus of the forest floor. Against the river’s song, she listened for animals and birds moving about like the squirrels and jays that kept her company each day. Sometimes, if she were lucky, she’d see the silvery flash of a mink dodging between rocks, or even luckier, the spotted coat of a bobcat padding gently between the trees as it hunted for rabbits, the favorite prey of this stealthy feline. The river was a conduit for all the woods creatures in this canyon. They made their way up and down the river as they searched for food and shelter. Riverine realized that, like them, she followed the river this way, to get from one place to another.
The river was wide, but not so wide that Riverine couldn’t see a coyote nosing the water on the other side. It was too deep to wade across and too fast for swimming, except in pools along the bank where the water sat quietly for a time before moving on. Riverine watched the coyote eying the river before it turned and disappeared among the boulders. Its retreat from the water was a wise one, she thought. Sometimes, in a dry fall when most of the snow water had already run through the canyon and had not been replenished by rain, the river was low enough for Riverine to venture a swim, but she didn’t go far from shore. She respected the river, and loved it, knowing it was a wild thing that could not be tamed, nor would she dream of that taming. Rivers, she knew, had their own mind with thoughts that flowed in rhythms only the current could understand.
On the hottest day of the summer, Riverine sat with her heels on the sand while her hands played in the water, scooping the small stones from the bottom into her cupped palms and letting them fall through her fingers again. As always, feeling the water against her skin cooled her mind. Sometimes the feeling that she should leave this place became too much for her to bear. She knew she could leave if she wanted to, even though she never had a destination in mind, but the question she couldn’t answer was whether she must leave to live her own life. So much of the river bound her to this place and this life. She had never really known more than the constant sound and the feel of the water flowing near her. She knew each sturdy tree that grew between the river and her house as if they were her family. She knew the rocks that dotted the land and the plants that provided for her. But she was a human and weren’t humans made to travel to new countries, to keep on the move rather than settle in place? And if she did go, where would she go? She had no desire to leave, in truth. It was only the voices of other people—of society, whatever that meant—that made her suspect her rootedness was wrong.
In the fall, Riverine scouted the riverbanks for the branches she would need for the baskets she wove through the long, cold weeks of winter to sell in town through the rest of the year. In the woods she foraged cottonwood, willow, ash, alder, and the evergreen pine, spruce, and fir. From each tree she took what was most beautiful and useful. From willow she took red and yellow shoots. From the deciduous trees she gathered stout boughs and supple lashes; from the conifers, she harvested supple needles and woody cones. She collected the berries and seed pods of wild flowering plants, too, to add texture and color to her works.
Each winter sitting by the fire in the steady woodstove, she wove baskets and more baskets. It wasn’t as if people couldn’t buy something cheaper at any of the big box stores that just sold stuff. Or couldn’t find shelves of baskets at thrift stores, baskets that once held flowers or biscuits or books. Riverine had learned from her parents that those baskets had been turned out by low-paid workers in third-world countries, basket after basket after basket. They were functional and easy to give or throw away. Their materials were cheap, too, and the designs basic. Just turn and twist the materials in the same way, over and over again.
But Riverine’s baskets were works of art that delighted the tourists who stopped in the little town before heading up the canyon to the national park and resort town above. She used only materials that she gathered, choosing each branch and twig with care. As she wove, she let each basket tell her how it wished to be shaped. No two were alike. To Riverine, each had a personality, and each included some piece of the land on which she lived. Each carried a part of the river, too, in the fiber nourished and strengthened by the river water seeping below its banks.
Finally one morning, watching the clouds draw across the sky like snowy curtains draping the sun, Riverine thought, “Let winter come.” She had just finished stacking the wood she’d need for the storm when the first flakes began to fall. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow, she sang to the chickadees in the nearby bushes. The song came from somewhere in her childhood, as they often did. Music had been her favorite class; she still went about her chores humming old tunes. Her parents had loved music, too, and often sang together as they worked. Living alone now, it helped Riverine to remember those days, the way her cheeks flushed as she ran for the bus that came down the dusty road to pick her up a mile from their place. How cold her feet would get in rubber boots no matter how thick her socks. How happy she felt when the teacher praised her voice and her ability to remember all the words. And how proud she felt when her parents ventured out to school programs to watch her sing. Looking up at the gathering snowstorm, she missed them once again.
As the winter snow drifted against the cabin door, Riverine hibernated. Winter was made for quiet, for rest, for minimizing activity except for what was truly needed: stoking the woodstove with its simmering kettle of soup. Riverine had learned from her parents and her animal neighbors to be prepared for winter. She kept the wood pile inside the door stacked to the ceiling for days and nights when leaving the cabin was inconvenient, at best, and dangerous, at most.
This New Year’s Day dawned to gray light with no sound, as if the cabin were swaddled in wool. A foot of new snow muffled any noise, but no creatures were afoot to twitter and skitter as they did on warmer days. The river was silent under its crown of ice as the dim sun hid behind a curtain of snow. Riverine didn’t need to go anywhere. She boiled water for tea on the woodstove and curled up in her bed with her thoughts.
No one should live out there alone. How often she’d been told how dangerous the river was, especially in early spring when the snowmelt crashed against its banks. She knew about flooding and how to climb to safety when needed. But her home stood safely up the slope from the water’s edge. Still, she watched the river every day as it tossed and tumbled over the smooth rocks along its way and listened for a change in its song. No, she wasn’t worried about the river.
What worried her was the world beyond.
Outside is so big, Riverine thought, and inside is so small. But maybe that wasn’t always true. Riverine’s own house felt to her more like outside than inside. But inside other places like stores and offices felt small to her. Even parking lots seemed confining to Riverine. She wondered what made the difference. Why was the world so large near the river but so tiny in town?
Years ago, electricity had come from town all the way to her little house, but her radio often couldn’t pick up signals down through the canyon walls. She was curious about this new thing called “the internet” and supposed she’d look into that someday. She liked her seclusion but, as town trips grew farther and farther apart, she suspected she should stay in touch with the world somehow, despite how troublesome that world appeared. No wild place can be fully a refuge, not within its precarious state of insistent change. But Riverine knew in her heart that her home by the river was her refuge from a world she was hesitant to enter.
As the years without her parents passed, the loneliness of each quiet day dulled. Loneliness isn’t a disease. It isn’t an illness, but it can feel like one. Still, sometimes Riverine was so lonely, she thought she might die from the emptiness in her heart and the pang in the pit of her stomach. Every part of her ached to be held. But no one was there to hold her.
Riverine knew she had a choice. She could leave the river to live with other people. The folks in town would help her, she was sure, or she could go it alone, leaving without a trace. But she also knew she wanted to stay, even if it meant being alone forever. She was as much a part of this place as it was of her. Perhaps her parents had known that, too, and were counting on her to stay. That’s why they put her name on the title to the land. That’s why they left enough money for her to live on in a simple manner. That’s why they could leave her here alone. Hang tight. She knew they trusted her to take care of this place. But a tiny spark in the depths of Riverine’s heart hoped they would return someday to join her.
And always she felt the pull of the river, its sheer relentless current like a dizzying tug on time without end.
Winter passed and another spring swept its fresh air across the land. Riverine planted her garden and watched the animals emerge from their snowy sleep. Like a story writing its next chapter, the world turned green, and the river swept through her dreams. Wherever Riverine went, from the moment she woke to the moment she fell into sleep, the river was there, guiding and embracing her, reminding her that she was not alone. The river was her companion. Even when it was angry and dark and overwhelmed her with its power, it never abandoned her. The thrumming of the water matched the pulse of the blood in her veins. Ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom, it pounded against the rocks and the roots that lay along the riverbank, never ceasing, only slowing down or speeding up in response to the clouds opening or the season waning. Even when the ice formed on the surface of the river, the water underneath pulsed and coursed like blood under thick, calloused skin.
Riverine thought of words for the movements of water: splash, ripple, surge, or gush. Brooks babble and gurgle, but rivers don’t. There is no word for the sound of a river, thought Riverine, because it’s not just a sound, it’s a feeling in the body as well as a sound in my ear and there’s no word that can capture both those senses.
And, what’s more, she thought, the sound changes all the time, yet is also ongoing. Today I will call it incessant, a word with the right sibilance, like water forming itself in the echo of a sound. Yes, she thought. Today incessant is the best word for a river.
On an early June evening, Riverine sipped the cold mint tea she’d brewed in the hot day’s sun and cooled in a jar at the river’s edge. The light cast shadows in long lines through the trees and tipped the grass with gold. It felt good to sit down and rest after a day of planting the tomatoes and peppers she’d started from seed in her windows. Every year she told herself she’d start fewer plants, but when it came time to put the seeds in the soil blocks, she thought of the long winter to come and worried about having enough food put by to make it through the snowy days when getting to town for supplies would be too difficult. She didn’t like to go to town in the winter by making her way down the icy canyon. Better to grow lots of tomatoes to can for her winter meals, even if it took a little more effort each summer to water, weed, and trellis them. The promise of spicy marinara or chunky vegetable soup made all the effort worthwhile.
And today she’d accomplished it all. Everything that needed to be in the ground by now was planted. She could sit back in the pine chair her father had built and relax in the late evening light with her mug of tea. Long after the birds quit calling across the treetops, she sat and celebrated the day. Not many jobs were as physically demanding as transplanting high summer vegetables. Every hole had to be dug by hand, each filled with rich compost from the pile near the barn/shed, and each plant carefully set into the holes and packed firmly. Once they were all planted, she pounded stakes at the end of the beds to hold the long, doubled strings through which she tucked the vines and leaves as the starts grew taller—several hundred plants in all.
Against the sound of the river’s passing at the bottom of the slope from her cabin, she heard the whirring of hummingbird and looked up quickly enough to catch the green flash of its feathers before it flittered off through the pines.
And then the nagging thought that, more and more, filtered up through the murky depths of her mind: would she still be here in the winter or was living alone in this remote place too hard anymore?
From the garden where she walked among the promising rows of tender vegetables and riotous flowers, Riverine sensed the coyote’s presence before she saw it in the shadow of the trees. Riverine was sure this was the same coyote she’d spotted several times near the water. The white, star-shaped mark on its forehead was unusual, as was the white tip trailing the black at the end of its tail. Riverine didn’t know whether the coyote was male or female, yet she suspected the latter because of the coyote’s smaller size. Either way, Riverine thought she should give this coyote a name since it seemed to turn up frequently near her home. Sirius, the Dog Star, one of the brightest in the night sky, seemed the obvious choice, a name of distinction for such a graceful and intelligent animal.
Riverine had seen the coyote for the first time when she drew water from the river for her garden one summer evening as the sun began to set behind the foothills. She loved this time between the day and night when the waning heat from the canyon walls met the coolness of the river and formed a new, third wave of air that drifted into and around her cabin. Sometimes she suspected she’d been waiting all day for its freshness. Only then did she water the thirsty plants, knowing they would drink deepest as the shadows began to fall between the trees. She opened all the windows to let in what she thought of as her sleeping air.
The coyote was young, its fur light and glossy, its body lean and agile. The coyote lay under a stand of scrub oak near the river and watched Riverine as she hauled water in a bucket back and forth from the river’s edge to the lush square near the small house. To the coyote, the woman didn’t appear a threat, yet the animal remained watchful, allowing only its eyes to move imperceptibly as they followed her steps.
Riverine, too, was watching the coyote from the corner of her eye, never staring or looking openly, avoiding any kind of challenge. She wasn’t afraid of coyotes but believed it best to give them wide berth, as did Lucky the cat when sensing a predator nearby. Riverine didn’t want to frighten the coyote and was, instead, curious to see one lying so quiet and close to her cabin, its calm demeanor perhaps signaling that it, too, was curious.
Back and forth Riverine went with her bucket until all the rows were watered. Then she poured water into an old bowl that lay outside the fence surrounding her garden to keep away munching deer and bothersome raccoons. She knew the coyote could drink from the river but thought it might enjoy lapping some cool water from a pottery bowl after she went inside. After filling it, she gave the coyote a small smile before slowly turning her back to the animal and walking away. Once inside her cabin, she kept an eye on the garden through the windows and the last of the light but didn’t see the coyote come to the bowl. Even so, in the morning, the bowl was empty; the water was gone.
Before she went to sleep each night, except on the coldest nights when even the thickest blanket couldn’t ward off a wintery chill, Riverine opened the window near her bed so she could hear the river as she fell asleep. Tonight was warm in her little upstairs room, more like a closed loft perched above the living area than a proper bedroom, but it had been hers since she was a child and it felt right to sleep in her own bed rather than in the bigger bed that her parents had slept in downstairs. Through Riverine’s window, the cool air circulated through the treetops like a fan blowing fresh pine air across her face. The river rushed along the banks like it always did, murmuring the song that lulled her to sleep each night. How would she sleep, she wondered, without a river singing in the dark? She had never tried sleeping without its beautiful song in her ears as she drifted into the dark.
But tonight, she heard another sound above the river’s rush: the yipping and crying of a lone coyote. Yip yip yip Ah-Oooooo, it cried three times and then paused for a few moments before starting its night call again. Yip yip yip Ah-Ooooo. Riverine got out of bed to look for the coyote. In the moonlight near the garden, she saw its silvery coat and nodded her head toward its glow. The coyote sang one more time, its snout raised in the air, its eyes blazing toward where she stood. Could it see her in the dark? she wondered. Then, like a shadow, it passed into the depths of the woods. Riverine waved to the retreating shape. Maybe she wasn’t as alone as she thought, after all.
Riverine did not or could not fit in with those who lived in town and their busy ways. She didn’t want to be alone, but neither did she make the effort to find friends. Even when she was younger and in school, she was a loner. Living in the canyon, she wasn’t the only child outside the town’s boundaries, but she was quiet and didn’t join in the boisterous merriment of the other kids on the mountain bus that picked them up each morning along the winding road and dropped them off again at the end of the school day. She’d found no kindred spirit with whom she could open her heart, except among the animals that kept her company as they came and went from the river’s edge.
Riverine might have lived like this forever by the river that wound its way through the rocky mountain channels lined by trees, but something has to happen in a story. Maybe Riverine would set out on a journey, except she loved her home too much to leave. Or a stranger might come to town, as they often do. And that’s exactly what happened one fine summer day.
On a town trip to the small general store where Riverine exchanged baskets for groceries, she noticed a new woman behind the deli counter, a woman about Riverine’s age, an age with experience behind it but still new paths to travel. The woman’s tight, dark curls and violet eyes stirred memories in Riverine of her own mother, fading memories that Riverine struggled to keep.
Never one to pry, Riverine glanced shyly at the woman, who looked up from slicing cheese with a friendly grin that sent a little jolt through Riverine’s heart, a new feeling that she both welcomed and hesitated to admit.
Can I help you?
No, thank you. I’m just here to bring my baskets.
Oh, you’re the basket maker. I love your work. Your baskets are gorgeous. I’ve never seen anything like them. They look . . . alive. I wish I could do something like that.
Riverine smiled. Thanks, but it’s not hard. I just let the basket tell me what to do. I’ll show you sometime, if you like.
Riverine was surprised at herself. She’d never offered basket-making lessons to anyone in town.
I’d love that. Maybe this weekend? I have it off.
Riverine told her how to find her cabin and left the store before she could change her mind. Then she realized she hadn’t asked the woman her name. Just another thing to look forward to learning about her, she thought.
Riverine wasn’t sure the woman would come, but, just in case, she made some biscuits and put a clean tablecloth on the table, its rose border faded and patched over time. She quickly straightened up the cabin, washing the few dishes and putting them in the cupboard as she normally did each morning. She swept the floor, too, and even the porch, just in case.
Then, because she wanted to keep busy to pass the time, she got out her basket-making supplies and the little basket she’d started after her trip to town and sat in the porch in the sunshine with her worktable in front of her. Her baskets were usually larger than this one; they were meant to be used, after all. But this little basket was different. Made entirely of long needles from a mountain pine, it seemed more a nest than a basket. Inside, Riverine placed the soft padding from burst milkweed pods she’d gathered one fall. The basket reminded her of a tiny nest she’d found abandoned in the long grass near her cabin. Weaving the layers of pine needles together required intricate focus, and it took Riverine’s mind off the anticipated visit and possible disappointment. The morning passed quickly enough; the basket lay finished. What might it hold? Perhaps nothing, Riverine thought. It was perfect just as it was. Not every basket she made must be built for carrying. Some could be for beauty alone. Whether it would sell was another matter. Well, she thought, she would see.
As Riverine sat looking at the basket, she sensed someone’s approach through the trees along the shady path before she heard a voice calling, Hello! Hello! There was the woman in a long skirt and soft shirt with silken sleeves like airy wings. She stopped at the porch and held up one of Riverine’s picnic baskets.
I couldn’t resist this one, she said. And I hope you’ll show me how you made it. My name’s Lyra. And I know you’re Riverine because I asked at the store.
Nice to meet you, Lyra. I was just about to have lunch. Would you care to join me?
The two women smiled at each other as Riverine held the door open for Lyra to enter the cabin, her first guest in years, one who was soon to become a friend, someone to laugh with, cook with, and hike with in the canyon through the long summer days. Hours later when Lyra left, the tiny basket was nestled in the larger one.
Riverine’s fingers felt raw, too raw to make baskets today. The dry winter air bit her hands as she dug the last carrots out of the snow-soaked soil, as she rinsed her clothes in the creek, as she struggled to nail plexiglass over the windows in the chicken coop, as she chopped the prickly vines of the squash with her hoe to decompose into the soil. She must get everything done today before the first hard freeze hit the land. She had already harvested the ripe tomatoes, but it was too early to lose the rest to a killing frost. As she tied the canvas corner with twine to the stakes that propped up the plants, she resolved to try to bring them through this chilly blast. Protecting the plants meant more deep red jars of sauce in the pantry to get through the winter.
Secretly, though, Riverine blessed the cold that brought Lyra to the cabin for both days and nights. It would be easier for Lyra to live at the cabin, they decided, than to fight the snow all the way to town and back. When the winter set in, she would leave her job at the store, which was quieter in the winter without so many mountain tourists. Providing for two people worried Riverine even more about the coming season. How would they get through the long days and nights of cold and snow? They had chopped wood, but was the pile large enough? They had canned vegetables, but did they have enough food to last the winter? They had hauled provisions from the store in the bigger town, but were they enough?
As if the week hadn’t been hard enough with a surprise frost, Riverine twisted her ankle on the way back from the garden. Now it was swollen and blue and hurt when she tried to walk. She rubbed it with the comfrey salve she’d made from the herb that grew in her garden and beeswax from last summer’s hives in the hope the swelling would diminish and then bound it with a strip of an old tablecloth she’d saved. Holding onto the edge of her chair, she stood and hopped to the stove to fix their evening meal. With only two of them to get all the work done, she couldn’t afford to lie around. Lyra came into the room.
Here—let me do that!
Riverine shook her head. No, I’m fine.
OK—but how about we move the chair over here so you can prop your knee on it for a little support?
That was just like Lyra—so practical in her caregiving—the engineer meeting the nurse, always thinking about how a better or more efficient way to do things. They made a good team. Behind that problem-solving exterior, however, Lyra’s heart could be glimpsed. Her gestures were always born of caring, not just logistical exercises.
As Riverine chopped onions and carrots from their garden, Lyra sat down to sketch her plans for a lean-to for storing vegetables and keeping their wood dry. They would construct it of logs, with a thick layer of branches for the roof, chinked with mud and moss to make it waterproof. Lyra loved having a project. If one didn’t come along in their immediate needs, she would daydream one up instead. The lean-to had been on their list since the summer. With the frost’s lull, they could start planning it in the hope of building it before winter fully set in.
Did I ever tell you about the time I built a playhouse for myself out of scrap lumber I stole from a construction site down the street from my house?
Lyra had grown up in a city and had street smarts for surviving on what was available. Waste not, want not was her mantra, whether it was nails or onions. She’s always been a scavenger but now, her scavenging came from the woods rather than a city block.
Now her plans came bubbling out: If we can dig holes for the two outer posts, we can notch the logs like this for the crossbeams. We’ll have to attach a header to the cabin, too, to support them. It doesn’t have to be heavy—just stout enough to hold up the roof.
Riverine looked up from the soup pot. She loved watching how Lyra’s mind worked in steps from A to B to C. Riverine was more of an opportunist than a planner, but they both believed in their abilities to make life easier here.
What about shelves? she asked. We’ll have to split some boards.
Yes, or we can lay thinner branches across the brackets I’ll build. That should do for holding jars.
Luckily, Riverine’s parents had left plenty of jars and the women found others in the recycle bins in town. All they had to buy were new rings and lids, which they bartered for with vegetables or baskets at the little store where Lyra would work until winter set in.
When the first storm spread heavy snow through the canyon and around the cabin two feet deep, the women were cheered to think of the dry wood, hardy vegetables and preserves now stored in the shed of their making. The winter would be long, but they weren’t alone. They had books to read and soups to simmer and baskets to weave. The winter would pass in quiet companionship and comfort. The heavy snow muffled any sounds from the road and the water under the river’s ice was muffled too.
Standing by the fire in the woodstove that neatly heated the entire cabin, Lyra put her hands on Riverine’s shoulders, leaned in, and kissed first one cheek and then the other. Then she closed her eyes and placed her forehead on Riverine’s. I love you, Riverine, she said. And then she pulled back and smiled.
Riverine looked into Lyra’s violet eyes with serious intent of her own. If anyone could see into Riverine’s heart, they’d know it was beating faster than it had ever beat before. Riverine kissed Lyra once on each cheek and smiled back. I love you too, she said. And then the women laughed.
Let’s make dinner, said Riverine, and they did.
Like many of their friends in the forest, the women burrowed into winter in a home made ready by their hands. Until one day, the winter lay spent and the green of spring rose to meet the blue of sky. The women emerged from the cabin in the brilliant sunshine and knew that change was underway. They had never spoken of the spring, not exactly, but each had sensed in the other’s hesitancy to speak of the future that the winter had been their time. The spring was not. Lyra had places to go and commitments to keep. What this meant for Riverine was not yet clear, yet she knew she had to let her friend go. On the day Lyra left, she took Riverine’s hand in her own as she made a solemn promise: As surely as the seasons pass from one to the next, I will return.
The river was time and time was the river flowing like a clock without a face. There was no one moment of stasis in its current but rather a union of moment and movement, each ebb and flow simultaneous and subsequent to the other as time and space collided, their striking over before it had even begun.
A story, like a river, is a meandering thing, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes spare, sometimes full. If you hold on through the twists and turns, you’ll be carried downstream from where you started.
But while a river runs until it reaches the ocean, a story runs until it reaches the end.
Some endings are just another beginning.
As Riverine continued to live alone by the river, her voice came to hold the traces of many voices: the whisper of stones over which the river washed; the chirp of the chipmunk scurrying among the rocks; the sigh of the clouds moving across the sky; the howl of the coyote at the dog star in winter; the rattle of dry leaves in the wind, and more. Her voice was the opposite of silence, a rich, deep sounding, melodious and full. In town, few heard her voice, but those who did agreed: when Riverine calls to the river, it listens.
In September, the townsfolk came out to the river for a community picnic. Riverine, in her best jeans, joined the festivities. After lunch, Riverine and a few other partiers decided to walk upriver around the bend in the bluff to stretch their legs. The sunshine was perfect at this time of year—strong and warm with clouds dotting the sky. Riverine could hear insects buzzing through the drying grass at the river’s edge along which they ambled, searching for the last wildflowers or a pretty stone. At the mouth of the canyon, the river twisted and turned, including here, where the river disappeared temporarily behind a small hill. Coming around the other side, Riverine glanced up toward the mountains and then, she gasped. A thick, black cloud of smoke was rising from the canyon behind the first bluffs only miles away.
Look, she yelled to the others. We’ve got to run back to the cars! We’ve got to get out of here before the fire traps us in the canyon!
Shocked, the others froze for a moment while they considered Riverine’s words. Was she right? Could the fire reach them so quickly?
Go, go! she yelled, grabbing their arms and turning them back to where they had come. Call for help!
Seeing the smoke cloud rising higher in the sky, the people began to run. But suddenly they realized that the river had widened behind them as they’d walked, requiring a broader berth around the river as they ran. Was the river flooding? And why would it flood now?
Run! Run! Riverine called as she watched them rush toward the picnic area. Then she turned back to see if anyone had been left behind. One older gentleman stood upriver in the stream of now-rushing water with a glass jar in his hands, trying to fill it but why? Did he think he could put out the fire with a jar of water?
Get out of the river! she yelled as loud as she could, but he didn’t seem to hear her. As Riverine ran toward him, her terror grew. Now she saw that not only was the river flooding, but ice floes as big as boulders were crashing into rocks along the river’s edge. Strangely, two seals bobbed in the water. Riverine could not imagine where the ice or seals had come from, but she knew the man would be swept away if he didn’t get out now.
Get out! Get out! she screamed until he finally looked up at her with surprise. Get away! she yelled, but it was too late. The roiling water caught his legs, sweeping him farther into the current.
Grab onto a rock! I’ll go for help! Riverine shouted, but in his panic he had dropped the jar and was trying to swim. Riverine knew she couldn’t enter the water, now filled with glacial ice.
Grab on! We’ll find you! she yelled as she watched him swirl away. She couldn’t bear the thought that he was lost and she started to cry.
Grab on! Grab on! Riverine heard her own voice yelling in the dark. Why was she shouting? She opened her moist eyes. The dream had been so real, a nightmare of her two worst fears: flood and fire united in destruction of all that lived on the river. She had read about the threats a warming climate posed to the planet, and now she had seen how their measure might be met. She spent the day chopping wood, trying to shake the terror she had felt. What would she do if flood or fire or both threatened her land? She really didn’t know.
October settled into the canyon with its cool days and cooler nights. First frost had come and gone, leaving only root vegetables in the garden. Autumn’s burnished leaves had fallen from the deciduous trees, leaving only the conifers for color. In the forest, bare limbs stood in outline against the cloudy sky. Riverine kept chopping wood in earnest for the nearing winter. At the end of each day, her muscles ached but her mind was calmed. Surely, she could weather another winter here alone. For food and warmth, she was as prepared as she would ever be. For the rest, she had her memories to keep her company.
Since the disaster nightmare, Riverine’s dreams roiled her nights. Sometimes she dreamed she was all alone in an unfamiliar landscape, trying to find her way home. Other times she found herself swept along in vast crowds, fighting to be heard. As each day went by, she felt more and more unsettled by the dreams, but she didn’t know what to do about them. Perhaps she was worried about the winter, she decided, and chopped more wood as an antidote to fear.
Mid-October, the rain began to fall hard along the mountain corridor. It fell into the canyon and swelled the river that ran past Riverine’s cabin. She couldn’t remember a hard rain falling for such a long time. On the third day of the rainstorm, she went outside in her heaviest slicker and rubber boots to check the height of the current at the old dam up the river beyond the narrows. As she feared, the water was rising dangerously near the top. She wasn’t worried about her cabin, which lay uphill from the river, but she was worried about the river breaching the dam and overflowing its banks through the narrow canyon as it rushed downstream toward town. Haunted by her dream, she wondered if anyone there was paying attention to the rain and the river.
For one moment before Riverine turned toward home, she thought about going all the way to town, but she was afraid, if she did, she wouldn’t get back. Maybe there was another way to send a warning. Running as fast as she could in her heavy coat and boots, Riverine cut through the narrowest corridor of trees between the river and the road heading down the canyon to town until she reached the road itself. Maybe, if she were lucky, she could send a warning with a motorist.
She didn’t have to wait long before a pick-up truck stopped at the sight of a hooded woman in the road waving her arms. Riverine ran to the driver’s side and leaned in toward the unfamiliar face scrutinizing her through the now-opened window. Can I help you? Are you okay? the woman asked.
I’m fine but please stop in town at the little store to tell them the water is almost to the top of the dam. It may break! People should prepare for the worst!
Riverine’s urgency alarmed the woman, whose face turned from puzzlement to fear. I’ll let them know right away! Thank you! she cried as she put the truck in gear and began to pull back onto the road.
Hurry! Get out of the canyon before the road is underwater! Riverine called as the truck sped away. She watched the truck’s back lights winding down the canyon road for as long as she could see them through the rain. Then she turned back to the woods, worried about the nearby cabins built next to the river, not up a slope, like hers. It wouldn’t hurt, she decided, to visit the closest neighbors below her land and warn them about the swelling waters. Quickly, she strode through the trees to the few cabins below, knocking on doors and calling out warnings. These were summer places, though; no one was home.
Back at her cabin, she built up the fire and wrung out her soggy clothes. Hang tight, Riverine, she told herself. You’re safe here. Just wait. The rain can’t come down forever. And indeed, the storm seemed to let up that day; she hoped the downpour was near the end.
But by evening the rain had become another deluge. She went to bed with Lucky Cat beside her and a lonely heart. She was too old to wish for her parents. She’d supposed she was done with that heartache, but all alone with the rain lashing against the cabin, she found that her longing for them had never really left but was only buried more deeply. Mama, Papa, I‘m still here. As Riverine cried, she remembered nights when her mother would come to her room to comfort her. Taking the girl’s hand into hers and pressing it to her heart, she’d whispered, There’s nothing to be afraid of. Rain is the earth’s way of washing itself clean. Riverine knew that was true. Except tonight the deafening gale reminded her that the rain and the river were merging into something she had never witnessed before. Finally, she fell asleep with an appeal to the storm that, by morning, the river would be tamed in its banks.
During the night, Riverine woke to a noise she’d never heard before. At first, she thought something was knocking against her cabin, although she couldn’t imagine what would be large enough to make such a thunderous sound. She could hear the rain pounding against her roof in a downpour, but there was something else, too, something that didn’t sound right. And then, sitting up, she realized what she was hearing was the river roaring like she had never heard it roar before. With a quick check that Lucky Cat was asleep and safe, Riverine threw on her jeans, boots, and slicker, grabbed her largest flashlight, and ran out the door. She didn’t get far before the scene in front of her stopped her in her tracks.
From where she stood, she could see that the current was overflowing the banks with dark, rushing water spilling out across the land. But even worse, the water was full of trees and boulders dislodged by its sheer force upstream in the narrow part of the canyon where the river walls acted like a funnel for the falling rain. The dam, built of rock and earth so long ago, must have breached its embankments, forming a wall of water that burst through the rocky narrows of the canyon, throwing everything in its path downstream in the silty, roiling current. And as the debris slammed into the bank with echoing blows, it cut a deeper channel as the sides gave way.
Riverine stood and watched the flood in horrid fascination as it swept away everything in its path. She wondered about the animals in the trees and burrows along the river. Would they have recognized the danger and gotten out of harm’s way in time? She listened, trying to hear anything alive beyond the pounding of the debris and the mad rushing of the water.
And then she heard it, rising above the storm. Yip yip yip Ah-Oooooo. A coyote’s howl. Was it Sirius? Could the coyote be calling to her? Riverine tried to locate the direction of the cry. It seemed to come from across the river. She must get closer to see.
Walking carefully on the slick ground, Riverine approached the flood. The closer she got, the more she could see the devastation wrought by the churning water. She knew the bank itself, carved out from below by the boulders, might collapse; she approached it slowly, testing the ground in front with a stout limb she’d found thrown in her way. When she’d come as near as she dared, she shone the flashlight across the water, now a tempest tearing across the riverbed. Was the coyote out there somewhere? She listened as hard as she could.
Yip yip yip Ah-Ooooooo. Ah-Oooooo. It was out there and it sounded like Sirius. Through the rain, she trained the flashlight toward what she thought was the other side of the river but now could see was the middle. There, a rock outcropping that used to stand at the edge of the bank now thrust upward from the center of the flood’s furious flow. On top of those rocks sat the coyote, its nose pointed to the sky as it howled. She thought she could see the white star above its eyes. It could be Sirius. The coyote needed her help.
The water was so dangerously swift she knew she couldn’t swim. But maybe her canoe could make the distance. If she put in above the rocks, would the current carry her right to them? And would the coyote come with her? All she could do was trust the river and try.
The canoe lay by the garden, still out of the flood’s reach. She pulled it toward the bank just upstream of the rocks, looking for a place where the edge hadn’t collapsed but was still firm enough for safety, although what now counted as safe was a fool’s guess. She strapped on her life jacket and nosed her canoe into the stream, hoping no large debris was coming down the river toward her. In the final instant before she shoved off, she gave herself to the water with a steadfast plea: River, take me there. The canoe seemed to steady itself for a moment at the water’s edge until within seconds, the floodwaters grabbed it and shot it into the current and toward the rock outcrop below.
Riverine knew she couldn’t control the river. Its power was absolute; she could only ride it like a hawk rides the wind. But she thought she could use the paddle to steer toward the outcrop and then stop the canoe from slamming into the rocks. Her arms were strong from chopping wood. She grabbed the paddle and prepared to hit the approaching outcrop. She could see the coyote pacing on top as if gauging the danger. And then, the coyote saw the canoe with its rider, hair streaming in the wind and rain. Whether this strange apparition brought help or danger in the animal’s eyes, Riverine couldn’t guess. As she neared the rocks, she thrust one paddle in front of her and held it with as much strength as she could muster, hoping the canoe wouldn’t slam and splinter with the impact.
The paddle struck the rock hard, sending a shock through Riverine’s body, but it didn’t break. By some hand of grace, the water had delivered the canoe to the cabin-side of the rocks and into a small alcove that held the canoe against the outcrop. For the moment, the craft floated on the water, protected by the cavity. Riverine looked up to see the coyote gazing down at her, the star on its forehead shining in the night. Sirius! It was Sirius, after all! Riverine could only hope the coyote recognized her enough to trust her and this crazy scheme.
Suddenly, hard debris hit the side of the canoe, shoving it away from the rock and propelling it back into the current. Riverine screamed as loud as she could and held out her arms. Sirius! Jump! Now!
After the flood, Riverine’s days passed as simply as possible, stripped down to what most needed doing to clean up the land after the deluge. Under the fallen tree limbs and debris that had washed downstream, the land looked bright and moist. The water had deposited odd items from places upstream—a suitcase, a bicycle wheel, an umbrella—in the silt that had spilled over the banks and been deposited nearly as far as her garden. In a rough ball of twigs and leaves, she found a notebook torn clean from its cover, the paper edges tumbled into a soft, round, nest, the inky marks indecipherable in their gauzy script. She put it in her backpack, along with other curiously shaped rocks and sticks the flood had unearthed. As she worked, words from a favorite book played over and over in her mind: “A deep murmur sang in her ears—the land itself, singing to itself, a chorus, alone . . . Time had ceased.”
Of course, time had not ceased, but was only divided into before-the-flood and after. Riverine realized that changes were inevitable, both for the town and for her. Even though some homes and businesses, like the general store, hadn’t been destroyed, Riverine knew that nothing would ever be the same again. The town tried its best to return to what it had been before, but the flood brought attention to its quiet charm. Even before the damage had been cleared away, plans began to extend its boundaries. Soon younger people would start to build homes in a new subdivision at the old town’s edge. As former streets were rebuilt, sidewalks appeared where none had been before. Old-timers grumbled but young parents were glad their children could walk more safely to school and back. The town was no longer a quiet hamlet; the families who had lived there for decades would have to adapt.
Despite staying in one place her entire life, Riverine had lived a lifetime of changes. Didn’t the seasons pass from one to the next? Didn’t a storm pass, too, leaving a rainbow in its wake? With the constant pulse of the river in her blood, Riverine knew that she could adapt to the future wrought by the flood, as well.
In the waning days of autumn, Riverine worked to restore the natural landscape where the swollen river had jumped its bed to scour the land halfway to the cabin before returning to its former course, leaving rocks and silt spread across its path. Bushes had been ripped out by their roots and trees toppled like toothpicks along the ground. Upturned branches and roots lay tangled with debris and vegetation. One of the oldest pines, too stout and tall for the floodwaters to budge, was engulfed by a mountain of silt six feet up its trunk. This was a tree Riverine’s mother had loved for its handsome cones. She liked to gather and hang them filled with seeds under the porch eaves for the birds to feast upon each winter. Riverine was afraid the silt would harm the tree’s roots, so each day she spent some time digging and carrying the silt in her wheelbarrow back to the river to build up the bank where the flood had sheered the slope into a sharp-edged shelf.
One day, her shovel hit something hard in the ground below the silt. She kept digging until she uncovered a rock, which seemed to have a flat surface about a foot wide and long. Because it lay so level, Riverine doubted the rock had tumbled down the river in the flood, but she had never noticed a rock like this under the pine before. Could it have been buried under the thick bed of pine needles dropped by the tree all these years?
On her knees, Riverine ran her hand over the rock’s steely face, cleaning off the dirt to get a better look. As she rubbed, her fingers began to feel indentations on its smooth surface. She ran to the house for a bucket and drew water from the river to pour on the rock. With a heavy rag, she scrubbed the stone until lines began to appear. Excited, Riverine returned to the river for more water, carrying bucket after bucket to pour over the stone until it shone clear. And there, in deeply carved letters, was her mother’s name and two dates, one she recognized as her mother’s birth and the other for the day her parents had disappeared.
The rock was Mama’s gravestone, buried so long ago under the towering pine. Her father must have buried her mother here that day, preparing the stone beforehand, knowing the end of that big heart was near.
Riverine was stunned. She choked back tears. Her mother had always been with her, watching over her and the land. How could Riverine not have known her mother was nearby? Or maybe, somehow, she had. Maybe her need to stay was borne of knowing her mother, like the river, was helping her and keeping her from harm’s way. How else had she survived the flood? The shock of the loss took her breath away, but she felt, too, a kind of relief at least knowing her mother’s fate.
Then she remembered the ruined notebook she’d found nearby. Could it have belonged to her mother? Might her father have buried it with her? But when Riverine returned to the cabin to study the notebook, she couldn’t tell whether the faded writing on the damaged pages might have been her mother’s or not. Still, its appearance was too much a coincidence to ignore. She put the notebook back in the drawer where her mother had always kept it and silently forgave her father for not being able to stay on the land without the woman he loved. Someday, she would forgive him for leaving her too. For now, she would rest her sorrow in the knowledge that her mother had held her all this time in her long, loving arms.
The winter came and with it, a time for rest. Riverine had worked as hard as she could to restore the land for all the creatures who lived there, including herself. But she realized, too, that the flood had altered the land in ways she could not yet see. She could only wait for spring when new growth would bring forth life again. And so, another winter passed, but this time Riverine knew she was not so alone.
Spring arrived early that year. As she listened to the rushing of snowmelt through the river’s veins, Riverine planned a larger garden, with more to give away. The earth felt abundant in its new clothes, washed clean and ready to wear. If she had plenty, she could share.
On a cool blue morning, as Riverine wove baskets from her chair on the porch, she heard the coyote howling from the riverbank where it often perched in the sun. Why is Sirius howling in the daytime? she wondered. She looked up to see someone approaching the cabin and that someone was Lyra, shouting hello and waving her arms in velvet sleeves like glossy wings.
Riverine ran to meet her. You’re back! You’re back!
The women held each other and laughed and cried. I missed you, they said at the same time, and laughed and cried some more.
Lyra looked around. All her senses took in the beauty of the river and the woods beyond. She saw the damage wrought by the flood, but she saw regeneration too. New gaps in the trees opened the land to the sky, letting in light for plants to flourish that had languished in the shadows. With boulders swept downstream, Riverine had shaped the river’s edges into a sandy beach for fishing. The outcropping from which Sirius had jumped remained an island where the current parted around it in deep trenches.
The landscape had changed, but there was still no other place in the world like this. It had survived so much. Lyra made a promise to the land that, somehow, they would make sure it endured long after they were gone.
Riverine, it’s beautiful. She took her friend’s hand.
I’ve been away too long.
One evening as the moon is rising, a silhouette appears near the river like a shadow against the moonlight on the water’s surface. At first it seems the figure is one woman dancing alone. But if you look more closely, two women appear, their arms entwined as they sway, dreamlike, by the river’s edge.
Riverine hums a tune from her parents’ past, a song of the delta they had known and loved before coming to this river, a song that spoke of choice and chance at a moment when they yearned for both. In the moonlight cast across the water, Riverine looks into Lyra’s eyes.
I’ll always be here, Lyra.
And I will always return.
The moon holds its gaze as the night shimmers in translucent light. The past catches up with the present and sets the path toward the future as the women hold each other close. In this moment, being together in this place is all that matters. Against the murmur of the river, time stops while they dance.