They park fifty feet from shore, Nichols and his daughter, despite her quiet protests.
“The river hasn’t changed,” he says, sipping Hamm’s, the last can of four he brought for the road. “It looks the god damn same.” He rolls the can between his thigh and palm, up and down, up and down. He clears his throat. “It empties into Rainy Lake, down at International Falls. That’s where the timber harvests went, I-Falls. I haven’t told you about all that, I guess.”
“I can’t believe you,” she whispers. “You’ve gone mad.” Her voice could be the wind, or the river’s steady murmur. The water glides west to east. He imagines something resisting it, a force or a disembodied will with a singular yearning to press forward against the current. His wife was buried last week. A suicide in the den. A body. A crumpled form slouched on the desk, head purged of all fluids and matter.
“Mad?” he says. “Of course I’m mad.”
He does not keep a gun in the house; he never has. He imagined, in the days after finding her, that his wife had peered through the bedroom window as he pulled out for work each morning, ignorant, complacent; that on one of these mornings she finally crept to the bathroom, where she must have applied makeup, curled her hair, and slid into her nicest suit, the brown one with shoulder pads and cinched waist. She must have called a cab and waited nervously in the foyer with her purse clutched tightly, checking too often through the curtain to see if her driver had arrived. Then, riding into town, examined her sadness, which she had kept from everyone, as if it were some freakish thing, a cow fetus embalmed in a jar of formaldehyde. What else could she have been thinking about? She had arrived at Anderson’s Sporting Supply Co. (a receipt he found in her purse said as much), strolling between racks of rifles and shotguns, pistols and revolvers, until she found the one, which she must have known immediately by how it felt in her hands, slightly heavy, though miraculously contoured as if to fit only her palm. Everything else must have disappeared: the driver waiting outside; her daughter, angry and alone, carrying books through the halls of South High School; her husband scratching senseless numbers into paper at the flour mill.
He has spent days wondering what it must feel like to stand in the world after it has ceased, or if he already knows, if the end feels the same as everything. He decided that he and his daughter could use an adventure.
“Stop pouting,” he says.
She kicks the Studebaker’s round fender. He pulls bundles of gear from the trunk, setting everything on the ground—the tent, fishing poles, tackle box, blankets, cookware, a tin cooler packed with thirty Hamm’s. He pops one and chugs it.
“This is despicable,” she says. “You’re a kidnapper. You know that, don’t you?”
“I told you to quit it.” He opens another. “There are difficulties in life,” he says. “You should know that.” He drinks. She is silent, arms crossed, face red. He points across the river. “See that? Over there? That’s Canada. Ontario. You should know that if you want to be—what is it?—a senator. A big shot.”
She grinds her toe into the rocks.
“They used to drive timber on this river,” he says. “That work was brutal.” He means the Rainy Lake Lumber Company encampment, about sixty miles upstream, where he spent the spring of 1917 as a blacksmith’s apprentice. “Our bodies constantly hurt,” he says. “My hands, especially. I had knuckles like acorns.”
He now believes the short stint of hard labor is to blame for his creaky elbows and his stoic tolerance of unpleasant things.
She leans against the car, tucks a strand of red-blonde hair behind her ear, and folds her slender arms. Her dress is checkered blue and white. That hair, it blazes against the sky. He is astonished at how tall she has grown. The trait is from her mother. It is bewildering that the woman ever fell in love with him. Late one night, years ago, while splitting a liter of gin at the kitchen table, waiting for their infant daughter’s fever to break—the baby’s pained cries piercing their shared solitude intermittently—she told him why. She clasped his fingers between her own, which were much more slender and elegant than his, and explained that she could sense the pain he held inside as if it was a gene, and that it had drawn her to him, because she held it, too. We’re kindred this way, she had said. And we always will be. Then she let go, sipped, and tended to their child. Now, he feels an urge to carve notches in every tree, a whole forest documenting his daughter’s height. He damns himself for what he has given her.
“I don’t know,” he says. He uncoils a length of rope. “I just don’t know.”
Later, after he has caught two perch, sliced and gutted them, and eaten both with more Hamm’s (his daughter refused to eat; she went to bed before the sun was down), he sits alone on the rocky shore, drinking beer, for which he is grateful, because it tastes the same as when he was younger. The flavor—bitter and skunky, an invulnerable constant—has not changed since he first tasted it. That was thirty years ago, in the lumber camp. Tonight, the river burbles, the same sound the blacksmith made after his head was ravaged by an ox, the awful boiling in his throat, as if trying to speak, despite a brain of mush. Nichols stares at the river. Its waves break apart and mend, break apart and mend. . .
His wife left no note. Even in death, she had deprived them of herself. He rests his hand on the rocks. The current laps the shore, the same current that had once moved acres of fallen timber. The men in camp had built a raft after the blacksmith died. It carried his makeshift casket, riding the logs down the dark channel slicing through the green trees.
Soon, he decides it is bedtime. He drinks two more Hamm’s and ambles to the tent, stomping through mud, clearing evergreen branches with his arms, groaning like a primordial beast. He crawls inside and whimpers. He is a mouth devoid of phonemes. His language is the fluid garbles of suffering. She is curled there, possibly awake, pretending not to notice. He has grown used to this. At home, she does not speak. She goes from room to room as if he is not a person, but a portrait of some previous owner left for her to examine, wondering what he was like; the artist had screwed up some feature, a smear across the nose, or uneven eyes, and she sneers when she sees it, contemptuous of the person who would let such a thing into the world. He gets down on his knees, then his side, and cups his body around hers, startled by her warmth, by his own unambiguous coldness.
She stirs. Her cries are soft and terrible. He imagines how her life might go. She finishes high school then goes back east for college. A scholarship, some place he could never afford otherwise—Vassar or Smith, maybe Pembroke. She embeds herself in campus life, wears school colors, strolls the green spaces with boys she will never tell her father about, their hands clasped as if the flesh of one sustains the other—one of them like root, the other like earth. She comes home once a year at Christmas, and only for a couple days, because she cannot stand to see her father, who is heavier each time, dirtier and more disheveled, and slightly less coherent, drifting to sleep at odd times and snapping awake, eyes wide and watery, afraid of the empty space surrounding him.
It is her final year, and she already has a job lined up, something in an office, something respectful with responsibilities. This is the inevitable trip in which she arrives home to find him dead, face down in a bowl of canned tomato soup, a turkey sandwich on the table, half-eaten, the cabinet door left open. She does not know it yet, but this is the sight that undoes her. This is the trouble she bears like a creaky elbow—a source of pain she hardly notices until that part of her is forced to move: the gray stubble of a homeless man picking flattened bread scraps off the sidewalk; the brittle arm of an elderly patron struggling to hold her tray in a downtown cafeteria; the mighty curve of a raccoon’s back, dead on the side of the road. She works her office job. She draws a living wage. Eventually, she goes to a new city, where she moves up (someplace glamorous, New York or Los Angeles; wherever she goes, it is far from this river, this dumb, persistent current). Supervisor, then manager, then director. She dates men and discards them, finding that they are all, in some way, like him: insecure and petty, full of rage and regret with no room for love. She has friends, but prefers to be alone. She goes about her work. She bothers no one.
She lives this way until one morning, while rolling a nylon stocking past her knee, thinking of her afternoon meeting and the bread her mother used to bake, something in her brain pops, and she goes lightheaded, and blood drains from her nose, mouth, and ears, and everyone is surprised when they find out, frightened that something similar could happen to them, frightened that they cannot explain why.
He rolls onto his back.
“Wake up,” he says. “Wake up.” It is difficult to speak. His mouth is filled with spit, foaming at the corners. “Let me tell you about her,” he mumbles. “I got stories. Let me tell you. Big ones. I got a whopper. A big dead whopper. He was a good man, I think. Treated the horses kindly.” He pulls a Hamm’s from his pocket and fumbles with the can opener. He drops it. She pulls the blankets tight. She tells him to shut up. “God damn it,” he says. He lifts himself, straddles her curled body. She yelps and squirms and kicks him in the chest and runs outside, barefoot. “God damn it,” he says. He coughs. He swallows phlegm. He blubbers, spit frothing, a viscous lather. His tongue sticks to his lips. “This ain’t the worst,” he says. “You don’t know the worst.” He closes his eyes and wonders.
It is still dark when he wakes. The Studebaker is gone. He calls her name, his voice an empty echo.
What must a man do upon the discovery that his collapse has been years in the making? That his life has been a drawn-out ruse? That the passing moments do not lead him to peace or clarity?
In the tent, he digs through a bundle of supplies and withdraws his hatchet. The cooler holds eighteen beers. He plans to finish all of them before dawn.
He gets to hacking. Every branch is thicker than his calf, longer than his arm. They pile at his feet. Like a lumberjack, he whistles a tune and chops. He drinks. A stack of wood on one side, a pile of cans on the other. The wood is soft. Poplar. The whacks are dull, as if pounding dough. Soon he has enough. He drinks some more. If the earth is a conveyor of all life, turning through space, then a raft is a means into the inner-mechanism.
In the tent, he finds a length of rope. Birds awaken. Their songs are cheery and bright. The trees are like a brain, a fully functioning brain. The songs connect the different parts, like impulses. He makes out tire tracks in the dirt where his daughter pulled away. He expels all feeling. He is an empty can of Hamm’s, a steel husk with a hole popped in it, air whistling across the chasm. He loops the rope around one branch and pulls it tight, then repeats with the next one, until every branch is connected, then he ties them all together, and does the same on the other end. On the water, the raft looks like a door. It is the thing shutting him out of the world that exists beneath the surface. He prefers this. He studies the emptiness inside himself. The open contours. The colorless gap.
There is a piece of driftwood by his feet.
“I know you,” he says. He picks it up, grips the hatchet by the head, and, on one side of the driftwood, carves the word, daughter, on the other, the word, wife.
“You are with me now,” he says. “We’re together again.” In the east, a growing yolk of orange. “Uh oh,” he says. He lugs the cooler to the raft. Plenty left. A dozen, at least. He sticks the piece of driftwood—his wife and daughter—in his back pocket. They board the raft. It is flimsy, weighed down. Fingers of water slip between the logs, as if to grab his ankle, to pull him under. He pushes off, steering with a long stick, a hand-held rudder. They ride, like the harvests once did, toward the place the blacksmith landed, past shifting scenes of evergreens and rocky inlets, hanging branches and green thickets. One by one, the stars disappear. The sky lightens. He drinks, pulls the driftwood from his pocket, and sets it between his legs.
“Daughter,” he says. He takes a long pull and tosses the can into the river, pops another. “Daughter, have I got a story for you. Listen to me, now. You’ll enjoy this one. You too, Wife. You’ll find it interesting. You’ll get it probably better than I do. It’s a whopper. A good old-fashioned yarn. Both of you, listen up.” The raft gains speed. He does not know what awaits. He tells his story:
“There was this guy we called Ox,” he says. “Ox was a big fellow from West Virginia.” (Nichols describes the man’s arms: thick as trees, hairy as a wolf. Normally, the foreman—Hugh, or Hughes; Nichols cannot remember the man’s name—normally Hughes would put at least two men to a saw, one pushing and the other pulling. Old Ox, though, was a one-man tree destroyer. He’d zip that blade right through a white pine as if it was cheese.) “My god,” Nichols says, “what a brute.” He pops another Hamm’s and gulps. “Ox’s voice was demonic,” he says. “When Ox spoke, it sounded like the world had caved in, and all the land in Creation was being sucked into a final, bottomless abyss.” (Ox always carried a rifle; he claimed to be a veteran, that he had acquired the gun in Cuba blasting Spaniards to bits under the command of Teddy Roosevelt himself.) “Damn it all,” Nichols says, “I wish I could remember the blacksmith’s name. You’d think I’d remember the name of my own boss. That was so long ago, and these beers sure haven’t helped me. You could argue—and some have—that I don’t owe him a damn thing, but you’d be wrong. Anyway,” he says, “as far as I know, Ox and the blacksmith didn’t fraternize.” (In fact, Ox had liked very much to have a good time. On his days off, he’d leave the camp, and he’d head to the nearest town. In those days, so long as you were inside the lumber industry’s wide footprint, it was easy to find some fun.) “One night,” he says, “Ox headed down to Baudette for some drinks and whores. He went and had himself a time on that spring-loaded dance floor and the squeaky brass bed upstairs, and when he got back to camp, the clod decided he wasn’t done. Ox still felt the motion of the evening,” he says, “and so he woke up the rest of us. Ox pulled that rifle—if I knew a damn about firearms I’d say what kind, but I haven’t touched one since that night—Ox pulled that rifle from beneath his mattress and steered us all outside. It was dark as a bear’s throat. No moon. No stars.” (All they could see of Ox was his hefty imprint on the darkness. He wanted them all to see the kind of carnage he had doled to Spaniard skulls, so he raised the rifle to his shoulder and swung it around. He pulled the trigger, lighting his beastly face in the orange muzzle flash, teeth gritted, eyes wide and bloodshot, and he blasted a hole in the side of the shack.) “For what purpose,” Nichols says, “I don’t know. That’s just how the man was.” (What Ox didn’t know is that the blacksmith was also up that night, in the barn, re-shoeing an ox—the animal, not the man. The ox had cracked a hoof pulling a sleigh of logs. He was leaned down close to its foot, tapping nails, and when the shot went off, it spooked the beast. It got scared and kicked back and started stomping the poor man’s skull as if it was a glass bowl.) “A couple minutes later,” Nichols says, popping open a Hamm’s, “after we’d gone back in and Ox had passed out, fully clothed, still holding the rifle, Hughes rushed in and found me, and he informed me of the awful details.” (The blacksmith lay on the workbench in his shop, and though he was unconscious, he was alive, and his breaths were shallow. Sweat beaded on his forehead, mixing with the blood and pulp where his skull caved in. Be calm, Hughes said, though he wasn’t calm himself. He paced, and his voice cracked like a nervous schoolboy’s. You know he ain’t himself anymore. You know that. He said it over and over—He ain’t himself anymore.) “I don’t know how it happened,” Nichols says, eyes watery, glistening in the sunlight, “but somehow Ox’s rifle ended up in my hands. There are gaps I can’t recall. I’ve tried, but my conscience won’t let me fill them in. There I was, holding onto that damn rifle. Hughes told me it was okay. There wasn’t a courier coming for almost a week, and the camp doctor had no way keeping this man alive. He ain’t himself anymore. Hughes dragged the blacksmith off the workbench and propped him in the corner. He placed an empty nail sack over his head and explained that it was my duty; I was the man’s apprentice. So I took aim,” he says, “as if at a sick dog. I was sixteen years old and from Rochester, New York. What a damn shame.” He crushes the can and tosses it in his wake. “Sometimes,” he says, “I liked to imagine the villages up in these parts. The blacksmith was from International Falls.” (Back then, Nichols had figured the place was built of spacious cabins, walls of hand-stripped pine. Maybe clear cut lawns in front and back with giants milling about—Swedes in linen shirts and dresses, Indians in feathers and bearskins, all of them lining the wooden walkways, trading walleye and beads.) He says, “It’s silly how much we get wrong. It’s god damn devastating. We built a box for the blacksmith and sent him home on a raft. A couple of river wanigans guided him downstream and the drivers came back shaking their heads. Long story short, I changed careers and my general outlook. No one ever heals from such a thing. The emptier you are, the better. I left that camp, and I remember seeing the jagged little village of shacks carved into the forest, the wooden walks connecting them, and I knew that when the ice came that winter, it would all be dismantled, and nothing would be left except what we could pull from memory. Daughter, Wife…
The river pulls him east, toward unknown points, and the sky brightens. Light fractures on the river in white shards, glinting on the trail of cans bobbing in his wake, and on the rocks ahead.
Another sad example of abuse and waste, a case of misguided wandering ending in silent tragedy, the cycle of pain completing itself. Sometimes tourists believed too much in their own industriousness and primitive instincts, and they’d wash up on one of the beaches near the D.O.T. survey sites, like the one where a man named Floyd Knutson is calibrating his telescope. The lens comes into focus, and he notices, on the rocky shore beside the dirt road, which will soon be paved, a leg sticking out from some brambles among a few long splinters of wood and crushed cans. He curses, radios his boss, and, while waiting, ambles to the shore, where the water is calm. The body, bloated and purple, belongs to a man his age (too old for the war that had just ended, too young for the previous one. He will later learn the man’s name, Joseph Nichols, as well as a few basic facts: that this Nichols fellow was a widower with a sixteen-year-old daughter, Karen; that he’d been camping; that he’d been a drunk nearly his entire life, including on his final day, as evidenced by the empty cooler found a mile upstream from his body, wedged in the granite rapids. Sometimes, in the following years, Knutson would wonder about the girl—whom she’d stayed with afterward, if she’d been able to make anything of herself—and he accepted that he’d never know, that it wasn’t his right to know). The eyes: two cloudy marbles. Mouth open, fillings in every molar, frozen in a look of permanent shock. Ankles tangled in twine.
Soon, a D.O.T. vehicle pulls up, followed by a police officer and the county coroner. Knutson explains what he has found. The officer jots it down and shakes his head. Neither man can understand what infects someone’s mind to go and try such a ridiculous stunt. Neither can his boss that evening as the two men discuss the incident over cold beers in the Knutsons’ kitchen. Both men lean forward in their chairs, elbows on the table. Arrogance is the answer, they conclude. Arrogance or madness, although the line between them is tough to figure.