Early that morning a mile downstream from the town of Bridgeport we launched the kayaks. The past was behind me now and I felt relieved that my wife and I had reconciled. Last April, after she took off with an old boyfriend, I was completely undone. Betrayed, eviscerated, and so depressed that I lived inside a vodka bottle for weeks—or maybe it was months. When I finally emerged from my stupor and from the darkness that had enveloped me, I felt other emotions. My life was a nightmare swirling around me.
The sun rose above the high cliffs and the river turned glassy and deep, at first because the channel narrowed, later because the convergence of two smaller tributaries had doubled the flow. Beyond the floodplain, the canyon walls rose into blue sky and broad streaks of gray and black cut through the red sandstone. The region had formed at the close of the Cretaceous, after the deadly Chicxulub meteor impact changed the world forever.
A week after the fun was over and the boyfriend had moved on, Nancee begged my forgiveness. She said the affair was an impulsive and dreadful mistake. So I forgave her, out of desperation or weakness perhaps, and I hoped it would never happen again. Although the painful memory lingered.
It was midmorning when we hit the first roiling whitewater. Nancee was ahead by twenty or so yards. She disappeared into a deep trough before shooting up and over the next wave.
I was apprehensive because she hadn’t mentioned we would encounter this level of difficulty. The important part was to make it through without losing my kayak, without losing control. Then no sooner had I made the worst of the run, the rapids flattened and the river widened. Nancee paused and tightened her helmet strap. I paddled passed without saying anything.
The river remained flat and placid for almost an hour and then after a series of smaller rapids the canyon changed, closing to a narrow gorge, a gash between the sheer cliffs and an embankment of broken rock and half-submerged boulders. The boulders looked battered and scarred as if freshly unearthed by a landslide.
The last of the fast-moving rapids spilled into a stretch of still water. Heavy mist rose from the river and I wondered if another set of heavy rapids might lie ahead. I drifted for a moment. The bright sunlight reflected off the smooth surface nearly blinding me, so I looked over my shoulder to check on Nancee. When I turned back, the current was suddenly moving faster toward a gap, gaining force. I tried back paddling but the pull was too strong. I heard the sudden roar of water and my kayak lunged forward. For an instant it seemed everything had stopped—suspended in midair—and the only thing I could do was take a deep breath and hope for the best.
The next thing I knew, my face and body slammed into the cold water, dazing me, as if my brain was jarred loose from my skull and sloshing around like a lump of Jell-O. There was no way to know how deep under I was or which way was up. The force of the fall had wrenched the twin-bladed paddle from my hands. I knew it was crucial to stay inside the kayak until the churning water released me.
I recall thinking that if I survived the ordeal, I would wring Nancee’s neck. The previous day after reading the kayaker guidebook, she’d reported there were good runs on this stretch of the Black River. But no mention of a waterfall. Something wasn’t right.
Then the water suddenly released my kayak and I fought to catch a glimpse of the surface. What little light there was seemed sourceless and indistinct. I tore loose the nylon waist skirt and pushed free. My lungs burned for a breath but the aerated water lacked buoyancy and no matter how hard I kicked and pulled with my arms, I couldn’t make the surface. Just as I was about to give up, everything became brighter and I broke through and saw blue sky. Beautiful life-saving sky. I gasped for air. My kayak popped up, swamped, upside down, and I reached for the bowline and dog-paddled toward the bank. The river was calmer now and slow moving.
I hauled the kayak to a sandbar and looked for my paddle. It had drifted a ways and caught on snag close to shore and I waded downstream and grabbed it. When I returned to the sandbar, a strange dizzy spell weakened my legs and blurred my eyes, like a blackout, and everything seemed unreal and confusing. Then I realized I had forgotten Nancee.
Had she escaped the falls? Or was she trapped underwater?
I removed my helmet and swam toward the falls but as I got closer, the power of plummeting water frightened me. Even if I managed to dive under and reach her, there was a chance the river would trap me again, so I returned to the sandbar to think things through. This was how I figured it: if the back suction had her in its deadly grip, it was too late, and if with luck she had avoided the falls, the steep cliffs and boulders made an impassible barrier. Either way I couldn’t reach her. Returning to my van near the town of Thayne was the only logical choice.
The last time I’d seen Nancee she was fifty yards behind me, and I assured myself she’d had enough time to escape the waterfall. Probably everything would be fine—at least that’s what I thought as I paddled downriver.
An hour later, I hit another run of rapids and worried a second unreported waterfall might lurk ahead. I was still very angry. How could she have put me through something like that? How could she have misread the guidebook and not known the river held treacherous possibilities? She was meticulous about details, never careless, and it seemed odd she would have made such foolish mistake.
It was late afternoon when I made the boat launching area outside Thayne. I was exhausted and drenched in sweat. Upstream the river had widened for several miles, like a narrow lake, and the wind had grown stronger. For the last hour I had paddled furiously to make better time.
After pulling my kayak out of the water, I hurried to the van. There was a payphone next to the public restrooms but I didn’t know what to do, whether I should drive to Nancee’s truck or call for help. I decided to go with 911. A man’s voice answered and I explained everything. He wanted details.
“Goddamnit,” I shouted. “I need help. My wife may have drowned. Or at the very least she’s lost somewhere on the river.”
He told me to take a deep breath and stay put and a sheriff’s deputy would arrive soon. Thirty minutes later a black and white pulled off the highway and headed down the road to the parking area in front of the restrooms.
“Tell me what happened,” he said. He had a bored expression, the tone of someone with better things to do, and his short hair and dark sunglasses made him seem hard and impersonal. I offered a condensed recounting of what had transpired and suggested we drive to Bridgeport.
“Hold on now, let’s get all the facts,” he insisted. “What time did you say you encountered the waterfall?”
“Around noon,” I said. “Or maybe a little later…I don’t know. Don’t remember for sure.”
“You did get a park permit to be on the river, didn’t you?” he asked, in a colorless tone.
Nancee always handled those sorts of details. Truth was I didn’t recall her saying anything about a permit. The deputy took off the sunglasses and tucked them in his shirt pocket. His gaze seemed uncertain, as if he thought I wasn’t telling the entire story.
“Well, Mr. Moffet,” he said. “Apparently your wife forgot. Because had she paid for a permit, she’d have known about the landslide. It blocked the river channel three weeks ago.”
An expression that was difficult to decode flickered across his face and he kept his eyes fixed on mine. I pictured the clog of boulders and remembered thinking that something wasn’t right, the way the water had backed up and then swept downward to the falls. The deputy looked at me and the furrow in his brow deepened.
“Maybe she made a mistake or forgot about permits,” I said. “We should drive back to Bridgeport. Maybe she’ll be there.”
He gestured toward his car. Once seated he took the handset from the radio and reported to headquarters. Much of what he said was police code numbers and military-type jargon, so I didn’t fully understand. We pulled onto the highway and headed toward Bridgeport.
“I see this sort of thing,” he said, breaking the silence. “People get lost or separated in the wilderness. But before you know it everything works out just fine.”
“Sure. She’s probably waiting for me…at her truck,” I said. “It’s a yellow Ford Ranger.”
The sun was just above the ridge. It would be dark in an hour. When we finally arrived at the dirt access road where Nancee and I had unloaded the kayaks, I spotted her pickup. I could hear blood churning in my ears and my stomach felt constricted and jittery.
“We’d better check for a note,” he said.
I got out and trotted to the truck. In some sort of self-deluding way, I guess I was hoping to see a piece of paper tucked under the wiper. I turned toward the deputy’s black and white cruiser. He was on the radio. The bottom fell out of my insides and I was afraid I might lose it, but I fought the feeling—had to stay in control, had to keep it all inside. The deputy walked over and wanted to know was there any chance Nancee might have headed downstream. I said I didn’t think so because I was certain there was no way around the falls.
“I radioed the fire department’s search and rescue team,” he said. “They’ll send a couple guys down from Riverside. You stay here. It’ll be at least thirty minutes. I’m driving back to your van to wait, just in case she’s heading downriver. When the rescue unit arrives, stay with your wife’s truck. Let them handle the search. We don’t need another missing person on our hands.”
I nodded wearily and watched him speed off, the bright blue and red lights flashing. The gravity of the situation had coalesced into something ominous. It would be dark soon and I couldn’t think straight and knew my life had gone very wrong. A nightmare was out of control, gaining momentum, trapping me in the middle of a swirling vortex.
When the rescue team arrived, one of them was a woman in her twenties, tall and athletically built. A lot like Nancee. The other was an older man and he told her to unload the equipment. He also wanted me to explain details.
“And you’re certain she didn’t go over the falls?”
“No. I’m not certain…I’m hoping.”
I couldn’t make out his expression—his back was to the headlights—yet I somehow knew it had changed.
“Knowing your wife, are you sure she would have returned to her truck?”
“Yes,” I insisted. “I’m sure she realized she couldn’t make it around the falls and the steep canyon. I thought it through a dozen times. Logic dictated we both return to our vehicles. What I mean is, even if she’d assumed the worst for me, she still would have returned to her truck.”
“So that means she’s had six or seven hours. Right?”
“Something like that. Depending on how long she waited…but yes, about that long.”
“We’ll find her. She’s probably hiking upriver.”
The woman dropped two backpacks and returned with a coil of nylon rope and two large box-shaped flashlights. The man patted my shoulder and they started toward the river. The bright flashlights stabbing into the darkness. After I grew tired of pacing in circles, I used Nancee’s key to open the pickup truck. Inside I caught a familiar scent and breathed deeply, as if to hold on to her. I remembered the first time we met. It was five years ago in an Irish pub in the neighborhood where we lived. I was on a date with another girl and Nancee was waiting tables.
“Two black and tans,” I said, and turned my head. Nancee was wearing a short skirt and stockings that came only a couple inches above her knees, so there was a bit of shapely thigh showing between the skirt and the stockings. There was also a nice display of cleavage.
“You know that’s very discourteous,” my date said.
“It’s rude to look at other women when you’re on a date.”
“I handed her money,” I said, at a loss.
“It was her breasts, wasn’t it? You like girls who show it off.”
“You noticed her breasts?”
“No…I saw you noticing her breasts.” Her voice was louder and resentment reshaped the features of her face.
“This is only our second date. Where exactly are we going with this?”
“I forgot how thoughtless men can be. I haven’t dated since my divorce.”
She got up and walked out without another word. I was embarrassed and glanced around to see if anyone had overheard the little soap opera. Nancee stood at her duty station at the end of the bar, waiting as the bartender filled an order. She looked at me and smiled mischievously. Then the bartender set four tall glasses of beer on her tray and she walked by me and winked.
“Troubles in paradise?” she said in a loud whisper.
Her shift ended at eight-thirty. I invited her to join me for a drink. I had already downed three black and tans and the combination of ale and Guinness had gotten to my head. She wanted a glass of red wine. We talked for a while and everything fell into place.
She finished her wine and I bought her another. The pub was dimly lit. Under the fuzzy spell of alcohol—or the pretext of it—I leaned forward and kissed her. Her tongue tasted of red grapes, grapes with a little bite to them, and I enjoyed that and was glad she didn’t smoke. Cigarettes and wine make a nasty combination.
We were so hot for each other, by the time we got to her place we didn’t bother undressing. My pants were around my ankles and I lifted her skirt and pulled off her panties. We were rolling on the living room floor. She moaned with her mouth open, showing her white teeth. Then she bit my neck. I pulled her hair to make her stop. She dug her fingernails into my ribs and bit harder.
Our lovemaking was more like a reckless collision, an undercurrent of aggression beneath the heat and desire. “I like it rough,” she whispered in my ear. She was very strong and I struggled to keep her pinned. I’d never been with anyone like Nancee.
The day we got married she took me aside, aglow and beautiful in her wedding dress, and put her arms around my neck and kissed me. “See? Who says a great marriage can’t be conceived in animal lust?” We both laughed.
Headlights appeared and the deputy’s cruiser pulled beside the pickup. I got out and waited as he rolled his window down.
“How long ago did the rescue people get here?” he asked.
“I went off duty a half-hour ago. Here’s a number to call if the search turns up negative.” His voice was more businesslike. It made me feel uneasy.
“What about my van?”
“They’ll take you to Thayne. Just sit tight. You’ll want to be here when they bring your wife back safe and sound…right?”
There was something oxymoronic about his comment. If they brought her back, I wouldn’t need a ride to Thayne. A wrenching sensation knotted my stomach but I didn’t say anything. I watched the deputy pull onto the road and drive away.
The temperature was dropping. I got out of Nancee’s truck and walked to where we’d launched the kayaks that morning, where moonlight reflected off ripples and the river made low murmuring sounds. Frogs and crickets were in full concert, weaving a strange orchestration over the moving water. A haunting sound. It was almost nine and I couldn’t get the image of Nancee out of my head. Like an apparition, half-real yet impossible.
It would likely take the rescue team all night and half the morning, so I left the river’s edge to rest in the front seat of the pickup. I was hungry and drained. The day had taken everything out of me. Sleep would be a welcome relief.
Somehow I drifted off curled awkwardly in the fetal position on the truck’s reclining seat, and when I woke, my neck ached and my hand tingled with needles. My cheeks were wet and I’d had the eeriest dream:
Nancee was floundering in a dark pool of water, dogpaddling in circles as if desperately confused. I dove in and swam to her. Taking her in my arms, swimming her toward shore. Frantic to save her and undo everything that had happened. When we reached the sandbar, I held her in my arms and knelt over her sobbing uncontrollably.
It was almost dawn. A vague grayness on the horizon seemed faraway and very cold. Out of the corner of my eye there were lights, two bright beams coming from the deep shadows of the riverbed. The man tapped the window and I opened the door. His face was as gray as the distant morning light, creased from tiredness and sunken in a way that told me nothing good had happened. He gently patted my shoulder and shook his head.
“We came to the landslide but it was too dangerous to try at night. I’ll radio for a full search party and a helicopter. Don’t worry. I know we’ll find her.”
The woman volunteered to drive me to my van. Although I don’t know why she bothered, or what difference it could have made. I was a hundred-plus miles from home with two vehicles. Why would it matter whether they were parked thirty miles apart or together? Nothing made any sense. I told her not to bother.
“But you need to get something to eat,” she said. Her tone seemed more maternal than her years. She was pretty in a strong way. A lot like Nancee. “If you don’t want to drive to your van, why don’t you drive the pickup to Bridgeport,” she continued. “There’s a café a couple blocks from the first turnoff on the right. The helicopter will take two hours to get here. They’re flying in from Gasser County.”
I was only half listening. Rescue people train themselves to keep people like me distracted, preoccupied, doing anything other than doing nothing. Waiting and worrying.
I took her advice. I drove Nancee’s truck to the café and ate scrambled eggs, hash browns, toast, and three pork sausages. I rarely ate real sausage, only turkey links, but the self-indulgence seemed appropriate. And I drank too much coffee, drove around town in circles, around and around for what seemed like hours. I knew if I kept moving, kept a constant flow of stimuli coming at my brain, reality would remain suspended. Nothing coalesces when in motion. That was the key. Keep moving and the truth never catches up.
When I drove back to the river, there was a pair of rescue vans, two sheriff cars, and a group of uniformed men. One man was talking on a radio. As the truck’s brakes softly squealed, they all looked in my direction. I saw it in their eyes, sensed what I already knew. They’d found the body. One man walked toward the van; he was older and graying at the temples, wearing a brown blazer and gray tie. I got out of the van. His eyes were dark and serious and he looked at me for a moment but didn’t say anything. I sensed his discomfort and decided to help him through it.
“I know…I know already.”
“Some anglers found her a few miles down from the falls, Mr. Moffet,” he said, avoiding my eyes. “They reported it two hours ago. There was an ID and two twenty-dollar bills zipped inside her pocket. I’d guess the body surfaced after you’d paddled downstream.”
Nancee always did that. Kept her driver’s license, car keys, and money in a windbreaker she wore underneath her orange life vest. I imagined her limp body floating facedown, her auburn hair splayed about her head, the coldness of her flesh. Skin bluer than ice and her eyes with the vacant stare of death.
A summer storm was gathering and the northwestern sky was darkening. I shrugged the man’s arm from my shoulder and drove to an old church I had seen in Bridgeport. The front doors were locked but someone had left a side window open and so I removed the screen.
At the altar I lit a dozen white candles and watched the flickering light make shadows on the walls. “Tell me it isn’t true,” I whispered.
On a golden cross behind the pulpit the unwavering gaze of Jesus stayed with me, His forgiving eyes bluer than turquoise. A door creaked opened and a white haired little man appeared in the candlelight.
“What is it that you need my son?” he asked. His reedy voice was apprehensive, as if doubting my intentions.
I told him about all the bad judgments I had made in my life and all the times I’d lost my head, the mistakes I’d made and the things I regretted. He looked at me through hesitant, watery eyes. There was something beckoning in his gaze. I explained the thoughts running through my head, the ones that wouldn’t go away.
“What are these thoughts?” he asked.
“It’s so difficult to say…”
He gazed at me in a curious manner, his frail hand trembling slightly. “It is always good to unburden oneself in truth before the Lord.”
A long moment passed. “Can you imagine a life without consequences?”
“Truth has its own consequences.”
“Life is a rotten tragedy. People betray you and things happen that were never meant to happen. Bad things. Sometimes you do things you never meant to do…”
“The Lord allows us to make our own choices.”
“But deliberate cruelty is not forgivable. And I don’t understand choices. I’m confused.”
“He forgives our confusion and all our sins.”
“All our sins?”
“Yes, my son, all our sins. Perhaps we should pray together.”
We knelt before Jesus. He began the Lord’s Prayer in a low, meditative voice.
A torrent of water pummels her body, her hair floating like seaweed in the cold water, her eyes like cut glass. I see my hands. My two hands grasping her neck. But there is no sanctuary, no salvation, only the naked truth.
The old man reaches for my hand but it does not help, for there is nothing beneath me now. His skin is clammy and cold like something from the river bottom. Red and blue lights flash in the window and I hear loud voices outside. Angry voices and someone at the door.
Time has stopped and everything is suspended in midair and then I’m falling into oblivion, praying for refuge and an unlikely redemption. Praying for a patch of blue sky and a last breath of untainted air.