Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2012 v11n1
 print version

Of Rivers and Caves

Melanie phones him at work, makes the office page him off the line. For this: the blind cords need to be cut. Again, yes—as soon as he gets home. She’d found Annalee in the spare upstairs bedroom—the one for guests, should guests ever return. The girl had raised the wide blackout venetian. Just a third of the way, but Melanie fears it was enough. Warren can see her, his living daughter, dressed in one of her baggy cotton dresses, tugging on the cord until tendons stand from her neck, the blind hoisting in front of her like a sail, light walloping her small dark eyes and carrying—despite the fast-growing species of bamboo he’s planted along the eastern slope of their lot—an enticing glint from the river far below. He tells his wife he’ll take care of it, and all the others too: four windows facing east, dark and inviolable. Don’t worry, he hears himself say. Melanie hangs up.


There. The cords are eight inches long now, knotted at their ends and tucked inside a plastic housing shaped like an obelisk. An idea strikes him and he goes to the guest bathroom. A faint rubbery smell, of mildew or scum, hangs in the air. A film of dust covers the counter. The mirror over the sink is thicker at the bottom than at the top. An antique, he remembers, some treasure of Melanie’s great-grandmother. He rummages through drawers and cabinets until he finds what he’s after, then returns to the guest bedroom. He seals the blind pull inside a bolus of Vaseline and coats the abbreviated length of the cord. He remembers when the basketball team at his college won a national championship and how, in anticipation of the riot that ensued, the campus police had greased every light pole within a half mile of the field house to deter young men from climbing them, from hurting or killing themselves. It worked; instead of climbing, he’d smeared the grease under his eyes and down the midline of his face and drank cheap vodka from a plastic water bottle. Warren views this memory as if on a screen positioned at a great remove, like a movie shown in a vast urban park, sound and context and plot carried away by the blat and murmur of more immediate dramas.

He shortens and greases the blind cords in the guest bathroom and in the small room in which Melanie used to knit (an unfinished something lies on the seat of a rocking chair, needles crossed atop it like a warning), but does not attend to the fourth and final east-facing window, the one in Sophia’s bedroom. He seals his palm around the doorknob, holds it there until the brass warms, but he cannot turn it.


Periwinkles, she says, Some people call them periwinkles in the Pacific Northwest. Did you know that?

Warren is driving Annalee home from her day camp, an experiential, nature-based summer program for kids with similar issues, whose problems are theoretically compatible.

Did you learn this today?


The camp is in the woods, tucked against a nameless hump on the east side of the interstate, 18.7 miles and forty-two minutes from their house. Before she paid the security deposit and submitted the application, Melanie demanded that Warren scout the property—check for nearby creeks, lakes, ponds, sewage reservoirs—anywhere they might be found. And now they had a pretty name, too—periwinkles. As if they were delicate sweet-smelling blossoms. Not larvae that pupated in bivies of silk-woven pebbles, shell fragments, and twigs.

What else did you learn? he says.

Annalee doesn’t answer. Warren eyes her in the rearview. She stares out the window, at the blur of trees. Her mauve dress is stained and dirty, her waifish shins crosshatched with small cuts and scrapes, dotted with red bites. He looks for signs of water—a wet hem, the telltale bloom of evaporation. But she is just dirty. There isn’t a lake at the camp, and the only stream he’d found was a quarter mile from the dining hall, and, at this time of year, it ran as little more than a trickle. He remembers finding that meager stream, drinking from it, wetting his face and hair, submerging his hands until his fingers numbed, and later telling Melanie that he’d discovered nothing.


Warren is thirty-seven. In his midtwenties, he read a novel in which the narrator proclaimed thirty-seven the “age of grief.” He’d laughed to himself: what morose, middle-aged, self-aggrandizing histrionics. Boo-hoo. The author, smart person that she must be, would know that if a person has five dollars in his pocket he is already better off than a billion others will ever be. This is his theory of relativity, one that sustained him for many years. Now, in moments of quiet despair, he wonders if the author was right. And if thirty-seven is the age of grief, what of thirty-eight?

Old habits die difficult deaths, and no sooner than he invites despair, he ushers it out. He thinks of his job: filling fruit baskets on first shift. Despite earning barely half of what his last job paid, he wills himself to feel fortunate for it, assuages himself with brutal statistics: the state’s unemployment rate, the numbers of long-term jobless, the 1.1 billion denied access to clean drinking water. He tries to forget the house, its negative value relative to what he and Melanie owe. Underwater. How do these memes become part of the jargon? And couldn’t cultural forces have crafted a different term? In the quicksand? Beneath the rubble? Anything but underwater.

When a person drowns and sinks, the body naturally curls into a fetal ball. A response, a return, a closed circle. A cliché. They’d found Sophia on the Doppler by this shape, she but a grainy round smudge on the silt. When they pulled her up, they tried to lay her flat, but her limbs were cold and rigored. In Warren’s arms she wasn’t much bigger than a basketball.


Annalee is tantruming on the kitchen floor, legs kicking, arms flapping, back arching. A wellhead of snot and saliva bubbles about her lips and nose. Her wet cheeks are the color of waxed apples, and her dark hair is tangled and stuck to her face. She wails, tries to make words, but cannot.

You’re at a five, Melanie says. She holds a laminated card with a kind of blockish thermometer printed on it. The uppermost square is red, lurid, and inside is a rudimentary face, a rictus of pain and anger, squiggles of steam rising from the scalp. Next to it is a boldface ‘5.’ At the bottom, in a cool green, is a smiling, relaxed face and a ‘1’. Bring yourself down to a four, Melanie says between screams.

I can’t, Annalee shrieks. I can’t. She kicks at the laminated card, knocks it out of Melanie’s hand, and it hits the Marmoleum with a faint slap.

Warren is grinding his teeth, a habit born in his sleep years ago, from the womb of his nightmares. It has migrated to the day. Because of Annalee, he knows the term: bruxism. When she was four her special interest was medical pathology: anything that could go wrong with the human body. Warren’s older brother William, an internal medicine doctor in Alaska, was thrilled: a prodigy in the making, he said, and took measurements of her ring and middle fingers to descry some telling arcana about her testosterone levels, her IQ, and her chances in the profession. On one visit he brought her a spiral-bound book of vivid charts on glossy paper—Diseases and Disorders—and every night for a year thereafter, Annalee demanded a comprehensive reading and analysis of at least two charts before she could settle herself into a fitful sleep.


Dens invaginatus.



Pulp polyp.

For himself, he fears the last. One of his molars is impossibly worn, and when he clenches his jaw, pain scatters through his mouth like a pack of spooked animals. Still, with Annalee writhing and wailing as if clutched by an agonal fever, he cannot help himself: he moves bone over nerve, and a red light brightens behind his eyes.

Melanie picks up the thermometer. Bring yourself down, she says. There.

Annalee hitches and yelps, but she is working, her hands grabbing for pockets of calm in the air, her nose blowing out a freshet of snot, her lungs taking in full breaths which she releases in long shudders.

You’re at a four. Good. Keep it going.

A minute or so later, Annalee points at the ‘2’ when asked and she lets Melanie wipe her nose and cheeks.

Please, Annalee whispers. Please I really want to. She sniffles, trembles, props herself on her small knees like a nymph before a sun-dappled pool.

Melanie is pale. She looks at Warren for help, for muscle, for toughness in the face of certain and total meltdown.

These professionals, he thinks, and in a flash of rage, he hates them all, hates their educations, their titles, their smug certainty, their keen manipulations, their picking at knots that should remained knotted. Beverly, the guidance counselor at camp, told Annalee about a riparian snorkeling class, open to the public and all ages: an entire day in a wet suit, face plunged in river water, fingers combing the silt and pebbles for the miniature wonders of bed life—fry, snails, crayfish, and yes, Beverly the counselor (the meddler, the mess maker) must have mentioned them—caddis fly larvae, too.

The answer is still no, Warren says, and in an instant, Annalee is back at a ‘5’ again.

Hours later, she is still crying and begging as Melanie tries to ready her for bed. The child is exhausted, her eyes swollen, shot through. Melanie too. Warren has gone numb, and marvels at his wife’s fortitude, her patience. But the strain shows in her face, her raw eyes, the lines at her temples and the corners of her mouth. He feels he hasn’t seen her in years, that she no longer exists, and this . . . this stand-in, whittled from a mass of sorrow and struggle, is difficult to bear. He wants to scream, Bring her back to me. Bring them both back to me. He wants to love without effort.

Melanie looks up at him. You’re hovering, she says. I have this.

Really? he says, and wishes he hadn’t.

Warren, don’t.

He leaves, makes his way to the basement. It is one room, eleven by eleven. The floor is cement, overlaid with scraps of blue green carpet. The walls are bare Sheetrock. This is his work: the rough mismeasured cuts, the gappy seams, the drywall screws set at inconsistent intervals. He’d been in a hurry, far from a place for accuracy or care. He’d only wanted to seal the last known impression of her behind a stark white barrier before someone found it, or—and his heart still races at the thought—effaced it.

You can make your own secret bear print, he’d told her.

She’d smiled, her teeth radiant as pearls. Where?

In our cave.

He remembers her look of pure, crystalline wonder. She had Melanie’s features, all of them. She was like a version sent from 1978. Her eyes were blue, sometimes gray when the weather or a mood struck them at the right angle. She wore her hair in an easy bob, like her mother. And her skin was so fair and thin he could trace the tangled filigree of veins on her small back.

Where, Daddy?

I’ll show you. But don’t tell a soul.

Amid the tools on the workbench are a Phillips screwdriver and a silver Maglite with a skein of electrical tape wrapped round the handle. Warren switches on the light and puts the handle in his mouth, careful to avoid the eroded molar as he bites the tape. The panel is conspicuous but never identified, never spoken of. Should Melanie question the incongruous rectangle lodged in the lower north wall, he has an explanation at the ready. It is a patch, he would say. I broke the corner off a board trying to make it fit. He would give her a sheepish aw shucks look. You won’t even know it’s there when I tape and mud. But Melanie has never asked, never will, and Warren will never tape and mud.

He slowly removes the four screws, fingers a dented corner and eases the panel from its setting. The house is old, full of slopes and quirks and obtuse angles. This basement was dug years after construction and decades before they bought it. Never, for a reason Warren can only attribute to some dim notion of fate, was it finished. Just plank stairs descending steeply to a concrete slab, fenced by true two-by-four studs. Not until Warren, in those terrible bleached-out weeks after the accident, had mounted the Sheetrock could it rightly be called a room.

When he and Sophia returned from the caves, from their guided tour, she carried the ranger’s tale of discovery like a treasure, a sacred thing that made real for the first time the concurrent enormity and smallness of life. Earlier that year, the young man had discovered a new lacuna off the main cave, had squeezed himself into it and discovered a massive bear print in a bed of undisturbed mud, mud later dated at more than thirty thousand years old. At home, Sophia kept saying, I just can’t believe it would still be there. Thirty thousand years.

Warren kneels and gingerly works his head through the hole. The Maglite saturates the darkness, shows the concrete foundation as a blast of harsh white light. Warren lets his eyes adjust. Between the backside of the Sheetrock and the interior side of the foundation are two feet of dirt; the basement was dug and poured inside the foundation like a nested box. And there, set like a pair of lunar seas, are two handprints. His and hers. Papa Bear’s and Baby Bear’s.

He draws the light across them. They are as they have always been. Twenty-nine thousand, nine hundred ninety-three to go, he thinks. Melanie had wanted to move, wanted to free all the memories ensnared in the house, but Warren would not leave. I’ll never leave, he said. She said, I need another child. He said, no.

Put your handprint next to mine, Daddy.

You sure?

I want you in the cave with me.

Many times Warren has wept inside this terrible portal, his sobs conveniently stifled by the Maglite’s taped handle. But not tonight. This place is altar and grave, conferring serenity and sadness, and tonight Warren is calm, content to be with this part of her, all that remains.

Sweet girl. My sweet girl. Daddy is so sorry.

Upstairs, it is finally quiet. Warren turns off the flashlight and returns the panel to its place.


Two-four-six-eight. Two-four-six-eight. Two-four-six-eight. The pears flow past on his left, a thick bright band that trembles and shifts atop the rumbling conveyor belt. In the space of five seconds, he snatches eight pears two-by-two, nestles them inside a gift box stuffed with finely shredded red cardstock, and nudges the box down a track of steel rollers on his right, behind hundreds of others. Two-four-six-eight.

Across the conveyor belt is Jean, a sorter into her third decade. She is a stout, frowning woman with cascading hair that is straw colored in places and gray as steel wool in others. She is fast, works a box in three seconds. The fleshy depending backs of her arms sway and flap like things reeled in from the deep. Jean sees Warren seeing her and she grimaces. He tries to tie her speed, but can’t. He maintains a count of his work. Numbers provide the empiricism he now requires, an undeniable, inarguable tally of his life. By day’s end, he’s filled 2,188 boxes. Clutched and placed 17,504 pears.

Your movements are too big, Jean tells him at the time clocks. Your boxes are too far away. Scoot your stack six inches closer to the belt and only move the distance you need. You’ll shave half a second. She smiles briefly. One of her front teeth is missing. The remaining one is steel-wool colored, too.


From the factory to the camp is 27.7 miles that takes forty-three, forty-four or forty-five minutes depending on the flow of southbound interstate traffic. Warren exits and lets an arterial highway carry him into the foothills by way of switchbacks that coil and release and coil again. On the straightaways, he pegs the accelerator. The van’s engine whines, the steering wheel trembles in his grip. He approaches the curves like things to frighten, arriving fast and braking hard into the turn. The tires mewl and moan. The back end shudders as if the car might fishtail, spin out, or lose purchase altogether. Warren taps the brake, harries the accelerator, and works the curve as if he can carve a faster, cleaner channel through it—shave another sliver from the buffer between adhesion and release, between this world and another.

Warren’s pulse throbs in his jaw. Oblivion haunts every blind corner, leers from the far side of the double yellow lines. He takes meager breaths, holds them like collateral against whatever may come.

A sedan the same pale blue as his van appears in the oncoming lane. Behind the wheel is a skeletal man with a whisp of cirrus-like flyaway hair and a large liver spot on his cheek. Every detail of his drawn, ravined face is clear to Warren, much the way it is clear that the two vehicles will not collide. He just knows: some crystalline impartation from road to machine to body to mind. The old man’s bleached eyes go big as Warren surges and squeals around the curve, as pinched as a bight of rope. Warren lifts a hand, waves. The cars miss each other by inches.

A mile below the camp’s entrance, Warren pulls into wide, white-rocked wayside. The wind catches his pale dust and scatters it over the edge of the roadcut. He turns off the van and steps out. The valley is far below, and Warren can just make out the buzz of the interstate. The forest plunges down to the rough contested line between it and the relentlessly browsed range. Further on, the farms and vineyards demarcate their importance with grids and rows and vain attempts to square the yellow hills to fence and property line. Then, at last, the interstate and the corridor of towns pullulating around it. The river is down there, too, but farther north, rolling on implacably behind a curtain of distance and haze.

Warren steps to the edge, kicks pebbles over it, watches them bounce and skitter down a long bare earth chute that gives on to a grove of Shasta Red Fir. The fall would be long but quick, the dry granitic soil greasing his way to the trees, scouring the flesh from his arms and face. If it didn’t kill him, the days spent snared and broken in the chaparral would.

He forces himself an inch closer when another vehicle turns into the wayside. A small foreign truck, lime green with a Day-Glo smiley face spray-painted on the driver door. Music—a sonic train wreck of didgeridoo and tabla drums—warbles from the open window. The men in the cab are just kids, with natted-up hair and earrings and goatees.

They get out, leave the music playing, and take in the view with an appreciation that to Warren seems put-on, as if they, lovers of and communers with all things green and brown, know what’s expected of them. Nice, one of them says. Epic, the other says. They nod and bite lower lips and sway to the beat. Yet they behave as if Warren—another human being, arguably the zenith of evolution, nature at its most ingenuous—is not there. They gabble and laugh and buddy it up obliviously. From the truck they retrieve small rubber balls and juggle them, first individually, then in concert, passing them until a missed catch sends one sailing down to the fir trees. Dude, one of the boy-men says. It was a shitty pass, the other says. And they laugh and juggle some more and finally return to the truck. As he backs the truck up, the driver finally raises a hand to Warren. Later, he says, and guns the engine twice before dropping into gear and driving away.

Warren remembers teaching himself to juggle, in his senior year of college, the pot smoke smudging the ceiling of his dumpy apartment, his roommate laughing and coughing when one of the rubber pins would slip Warren’s grip and bounce across the carpet.

Waste, Warren thinks. A whole world of waste.


Can I show you something?

Warren always expects Beverly Voerr to be his age, well into her thirties, early forties. Her phone voice is older, that of a traveler, a reader, a voracious mind. But she is just in her twenties, still carries herself like a college kid, as if things will always get better.

She is a PhD candidate in psychology, has worked at the camp the last four summers. When Warren and Melanie first met her, she explained her dissertation—something about forests and their therapeutic effect on the autistic mind—and Warren pretended to understand. She is slender and fair, with legs muscled by miles of hiking. Warren has never seen her in anything but shorts, close-fitting khakis that ride the curve and thrust of her hips like a skilled handler. Even now, as he resolves to lecture her on the dangers of meddling in situations she cannot possibly understand, his eyes laze over their length. Her left knee bears a turbulent arrangement of pale scars—from an auto accident or a bad fall—and Warren wonders what she can feel there, what it would be like for both of them if he traced the cicatrized flesh with a trembling finger.


He looks up. She’s regarding him with profound gray eyes ringed with lashes so long he wonders if there’s a word for giraffelike. Her face is oval, hair pulled back, cheeks red from the sun. Like fruit.

Let me show you this, she says.

She rises, goes to her desk and retrieves her laptop. She makes a few clicks and turns the screen for Warren to see. He pulls his chair closer and now he can smell her, a galvanic mixture of trees, salt, and an unwashed body.

A movie, of camera phone quality, begins to play. His daughter stands before a group of other children seated on the grass. They struggle to sit still, and two or three counselors grapple at arms that want to flap, hug bodies that want to rock, and issue shhhs to voices that want to rise and rant. Behind Annalee, trees sway. Above, the sky is blue as new china. Off camera, a voice says, Go ahead, honey, tell us.

Annalee cocks her head and her eyes roam upward, away from the crowd. She is wearing her full-length, long-sleeved navy blue sack dress and she looks like the child of a strict religious order, whose tenets demand full coverage no matter the season.

Ok, she says, Caddis flies are an order, Trichoptera, of insects with approximately twelve thousand described species. Also called sedge flies or rail flies, they are small mothlike insects that have two pairs of hairy wings. They are closely related to Lepidoptera, which have scales on their wings, and they inhabit a wide variety of habitats like streams, rivers, lakes, ponds, springs, and vernal pools. The larvae of many species make protective cases of silk decorated with gravel, sand, twigs or other found debris.

It takes Annalee no more than fifteen seconds to recite.

Beverly stops the video, and Warren shrugs his shoulders and gives her an unsurprised look. He says, That’s the Wikipedia entry. I printed it for her. We read it every night before bed.


Because you can’t fight the interest on every front. You have to give it its place and time. You know that.

She makes a noise of agreement. Can you really fight it at all? Should it be fought? I mean, you can redirect some of the energy a child pours into it . . . 

I wish you hadn’t told her about the class. We don’t allow her in the water. Ever. You should’ve asked us first. We think you crossed a line.

I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I just thought it would be perfect for—

It’s all she talks about now. Throws fits about it. I fear my wife may suffer another breakdown.

He can tell she wants to ask, Another?, but she doesn’t. She nods, knits her brows into one, and gives Warren an empathetic pout, a construction born of some mixture of practice and genuine understanding, the ratio unknowable. Warren, she begins.

He wants to be angry with her, even rude, but his bias overrides the urge. She may have made an error in professional judgment, may have broken a fragile peace, but she is too lovely, and he is weak.

I’m sorry I’ve created tension or trouble in your home, she says. The last thing I would ever want. Annalee’s an amazing child with a memory I’ve never encountered before. She has the informational capacity of two kids, two very bright kids. I only thought that by adding an experiential element to her vast bank of facts . . . Did you know she knows the chemical makeup of the chitin on the caddis fly’s little exoskeleton?

He did, had found the information himself.

She’s incredible, Warren. I just thought if she could see the things, the larvae, their unique homes, for herself, it might—

Whether it would or wouldn’t is not the issue. She cannot go in the water. We forbid it, and that should be enough for you, for anyone.

Beverly closes the laptop and returns it to her desk. When she sits back down she crosses her legs, uncrosses them, and then crosses them once more, as if she can’t remember which arrangement is most natural. Or is she distracting him, disarming him, reminding him of who she is and what she has?

She says, Some children on the spectrum sometimes need to run through their special interests. They need to exhaust them. And the brilliant ones like Annalee really need to so their minds can move on to other things, so they can devour all the information they are capable of. Some theorists believe that without people like this we’d still be living in caves. They can see solutions that we can’t, but only if they’re allowed the chance to get unstuck, to filter all the data.

Warren glances at her scarred knee. What did Beverly’s father feel when he first saw the wounds? Did he secretly mourn the loss of a pristine thing, a knee as soft and smooth as bond paper, a knee he once held between thumb and forefinger, gently pinching pudge into two rolls? And did he feel anger? At his failure to foresee and protect, at his own impotence against a treacherous and frightening world?

I think I’ve made my point, Warren says. Not another word about this. He stands, forces his eyes away from her, and leaves to find his own daughter and take her home.


Easy to know how a thing starts. Harder to know how it continues. Impossible to know how it ends. Warren remembers the book with the cartoon caddis flies, an old book found at a garage sale, yellowed packing tape holding the spine together. A Microscope’s View of Marine Life. Or something. The larvae were grotesque not because they were larvae but because they wore wide human smiles, lickerish grins really, and one stuck a big raised thumb through a hole in its pebbly shelter. Behind them, a whole woven kingdom ranged into the distance. Pebble arches, twig columns, crooked towers of shell and sand. Caddis fly larvae are the architects of the deep!

He wishes he had looked at his daughter when he first read those words. Perhaps he could have caught the flicker of sudden and irrepressible enchantment, the switch being thrown, diseases and disorders ceding all ground to these new, nymphal conquerors of his child’s mind.

But still, he knows that as the beginning, can mark it on the timeline and reify it. This he knows. But everything else—Annalee’s cancerous obsession and otherworldly obliviousness, Melanie’s raveling yet always justified fears about the river and their insecure home, followed by the eight-foot fence, the bamboo, the alarm system, the blackout blinds, their ever-shortening cords—it all swirls just out of reach, beyond Warren’s ability to order and comprehend.


Two-four-six-eight. Two-four-six-eight. The pears come, disgorging as if from some relentless and alien headwaters. The smell of them is like a wind, strong enough to rattle structures, knock over cherished things, cause damage. Warren’s shoulders burn. His back is knotted and the muscles spasm in vain attempts at release. It is morning still, the factory air cool, but he sweats, dark spots spreading on his shirt, beads shimmering and trembling on his forehead. Across from him, Jean plucks and packs with robotic fluency and endurance; only the flapping flab of her upper arms suggests she is human. Warren wants her to look at him, he wants her to stare him dead in the eye, wants to see all the doubt and dread and disappointment that must be there. Look at me, he begins to think, Look me in the eye, just look me in the eye.

To his surprise, she does, regards him like one jolted from a daydream by a car horn or a clap of thunder. Warren, she says, and she looks at his hands.

He looks at his hands. Each is annealed around a pear, the fingers sunk, the juice dripping from his fists and onto the conveyor belt. Jean says his name again, and he drops the fruit. They float away, downriver, lost.

He pushes himself off the stool and makes his way to the break room. Others from the line call after him, but their voices are far-off and with each hard-won step they recede further into the mounting fog. By the time he finds a chair at the break room table, Warren’s chest is tight and his breaths come in great wheezing gulps. The sweat flows in rivulets now. His face burns and behind it the worn tooth emits a pulsing flash that reddens and blurs his vision. He holds a hand to his sternum and rocks his torso over his knees, as if he might dislodge the thing that has stricken him.

Jean is there, suddenly, and she holds him by the shoulders. She asks the questions—Pain in his left arm? Pain in his chest? Blurry vision?—and Warren shakes his head to all of them; it is all he can muster. Then breathe, Jean says, Just breathe. Her eyes are deep and sympathetic, her dry lips pursed, and her straw-colored hair is coming loose from its clip.

It is enough, just. His throat opens. His lungs fill.

What is it, Warren? Jean asks. What’s wrong?

He looks at her, grimaces, shakes his head again. I’m fine, he says. Better now. He pauses, considers telling her everything in one long rambling confession, how he was just at the cooler for a couple minutes, fishing for the right beer, the one he liked so much, the one with a hoppy taste so deep and satisfying it was like something blooming inside, and how the sun was so bright and warm, and how the river rolled with nothing like ferocity, gentle and somnolent, a whisper off the lips of God, a good and decent and protective God, and it was just a couple minutes, three at most, and she could swim, Jean, she was a good swimmer, strong and fast for a girl of six, and then she was just gone, and he screamed for her until his throat was raw and until a fly fisher downriver heard and called 911 and until the police arrived and then Melanie too and then we screamed together and, Jean, I’m still screaming, every day, I screamed last night for another daughter, she wasn’t in her bed, she wasn’t in the house, it was late, Jean, after midnight, and she wasn’t in the house, the alarm had been disabled, she somehow figured the code, and we screamed again, together, and this time we found her, outside, just outside, she wanted to see the stars she said, the stars—ha!—the stars.

I’m going to go home, Jean, he says. He thanks her, stands and clocks out.


Later, he will acknowledge an embryonic suspicion, but now, as he brakes just before the turn to their knoll-top house, parking in front of the nearest neighbor’s house, he tells himself he needs the walk, to compose himself and concoct an excuse for being home early.

Yet he steps gingerly across the porch, avoiding the boards that creak. He inserts his key and turns it in careful intervals, the tumblers emitting a low crunch, the dead bolt sliding without sound. A gust pushes through the ponderosa pines and the black oaks, and Warren lets the sibilance mask a hinge squeak as he opens the door.

He imagines her there, in the sitting room, leafing through a magazine or dusting the shelves. He would say, Surprise, and give her a look. She wouldn’t hug or kiss him, but she would smile, ever-faithful to convention and civility. Even in the days and weeks after the accident, she would smile at him—brief, automatic, shallow. But still. He accepted what he could.

He listens for a beat before nudging the door closed and keying the alarm code. Not a sound.

He should call out, give warning; Melanie is too nervous for surprises. She jumps at sounds—the settling of the house, the thud of Annalee’s feet, the roar of a motorcycle coming up the hill. She takes Ativan when she needs it, Ambien most nights. Warren knows better, but stays quiet, moves past the sitting room and down the dim hallway to the kitchen. Further on, there’s a laundry room and a half bath. To the left and down another short hall are the two bedrooms, his and Melanie’s just across from Annalee’s. But Warren stops here, in the kitchen, and listens again, straining to pick up the resonance of movement, the susurrus of clothes folding or bills being paid.

He toes off his tennis shoes and goes to the bottom of the stairs. A clock ticks, drives seconds into the bloated silence like rivets. Warren hears his own pulse, notes how it runs ahead of and dissonant to the rhythm of time. Melanie is gone. She’s driven up the mountain to fetch Annalee from camp, and they’re heading east to Idaho and her parents’ ranch. The trunk of the Civic is crammed higgledy-piggledy with clothes, toys, the computer, photo albums, documents from the safe, cash, and just enough food to get by for the day. A new panic grips him, chest tightening, stomach falling, and for a moment he fears another episode like the one at work. He forces himself to move, to push through the surface, to stay above it.

He runs. Back down the hall, through the living room, onto the porch again. He descends the stairs and crosses the yellowing yard to a small detached garage. There, he peers through a bank of dirty windows on the bay door, cups his hands round his face, and lets his eyes adjust. The Civic is there, a block of practical anonymity, as dynamic and fearsome as a loaf of bread. Relief comes to Warren as a profound deflation, almost a loss, the certainty of his family’s departure replaced by a bitter yet undeniable pang of disappointment. It would be so much easier to be alone, to reset his life according to a slate of comforting illusions and forced, self-medicated denials; to remake himself as anyone but the man who lost a daughter to a river, who couldn’t hold on against a dark unknowable force . . . Even this story, the official version, was too much to bear, the swiftly concocted tale of the failed father-hero not much better than the truth. Not much better at all.

He goes back inside, no longer taking care to modulate his footsteps or avoid the squeaky floorboards. Melanie, he calls, Melanie. He shouts up the stairway, down the hallway, at and through the ceiling. He’s heading to the back door and the patio when he hears a voice, small and muffled, rising through the floor. He stops. Daddy, the voice says, from directly beneath him, from the basement. Daddy, it says again, and it is not Annalee’s. Annalee is at camp.

He calls out for Melanie again. Are you there? His voice pitches upward and cracks. His breath catches in his throat, sweat springs from his brow, and he feels a cold trickle run from armpit to ribcage.

And then: I’m down here, Warren. Melanie’s voice now, chasing after the other like a predator, and Warren tries to read its timbre, to gauge its emotional weight. What could she be doing down there?

He does not make a memory of his approach to and descent of the basement stairs. He will only remember arriving on the cold concrete slab, finding Melanie slouched against the unfinished Sheetrock, his panel removed and set on the floor, the four black screws arrayed atop it in a neat row, like a family of dead bugs. The mouth of the bear cave yawns open, his sanctuary breached, his secret revealed.

Melanie, he begins.

She lifts her head, shows her pale face and her ringed red eyes, the channels driven into her makeup. She regards him coldly, like an object fallen from the sky. What is this, Warren? She looks at the hole in the wall.

He opens his mouth, closes it. She knows what it is.

I’ve always known something was going on down here. I could never figure out what you did in this . . . She flutters a hand at the low dim room. This basement.

I needed something, he says. You locked all of her away in her room. You made her disappear.

No, Warren, you made her disappear. Her upper lip rolls back, briefly exposing teeth and gums, a flash of animal snarl. Her voice is sharpened to a fine, merciless point.

Now wait, Warren hears himself say. His heart beats fast, more sweat trickles down his back. You know I tried, you know . . . 

Do I?

Yes, he says. It breaks from his throat like a plea, a thin defense, the lie that it is. Yes, he says again, recasting it into a matter of fact.

Why would you keep this from me?

Because I was afraid.


He pauses, thinks, chooses his words. Afraid that you wouldn’t let me have it.

And why not? Don’t you deserve it? You must think you do.


You know what I felt when I found these—these handprints.

Melanie, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—

Betrayed, Warren. I feel betrayed by this, because it is my right to lock her away upstairs. I want her up there. She points, flashes her eyes skyward. Where I have determined she belongs.

Please, Warren says.

I have a new child, Warren, a new girl, and I love her as much . . . She trails off. Tears well, and she blinks, squeezing them onto her cheeks.

I know you do, he says. So do I.

No you don’t, she says.

That’s unfair. Just because Annalee’s different doesn’t mean I don’t—

Don’t lie to me anymore. I see you how you look at her when she’s tantruming or flapping her arms or rattling on about caddis flies. You’re thinking of Sophia and how easy it was to parent her, how independent she was. You can’t let it go.

That’s not true.


She is too far away to be stopped. He cannot cross the small space in time, and unlike his frantic rush to the top of the basement stairs, the next moment proceeds with a confounding mix of surprise and inevitability—like a bad dream, at first dismissed and rationalized, then later coming true. Melanie thrusts her hand into the hole and—with the flourish and intensity of a strict teacher clearing a chalkboard of all letters and numbers, signs and symbols, the evidence and the palimpsests—she effaces the prints, and dust rises like feeble signal to an unconcerned God.

Warren grabs her wrist, wrenches her hand and holds the dirty palm to his face. No, he says, and squeezes until Melanie screams.

He drops the hands, stands, and turns away. He climbs the stairs, and Melanie’s sobs fade beneath him.


At first he cannot take his hands off the wheel to turn the key and put the van in park. Nor can he look to his right, into the shallow sun-soaked canyon that holds a languid fork of a river. Not the river, not the one; he could never be so close. Still, his stomach is bound and the interiors of his face and head feel crammed and narrowed by an inexplicable pressure. He runs his tongue over his fresh dental work, the ceramic cap that replaced his worn tooth now a novelty to the probing muscle. A sore has formed on the tip and each prod reignites a burning yet bracing ache. One for another, he thinks. Another pain, another child, another river.

Daddy, Annalee pleads from the back. Daddy let’s get out, come on let’s get out, I’m ready. He shifts his eyes to the rearview mirror, considers this slight movement a success. Dust stirred from their descent of the corrugated access road now swirls in delicate motes at the windows. Annalee is perched on the edge of her booster, clutching her mask, fins, and snorkel. They are brand new and carry the heady smells of mass production and sanitized shipping. She, in a bathing suit from Goodwill, smells like chlorine and a stranger’s house. Likewise the sun-faded life jacket, sitting in the seat next to her. Emboldened, Warren turns to look at his daughter, catching the first sight of the river below: the gold-tipped riffles, the rusticated canyon walls, the trees arching and flexing beneath the rheumy sky of deep summer.

Okay, he says. Do you remember our one rule?

She doesn’t answer, her gaze cast at the water, as if a spell is working its strange magic. Warren says her name, threatens to drive off if she doesn’t answer.

I remember, she finally says.

Remember what?

Always hold your hand. Never let go.

Never let go. Ever. You let go, and we leave.

He puts the van in park and turns it off, engine coughing into silence. He opens his door and steps out. The heat falls on him like a savage thing, immediate and from all directions.

At the river’s edge a small group of adults are squeezing themselves into wet suits, adjusting masks and testing snorkels. A young man with a clipboard checks names and makes small talk. The top half of his wet suit is peeled back and dangles about his legs like a molted skin. He is tan and muscular and exudes the rare brand of confidence born of the marriage between intelligence, social ease, and looks. The kind of man for whom the world will indeed be an oyster if error and tragedy do not impede.

He helps Annalee out of her seat, lifts her to the ground. She is like electricity in his hands. Her small ribcage trembles, her breathing is shallow and rapid. You okay? He asks.

She nods but doesn’t look at him; her eyes are on the river, transfixed by the chance to see the thing that both agitates and soothes her curiously-wired mind, to tease from the silt a small woven bundle of sticks, shell fragments, and pebbles, to hold it in the palm of her hand, and—as Beverly Voerr seems to believe—to counterbalance her vast quixotic bank of knowledge with the slightest taste of experience, which might trigger an assessment of the obsession. The little thing, a mere and rudimentary place of gestation, would tell her if it was worth it.

He gathers up the life jacket, his own mask and snorkel, and a duffel stuffed with towels, sunscreen, and food from a gas station. The weight of these things feels immense, and he wants to drop them all, kick them into the canyon and leave this place as if he’s made a wrong turn, nothing more.

Dad? Annalee looks up at him, looking him in the eye, holding him in the thrall of contact. She extends a hand for him to take, and he shifts his burden to one arm so he can.

Ready? He says.

She nods, smiles. Slowly, taking care with every step, they descend the worn path to the river. The smells of baked rocks and sunscreen ride a gentle breeze upstream. Heat rises off the talus, and the sky shimmers as if curtained with cellophane. The river’s flow is so languid it barely makes a sound, but Warren can hear it, a low sibilance that finesses itself above the rustling of trees and the murmur of the readying class. Warren spots Beverly, chatting and smiling, then pulling her long hair into a taut pony tail before throwing her head back and letting the breeze sift through it. Her wetsuit is gray and blue and unzipped to the sternum, showing a white bikini only a shade paler than her freckled chest. She sees them now, waves, and breaks a conversation to come to them. She moves with a slow fluidity over the sand and rock and strewn vegetation, the practiced footwork of an experienced hiker.

Look who it is, Warren says to Annalee. She glances at Beverly, belies no indication of surprise, and settles her thousand-mile stare back on the river.

You made it, Beverly says, smiling.


Just you two? No mama?

He feels Annalee’s hand tighten inside his. She knows her mother does not know they are here, and deception of any stripe is impossible—cerebrally, constitutionally impossible—for the girl; she will tell, Warren knows, and Melanie will leave him. He considers this, anticipates the desert he is making of his life and how he will eke an existence within its stark parameters. Or how he will not. Since Sophia, one of the comforts of living has been the knowledge it must end—or might be ended. He lets his eyes fall on Beverly’s breasts, the constellations of her freckles bright against paper-toned flesh. Just us, he says.

She kneels down and gives Annalee a hug. This is going to be great.

Annalee nods, scrunches her face into a difficult smile, eyes roving from the river to the ground, back to the river.

I want you to meet my fiancé, Beverly says. She rises, calls to the young man with the clipboard and the muscles and the brains, and he strides over, a wide confident smile splitting his face like a seam in a rock.

This is Adam, Beverly says, and lays a palm against his bare back, holds it there. Warren watches this small gesture and wonders when his own spine was last touched, becoming aware of a profound vacancy there, flexing out and up and into his stomach and his heart.

Great to meet you, Adam says, extending a hand. Warren takes it, allows his hand to be crushed and pumped, a brisk subduing.

Beverly introduces Annalee, and Adam squats and says, I hear you like caddis flies.

At the word, Annalee gives Adam her full attention. Yes, she says. I find them to be interesting.

I considered becoming an entomologist myself. When I was your age, I was really into ants. He smiles. The breeze lifts a band of hair off his forehead, as if to spotlight the brain within and all the secret wonders of its deliberative power.

Annalee knows the big word, but insects—the nine hundred thousand species—are just background noise behind the one. She returns her gaze to the river, dismissing Adam for veering off topic.

Okay, he says, standing, smile fading. We’ll get in the water soon. It’s nice to meet you both.

Adam resumes his rounds with the clipboard. Beverly gives Warren a wan smile. He is suddenly irritated with her. Are they here because she actually believes it will be therapeutic for his daughter, or because it is her fiancé’s class, which Warren now imagines to be a requirement for completion of some advanced degree, another step down the smoothed path to a charmed life.

And Annalee, he sees now, is just being used to get there, a name to demonstrate Adam’s mastery of subject matter and social organization.

So, Warren says.

Beautiful day, Beverly says.

Beautiful, yes.

Are you okay?



I’m sure.

The water is cold; it enters Warren’s wetsuit like a bad notion and gathers itself into a thin layer between his skin and the neoprene. Yet he and Annalee are the only two who do not gasp or comment or hoot. The others—retirees, a few college-aged kids, and a married couple in their thirties—must deal only with this, and it is not even a true concern: their bodies will warm the layer to comfort and they will hover on the surface with ease. They will dip their masked faces in the water, breathe easily through their snorkels, scan the river bottom for something to call a miracle: a crayfish scuttling through the silt, a clutch of fry squiggling in the lee of a rock, shafts of sunlight bending and breaking and flickering in the slow current. They can let the water shock them, allow their chests to constrict, their stomachs to tighten. They can permit their throats to emit satisfying noises of surprise. They have nothing to lose, and not much to gain.

Adam says things to which Warren does not listen, instructing the group to look for this or that, and at this time of year one should be able to see . . . something.

He squeezes Annalee’s hand tighter, and her knuckles wriggle into an acceptable yet awkwardly overlapped arrangement. But she does not pull away or protest. She has made her promise and returns a tightening of her own.    

return to top