He woke. Not gradually, rising to the surface. All at once. He knew the cold pressing upon him. He knew the tick-tick-tick of the predawn woods. How long had he slept? It seemed important to know. The moon filled the clearing with a fairy light. A single star, just there in the treetop, riding like a beacon on a ship’s mast, told him nothing.
He felt more than saw that the fire was dead. A word came to his mind, bedewed. Then another, bejeweled. Yes, like that. The sparks from the campfire as they had gleamed against the black fortress of trees. Like rubies.
Out of the silence, a sudden crack and splash. Beaver. He tried to imagine its nighttime routine. Its sleek black head riding high above the insistent current of the river. The water sheeting from its back as it heaves itself onto the familiar bank. The alien smell that comes and the immediate tail slap: Beware! Danger! Beware.
Still nothing from there. Not even the sound of his breathing. A gray lump beyond the charred log and its bed of ghostly ashes. Motionless.
He understood, without really having to think about it, that everything had changed. Everything and nothing. Because changing requires a there and a here. A then and a now. But what was there before? Something, surely, but nothing that had ever been put into conscious thought, much less words. Hours, it seemed, without saying more than “Look,” or “Yes, that’s it.” Saying nothing that a puff of air could not carry away. What had she said once? As if you could read each other’s minds. Like long-practiced dance partners. A choreography of impossible exactitude. Cranes pirouetting.
What time is it? He sensed the presence of something uncanny. As if a hush had fallen a moment before his eyes fluttered open. Too cold to sit up. The thump of his heart beating — he strained to feel it. Distract yourself.
He remembered the warmth on the back of his neck, the metronomic plunge of the paddle into water. The way the bow of the canoe seemed to find, all on its own, the only path forward. The way the river seemed to be continually flexing itself, every tiny ripple on the surface of the water betraying its hidden power. He had long accepted its utter indifference to them and to everything. He relied upon it. He needed to believe that something would endure.
A whip-poor-will, somewhere deep in the swamp. The creak of a tree limb, sagging with the extra weight of dew. He turned onto his side, so that he could peer directly through the trees and out over the edge of the bluff. Somewhere down there lay the canoe, overturned on the bank. Two paddles underneath it. And one lifejacket.
*With apology to Paul Auster
© 2014 Jim Abbot