“Desh, the dam is going to break. Do you not understand? You and your daughter have to go. Get out, or head for higher ground, doesn’t matter. It isn’t safe here.”
“Got a smoke?” asked Desh. He opened a window and let a breath of August circle the room, sprinkling horseflies and basil. Down the slope, the river was full of glittering treasures. When night came, he would go to the dock to fill himself with them.
John passed a cigarette. “I know you love this land. I know you have everything in this cabin. But when that dam goes, the water is going to cover your chimney five times over.”
“You give my regards to your brother. He home from the army yet?”
“Sure Desh. He’s back, two months now. You saw him in town a little while ago, asked him what kind of snakes they have in the desert. He said he’d look it up for you.”
“No. He hasn’t.” John rose. “You get Carly out, okay Desh. Don’t let her die in this cabin.”
When the door closed, Desh waited for the engine’s rumble to fade down the road. “What’s wrong with dying in this cabin?” he said to the table. “People died here before, they’re not complaining.” But when he opened the door, the land kissed him behind the ear, where it felt like sand against his skin, and he saw trees growing too tall, unkempt because it has it had been so long since they had last burnt – and down the road, he saw wilt and starvation, too many roots fighting for a water table that was drying up. “Who said I loved this place?” he said to the woods. “Can’t stand the land. Can’t abide the openness.”
And then the wind closed the door behind Desh. Its report went through the trees, circled back, bent the wood of the porch beneath his feet. “Ira Stills, what do you know. Hated this place when you were alive. Still hate it, all this land.”
“Doggy dog dog barking,” said Carly, pointing down the road. She identified a scraggly stick that looked like a dog. Sick. Still. Jumps here and there. But definitely a dog, made of sticks. “Oh doggy dog dog barking!” she cried, when John’s car ran it over.
Birds flying overhead but Carly without a name for their type or kind or even colour. Possible names like stitches on her knee, fraying at the edges until the blood snuck out, like that time behind the woodshed when the window opened by itself. She picked up a rock and threw it into the air. Missed every bird.
“Girl,” came Desh’s voice, “why don’t you go stand in front of that car and be done?”
Carly plucked a flower from her hair. She had about five thousand flowers in her hair, and some day she was bound to be old and surrounded by them. Purple and white, yellow and gold, colours so bright she couldn’t say them. “Have a flower,” she said to Desh, handing him a leaf.
“Wish you got in front of the wheels. Have them rub you over, break you up. Put you in a ditch, and have done with you. That’s all I think about when someone says I have to take care of you.”
In those rumbling words, Carly heard a moon creature. It was braying over the hill, up in the sky. Flying with the birds. “Pause pause daddy. There be a doggy dog dog barking at the end of the lane, all smashed up.”
“I’ll smash you up, sure. Should have years ago.” Desh spat.
But Carly was looking at the road winding through the trees, next to the water. She saw a ripple in the river, a pulse, and next to it a moon creature sucking milk out of a crater through a straw. “Will take forever!” she exclaimed. The birds in the trees, as though at her voice, launched into the air.
Desh was sweating. “Carly. You go down to the water. Go and make sure the boat’s roped up properly. You go now, and stay down there, okay.”
Birds sang. Dogs died in the road. Carly felt a rumble at her feet. But Carly was meant for the river, and so to the river she went.
The phone was dead. Desh drank from a bottle.
Noon came but he heard nothing. The land he hated was quiet; another land, the one where he was born, was too far away to hear any more.
Through the trees, he could see Carly on the dock. Carly of Fourteen Years, each one worse than the other, Carly who came into the world grabbing for air and finding nothing of substance. Carly the sea-dweller, the water-snake, the simple thing that Desh had tried to break of her illness. But Desh had learned, as the trees had, that Carly belonged to the water, that Carly would never be able to fend for herself on the land. He had found her so many times in the river, after lights out, though he’d warned her that the current would take her. But there she’d been, Carly of Three Years, Carly of Eight Years, Carly of Eleven Years and so on. Resting in the water, not a thought behind those blue eyes for the stars that in this part of the world give you so much light; no, Carly of Fourteen Years thinks of water as though she is still in the womb, breathing in it.
The phone was dead. Desh drank.
“Should set the fire myself,” said Desh. The trees reached over the cabin. They would come inside eventually. “Ira Stills, you in a better place than this? Must be. You loved it, know you did, but I can’t stand this land. All these bugs, and those snakes you warned me about, but I never saw any. I could get used to pavement and concrete. I could get a haircut and move out of here. But Carly, what to do with her? She should have died inside you. Now if I do the job, they’ll put me in a cell, the opposite of all this land. Right the opposite.”
“Daddy dog,” said Carly, who’d come up. “Made water in the water,” she smiled. She handed him a flower this time. “I saw to the boat. But river’s coming up.” Carly climbed onto the railing of the porch and stood on a foot, her hands touching the overhang.
Desh drank. The phone remained dead. “River coming up? Carly, you girl, there’s no such thing. Look at the day – you see any clouds?”
“No daddy dog.”
“You hear any rain?”
“No daddy dog.”
“Then why you worrying? Go back down to the river, girl. Where you belong.”
“Thought daddy dog hates me by the river?”
“That was some time ago. Today is Wednesday. Remember what comes after Wednesday?”
She smiled and shook her head.
“Then you go back. You stand on the dock. You don’t move, even if you hear me crying out. Even if you see me fall. Not even if you see a snake or a bear or anything like that. You stay on the dock no matter what happens, and you trust me, girl, that if there be trouble, I’ll come down and take you back. You stand still. You be brave.”
Carly of Fourteen Years nodded and tossed away the last of the flowers. She shed her clothes and beamed at Desh, who looked away. Naked as the day of her still birth, Carly raced down the hill. Near the dock, rabbits raced past her feet. She laughed. A deer thundered on by. She laughed. A snake slithered… and she yelped. Carly of Fourteen Years jumped into the air and landed on a dock with wood too hot for snakes. She went to the end and stood there, in the sunshine sunlight. And she laughed. And she leapt. And Carly of Fourteen Years thought: I belong here. I belong right here.
Desh didn’t believe the sound that woke him up. His bottle was empty.
Down at the river, Carly was dancing. The water had risen about the dock until it was creeping onto it.
“Be damned,” he muttered. He looked up the hill behind him. There were animals moving in the trees. “Should go hunting,” he mused, unable to lift himself. “Wait,” he muttered. “Wait.” The water at the dock was above Carly’s ankles. Desh threw the bottle into the woods. He looked up the river.
“Be damned.” The wave, it says to itself, is dead yet lives on, as it gains momentum and bravery, as it impulses upwards with the strength of its weight and discovers that it would prefer to own this valley, as good a home as you could ever want. This wave, thought Desh, is muddy on the sides but clean up the middle, and somehow or another, it is carrying a house. “Well that’s Josh’s cabin,” said Desh. “Is that Josh on the deck there? Hi Josh! Hi!” But there is no one on that porch, and a moment later the house snaps into sticks. The wave, it says to itself, is rising, and now it is carrying trees, and here are boats spinning about on their way to a sinking. The wave, it declares, is putting down stakes right here in this valley, and it is looking for neighbours of a simple persuasion, some plain folks who won’t bother it when it wants to rest.
The valley is twenty thousand years old, read Desh. It has withstood wars in foreign countries and moon-landings that never happened. But it will not, thinks Desh, survive this wave. Concrete floats, he once heard; and yes, it’s true, concrete is lighter than water, how else to explain the chunks of it – the remains of the dam – that are floating down the valley like ridiculous fish. “Shit. Be damned.” The river rises; the wave approaches; and in front of it comes the wind of the water’s travel, a breeze born of a breaking just up the river.
Below, the dock is gone. The water is cutting up the hill, sweeping over the soil. It is muddy now. Desh can’t see anything floating in it, anything but concrete and trees and bits of bush. “You got her, didn’t you,” he says to the wave, as it moves toward him. “I’ll give you that. I’ll give her to you. Back where she belongs. The world never had enough air for her to work right anyway. That’s true.”
The river rises about the porch and climbs up the stairs as though it is bringing him some dinner. The first splash on Desh’s legs is cold, makes him look up. Before him, there was once a valley; now there’s only a river. “Funny how quick that goes away. Funny what it takes to do a righteous deed,” he says, because he can’t see that girl anywhere. The river rises. He rises with it.
“Ira Stills,” said Desh, underwater. “I never properly thanked you for being my love. I never properly gave you hell for giving me that girl. Or for going away like that. Or for that letter you left me when you went away:
‘Desh. Learn to like where you are. Learn to like who you’re with. Shit! I hear you upstairs getting drunk on rum, pretending you hate that girl, but I see you looking over her when she goes to sleep. I’m sorry she’s all I gave you, and that she’s the way she is, or that I’m going where I’m going, or that I brought you to this valley and you feel like I bound you to these trees and that river. But I didn’t much have responsibility for more than a little of all that, so if it’s freedom you’re looking for after I pass, I give it to you in this letter, Desh. You move on. You move far away but don’t you think for a moment that Carly of Ten Years won’t be going with you. The end. Now go to sleep, you’re making a row. Or better yet, bring that bottle of rum down with you and let me have a drink. You hear me, Desh? Bring me a drink you son of a bitch. Ah, here you come. Sit down right there. Even all hairy, you like fine enough. Slip me a drink. Too sick for that to make a difference now. Maybe later you can toss me down and have at it. Did that come true? If you’re reading this letter, Desh, are you thinking back on that fine fucking we did after we finished the rum?'”
Desh hated that letter. He kicked for the surface, but a whirlpool was drawing him down. He was spinning in a great big circle full of bushes and naked tree trunks. He kicked hard as he knew how, thinking that he would write a letter if he could:
‘Ira Stills. One thing led to another. One little aggravation made me stop looking over her when she went to sleep. One more visit unto your grave and I thought about not giving her a meal, letting her fend for herself. One more teacher telling me she can’t do anything for this Carly of Some Number of Years and I wanted to take her into the city to leave her with the nuns. One thing and I became another. Ira Stills, you bound me to the land by telling me in your letter that you were okay if I left. And yeah, I hate the land. I hate the bugs. I hate the snakes you told me were out there, even though I never saw any. But you bound me harder than to the land, Ira Stills, by giving me a girl who isn’t like you. A girl that’s better suited to the water and diving to the bottom – and never coming up. I want you to know that I gave your girl to the water today, Ira Stills. I gave her away. You know, that’s what one thing leads to. It leads to this other.
And you know, that night you wrote that letter. You never gave me a good tossing that night at all. You just passed out on the rum. I fumbled with you for a few minutes, but there was no calling you back. And five days later I buried you up the hill.’
Desh kicked for the bright sunshine air. When the whirlpool let him go, he shot up like an arrow, and crested the waves next to a broken board from his front porch. The valley was bright. Sunshine sunlight fell on a lake, a brand new one that used to house a valley. It had never been so clean, that valley – it was so clean to Desh that it might as well have been a faraway place, some other world that he’d never trod on before. Might even have been a city over the crest of the hill, a place where he could get a proper job, a decent living wage for a forty-eight-year-old single man with no attachments, no past, no aversion to anything except maybe a snake here and there – a decent-looking guy who drank a bit too much and smoked first thing in the morning, but okay no how.
Desh put his head on the board. “I gave her away,” he muttered, still drunk. “Right gave her away, and no one can tell me otherwise. No one. Whatever are you going to say to me, Ira Stills, when you see me again, now that I’ve done this? Are you going to sit down and write me a letter? Or are you preparing one already?”
The river moved and swirled. The things that could soak up the water did so, and sank; the rest bobbed about, trying to figure out what to do next.
Desh could have swam, it wasn’t far to the new shore, but the water wasn’t that cold, and he had his little piece of porch. And he thought to himself: I am so far from this land, and here there is water, and here is a drowning that could happen. I am forty-eight-years-old and alone in the river.
When he turned, there was a raft not far from where he treaded water. It was made of flowers, and atop was a girl in a dirty no-dress; her blue eyes were glowing as she twirled and spun. She sang, a strange humming sound, words with no meaning or sense except that they came from between her lips and kind of agreed with the flowers under her feet.
Carly’s song went like this: “Daddy dog dog. It’s a far place where the water comes. I swam to the bottom, where you never go. Where I never meet anyone, just fish. And a rock or two. That I put next to your bed when you’re sleeping, when you believe I’m sleeping. I whisper in your ear, with the voice I remember from her: ‘I am Ira Stills, and I am not here, but I am Ira Stills and I love you my Desh. Try to love this land if you can. More importantly, try to love your daughter. She is not easy. She is not pretty. Some days I think she is a fish, given to leaping out onto the land here and there; but always going back to the water. Give her a chance. Let her try, in her way, and maybe you’ll be happy too.‘ Daddy dog dog, I am the only song that I know. The only one.”
“Carly?” said Desh. “Can’t be. Can’t be, girl. Flowers don’t float… They don’t make a raft.”
“Went right to the bottom of the Big River, daddy dog dog,” she said, as she paddled her way toward him. She was using the carcasses of two dead rabbits to row, but it didn’t much bother her. “You know what I saw down there?”
“I saw some treasure. And that old car you hated. And a possum. And I saw your wife. I saw my mom.”
“You didn’t, girl. You didn’t.”
Carly of Fourteen Years discarded the rabbits, and thought of the river that was just now become a lake: the Big River, a great rubber band pulsing between the ends of the only world she’d ever known. The birds flew with squawkings that she would like to understand when she got older and she was finally smart. I’ll be smart, she thought, and skinned her knee on the edge of the raft as she extended a hand to Desh and pulled him aboard. Carly of Fourteen Years as pirate and life preserver, as young wild thing better suited for the deepest parts of the river but somehow good at floating too. Carly in the sky, Carly the dancer, Carly the musician and songstress, the poetician, the discoverer, the dreamdunker, the runner-bee. The daughter. She was Carly of Fourteen Years, naked and dancing on a raft made of flowers, and nothing in the brand new Big River came close to being as perfect as she was.
Desh was on his back, lying in the flowers. “Lord help me and mine. I’m forty-eight-years-old, Ira Stills,” he said, staring at this girl who was dancing three feet above the deck, in sunlight sunshine almost too bright to see, “and this is the first day of my life – you can believe it. Go ahead, write your letter. Save it up for me. And Ira Stills,” he said, as all that land and all that water listened, as he stared with wonder-full eyes at this girl above him, “you make sure you write one for her, too.”
((***if you made it to the end and read the whole thing, I have great respect for you. I know it is a very long story, and especially these days, there is not much time for reading trinkets on computer screens. But thank you. And thank you also to my friend Anasera at Wildersoul for the editing help. She seems to be good at everything.***))