6/11 Idaho Magazine Features - "The Demons of Boulder Lake" (non-fiction)

Daniel Claar - Idaho's Premier Backcountry Writer

Winner - Idaho Magazine Publisher's Choice Award 2010
"The Proper Filter"

Winner - Idaho Magazine Judge's Choice Award 2011
"Where the River Leads"

"Hot Spring Break "

"Stampede! "

"Seeing Things"
Winner - Idaho Magazine Second Place 2011

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Where the River Leads

          Catherine feels as though she has slept for maybe ten minutes when the buzzing alarm drags her out of a coma like slumber. It is the first night in almost a week she has slept in her own bed. It is also the first night in almost a week she has managed any sleep at all. Instinctively, she reaches over to nudge her husband, but instead of a warm back, her fingers find smooth covers instead. She blinks deliberately hard.

          He must already be down at the river, she begins to reason, and then, in a horrifying instant, the enormity and finality of the previous week rages across her memory. With a quick intake of breath, she pulls her hand back as if she has just touched a snake. In some kind of hellish duet with the alarm, Catherine’s mind screams at her to slip back into unconsciousness, back to blissful thoughtlessness, back to the land of dreams where anything is still possible. Instead, she balls up the sheet in both fists and crams a wedge of fabric into her mouth to silence the violent sobbing.

          Six days since she had lain in the exact spot on what should have been any other morning, except the early dawn had been violated with a loud crash of breaking dishes followed by the unforgettable sound of something heavy hitting the tiled kitchen floor. Six days since she rushed down the long hallway of their home as pictures of long-grown children watched her pass with perpetually innocent eyes. Six days since she collapsed at Layne’s side amongst the shards of ceramic plates, watching the last flicker of life fade from his eyes as he clutched his chest and mouthed her name. Six days since her life vanished in one inescapable instant.

          Summoning every last bit of strength, in what feels like a super-gravity charged chamber, Catherine drags herself across the mattress and begins hitting random buttons to silence the shrieking plastic demon. When nothing works, she finally grabs the cord and yanks it from the wall. Catherine wonders if she’ll ever again hear the sound that momentarily grated on her nerves every morning for over ten years.

          In a zombie like state, Catherine ambles to her feet and across the cold, hardwood floor. She dons a robe hung from brass hooks on the bedroom door and walks the hallway to their kitchen; a route Catherine finds herself wishing she could somehow bypass for the rest of her life. The room is dimly lit as the breaking dawn barely filters through drawn curtains above the sink. Catherine pulls the dark fabric aside and opens the window to a cool intake of morning air. She looks out across their sloping grassy acreage leading to a cliff edge and out of sight below, she can hear the river her husband had fished damn near every morning for the last thirty years.

          Layne used to bring home catfish like clockwork, but hadn't produced a single catch in almost five years. He blamed it on the new lumber-mill thirty miles upriver, but never seemed overly upset about it. “I was sick of catfish anyway,” he used to say when asked about it. His string of bad luck eventually led Catherine to give her husband a little hell about the situation, saying that it was a good thing for the grocery store or they would starve.

          Staring blankly out the window, she notices Layne's fishing trail as it vanishes abruptly over the cliff edge. Catherine feels a sudden compulsion to follow his path despite the fact it has been some time since she last picked her way down the rocky and treacherous descent. Feeling more marionette than human, she steps into a pair of wool slippers. Pulling the robe tight about her body, Catherine walks into the brisk dawn. Against the violet backdrop of the western sky, mesmerizing colors play around the edge of high, thin clouds like they are outlined by a narrow band of rainbow. Her nose is pulled upward by the rich fragrance of the lilac and pine dominating the edge of their property. Nearby, she feels the constant and resonating hum of the river's massive energy.

          At the same time, Catherine notices a fishing rod leaning against the house. The handmade bamboo pole was a gift from Layne’s great uncle. The crotchety old miner had taught him how to fish the deep river running through their small mountain town. The rod had been with him his whole life and had outlasted no less than a half dozen reels. Catherine grabs her husband's fishing pole before walking across her lawn through the overly lush grass. Layne was supposed to mow the flourishing lawn a week ago and Catherine remembers how he always seemed to procrastinate when it came to the first cut of spring. Feeling the bottom of her robe and slippers getting wet as she passes through the back gate and onto the dirt trail, Catherine wonders if she can even start her husband's lawnmower, let alone push the heavy piece of machinery around their big yard.

          Holding the fishing pole sideways and out in front with one hand, Catherine leans back into the hillside and slowly side-steps down the rocky path. She momentarily loses each slipper once on the descent, but reaches the bottom thinking the brief slope isn't as bad as she remembered. When she was younger, and still joining Layne on his moonlit fishing nights, Catherine marveled at the way he bounded down the trail like a mountain goat, hopping from one jutting rock point to another, avoiding the slippery dirt altogether.

          “Layne's Dock”, as her husband had so proudly named the ramshackle platform awaiting her arrival at the bottom of the trail, is really a well-supported piece of thick plywood hanging just over the riverbank and out into the current. Her husband made up for his lack of carpentry skills with sheer tenacity and overkill. The simple project took him five weeks of constant swearing and bandages during the river's lowest, and coldest, February flow, but it had now lasted for almost two decades.

          Catherine walks to the edge of the “plank”, as she once dubbed it, and sits with her feet hanging just inches above the muddy runoff. She lets the tip of her husband's fishing rod dip into the current until the eye-piece is submerged and she feel the flow’s energy tug at the pole, almost like when a fish tests the bait. As she plays in the current, Catherine notices her husband's reel is freckled with orange oxidation. Upon closer inspection, she notices a fine film of dried green gunk lining the thin nylon line. A hook attached to the center ringlet is practically corroded through with rust. Her realization is instantaneous; Layne's fishing pole hasn't been used in a long time.

          Before Catherine can discern the meaning behind her discovery, she suddenly spots a slick, bald head, dark eyes, and pointy nose emerge from the chocolate water no more than twenty feet away. Catherine lets out a startled gasp. For a split second, she is looking at her husband’s narrow face and shaved head once again. “Layne?” she whispers, but whatever Catherine thinks she has seen vanishes, is gone, replaced by the predictable flow of river.

          Her mind is playing tricks on her. Catherine feels the water well in her eyes, blurring her vision. She is about to let the tears fall, when once again, she spots the familiar countenance in the dark river, only this time looking right at her and even closer. She wipes her eyes clean, expecting the cruel mirage to disappear once again, but instead, the image is bigger, in focus, and undeniable. Catherine’s building sobs convert into a burst of anxious laughter. The head in the water isn't her husband. It belongs to an animal she hasn’t seen on the river since the first years of her childhood and was convinced they had all been trapped, killed, or found another place to call home. The sleek, almost human like face belongs to a giant river otter.

          In girlish delight, Catherine claps her hands and then holds them to her mouth as if to silence her excitement. The otter twitches its long, silver whiskers and looks right in her eyes before bobbing its head in a gesture of curiosity. With each ripple of lean body, the animal stands taller in the water. Just as the furry creature exposes a lighter colored abdomen, it falls straight back and under the water before bobbing to the surface balance perfectly on its backside. The otter's thick tail flops slowly from side to side as it somehow floats effortlessly in the thick current without being swept downstream. Watching Catherine’s every move, the animal drifts closer to the dock.

          “You are impossibly cute,” she whispers. The otter nods its head vigorously, as if agreeing, or expecting something; its forearms coming together in an adorable pleading motion. Were its eyes closed, Catherine would swear the creature is praying. Something about the animal's behavior triggers something in her mind. In a moment of instant deliberation, she is convinced the universe is a lot more grand and mysterious than she ever imagined; possibilities they didn't teach in church or school.

            “Layne,” she says while slowly reaching out one hand as if to touch the animal's belly. The otter's reaction is instantaneous; moving faster than she can comprehend, the otter draws back its lips to reveal rows of needle-like teeth, hisses at her, and then with a loud slap, flops over to its front side and is gone. Her intuition betrayed, Catherine recoils and climbs to her feet, suddenly afraid for her dangling toes.

          A couple seconds later, the animal's head resurfaces about twenty feet away. It fixes Catherine with a wary look before allowing the river to take it downstream. She moves to the side of the dock to watch the otter drift off and notices the plastic packaging from a bag of crackers stuck in the willows between the plywood deck and riverbank. The plastic looks new. For the second time that morning, she realizes something about her husband; a connection she desperately needs. Catherine cups her mouth and calls to the fading face in the river. It is the first time since Layne's death her voice has been anything but a weary drone.

          “Come back tomorrow, ok? Same time, ok? I'll have something for you. I promise!”

          Although sure it is her imagination, Catherine sees the distant otter give one final nod in her direction before diving under and vanishing from sight.

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