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My canoe had come to a dead stop. Or at least I had thought so. The head waters of the Ashuelot River, deep in the New Hampshire pine forest, far, far away from any town, had broadened out since I turned the last bend and, with that, the waters slowed and slowed until they seemed to flow no more. I was tired from a day of hard paddling even though I was making my way downstream. It was a good day but now the sun had gone down and soon it would be dark. The bats were out, darting about, silent killers, hunting the hapless flying insects.


I should have rowed ashore and set up camp long ago. Yet, there was something special about the longest day of the year that seemed to stretch and stretch until you could not imagine it ending, like staring into the deepest part of this river, so clear yet its bottom was never quite in sight. But I knew this day would come to an end and I didn’t want to waste any of it. So, before I left this vantage point, I stared a bit across the still waters to the vast forest beyond the river’s edge. I saw a small beach.


I started to paddle to the beach but did not get two strokes in before I heard a tremendous commotion further downstream. A thrashing in the water. I jerked around. Someone appeared to be drowning. A good distance away. I turned the canoe around and attacked the water with my paddle.


As I got closer, I could see from her gasping face that it was a woman who was drowning. But with every stroke of my paddle, the commotion faded. The arms slowed. She went under, only a nose and mouth visible. I couldn’t see her anymore. I was still two body lengths away. I jumped out of the canoe and dove into the cool water. I swam to where I last saw her. God knows if I will find her, I thought. But then my fingers touched her arm.


I grabbed hold. I found her other arm. We were, I don’t know, several feet below. I kicked upward, pulling her up with me. We broke the surface. My arm threaded through her underarm, holding her head above the water. She was not breathing. I squeezed her chest with my crooked arm. She coughed explosively and then took a deep breath in. I swam us over to the canoe and, with my free hand, grabbed the rope that was tied to the front of it.


Holding her and the end of the rope, I started swimming to shore. Damn. She was heavy and was getting heavier with every kick. The canoe wasn’t heavy but it sure made things even more awkward. Maybe I should have let it go, I thought. But with all my supplies in the canoe and me being miles and miles from anywhere and this woman being half-drowned, I wasn’t keen to see those supplies float down the river.


I began to wonder whether I’d make it to shore. Every muscle was afire. Every stroke through the water, like bellows blowing into the furnace. I can’t let her die. I can’t let her die. But the shore was still far, far away. And then, suddenly, my legs kicked against the sandy bottom. I stood up.

The river was broad here but not deep. I rested a moment, holding her up. She was awake from what I could see in the dim light, but she was out of it. I dragged her and the canoe to shore. I laid her down on the dry beach, still warm from the sunny June day that was now over. I pulled the canoe until it was out of the water. I sat down between her and the canoe, my knees up. We made it, I thought, as I looked out over the water that almost ended me. And her. I looked over at her. Naked.


How long did I stare at her? One second, two seconds, more? I do not know. But it felt too long. I turned from her nakedness to look at her eyes, expecting reproach. But she was staring at the sky above. The stars were starting to come out, one by one, waiting to rule the reluctant heavens. I was just grateful she was not angry at me for looking. I took my long-sleeved overshirt off and draped the shirt over her. At least some of her.


I asked her, “You OK?”


“Yes,” she said. “Thank you.”


“Who are you?” I asked.


“I am sad,” she said. “That is all.”


“I’m sorry you are sad.” I paused, not sure what to say.


“My name is John. What is your name?”


“I am sad, that is all.”


I was sad too. But did not say it. I was a son of these lands, like my father before me. My father did not much care for who I was. Or had become. I served overseas in the military. I got a GI scholarship and I went to college. I worked after that. At a factory. Like him. “What a waste,” he said. “Why, son, you could have…” he said. And then I stopped listening.


She sat up and put my shirt on. She lightly touched the sand with her fingertips. She stared intently at the granules around her hands. She lifted her hand ever so slightly and touched the sand again in a slightly different place. And again. As if she was checking to see if it was still there. How strange. I could have gone on watching her for some time in that dim light. But then, the notion that the dim light would soon be gone creeped into my head and that notion grew until I had to pay it heed.


I lit a fire. It was a nice spot. The beach was broad, unusual to find on this river. There was an outcropping of rock between the beach and the vast forest behind it. Some five feet tall and some twenty feet wide, the rock face was flat and perpendicular to the ground, a virtual retaining wall holding back the forest ground built up high behind it. It felt like without that wall, the forest would march its way to the river. And the face of that rock was mostly covered in deep green, shaggy moss. I had never seen such a thing. All together beautiful but somehow disturbing. A chill ran through me.


As I looked over to her again, I realized she was now looking at me. She rose and came to me. She took a burning stick from the fire and went into the woods. I unloaded the canoe and set up the camp. She came back with a handful of things, all green. “Here. Ferns and other good things for you to eat,” she said.


We sat by the fire. She did not talk. That was OK by me. If she wanted quiet, so be it, I thought. I like quiet too. I kept the thousand questions I had for her to myself. Maybe later, I thought. I ate the forest salad. I cut some venison jerky I had packed with my hunting knife. It was all good. I was hungry. I drank some water from my canteen. I offered, but she would not eat. Or drink. Time went by.


I began to wonder how old she was. I drifted into the question of my own age. How old was I? I was confused. What was in her forest salad? I felt I was 26 or 36 or even maybe 90. No, maybe, but 8. Yes, that was it. Set free for the first time to play in the forest. No dirt yet on me, blameless.


I laid by the fire. She hummed a lullaby for the ages. All the ages. Sleep well, sleep well. Soon I was asleep.


Time passed until I sensed the light in the air, not yet sunrise, but soon. I was not quite ready, but I forced my eyes open to the awakening skies. I sat up and looked across the still waters. And then to my left and my right. Where was she, I thought? She put her left hand on the top of my head, her elbow resting gently on my shoulder. “I am here”, she said, kneeling behind me. I felt her breath on the back of my head. I smiled ever so slightly.


It was then that I felt the searing pain across my neck, in my neck, and then the warm gush of blood against my chest. I slumped to the ground and saw her now standing over me. Holding a large bloody knife in her right hand. Not my knife.


I looked past her, across the ground, and I saw the moss which had covered the rock wall now piled up as scrapings at its base. And, then, I looked up at the exposed rock wall to see the two paintings made long ago on it. Faded, yes, but still there. To the left, a village of the people.

Then, to the right, the strangers who came with their rifles.


I looked up at her. She looked at me. I could not speak but I thought, “What I did overseas, it finally caught up with me. I knew it would. Somehow. I was waiting for this day and it finally came. I am sorry. I am so sorry.” Her face remained a cipher. She turned from me then and walked to the wall.


She left the knife at the rock wall, walked to the river, and then into it. As she disappeared into the water, my head empty of words, I felt the last of the blood drip out of my neck and then I was done.




J.T. Edelson was born in Kansas but now lives in New Hampshire.  When he’s not writing, you might find him working at a biotech company. His favorite book is without doubt Where the Wild Things Are.




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