A journal of narrative writing.
Black River
Page 2


The pond sang blue in the summer.  Bleached birch trunks hung over the water like the undersides of a grandmother’s arms.  Around the rim, the water deepened from eighteen inches to thirty-two feet in one snapping turtle-infested plunge.  My mother speared the border between Shallow and Deep with a slender willow switch – we were not to swim beyond that point without an adult.  When she was back inside, we would hold onto the branch and stretch our legs like the first and second hands of a watch, teasing the dark.  Our faces dipped into the water’s dim, jade light.  Minnows darted.  Waterweeds traced our shins.  Sometimes, we would look up and catch her watching us, frowning.

One foggy morning after breakfast, Kurt and I decided to scout the pond.  Our mother was still in bed with a migraine, a sock tied tight around her head.  The summer had been unusually wet with thunderstorms bruising every afternoon.  The cool rumbling rush of wind and rain would alleviate my mother’s headache, then she would come outside with an ice tea and macramé in the sun.

On the dock, we inflated our yellow and orange rafts with built-in pillows, stopping only to gather our breaths and giggle.  We waded into the shallows until the night-chilled water numbed our calves.  Fog hid the opposite bank.  We stared directly past the stick.  The silent dare – who would go first? 

I embraced my raft face-first like a drunkard – Kurt tried to mimic my grace.  We bobbed and buoyed, our chins shivering on the pillows, hands paddling like puppies.  Wet hair plastered my shoulders.  Kurt’s back glistened brown in the whitening light, as smooth as a river rock.  Only a thin layer filled with our syrup-sweet breath kept us afloat.

We drifted along the shore to see if we could sneak up on a deer drinking or a raccoon washing up after its night meal.  Through the fog, off to the western corner of the pond, a yellow line brightened: a nylon cord attached to giant bobbers warned of the dam’s intake zone.  We floated closer, curious to see the dam from a new angle.  Above us, where a single-lane road crossed the dam, a CAUTION sign glowed like neon.  My brother, always looking to my lead, held back as I skimmed over the yellow cord through the calm water toward the floodgate.  I expected a pull of current, but there was only the catch of our breathing. 

My palms gripped the gate’s steel lip –  two hundred feet below, a rusty stain seeped from the chute to where the river resumed its old life.  Beyond the squat cement building which housed the turbines, Black River left all depths behind as it stretched thin and free over boulders and snags.  Spruce lined its banks like teeth releasing a yawn.  The river turned north towards Lake Huron, flowed out of sight.

A pebble from the road above fell into the chute, moved by nothing we could see or hear.  I imagined the groan of cables, the gate pulling up, the rotted husks of shanties slipping underneath me like ancient sturgeon.  I could hold my breath and hold onto my raft, slide through across the washboard laughter of the rapids.  My blood heated up so close to the edge, so close to possibility.

The turbines whirred with loud, metallic moans and drew deep from the pond – my raft buckled as I flailed back to the other side of the cord.  A snipe flushed from its cattail blind.  My brother's tanned face had gone white.  We slapped and kicked away from the yellow cord until the bottoms of our rafts brushed safe, green mud.  Reeds hid us from the cabins.

“Don’t tell Mom, ok?” I told him, knowing he never would.

He nodded, his whole body starting to shake. “Nothing’s happening,” he said, looking back at the floodgate.

The distance home stretched over a water-logged and freezing half mile.  Skirting our neighbors’ docks and roped row-boats, we held onto our rafts with clenched fists until we came to our own steep bank.  The driftwood steps buckled under our pruned, blue feet.  Towels gone crusty overnight on the clothesline were a welcome second skin.

Pete’s empty Cougar was parked in the weedy grass, the engine knocking and contracting.  Through the window we could see Pete sitting at the chrome kitchen table, smoke circling the overhead lamp.  I squeaked open the screen door and tried to hush its predictable slam.

“You’re wet,” Pete informed us.

“Uh-huh,” Kurt’s teeth rattled in reply from behind me.  My father eyed us over his glasses.

“You’ll get your wish,” Pete said, peering through watery, red eyes.  “They’ll be dropping the dam any day now, skimming it off.  You two should watch.”

Kurt ran into the bedroom, hiding with The Hardy Boys and his Matchbox cars for the rest of the day.  I was alone, standing before the two flannelled men, with nothing to say.  Any anticipation I had harbored about the Big Event suddenly burned off like the fog.

Later that afternoon, after cool wind and another thunderstorm, my mother woke, recoiled her bun and started dinner.  Pete had left hours earlier, but I had not moved from the living room window where I watched white caps froth on the water.  With the wind and new rain, all boundaries were blurred.  Neither my father nor Pete had questioned us further.  They had let the topic of our vanishing act go, releasing us to our corners of the cabin.

After dinner, under a sky wiped clean of clouds, I walked out to the dock to check the shoreline one more time.  A catfish slid out from a matted clot of leaves beneath the dock, from shadow to emerging moonlight.  Cottonwoods drenched the shore with their thick resin.  The lake had become a glassy slate erasing any evidence that a storm had roughed its surface.  Where the sun had set, the floodgate remained a silent, looming wall, immovable against the pressing will of the river.  I turned to the cabin and went to bed.

The next morning we woke to a velvety, tawny beach.  Broken clam shells littered the muck like pottery shards.  Arches of tiny hand prints wove across the sand, the wanderings of raccoons drunk on their find.  Stepping carefully onto the cool sand, I let it squish up between my toes.  I walked out to the willow marker, so much closer now than the morning before.  Where Black River and the pond merged, I scooped up the chilled water in my hands, splashed my face awake.


A few years later, Lyda wrote to tell us that Pete had died.  Lyda had sold their cabin and the few acres to some hunters from downstate and was living with a niece in the Upper Peninsula.  She said she thought it best to put him up near his brothers and their wives, in the little plot kept for no one in particular.  He hadn’t wanted a service. 

We drove up from Detroit for a long Valentine’s Day weekend, and to pay our respects.  Parked outside the stone shed where Pete’s body waited for spring, snow clouds muffled the late afternoon light a smudged blue.  In the dry heat of the car I tried to think of a nice Lutheran prayer, but all I could come up with was the song “Little Cabin In The Woods.”  Kurt and I sang it softly in the backseat.  I was sure Pete would have been satisfied with that, never having thought too much of the Lord.

My parents treated us that night to a fish-fry dinner in town.  The bar was full of men who looked like Pete, men with ruddy cheeks and callused hands, their hats still on with the ear flaps pulled up.  They had come in off the ice to warm their blood with Red Stripe and News.  Other families sat at wooden tables under wide lamps, their baskets of fish and fries glowing like gold treasure.  I wondered who among them might have known Pete.  I wondered which bar stool was his favorite.

Under a wool army blanket that night, I dreamt of Pete.  He wandered the gray and rutted fire trails through thick smoke, the hulk of his red car fish-tailing in the sand.  Faster than the lava pursuing him, he drove, but was not lost.  As stealth as a deer, he maneuvered the dark.  He knew which forks to choose, which would lead him to the cooling river.  Out of the car, the door left open like a gasping gill, he stumbled his way down smoldering blast rock, cursing crawdads.  He reached the earth-mantled hum of the dam’s turbines, opened the chained door with the blandest of keys.  Pete, the keeper of ebb and flow.

Deep in the night when our dreams were bamboo poles hovering above open-mouthed bluegill, he hoisted the floodgate’s lever, drew the grating cables, spit, let the headwaters drop down, flow back into blackness.