Water Deep, Cold

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fiction

Bridget Apfeld

Water Deep, Cold

 

 

The summer before last, the annual canoeing trip: eight of us jammed into someone’s cousin’s friend’s van for ten hours, legs cramping and wrappers everywhere, faces pressed against the windows to sleep, and somebody had spilled soda on the back seat but if we cleaned it fast enough you’d never know it. Three of my girlfriends and two boyfriends and a boy we all claimed as a friend, plus an extra boy who was a second cousin, or a friend from over the state line—the details were unimportant—and anyway he chipped in gas money and brought his own gear. Near six hundred miles of black pine and sudden rain showers that raised mist and made the road slick and greasy, and we pulled into the outfitters’ lot an hour before dusk. We slapped at mosquitos and joked about bears and argued over who got the only bed in the humid bunkhouse room where we would sleep before our river drop-off the next morning. The bathrooms were hot and spiders crawled in the sinks but we shrieked happily in the cold shower spray and reminded ourselves this was our last real shower, guys, before a week of dirt.
  Should we split up? Sarah asked when we jostled over the few maps in the bunkroom, our damp heads dripping onto the mattress pads that reeked of mildew.
  Stay together, Emily and Jess said.
  Split up, their boyfriends said together, ulterior motives on their mind, and high-fived.
  Gross, Steph said. Everyone rolled their eyes.
  We can decide at the drop-off, I said, and it was then that we remembered the dawn send-off and the ten hours we’d spent in the van, so we unzipped our sleeping bags, and we hunched up close together, then spread out when we got too hot, then panicked a bit about the dark corners in the room and bunched up once more, and whispered about the prospect of bears again, and slept.

 

We separated after the outfitters hauled us out to a slow bend in the river chain, where we could either follow the water through the open rice marsh into the lakes, or keep on in the pine shadow where the rivers trailed into more rivers and the muskrats kept the banks shiny with mud. I went toward the lakes with three others, Emily and Jake, and the unknown boy, Sam. Four was a good number and we skimmed through the rice quietly. The itchy reeds dropped seed into the canoes and grabbed at our arms, and craning our heads out over the marsh we could see nothing but golden fields of grain, waving, hissing. Grasshoppers leapt from stalk to stalk and if one hit you mid-jump it clung fiercely until you plucked it off and flung it back into the mess of wisped and cracked stalks. It was hot and our arms burned in the sun and sweat dripped down our noses but we did not break stride until we shot from the rice marsh and watched the reeds close behind us, obscuring our trail, and the water grew dark around us and we faced the entry to the lakes: bluffs, gray, closed above us, and we skirted through the narrow mouth and passed into the deep water country.
  Sam was behind me in the stern and rested his paddle on the gunwale.
  Old here, he said.
  Yes, I said, not knowing what else to say.
  It’s nice, he said.
  We should keep going, I said, and dipped hard into the water even though it meant a faster pace, and we soon passed the second canoe with our speed, and laughed at Emily and Jake’s frustration as they sweated to keep up, laughed so loud I thought the deer on the distant shore would prick up their ears and scatter, whitetails leaping into the gloom.

 

The first night we could catch no fish so Emily and I pumped water to boil and the boys ripped open bags of dehydrated corn, spilling most in the grass, and I frowned when I thought of the animal visitors we could expect from that.
  Sam is nice, Emily said, like she wanted to convince me.
  I know that, I said. We crouched on the rocks in silence for a bit, and I grabbed her hand and squeezed when a snapper raised its head.
  Here for the fish bones, she said, and we watched it sink away.
  Jake wants me to move in, Emily said, and I looked at her quick but she had turned her face and in the dusk I could not see it well.
  Do you want to? I asked.
  It would be nice to be married. It would mean security, she said.
  He asked you to marry him? I asked. I splashed water from the bottle and shook out the filter tubing.
  It’s sort of a given, she said, and anyway, it’s too late to start over.
  You’re twenty-one, I said.
  I know, she said, sad, and stood up and stretched her arms behind her.
  The gravel behind us skittered and we turned to see Sam picking his way down to the shore. He was tall and ducked out from the brush awkwardly, like he didn’t want it to touch him at all.
  Fire’s on, he said.
  Thank God, Emily said, and we stepped carefully up the rocks to the campsite.

 

Rain the next day, rain that met the lake like it was going up instead of down, that made the frogs jump in the shallows and the walleye rise to the surface so that you bumped them with your paddle and they just rolled there, lazy, bloated on shiners and perch. We stayed close to the lake edges and watched for lightning. I crouched in the bow and Emily had the stern today and we followed the boys’ canoe slowly, some distance behind so that with their hoods pulled up you couldn’t tell which was which.
  Far off, thunder—maybe miles away. But we both heard it so we stopped our stroke and dug in hard starboard and let the canoe drift into the clotted roots on the shoreline. We balanced carefully now because flipping meant losing everything down the silty shelf and it was difficult to keep still with the canoe rocking against the branches and rocks that jumbled up together. The roots were slippery with algae and moss and Emily couldn’t keep a grip when she tried to anchor the stern.
  Don’t bother, I said, and she sniffed, which I knew meant she was tired and too cold.
  I wedged my paddle along the ribs and carefully turned so we were facing each other. Her hands were pruney and clutched her paddle tight.
  We’ll stop soon, I said.
  Will they come back to find us? she asked.
  Do they need to? I asked. She said nothing and I turned back to the bow.
  When there was a break in the rain we hit a stride fast and breathed easier with the wake flowing strong behind us, and we crossed into the center of the lake to follow the patterns of the deeper water. We passed over black patches where the wind shadowed the waves and watched loons dive for perch.
  Running up into the shallows of the island where we had planned to spend the night, the smell of rain and fog was thick in the air, but clean, like cut grass. The boys were there and had pitched the tent, and now struggled to anchor the bear bag.
  Get lost? Sam asked.
  Don’t be stupid, Emily said. He looked at me and I shook my head.
  Baby, Jake said, and she smiled that small smile of hers she only saved for when she wanted something.
  She didn’t want you to rescue us, Emily said. I stared. Jake laughed.
  Tough one, Sam said, and I felt like I had to say something so I said, not really.
  Emily moved up near Jake and asked him to show her how to tie a slip knot and I could tell I would not want to listen, so I moved off to the fire grate and checked how damp it was. Rain dripped off the trees and made the pine needles stick together in clumps and when I knelt and brushed them aside the dirt was moist and spotted with woodlice and daddy longlegs.
  A shadow above me; Sam’s shoes approached my right knee and stopped.
  Rainy today, he said.
  Sure, I said. He jostled a stand of maidenhair with his shoe and the fronds pulled at his laces. He kicked them loose and coughed.
  Did you really not want us to come back for you? he asked.
  I didn’t really care, I said, and he walked away.

 

Late in the black night I woke and listened hard for whatever had startled me out of sleep. Emily curled next to me in the tiny two-man and breathed drily through her nose. I lay on my back with my eyes shut, picking apart the noises outside: rattle of mice under the dry leaves; scratching on the tent siding, an overhanging branch; the thick bump of giant moths feeling their way across rotting stumps. A fish jumped in the lake, heavy, and the night waves did not silence the slight rasp when the cormorant slipped into the water behind it. The boys wheezed in their tent a few yards downwind and I strained to hear the slow shamble in the brush that made my heart beat uncomfortably fast, the chuffing of hot breath over teeth, but there was nothing I could hear above the pines moaning as their roots inched down, into deep earth and deep rock, so I turned over and slept lightly until dawn.

 

It was long in the morning the next day when we hit the half-mile portage, and our arms were heavy and stiff, so when we saw the shallow stream that bypassed straight into the next lake there was quick argument about taking the shortcut.
  We can walk it, Emily said, it’s shallow, look.
  You’ll carry the canoes if they get grounded, then? I asked.
  Ten minutes versus an hour, Sam said.
  Then Emily crossed her arms and Jake saw it so the argument was over, and we splashed out of the canoes awkwardly and felt out our footing for the walk down the stream. We all winced with the first soaking of our shoes but soon the cold water felt good on our feet and we paid less attention to pebbles scraping the canoe bottoms, and even laughed at a tricky point where we could barely drag the canoes through, when we saw dry glacier rock rise up into beige banks and the river narrowed into a thread.
  Then when the stream became wide and the sun glared off the higher water, Jake let go of the bow and walked to a jutted-out boulder, long and flat.
  What are you doing? I called. Our canoe drifted randomly and I felt the current tug it from below.
  Look what I found, he said, and held up a buck skull. He gripped the rack in both hands and raised it above his head, grinning.
  Sweet, Sam said, and he and Emily pulled closer. Sam left their canoe and climbed up onto the boulder and the two boys turned the bone over and over between themselves, excited.
  That’s really gross, Emily said, and they laughed at her.
  Typical girl, Jake said.
  I mean it, she said, put it down.
  Check me out, Jake said, and balanced the skull on his head like a bizarre hat.
  Guys, stop, I said.
  Germs! Emily screeched.
  Cool, I’ll take a picture, Sam said. He dug in his pocket and pulled a camera out.
  Bambi bit the dust, Jake said, and gave a thumbs-up when the flash went off.
  I’m serious, Emily said, that’s so stupid.
  How about this? Sam asked, and he set the skull down and drew back an imaginary bowstring.
  Hold that pose, Jake said.
  I think we should go, I said.
  Relax, Jake said. But they put away the camera and began to climb down. Jake looked a little sorry when he went over to Emily but her pouting wasn’t serious and he knew it was all right.
  I bet you’d look good in camo, she said.
  You okay? Sam asked, approaching, and I nodded, but then he tossed the skull back toward the shore and it crunched on the rocks, not enough to splinter, only roll around a bit before it stopped, eye-up, and suddenly I felt sick.

 

Around the fire, waiting for the light to drop far enough behind the pine horizon so that we could search for moon-loving crayfish near the shallows, we talked about people we had known once, because what else was there to do when you no longer had school or sports to force you to be friends, and now only met once or twice a year to remind yourself why you kept in touch?
  Lora Rivers is pregnant, I said. Emily snorted.
  She always was a skank, she said.
  You’re so mean, Jake said fondly.
  Whatever, Emily said. Did you hear about Jenna Murphy?
  I think that’s supposed to be a secret, I said. I poked the fire and hoped the mosquitoes would land soon so I could go to the tent and listen to them talk about me.
  What about her? Sam asked.
  How do you know these thing? Jake asked.
  She went to rehab last year, Emily said. She leaned forward eagerly.
  Her parents don’t really want people to know, I said.
  Was it alcohol? Jake asked.
  Probably worse, Sam said.
  She’s home now, so it’s not really a thing, I said.
  I heard it was heroin, Emily said. We all thought about this for a minute and then Sam said, that’s sort of serious.
  It probably wasn’t heroin, I said. Emily shrugged. Jake drew her close to him and put his arm around her and Sam and I watched them from the opposite side of the fire.
  You were a little bit of a slut in high school, weren’t you? Emily said to me suddenly, and I could tell she was angry that I had disagreed with her before.
  No, I said, but Jake whistled and Sam looked at me, and I thought he was smiling, but I couldn’t tell in the dim light.
  Were too, Emily said.
  No, really, I wasn’t, I said, and she settled herself a little bit more into Jake and said, sure, and looked away.
  No shame, Jake said, maybe kindly, so I shrugged and moved my feet and said, yeah, no shame. Wind moved the leaves and down on the shore the canoes bumped against each other, knocking like hollow snail shells upended on the pebble beach. It was dark now, but I did not want to look for the crayfish anymore.
  Have you heard about Paul Stevens’ parents? Emily asked. They got divorced because she cheated on him with a coworker.

 

Rain again. Not heavy like the last time, though, just a sheen that you couldn’t exactly see until you passed a hand over your face and your fingers slipped on the water-coated skin that had grown up there in a liquid mask, cool and a little bit oily, water dripping off the end of your nose and poised in strands of droplets in your hair. All around us the lake blurred with mist and we passed through it, skimming on the surface with solemn, slow strokes which left swirling divots that stayed for just a second until the fog closed behind us and they disappeared.
  I shared my canoe with Sam and he knelt in the bow with a straight back to keep the rain from pooling over his shoulders. The food pack was pounds lighter by now which meant we sat higher in the water and would tip easier, so when Sam swung around to face me I grabbed for the gunwale with both hands.
  Shit, he said, and we both crouched low until the rocking did not carry the lip of the canoe to the waterline.
  Why’d you stop? I asked.
  Want to look around? he asked.
  What about those two? I asked, and he followed the line of my arm toward Emily and Jake, where they had almost reached the portage.
  We can meet them at the site later, he said, they know we’re following.
  I shrugged, and let him take that as a confirmation of sorts. He grinned, and kept at it until I smiled too.

 

It was a small lake, and shallow, and we let the canoe drift until we wanted to change course with an easy stroke. The rain let off and the water cleared so we could see down to the boulders that loomed out of the dark, ancient glacial teeth brushed once every century by the startled fin of a wide-eyed fish—stones which slept a long sleep down in the cold deep, untouched by any light from above.
  It’s creepy here, Sam said.
  I guess, I said. Something moved in the near forest and the hair on my arms rose, but I clamped my jaw down on the sudden fear and heard nothing more.

 

It’s too late to do it, I said. Two hours of letting the waves direct us among water-lily groves and over drowned trees and we had finally turned to the portage, but now we bumped against a sheer drop-off where the lake ended and the portage trail began and saw that to miss a step, to slip in the dusk, would mean losing supplies and breaking an ankle, and once injured there was nothing to do but wait and hope you’d be found before the food ran out.
  You sure? Sam asked.
  We’re not doing it, I said.
  I saw a site sort of back there, he said, and I thought he did not sound nearly sorry enough for having caused this delay.
  Emily’s going to flip, I said. Sam laughed and the sound was strange in the quiet.
  It’s not funny, I said, maybe too sharp, because Sam turned his head and said, relax, don’t get upset, and even though he smiled at me I did not think he wanted to this time. Wind shook through the pine and birch, and my arms began to ache.

 

It had been a quick but right decision to split the equipment evenly among the two canoes and so we were not short for food or rope or, highest importance, a tent. Sam struggled with the flysheet and I sat in front of the cook stove and boiled water to the sounds of his impatience, and when the dried peas were plumped into a soggy mess we sat on log stumps and ate.
  Do we have anything else? he asked. I tossed him a bag of cranberries.
  Eat up, I said, and worked on removing a stuck pea from behind my teeth with my tongue.
  Wonder what the other guys are doing right now, Sam said.
  I don’t think it’s hard to imagine, I said.
  They’re like that? he asked.
  I guess, I said. The pea was lodged far back and I tried to dig around with a finger when he glanced away at the brush.
  Can’t bears, like, smell that sort of thing? he asked, and I yanked my hand from my face.
  Myth, I said, and he grinned, said, nasty, and with his mouth open I could see cranberry stain on all his teeth, reddish black and thick like blood.

 

We tied the bear bag with some trouble. There were no good hanging trees and neither of us had much luck catching a branch, toss after toss and the carabiner still dropped at our feet, but in the end we got it up and anchored it with a sapling that we suspected would be bark-stripped come morning where the rope tugged and frayed.
  Going to sleep? Sam asked me.
  Yeah, I said, you not?
  Soon, he said, so I tucked my shoes near the tent flap and crawled in, and when I had tamped down the lumps of earth under the base and moved from side to back to side again and kicked off my sleeping bag and drawn my hood up over my face, I slept.

 

Footsteps on stone, quiet. I opened my eyes and watched Sam’s hand draw the zipper down the tent door, slow, all the way to the bottom before it folded in the material and he crouched in, shoeless and smelling like smoke and sweat. I laid still as he eased the zipper back up, smooth on the sticky spots so it glided up hitchless, so quiet I didn’t notice in the dark when he turned around and moved and was close, a sudden shape near my side. I kept my face still and my eyes open and I watched him crawl closer until he stopped, inches away, held a hand near my thigh. In the gray light his hand was white and blue. He put it down and it was warm.
  What are you doing? I said. His face was in shadow and I could not see if he was surprised to hear me awake. Nothing was said for a few seconds.
  This is what you guys do up here, right? he said.
  Sort of, I said.
  Outside the tent I could hear the soft scuffles of some quick-pawed creature in the underbrush, noises which went skittering away when Sam put a cautious arm over me and knocked the tent wall.
  It’s just us, he said, we don’t have to say anything about it. He moved his hips over mine and let his weight down gently.
  I know that, I said.
  It’s ok, right? he said.
  I don’t know, I said. I smelled his breath and he leaned down and then I could taste the berries on his tongue, sweet and hot. He drew back.
  Is this ok? he asked. He shifted and I could feel him press against me.
  It’ll be fine, he said, just us.
  It’s ok, right? he asked. This is ok?
  A loon shrilled out briefly, and then the lake was silent.

 

It was easy to find Emily and Jake the next morning, and after the site was clear and the bags packed, we loaded up and put in, looking toward fourteen miles that would take us out of the lakes and back into river country, to slow water.
  Thanks for letting me get some time with Jake, Emily said from the stern. I concentrated on slicing clean into the waves, perfect angle, and hesitated on each switchover so the drip off the paddle could cool down my knees.
  Did you hear me? she asked.
  Yeah, I said.
  It’s nice to get alone time, she said, now that we’re pretty serious.
  I’m sure it is, I said.
  I can’t imagine anything better, she said.
  I know it, I said, and dug in hard, starting a faster pace. Behind me Emily followed the stroke and we cut through the water with our black shadow stretching far out over the waves, bubbles frothing out from the prow, and we went fast and faster. Blood pumped in my chest and my hands chafed on the paddle, but I did not stop; we shot forward like flint arrows in the pines, or a dog let loose in the night. The stroke ran strong and we went fast over that lake, so that watching from the deep below it was not long before our form passed across the liquid dome—the pale belly of us streaming, luminous—and disappeared.