The steady rise and fall of the canoe paddle was finding muscles in her back she’d forgotten were there. It was quiet on the river now, the ultraviolet streaming down, eating its way through the 50 sun block she had smeared on her exposed skin. She watched the swirling eddies the paddles made as they slid alongside the canoe, the water spiders that skittered across the slick surface in search of food. Up ahead, the water undulated in hypnotic waves as it passed over submerged rocks and logs.
Yeah. Quiet now. Just the birds overhead, the occasional splash of a trout, the distant gurgling sound of the artesian wells along the shore. The canoe whispered through the pale green water, the paddle’s dip and rise the soft sound of a sharp knife through silk.
She was accustomed to a much smaller craft and found it difficult keeping the nose of the cumbersome canoe centered, especially with all the weight at the front. She missed her baby, the canoe she’d designed and built years ago. Slightly longer than a kayak, it had the width of a regular canoe but half its length. She had floated that old canoe down nearly every waterway in America from the lazy flow of the Russian in California to the treacherous currents of the Lower Chattooga in South Carolina. She felt a pang of regret for having sold it and for all the years she’d denied herself the river. A pang of regret for all the things she’d given up when she married Stan.
Stan the Man. Pompous, exquisitely built, handsome beyond words, a dynamo between the sheets and an arrogant son of a bitch outside of them. She’d been wowed by his looks and wooed by his charm, and slowly but surely picked apart by his need to dominate, his desire to control every aspect of her life, his constant nagging.
But she refused to think about those years of denial now. She was back on the river again, the water flowing silently beneath her hull, the quiet wrapped about her like a lover’s arms. So what that it had taken her weeks to convince him to let her go? So what that at the last minute he had insisted on coming along? Nothing could ruin her joy at being back on the river.
As she rounded a bend, the river widened, forking around an island dead center between the two shores. It jutted out of the water like a fist, steep stone banks on three sides, a vicious undertow that could suck a canoe out from under you in a heartbeat if you got too close. The only safe place to land was a few yards of sandy beach on the tip of the downstream side. Even in September the water was swift along this stretch and it took considerable skill to land a craft there. She’d camped this island many times and never once found evidence of another presence. Most people who canoed this river bypassed it for more accessible camping grounds.
The island was densely wooded, laced with deep caverns that would have been a spelunker’s dream had any spelunkers known about them. The beach was wide enough to pitch a tent, plenty of dead wood to build a small fire and enough blackberries ripening to make a dozen pies. There was sun, there was shade and the sand was fine grained and soft, easy on the back or bottom. The island even had its own artesian well at the base of the rocks not thirty feet away. It would suit her purposes perfectly. Redistribute the weight in the canoe, dry a few things, make lunch while she killed time; and take care of the business she had to attend to before moving on.
She vaulted from the canoe as it lurched to a stop with a scraping sound of sand against metal. The water was icy cold about her ankles. Grabbing the canoe’s nose ring, she dragged it onto the tiny beach and secured it to a tree.
An hour later she emerged from the woods, her T-shirt sweat soaked, her arms scratched and bloody from the blackberry bushes. Her muscles were screaming now. Removing her shirt, she soaked it in the river and washed the sweat from her face and chest, the blood from her arms. She retrieved her pack from the canoe. There was antiseptic cream for the scratches but only one lonely Tylenol left in the bottle for her protesting muscles.
She checked the canoe for any pieces of the broken paddle. Its loss would be easy enough to explain. Paddles were lost all the time. It would simply get charged to her credit card and that would be the end of it.
Sitting on the beach, eating a ham and cheese sandwich, she considered the remaining miles of her trip. The artesian water in her canteen was cold and tasty. She could feel the knots in her shoulders beginning to unwind as the Tylenol kicked in.
The loss of Stan. Now that could get tricky. But, if she timed it right, she would arrive at the rental place just past dark. The proprietor would be gone, the place locked up for the night. She’d simply beach the canoe, tie it securely and walk away. Who would ever know she’d arrived alone?
Finished with her sandwich, she laid back against the warm sand and stared up at the bright blue sky peeking through the trees. The melodic sound of the water rushing past, the susurration of the gentle breeze that dried the sweat from her skin, the flutter of wings and soft chirp of birds as they returned to the beach to feed, this is what she had been missing all those years.
Stan, oh Stan, if you’d just kept your damn whining to yourself. Mile after bloody mile of constant complaint. Couldn’t you see that all I wanted was a little peace and quiet?
Albuquerque, New Mexico