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Ruth Rudner/ Fiction

Cool Night on the River

"You have to push the canoe out and then jump in," the Indian said. He sat on a cane seat in the canoe's stern. The seat looked odd to me. I had not canoed in thirty years. I did not remember seats. I remembered kneeling; getting right down into the canoe. It hurt your knees to kneel, unless you put a towel or a sweatshirt or some other soft thing under them, but it made you feel you were part of the canoe; really in the canoe, embraced by it, supported by it. I know things change in thirty years. A lot of things are much more on the surface now. As if we no longer have time to get into things.

I didn't like having to get wet to push the canoe out, although I certainly wouldn't have said that. I tried to figure out a way to do it without getting wet, but when too long a time had gone by without my moving, I finally just stepped into the river. There was nothing else to do. The sandy bottom oozed around my feet, sucking them into it. The water dragged at my sneakers, filling them so they puffed out like the bloated body of a dead cow I once saw. There was a magpie standing inside a hollow place in the cow's head. "Shit," I said. The Indian laughed his kind, large laugh.

Pushing the canoe away from the river bank , I waded until the water was over my shins, then climbed over the gunwale, settled onto the bow seat, picked up my paddle and laid it across my knees. The seat felt as odd as it looked. It placed me on top of the canoe, as if I were an appendage to it rather than some integral part of it. I guess in thirty years comfort has replaced intimacy. We probably take it to mean the same thing.

The Indian paddled us into a calm pool to show me the strokes I would need. "Reach farther out," he said as we pivoted to get back into the main stream. "Lean out more."

I am leaning out, I thought, as far as I can without tipping the canoe over or falling out. Sitting high up made me feel terribly exposed; infinitely vulnerable. I shifted my weight slightly more to the left, as if that would do the trick. I wanted to fold up and slide under the seat; to ease into someplace that felt right. I sat up straighter.

The Indian, after all, was watching. He knew how I was doing. He knew exactly how far it was possible to go before the canoe would tip. He could see what I could not feel. I was too concerned about tipping to judge my own movement; too long out of canoes to trust them. I didn't want to get wet. Wetter. I didn't want to lose the picnic I'd brought. But I knew he was right. I knew it was possible to lean farther. It was not the first time I have insisted to myself I am doing a thing to its fullest when I have hardly begun to move. A dance teacher I once had said to me, "You do everything right, but you do not do it deeply enough."

To dare to tip the canoe is probably the only way to keep it from tipping. To paddle deeply enough is to make a move into the deepest places in my own soul. It is to enter in with passion; with the heart. If a thing isn't worth putting your heart into, it isn't worth much. So I tip the canoe. So I drown. So what.

The dance teacher was one of Martha Graham's dancers. He came out of a direct line of enormous daring. He noticed me. He bothered to tell me that thing I needed to know in order to live. Sometimes I try to ignore it. I never forget it.

"Reach farther out," the Indian said.

Coach, guide, mentor. Someone who knows the thing I long to know and who has the patience to teach. Someone who notices how much farther I can go than I have gone. It occurs to me that I have never had a lover who was not a guide. "Reach farther out," they say, one way or another.

I leaned out farther. I wanted to paddle "deeply enough." The power in my draw increased. Reaching beyond the idea of safety, I felt the power my own reach gave me. The canoe did not tip.

I had canoed a great deal as a teenager on the lakes of northern Ontario. The lakes went on, one after another after another, a vast chain of them surrounded by forest and held in the cry of loons. I had imagined that when I was finished with school, I would return permanently to the lakes and spend my life in a canoe. In bad weather I would rig a shelter with the canoe and a tarp. I would have nothing to do with civilization. I would speak to loons. I would understand storms. I would listen to trees. I would become a wild thing, the equal of waves and of sky.

I could single carry a canoe over the occasional portages, then. Now it was hard for me to help the Indian lower the canoe from the top of his vehicle. I remember being easy with the canoe. I expected I would still be. I remember standing on the gunwales of the canoe, balancing, rolling the canoe from side to side. I remember the j-stroke I had used in the stern. I remember the bowman was supposed to look for submerged things. "Deadhead ahead," I had been taught to say if I was in the bow. I preferred the stern. More action. More control. You had to do your own paddling and tell the bowman what to do. You were the leader. From behind.

It helped to have the Indian in the stern, telling me what to do. It was hard for him, though. He was nervous about it, nervous it wasn't appropriate to give a woman orders. "It's O.K.," I said. "It's O.K. to tell me what to do when you know and I don't." Thirty years have made a big difference in how men relate to women. They're no longer supposed to tell women what to do. "This is different," I said. "You're supposed to tell the person in the bow what to do. It has nothing to do with men and women."

"See where that water looks smooth, where it flows over the rock?" he asked, pointing ahead to our left. "You want to go around it, where the water is deeper. You want to look for the wake that divides around a rock." I nodded that I saw it, but, in fact, there seemed so much water ahead that fit his description.

A moving river is different from the flat water of the lakes I knew. The river strokes were new to me. I mixed them up. Not that it mattered. He didn't need me to handle that canoe, but it must have been exasperating. First he had to battle his reluctance to tell me what to do; then I didn't do it right anyway. But I needed time to learn how rivers run; what riffles mean; flecks of white foam; glassy, smooth circles; tiny falls and sprays and places where the water runs backward.

What I could see in the water was its color—blue here, steel grey over there, deeper blue on the far side. The late sun shimmered on the water, rippling in the river's current, dancing across the river, down the river; the blue and deeper blue and steel grey turning white now in the lowering sun. Drained of color, the river became only liquid dancing in the light. The sun split the water's surface into stripes and pockets and hollows. Ripples and riffles and eddy lines and current cut the surface over and over so that no moment of light, of color, of white, of liquid dancing could remain intact. No moment lasted. Nothing on the river lasted. In this lies earth's permanence.

A great blue heron stood in the shallows along the far bank. A doe and her fawn browsed a few yards up the bank on the near side where the land, breaking away from the river, begins its climb into the mountains that spawn the river. A mother duck, followed by an inordinate number of ducklings, swam along the near shoreline.

"You've done this before," the Indian said as—with his instructions—I braced into an eddy.

"I was a child," I said. "It was on lakes. This is new." I straightened up again, leaned out farther, pulled harder, proud he thought I was doing alright, even though I knew he would say what he could to boost my confidence. It was a good feeling, being on the river. I was getting used to sitting up so high. I began to forget its awkwardness. It felt strong, sliding down the river as if we were inside it, the canoe lying in the river's embrace. It must be what it feels like to be a man.

The Indian steered us toward the far bank. When we put in at a jumble of boulders, he jumped into the river as if wet and dry were all the same to him and pulled the canoe out. I got out on dry rock. We climbed up higher, to a comfortable mound of rocks, and set out the picnic I had brought. The sun was down now, leaving the sky to the long-lingering Montana twilight. With no sun, I felt how wet my feet were. I began to feel the cold. Even the Indian began to feel the cold. I was grateful for the warmth provided by the life-jacket I wore and did not take it off for dinner, although it struck me as a less than graceful garment. He kept his on too. It seemed odd to me, when we started out, to think of an Indian in a canoe wearing a life vest. But Indians have changed since the eighteenth century. The white man has too, although not as much as Indians, and often, hardly at all in relation to Indians.

After a while, the cold didn't matter. It was just something that existed, like the rocks and the fading light and the darkening river. We ate stuffed eggplant and cheese and bread and buffalo sausage and talked about the river. "You learn to read the river by watching it," he said, "by throwing a stick in and seeing how the river carries it."

We watched the water darken; smooth out in the darkening. "You should come out here and throw sticks in," he said.

Maybe, I thought. Maybe I will, yet it seemed enough to sit there on the rocks and watch the light go; watch the water flow into darkness, into night, into time, into time's end. It would be alright to die there; to drown in the attempt to do whatever it was we were doing deeply enough. We had seen the dancing light on the water and eaten a good dinner and we were not lovers and it would be good to remain forever on these rocks banking the river.

"What if you were in a different canoe from me?" he asked. It startled me. It seemed such an intimate thing to say, as if he saw us canoeing together for a long time, taking other people out in canoes. Two guides. In the time we had spent together we had spoken our deepest feelings about rivers and mountains and politics and art, but we had never spoken personally; never spoken about our own hearts. Our own hearts were off limits. Private. Not to be touched. Not a subject for us. I did not understand his marriage and he was not about to discuss it. It didn't matter. It had nothing to do with us. We were, after all, not lovers. Perhaps that drew us closer. Perhaps it is in the silences that bonds are formed. Bonds do not require words. Words only enter in where there is nothing more honest to hold things together. Evasions. Explanations. Excuses. Perhaps that is why, when we are deeply moved, we say we have no words to express our feelings. Perhaps in those moments we are closest to God. Of what need are words in the presence of God? Of what use is God if words are necessary?

Silence is like music. It goes directly to the heart.

"It begins to feel familiar," I answered. "I'll come out and throw sticks in. I can learn about rivers."

In the deep mauve of almost dark, we felt the night cold. We needed to move. We had no wish to move.

"We should go," he said, finally, gathering up the picnic things.

"You get in," he said. "I'll push the canoe out." I took a large step from the rocks into the canoe. He did the same. His step was larger.

The herons, taking flight from deep shadow, flew down river, ink drawings on the mauve-grey sky. In the end of light, the banks poured into the river and receded, as if the way closed and opened before us. White flecks showed us rocks. Sky spread above us, dark, measureless. Stars appeared one after another, quickly, as if there was a rush to starlight. They are familiar to me, and yet I cannot name them. My brother navigates oceans by the stars. For me, it is enough to wonder at the sky. There was no sound on the river; no other people, no animal; just the whole of night sending us through a new country.

"How will you know where to put in?" I asked.

"I don't know," he answered. "We're lost," he said, teasing, speaking a wish we each had, to be lost forever to all but the river and the canoe and the night. We were, in that moment, ready. Bending in dark water, the river led us around deep corners into further darkness; another country, a new place where river and sky were interchangeable, the same white-flecked liquid black.

We skimmed along the river, across the sky, a long time. An hour. Perhaps two. Perhaps twenty minutes. There was no way to know. Night and cold alter time. When he steered us in toward the bank where we had left my vehicle, it was too soon.

"How did you know?" I asked.

"I didn't," he said.

But he knew exactly where he was. He had missed nothing in looking at the river before we left that spot hours earlier. I watched him then, memorizing the place, taking in the river the way artists take in beauty, or lovers the beloved. Like breath. Like life. So that if you can't see it, you can feel it.

In my vehicle, we drank the thermos of coffee I had left, both grateful for its dark, strong heat. I realized how thoroughly cold I had become. On the boulders, on the river, I had not felt the cold to this degree. Now I could not get warm. Cold wrapped itself around me in a parody of caress.

It's the way things end. Without grace. Without poetry. Shivering, longing for warmth, for dry clothes, for blankets, for the heater to kick in, it is hard to think about the herons against the sky; about the power of leaning far enough, drawing deeply enough; about the possibility of canoeing together for a long time; about getting lost in the river night; about dying on the rocks because the rocks offer a moment of sublimity. Shivering is a basic act of life. It demands your full attention. But ending is hardly worth noticing. A temporary resolution to an event, it has nothing to do with rivers. Rivers, if we do not interfere with them, go on forever. In the movement of rivers, the turning of earth, the time of stars, eternity exists. It is enough.