Creative Writing Fiction

The Other Side of the River

The bear stood on the side of the road with his front paws turned in and his head down so that the hump of his back stood up like a half-folded jackknife. From time to time he shuffled his paws in the dust of the side of the road. He was brown with fine blonde guard hairs that gave him a red-blonde colour hunters called cinnamon in the right light.

It was seven in the morning in the middle of June.

The bear sneezed, blowing strings of thick, mucus-flecked spit out the side of his mouth. Blood oozed from the wet slits of his nose and he swayed from side to side like a boxer who’d gone up to block a left and taken a right jab by surprise. His  bottom jaw hung unevenly, one side slightly lower than the other, tongue lolling, velvety-looking between this teeth.  His jaw was broken and he couldn’t close his mouth, so he drooled constantly.

The bear had been hit by a rented Ford Explorer driven by a tourist from Portland, Oregon. He had been crossing the road trying to make his way to the trail that led down to the river where he drank each morning. The Ford had been going to the Carmacks cut off, where there was a road that ran to Dawson City, where many people went to drink whiskey and beer each night. The Ford had tried to swerve around him and dealt the bear a glancing blow to the side. The driver kept going because even if he had stopped he wouldn’t have known what to do with a wounded bear.

Morgan and the Boatman stood next to her rust-eaten quarter-ton pick up, on the same side of the road as the bear. The Boatman was a big native man with wide shoulders and short legs, whose people were the Musqueam of Vancouver Island and not the Tage Cho Hudan on whose land they were currently squatting without an invitation. Morgan was a small woman with a sharp face, her dirty blonde hair tucked under a ball cap, who had no people. The bear was a young bear, under two years of age, which is the time when a bear most resembles a man, and his expression was one of  good-natured confusion and embarrassment. Slouched, thick and hairy and swaying, he could have been someone’s beloved, bashful and drunken uncle.

The Boatman took a step forward, raised his gun to the crook of his shoulder, looked down the barrel, paused and fired. The sound of the rifle – an old bolt-action Winchester which had belonged to his grandfather – was short and startling, but Morgan didn’t jump and neither did the bear. The Boatman pulled the bolt back and kicked out the spent shell, which fell to the side of the road with a metal clang like a dropped quarter and then jerked the bolt forward to load it again. This action was prudent but unnecessary; the bear shuddered and slumped to the ground as if he were a a wax candle that had burned itself out.

The Boatman approached him cautiously, nudged him once with his booted foot, and pronounced him dead.

He put the safety on the gun, slung the strap over his shoulder so the muzzle pointed up and away from him and reached into the pocket of his jackshirt for his cigarettes. He offered one to Morgan when she came over to inspect the bear. She took one in her small fingers, put it to her mouth, lit it with a lighter that said Vancouver Canucks down the side and then offered the flame to the Boatman. The two of them stood there for a long moment, looking at the bear and smoking. There was a little pool of blood forming in the gravel at the side of the road. A handful of ants crawling about the fireweed skittered out of its way. Morgan kicked dirt on it with the toe of her boot.

“Poor bastard,” Morgan said.

“Let’s put him in the truck,” the Boatman said.

*

When they got him back to camp, Patricia – the tall, gangly brunette Morgan had come in with – was waiting for them. Both women were twenty-seven but Patrica had the sort of friendly spaniel’s eyes that made her seem much younger than she really was.  When the two girls had pulled down the dirt trail into the mushrooming camp and stepped out of the truck the Boatman had thought they looked like a big dog and little dog, the kind of pair who travel together for reasons that only having been there might explain. They had seen the wounded bear on the roadside at six that morning; Morgan had tried to call the conservation office but there was no cell phone signal out this far down the Alaska Highway, and even if she had a signal it was unlikely anyone would have picked up. Patricia had remembered seeing a road she thought might lead down to a house and they back-tracked and took it, and found themselves in the Boatman’s camp, with a dozen sleepy pickers and the Boatman still snoring in his trailer.

A string-bean of a boy in a dirty Mets t-shirt squatting next to a barely-going fire had been the only one awake when the two girls drove in. He had been warming his hands and trying to boil river water for coffee when Morgan rolled down her window, leaned out of it and asked the boy if he had a gun. He had blinked in a lazy, reptilian way, put the soup can he was planning on using for a coffee cup down on a cut log, and gone to get the Boatman up without saying a word.

There was only enough room in Morgan’s truck for two and so Patricia had stayed behind and the Boatman had gotten his rifle and gone with Morgan to find the bear. The rest of the crew went about their morning tasks, fixing the messy fire the boy had made and making various breakfasts. The boy in the dirty t-shirt was brewing Patricia an awful cup of coffee when Morgan and the Boatman drove away.

That the bear be left on the side of the road to suffer was never once suggested by anyone.

Now an hour had passed and Patricia wore dark sunglasses because even though it was still early it was the beginning of the Northern summer and the sun already high. She looked pale as her friend and the Boatman opened the tail gate of the truck. When she had been eleven, her cat had disappeared and was presumed dead. That was as close to death as she had come before and when Morgan had gone out to guide the Boatman to the bear she had not thought the other woman would bring the dead thing back.

The bear had shifted a bit in transit on the bumpy dirt road and a thin line of blood – thick as paint, already oxidizing and black – had leaked out. Morgan lept up into the back, boots thudding on the running board, and started tugging on the tarp, in which the unmistakable heavy shape of something dead lay wrapped. She was quickly helped by other hands; the pickers had been sitting around the fire pit when they drove back in and had abandoned their breakfast to see how things had gone. Cups of coffee in mismatched travel mugs and fire-burnt tin cups sat steaming on flat stones and stumps. A joint was still smoking in an empty tuna can on a rickety card table.

The Boatman stood back with Patricia and let the pickers and Morgan work. It was his camp and he was accustomed to supervising. Morgan was glad for the extra help; the bear seemed to be getting heavier and heavier the longer he was dead. When they had him out of the truck, a brown-eyed, broad shouldered boy who turned out later to be the Mets boy’s older brother turned to the Boatman.

“While you were gone a game officer was here,”  he said. He pushed up his glasses, which were bound together at the nose with a slice silver of duct tape.

The Boatman raised one eyebrow. He was a heavy man with a wide, round face. He hadn’t shaved that morning and his wispy beard was starting to come in.

“What did he want?”

“Says he got a call that there was a mama bear and a cub shot up the way at the Carmacks Camp. Says the shooter missed the kill shot and she’s prolly still around someplace. Says he had it reported that there was a second shot fired up this way… says if we see her, to back off on her, cause the territory will want to have a look at her.”

“This is a boy-bear,” the Boatman said. He walked over to the tarp and threw the edge back. The animal, with its half-destroyed skull, lay twisted half on its back with its belly up and its powerful forearms turned to the side, black and hairy and limp. He pointed to the bear’s testicles, evident between its parted legs, strange and wrinkled as shucked oysters.

“Think there could be another one around?”

“Possible,” the Boatman said. He chewed the nub end of his cigarette, which had gone out. “They were having one fuck of a time up there at Carmacks Camp last night. Anything could of happened.” He surveyed the crew thoughtfully, spat the burned-out smoke into the dirt and crushed it with his boot.

“If the officer comes around,” he said,“nobody here knows a god damn thing about any of this.”

“But… wasn’t the bear already hurt?” Patrica said suddenly. She had thought they were doing a good thing and didn’t like to think that maybe what they had done wasn’t a good thing. “I thought we were helping?”

“We were helping,” the Boatman said, solemnly. “And now we’re helping by making sure as little of it goes to waste as possible. I don’t have a hunting license and none of us here have got a bear tag or any proof at all that it wasn’t us who hit it in the first place. But the law likes a lot of paperwork and the law doesn’t care about good intentions. So let’s all keep our fucking mouths shut, alright?” What he didn’t say was that he already had an outstanding warrant on him for breaking his parole and that he didn’t have a license for the gun, but the weight of those silent things lent a weight to his words and everyone nodded automatically. He was the Boatman and he was in charge of the camp and no one had ever questioned him about things because he had never done anything to make them question him.

“We did the right thing,” he said, looking long at Patricia. He waited until she nodded and then swung his gaze to Morgan.“Take him into the bush.” He gestured to a copse of red pine trees which grew along the riverside and then turned, disappearing through the open door of his trailer.

Morgan and three of the pickers each took a corner and half-carried, half-dragged the bear into the cover of the trees, where the shade was thickest. The pickers who couldn’t get their hands on a corner of the tarp came behind them. Patricia came last. The sun came in through the branches and fell across their faces and the backs of their hands in uneven splotches of brightness. It reminded Patricia of being in a church, the way light would come in through the stained-glass faces of Jesus and apostles and angels.

The Boatman came a moment later, pushing back the low branches as if parting a curtain. He had a long length of yellow rope, the kind you buy at Canadian Tire that comes pre-coiled in a plastic package, and a knife in a leather sheath.

With the help of the Mets boy, the Boatman turned the bear over so it lay on its back. He took the knife from the sheath, held the knife in his thick brown fingers and, starting with the point of the at the anus, just below the tail, opened the bear up. The knife, which he kept very sharp, made a sound like silk splitting as it sliced through the fur and skin. It was a cool morning and the hot insides, suddenly exposed, steamed in the chilly air.

The Boatman carefully removed the blue-black-red-yellow mess of the guts while the pickers watched. He set the heart aside and threw the rest into the brown water of the river. They floated for a moment and then slithered below the surface as they were whisked away by the current.

“Never eat a bear’s kidney,” he said, absently.

“Why?” Morgan said. Everyone else seemed oddly passive, as if they were watching a movie. Only Morgan seemed alert.

“It’s too much like people kidney. Makes you sick,” he said.

Patricia was standing next to the Mets boy, very close, watching with a pale, nervous expression.

He had Morgan and another girl with thick brown dreadlocks each hold an end as took the skin off. He worked the knife around the fat and muscle and around the strange bones until the fur peeled off like a wet shirt, red-brown on the outside, soft and pink as an oyster on the inside. When the hide was all off he lay it out on the tarp all in once piece, as if it were already a rug and had not been a bear an hour before. The Boatman ran a hand over the fur, smoothing it down, gently petting it, as if the skin could feel it.

The Boatman then took the length of rope and handed it to Morgan. She uncoiled it wordlessly, sliding it through her fingers with her short, dirty finger nails. The Boatman took the bear’s feet and held them together for her while she tied a noose about the bear’s leg and then took the end from her and threw it up over a low hanging branch. It took three people to pull bear up. When he was hanging a foot off the ground Morgan took the loose end and tied it firmly around the trunk of a poplar.

Skinned out, gutted and strung up, the bear looked less like an animal now and more like a man who had met a terrible fate. His long, naked limbs, now bereft of claws and curled slightly in death, had the pudgy, rounded look of a baby trying to make a fist.

It was nearly ten and the morning was beginning to heat up.

*

The river Boatman had a red and silver aluminum flat bottom boat with a motor and a dented hull and the name Trout slayer painted on the side in faded black letters. No one had ever seen him fish and he had a distaste for fishing; he had got the boat in a trade for an old Wildcat skidoo and never changed the name.

The pickers in the camp threw their thick cold coffee on the embers of the breakfast fire and, five at a time, tossed their frame packs into the back of the boat. The Boatman offered the girls a ride out –  he charged $20, he said, but today it would be free. The picking was much better on the other side of the river, where the burn was deeper and the hills higher and darker and damper; it had all been picked out on this side. So the girls put their packs into the back of the boat with the Mets boy and his tall brown brother and the girl with the greasy dreadlocks.

Morgan looked down over the edge of the boat nervously as she took a seat on the backbench. It had rained a lot that spring and the water was high and cold and full of silt that had washed down from the mountains. The silt made a scratching, metallic sound on the hull of the boat that made Morgan nervous because she was secretly afraid of water and didn’t know what the sound was.

Patricia sat beside Morgan, talking to the Mets boy, who was telling her how to distinguish the difference between a black morel and a grey one. Patricia was not nervous at all. She was one of those fortunate creatures who believed that nothing bad can ever happen and, because she believed it, nothing bad ever really did. Later that night she would creep out of the tent that she and Morgan shared and sleep with the boy, and a month later he would write her a desperate love letter. The letter would make Patricia sad and happy at the same time but she would never write him back.

The Boatman let them off last, the farthest up the river, on a thin, boggy shore a beaver had chewed clean. The bank here was steep and the ground sucked at their boots as they clamoured up to the tree line. When they reached the top they could see the Boatman, a dark, broad figure, alone on his boat. Below them the river was black at the edges, yellow in the middle where the silt had collected in the current. The boatman took a bend in the river and was gone.

*

On this side of the river the fire had not so much burned but swept in and swept out like the tide, leaving only the blackened wreckage of trees poking up out of the scorched clay like the masts of sunken ships. In the evaporated remains of a swamp the girls found the skeleton of a bull moose, the antlers brittle and the bones fire-hardened and black, limbs akimbo in the terror of death, and not far from that the remains of a trapper’s cabin in which everything but the brass handle of the door and the latch on the window had been reduced to charcoal. Everywhere there was the drifting ash which clung to everything, turning the air thick as Turkish coffee. In the afternoon when they sat down for a rest, Morgan took off her ball cap and Patrica laughed at her because the soot had left a thick black ring on her forehead where the brim had been.

The girls went up for a long time, trudging through deadfall and blackened stones and into small depressions that always gave way to up again. In the far distance there were true mountains, but they were in the foothills which rolled ever-upward towards their parents and felt like mountains when you are trying to get to the top of them. 

Later in the afternoon, they came to a creek twisting down the side of a slope, looking queer and unnaturally inviting in the post-apocalypse of the burnscape. The wind had picked up and overhead the blacked trees creaked and groaned, their roots loosened in death, swaying like drunks. A pair of whiskyjacks flew over them and their shadows fell between the trees and passed over Patricia’s face in a pair of crosses.

The girls were hot and the ash made everything seem even hotter. Morgan dropped her pack and knelt by the creek, took off her cap and washed her face in the water. It was cold and clear and the bottom was studded with small polished stones in many colours. She pulled off the bandana she was wearing around her neck, dipped it in the water and retied it around her throat, where it soaked into her shirt and cooled her. When she looked up from the water she saw the morel. Patrica had sat down on a tree stump and was tying the laces of her boots more tightly. They were slightly too large for her and were giving her terrible blisters which were bleeding and making her socks stick to the raw flesh.

Morgan stood up slowly, careful not to take her eyes from the place they had strayed, and crossed the stream with confident strides of her short legs. She knelt by a stone which was darker on one side than on the other where the fire had passed over it, took out her pocket knife and flicked it open with her thumb. The wood handle was worn smooth and dull where she had done this many times but the blade was clean and sharp and cut through the hollow stem at the base of the cap as easily as brie. Morgan held the mushroom in her palm. It was the size and width of her hand, chocolate-coloured and firm fleshed, honey-combed and smelling musky and earthy and good. Her palm was flat and shiny and black with ash.

She stood up, looking around carefully. The mushrooms were delicate and easy to crush and she took a few careful steps, eyes down. To her left the earth fell away into a sharp, eastern-facing slope. She looked over her shoulder at the creek and saw that was the way it was wending, twisting along behind her and then around, to follow the natural flow of the earth. She took a few more steps and looked down over the edge of the drop.

She blinked, standing there a moment, and began to laugh. The side of the slope was grey with mushrooms. 

*

They picked the slope for five hours, starting at the bottom and working their way up, filling the buckets they had brought with them tied to the poles of their frame packs. When they were full they would skitter down to the bottom and empty them into the big baskets which had perforated holes cut in them so the mushrooms could breathe without sweating or being crushed, which were lashed onto the frame. As they moved up the slope it eventually became closer to the top than to the bottom and they hauled their baskets up to the top of the ridge and emptied their buckets there instead. At first Patricia, who had never been picking before, tried to keep her knees clean by squatting down and searching around for the mushrooms, but she quickly got tired and did as Morgan did instead, crawling on her hands and knees, cutting as she went. It was from this position, close to the earth, that a person could see the mushrooms, which could easily be mistaken for stones or tree bark or pine cones from above.

Everything was quiet now. Once in a while a raven would go by overhead with the cuta-cuta-cuta of its wings and a curse but that was all. In the middle of the afternoon, for no reason Patricia could discern, Morgan broke out in a low, off-key tenor and sang Chelsea Hotel. After that she was silent again. Neither of the girls spoke to the other.

When the slope was picked as clean as they could pick it and their baskets were full the two girls climbed wearily to the top again. They had taken off their long-sleeve shirts and worked in their tank tops and their long, bare, muscular arms were grey with ash. Their legs strained like the legs of horses as they struggled up the slope the last time. When they were at the top they fell down against their packs and closed their eyes for a few minutes of what felt like sleep but was just being quietly awake.

When they had rested a moment, Morgan reached into a side pocket of her frame pack and brought out a couple cans of Yukon Gold lager. She cracked one and passed it to Patricia and then cracked her own. Patrica produced a couple peanut butter and jam sandwiches on thick white bread and gave one to Morgan.

The girls sat for a long while, drinking the warm beer with its tinny can taste and eating the sandwiches. When they were finished their meal, Morgan lit up a couple cigarettes and gave one to Patricia. A light breeze had kicked up and because they had been sweating they became cold and put their long-sleeved shirts back on. The sun had moved while they had been working and changed the colour of the forest and the mountains. Everything had a soft, subdued glow about it, as if it were done in pastels.

When they had smoked their cigarettes to the nub Morgan crushed they butt against the hard rubber instep of her boot and pressed the stub into a little mound of dirt. Patrica followed her example and did the same and the two women stood up. Morgan looked over her shoulder. In the far distance to the west she could see the rounded mountain called Eagle Rock. That was where the river was. They shouldered their packs, heavy now with mushrooms.

Everywhere they walked they left a silent, invisible trail of spores behind them. The spores would not grow into morels until the forest burned again, an event which might not take place for another two hundred years.

*

The Boatman was late to pick them up. Morgan had been worried – maybe they had the spot wrong, or maybe he’d forgotten where he left them or maybe they’d been forgotten about. When she was in the bush Morgan never worried about animals or weather or being lost; she worried about people and having to rely on other people, because people were the things she had the least control over and, in this way, they were one of the things Morgan understood best. Patricia, who had the absolute faith in people that a dog has, was not worried at all and simply sat on a beaver-chewed log, playing her harmonica. When she had gone over all the songs she knew she wiped the harmonica off on the inside of her shirt sleeve, which was the last clean place on her entire person, and set about picking the blossoms off a head of fireweed and eating them, one at a time, with the slow deliberateness of a monkey. 

The Boatman came for them just as the mosquitoes were beginning to get thick and the women had rolled their shirt sleeves down as far as they would go and turned their collars up against them. They heard the motor before they saw the boat. It was getting to be dusk-time and the sky was pale and pink but not dark and wouldn’t be truly dark again till sometime in August.

When the Boatman pulled up he smiled and waved at them. He looked at their baskets and said it looked like they had had a good day and the girls were tired and nodded that yes, they had found a good patch, but they had to go far to get it. The Boatman was drinking a can of Budweiser.

“Didn’t I tell you?” he said. “Much better on this side of the river.”

The girls nodded and got on the boat. The Mets boy and his brother were also in the boat. The seat the boy was sitting on had the 12 pack the Boatman was drinking from under it and the Boatman told him to take beers and pass them around. He didn’t say why he was late nor apologize and neither of the girls asked and everyone drank in silence on the way home because the beer had been in the river all afternoon and was good and cold.

*

When they got back everyone sold their mushrooms to the Boatman. He had a little table and a scale set up, and back behind his trailer was a drying machine which was attached to a diesel generator that ran all afternoon after the pickers had gone out. The pickers took their baskets and emptied them out of the scale and he weighed them, and when he figured out how many pounds they had picked he paid them in cash. Tomorrow he would dry the mushrooms and the next day have them shipped down to a buyer in Vancouver, who would sell them to France, where they were considered a delicacy. It made Morgan laugh to think of fancy, well-groomed French diners, eating pasta a fungi in a posh restaurant with the morels she herself had picked, filthy and hot and tired, an ocean and a world away.

*

That night they all ate the bear for dinner.

The Boatman had bled him in the shade all afternoon, cut him up before he left and put him in the icebox in his trailer. He sliced up the heart and a piece of flank and a long length of meat that looked to Morgan like it might be the bear’s tenderloin into chunks, which they browned in leftover bacon fat in a big pot over the fire. When the meat was ready, everyone threw something in –  carrots, potatoes, rice, cans of beer, vegetables and dry noodles, whatever was to spare – and then the Boatman topped it all up with cold, murky river water. When it came to a boil he let the fire die down so that it was only flickering coals like a pit of lit cigarettes under the pot and let the stew simmer while they ate chunks of bread and drank beer and rum and whisky from bottles that went from mouth to mouth to mouth around the circle. While they waited the sun sank lower but did not set. When the evening took on a purple hue someone took out a guitar and began to play and people sang and laughed and told stories and drank. The Boatman watched the stew, tasting it and seasoning it carefully from a mason jar that was simply marked spices with sharpie on a piece of masking tape.

When it was ready everyone got whatever they used for a bowl – tin plates, cups, lids from takeout containers – and the Boatman ladled them all out a healthy portion, using an empty bean can as a scoop. The stew was hot and rich and good and the bear meat was gamey and chewy and everyone ate happily. The Mets boy sat very close to Patricia and said things that made her laugh. Morgan sat next to the Boatman and said nothing but she smiled while she ate and listened.

They were half-way through their meal when the truck pulled in. It bounced down the dirt road and chewed up the dust with its thick tires. It said Yukon Fish and Wildlife on the side of the truck, and next to that was the emblem of a ram’s head.

The truck was white and clean, despite the dust.

Everyone stopped eating and sat with their bowls in their laps as the conservation officer got out of the truck. They stared at him all together the way a group of deer who hear a sound will all stop grazing and look up at the same time.

“Hello,” said the officer. He was a tall, heavy man with a clean shaven face and a thick roll of fat that hung over the buckle of his belt, as if he had an extra sweater tucked under his vest. His boots were black and clean and his uniform white and pressed, and he carried a two-way radio, a canister of bear spray and a hand gun tucked into a black leather holster whose design was threateningly nondescript. He looked strange and out of place among the pickers, who wore ragged, mismatched clothes and whose faces were streaked with dirt and smoke. No one answered his greeting and he stood awkwardly outside the circle.

“Hello,” he said again. “You folks haven’t seen a bear, have you?”

“No,” the Boatman said curtly, “we ain’t.”

“There’s a wounded one, wandering around, a sow and cub,” the officer said. He hitched his thumbs into his belt loops, “some folks up at the Carmacks camp said they heard a shotgun shot coming from this way this morning.”

“No one here has a gun,” the Boatman said.

“I also got a report from someone passing by this way into Carmacks,” the officer said, “that someone saw a truck go buy with what looked like a dead animal in the back heading this way.” There was a tight, uncomfortable silence. “And since I’ve already been up to the Carmacks camp and there’s nothing there, I thought I’d better come down this way and have a look.” The officer was looking directly at the sun-lined face of the Boatman, “Just in case someone here knew something about it.”

“We ain’t seen a bear,” the Boatman said.

“Well, somebody did,” the officer said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a bullet casing. It was .45, long and brassy. He held it up between his thumb and forefinger, so everyone could see it. It was the shell casing from the Boatman’s rifle. “Somebody shot something… nothing’s been reported up at the station so it looks like whoever shot it shot it illegally. So I’m going around looking for the owner of this rifle, here.” He looked at the Boatman again, whose fat upper lip was sweating in the heat of the campfire.

“We haven’t seen a bear,” Morgan spoke up suddenly. Her voice seemed very soft and feminine between the two men. “But we were just having dinner. We’ve been picking all day.”

“Smells good,” said the officer. He tucked the casing back into his pocket,“What is it?”

“Stew,” said Patrica, now, exchanging a quick glance with Morgan, “with morels. Morgan and I just came in from town today with groceries.”

Morgan picked up an empty bowl near by, “Would you like some?” She scooped him a ladleful, grabbed a spoon from a tin can full of plastic cutlery. She handed the bowl to Patricia, who was closest to the officer. Patrica offered him the bowl from the palm of her cupped hand. The officer took it awkwardly, looking at her looking at him, careful not to touch her as he did.

He took a big bite and chewed it thoughtfully. He seemed oblivious to the fact that everyone else was watching him, that no one else as eating. “That’s very good,” he said, politely. He handed Morgan back the bowl, “What’s in it?”

“Beef,” said Patricia.

“And beer and onions and carrots,” said Morgan.

The officer ate a couple more bites and handed her back the bowl, “Well, seeing as I caught you in the middle of dinner, I’ll let you get back to it,” he said. “But if you do see a bear, be careful; it’s wounded and probably pretty mad.”

“Have you tried the other side of the river?” Morgan asked.

“The other side of the river?” the officer shrugged, “Ain’t nothing over there, now. Have a good night.” The officer turned and got into his truck. He put it in reverse and then turned it around and when he stopped to look out the window before he drove away Morgan smiled and waved at him.

When the truck was gone and the sound of the engine faded there was a long moment of silence and then the Boatman erupted into laughter. The laugh was as short and loud as a coyote yip but it was full of pleasure. After a moment everyone around the fire began to laugh with him and the sound was rough and bright and roused a handful of swallows which had been perched amid the willows over the river. They skimmed low over the water, blue as wet knives, crossing to the other side of the river, where they were swallowed up by the half-night and were gone.

The guitar player picked up his instrument and began to play again. The song was Me and Bobby McGee. Everyone went back to eating. The Boatman took a hard pull from a bottle of whisky, held it in his mouth a moment. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he swallowed; he licked his lips, took a pull again, and passed the bottle to Morgan. Beside her, Patricia was laughing and the boy in the Mets shirt was making her laugh.◉


 Photo credit: Susan Drury (CC)

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