Fiction: Remember to Awe

Read More: A brief interview with Mary Pat Musick

It was an early morning, too early for the start of vacation, when we gathered at the Forest Service Headquarters and everyone introduced themselves. We varied in backgrounds and abilities, some conspicuously logoed, others with unassuming borrowed gear. A guide told us we’d learn a bit about ourselves as we explored the wilderness with new friends. The sun was bright when we loaded the van for the trip to our launch point, but after a bumpy three hour ride to somewhere near the Canadian border, it was overcast. I overheard Samantha and Lesley, a pair with their own carbon fiber paddles, question the fairness of Francine joining the trip. Fairness for whom I wondered.

There were ten of us, including two guides. Francine and I, co-workers and friends, were the rookies, having canoed once before as practice for the trip. Samantha and Lesley from “The Twin Cities”, were together. The others came solo. After stuffing our belongings into water proof packs and learning safety procedures, we paired into tandem canoes. Francine and I shoved off in the middle of the group, but slipped to last.

I paddled fast as my two-month gym training allowed. She commented on sandstone cliffs and the tingly smell of pine. Like a lifer on a one week release she called to an eagle, begging to trade places for an hour, or two, or forever. That’s Francine, shooting for the sky, skipping the stage of simply standing. Samantha and Lesley paddled upstream, circled us, and hustled back downstream. Their hint to hurry didn’t work. Francine spotted a white-tailed deer, then a great blue heron, each as motionless as we were.

Slow, sloppy raindrops splattered the river before we pulled into our first campsite. I draped my jacket over my head. Tom-the-guide, appearing as if he stepped from the cover of Outdoor Magazine, swung Francine from her canoe sling, his muscled arms hugging her, her useless legs dangling. She raised her back––which enhanced her ample breasts––and thanked him in a breathy voice. He returned an amused wink. By the time we set up tents the rain danced faster, grew frenzied, and drenched everything, canceling the scheduled bonding over a crackling campfire.

Everyone escaped to their own tents. While Francine and I ate cheese sticks and trail mix,  she went on about Tom-the-guide as though lifting her 108 pounds was herculean. A brief infatuation under the atmosphere of moose antlers was a distraction from Jake who recently dumped her. She missed the thrill of flying blurry-quick down the highway on the back of Jake’s Harley, the wind screaming, the bike roar deafening. Jake’s leaving hadn’t steamrolled her, but she ached for that motorcycle.

In the morning the group hustled as though there was reason to hurry. Arnold, a custodian from Cleveland with droopy eyes, and ears that reminded me of Yoda, helped Francine and me take down our borrowed tent, an undertaking not as simple as had been promised. Becca, the lead guide, suggested I switch canoes with Arnold to speed our progress on the river.

While Arnold paddled with Francine, I went with Anna who was using the canoe trip as divorce therapy, “moving on,” she said. Anna recited Russian folk tales in a nasal voice.  She was thirty, but aged with her stories. After fables of scary forests, beak-nosed stepmothers, and conniving wolves, I found an opening and grabbed the first subject that came to mind: the rain. “We should get a refund for the trip,” said Anna. Our instructions were to prepare in case of rain, but she claimed that applied to showers that bring May flowers, not the torrent bombarding us. Our canoe had fallen far behind Samantha and Lesley’s. “Arnold’s a stronger paddler. He could pull a tractor,” she said, which reminded her of another story.

As the sky wet-whipped us, the group formed a flotilla around the guides. We scooped water from our canoes using  plastic bowls, and waited for Francine and Arnold to catch up. When all were there, Becca, the lead guide, cancelled the flora and fauna hike. When we signed up, Francine had been told the trail could accommodate her wheelchair which was strapped to the back of her canoe. Becca said we needed the time anyway to make up “ground.” At that, a few glared at Francine. She was in that drifting-away state she gets, probably picturing her chair sinking into muck as Tom-the-guide unfettered her and leapt through the woods with the agility of an antelope while she clung to his back. A splash brought her back. She fixated on a pair of ancient-looking turtles lying on a log. They plunged into the murky water and disappeared. […]

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Mary Pat Musick’s short stories have appeared in Fiction Southeast, Litbreak Magazine, The Summerset Review, Marathon Review, The MacGuffin, Crack the Spine, Monarch Review, and other publications. She works and plays in Santa Cruz, California.

Read More: A brief interview with Mary Pat Musick