Nellie kept moving, expecting to blend into the ridgeline, but the hiking guide spotted her. He called out in Italian first, then English.
“I don’t think you belong out there.”
His group, tourists with brimmed hats and walking sticks, stopped and stared with dull curiosity. The steep slope under her feet was loose gray rock, treacherous for amateurs perhaps, but she’d been wandering terrain like this almost forever.
He did a funny wobble with his body, as if taking a few unsteady steps on a tightrope, then gestured her toward him. The consternation on his face bordered on comical.
A delicious cold burst of wind swirled around them and, without intending to, she stepped back into it and skidded in the gravel. The hikers gasped.
She waved to show, I’m fine. Move along, but the guide left the trail, his compact but muscular legs surging energetically over the rocky ground.
“Are you lost?” he called.
Nellie sighed and went to meet him, quick and sure-footed.
“Not lost,” she said, forcing good nature into her voice.
He took her elbow and guided her to the trail. Several of the hikers pointed their cameras at her. A woman came forward with a rectangular snack in a foil packet.
“So generous,” Nellie said. “Shall I join you?”
A series of emotions crossed the guide’s face: concern, confusion, a flicker of interest. She held his gaze long enough to suggest her own.
“Let’s go then,” he said.
The trail continued downhill across a grassy slope with no cover. She intended to stay back, to find her own way, but he kept her close, his fingers plucking at her sleeve if she drifted from him.
“You’re from where?” he asked.
“I’m Karuk. Native American.”
He nodded blankly. “You leave your group?”
“I hike alone.”
“That’s not safe,” he chided.
“You found me.”
“Yes, we did.”
The hike ended. The group dispersed. The guide stayed with her. “Time for a drink?”
She chose a crowded sports bar near a large tourist hotel. A look of grief passed over his face but he agreed, and they squeezed into a spot near a window.
The server set bubbly orange drinks in front of them.
“Cheers,” he said. “How long is your trip?”
“Not long,” she replied, as if there was a plan. “You grow up around here?”
“Yes. Beautiful place but—” He half-shrugged.
“Tourists. A blessing and a curse,” he agreed. Their hands touched; his hot fingers grasped hers.
This again. Last time it was a ski guide and a glorious month of après-ski. She squeezed back.
Her companion eyed the row of TVs above their heads. He mock-shuddered.
“Little boats in rough water. I don’t like it.”
Nellie flicked her eyes across the row of TVs. Soccer. Soccer. Basketball. Little boats.
The server worked controls behind the bar.
On TV a woman with a bright yellow helmet shouted, “Wild River Ultimate Warrior Challenge!” A man in a bright orange helmet stood next to her. The server fiddled with the volume so Nellie missed what he said.
Behind them, familiar dusty-green mountains stretched up into a clear blue sky. The camera pulled back to show a tumble of rock and churning white water.
She took her hand back. Sometimes a full range of seasons passed without her thinking of him for a single instant.
The memory snapped into focus.
The two of them, hand in hand, trembling with expectation during those last days. The old world retreated into a swirling mist; their time was finished. In the distance, dogs barked and voices called across the changing landscape, “The People are coming. It’s time to go.”
Mak kept an arm around her waist and coaxed her along that very river bar, steady and sure-footed over the smooth stones. There was order in the disorder; without fanfare, one by one, the old ones transformed, creating the new world for the People.
“Here.” Mak’s breath was warm in her ear. He smelled like spring rain. “This will be our spot.”
“Not yet.” She peeled away from him. They could stay in the living world and do good. “We’ll return. Later.”
Mak gave a confused smile and reached for her.
Nellie shrunk away. “No. Come with me.”
“We are out of time,” Mak said, gently. The dogs sounded closer, yipping with joy.
“I’m not,” she said.
“There’s no place to go,” he said. “Be here with me.”
They stood in a clearing where the river poured down from a rocky gorge and into a deep blue pool. The exact spot that was on TV.
Mak’s expression was full of love and longing.
“I’ll come back,” she whispered, her heart pounding. She took a moment to memorize the sight of him, etched against the water. Then she ran, moving over the river rock and heading toward the dogs. She wasn’t ready to stay in one place, duty or not, not even for Mak. She didn’t look back.
Nellie studied the television screen as if she might spot him on the bank, still waiting.
“Our warriors will negotiate Match Falls,” the man on TV said. “Do you think they can do it?”
The woman traded a huge smile with him, her eyes wide with television wonder. “I can’t wait to find out.”
They shouted because the water pounded over rocks the size of cars. The air above them glittered with the spray. What had once been a quiet riffle was now a wild tumble of white water.
“You know this place?” her date asked.
“Home,” she said.
• • • •
The tribal administration office sent a Karuk college student named Hazel to pick her up at the regional airport. These days the river road was a paved two-lane highway with a double yellow line painted down the middle. Hazel drove fast, one hand on the wheel, the other holding a tall cup with a red straw. At this rate, the drive would take less than two hours.
“What’s it like, where you were?” Hazel asked.
“Jagged mountains, whispering forests, rivers. Like here but different. Sounds different. Smells different. Even the fruit tastes different. You travel?”
“Someday. Wait, I love this song.” Hazel turned up the car stereo and a warbling pop star sang. Hazel joined, her voice flat but fearless.
When they got closer, the road followed the Klamath River, dark green water with patches of frothing riffles. Nellie let the window down and inhaled pine-fresh air.
“First thing, I’m going to walk over the river bar and stick my feet in that water,” she said.
“Now? It’s freezing.” Hazel let her window down, too. She glanced over. “I thought you was older when you first got in.”
“Older than what?”
Hazel shrugged, “How long since you been back?”
“Hard to say,” Nellie said. She remembered, though.
She’d never been back. Seeing those TV people shouting from their river bar called up an ache she could no longer ignore.
“You run away?” Hazel of the slouched shoulders and long, bored sighs was the first person to ask her this question.
“You could say that,” Nellie said. “What about you?”
“I was glad to go away to college,” Hazel said, nodding regretfully. “It was a guy. You, too?”
“That’s how it always goes. My friends, too. Some dumb guy, and you have to get away. But we always end up back home. You know? We belong here.”
“That’s true.” Nellie smiled at the idea that Mak was some dumb guy.
When they drew closer to town, Nellie said, “Can you take me to Mak’s Falls?”
“They’re Mak’s Falls,” Nellie said.
Hazel laughed. “My great-grandma said it that way, too. You seen them on TV, then?”
“I did,” Nellie said.
“Mom said it’s real busy now. People coming to our spot to ride the rapids on TV.”
As they neared the dirt access road, a dozen or more vehicles lined the highway. A few people wearing bright puffy jackets stood next to an SUV and ate sandwiches.
“Wow, she was right,” Hazel said. “Funny to think of these people coming way out here.”
“This is unusual?” As they drew close, a liquid chill bubbled through her.
“This is insane.” Hazel noticed her discomfort. “You’ll feel better when you get up there. Home, like you remember.”
A big white pick-up truck with the Tribe’s seal blocked the access road.
“The Tribe has its own vehicle?” Nellie asked.
“More than one. Someone from the tribal government is up there,” Hazel said. “Sorry I can’t take you all the way.”
“I don’t mind walking.” Nellie took her bag and said good-bye.
The hard-packed dirt hummed under her feet. The steep-sloped mountains whispered a familiar song. Now that she was here, she couldn’t imagine how she stayed away so long. The sky was grey with low-hanging clouds floating through the tree tops. Faded memories leapt back with every breath of fresh mountain air. Voices echoed up ahead as she walked, but she was unprepared for the commotion she found when she reached the falls.
A big van with ‘Wild River Ultimate Warrior Challenge’ in bold letters across the side was parked in the middle of camp. Colorful domed tents lined the highest parts of the bank and were scattered through the trees. Several vehicles loaded with kayaks were parked along the access road. A bright blue canopy arched over another table covered with electronic equipment and cables. A trash can overflowed and a pair of full garbage bags sat next to it.
The river was high, and white water rose and fell over a long section of bedrock. Mak had been a steady one in the old world. What a surprise to see he’d become this. A song slipped out, part prayer, part apology. Her voice stayed low as a surprising surge of emotion pressed in on her heart.
An elder with a round face surrounded by puffy gray hair sidled up to her.
“What do you think of this giant pile of crap?” she asked.
“Which part?” Nellie asked.
“How long will they stay?”
“Already been here too long.” The woman’s eyes flicked up and down. “Thought you was someone else. Are you the Johnson girl?”
She shook her head. “I’m Nellie.”
“You the one from upriver that ran off?” The woman made a circular motion with her hand as shorthand for the rest of the story. She had short, crooked fingers and rage in her eyes.
“I’m here now.”
“I’m Pearl. I was born a Sanderson and become a Hayman and later a McCann. I’m a widow again, but I’m done. I’m too old to break in another one. My folks were Mae and Shorty. I grew up down the road.” She pointed through the trees as if the spot was just out of sight.
“My grandma was Peaches. I lived in different spots up and down river,” Nellie said, hoping that was enough to discourage further questions.
Pearl nodded. “I thought so.”
Someone shouted and they turned to see two people with cameras on their shoulders hurrying to position themselves at the river’s edge.
“There they go,” Pearl said.
More and more people appeared from the camp. They came out from the trees and lined the riverbank.
When the first boat appeared, they hooted and cheered. A bright orange kayak slipped back and forth between the boulders. There was a drop about the height of two boats end to end. The kayak disappeared into the white foam at the bottom.
“Oh no,” Nellie said.
“Don’t worry,” Pearl said. “Little boat pops right back up.”
Just as she said, the kayak rose out of the water. The paddler pumped the air to more cheers. With the boat close, Nellie could see a long, wet ponytail. The woman bounced down through shallower rapids until the current took her out of sight.
“That was thrilling,” Nellie said.
Pearl made a face. “They aren’t done yet. These are the qualifications. They got loads of imbeciles who want to throw a boat in the water and be on TV. We got ’ em tramping through here every day.”
Over the next hour, a half dozen boats came through the falls while the cameras captured each run. Finally, the last boat passed; the group dispersed and the camera operators left the riverbank.
Earlier contestants returned to camp, carrying the kayaks between them or hoisted up on a shoulder.
A young man approached and set down his kayak. “Are you Pearl?” he asked the elder, his smile wide and genuine. His beard glistened with water and his sandy hair was damp around his neck. “I’m Travis.”
“I’m the elected leader of a government recognized by the United States of America,” Pearl said sourly. “Call me Mrs. Chairwoman.”
“Apologies, Mrs. Chairwoman.” Travis gave Nellie a look as if they were sharing a joke at the Chairwoman’s expense. Nellie’s gaze didn’t change and his smile lost some of its luster.
“Ma’am, can you move the tribal rig? We need full access to the road.”
“What for? So you can bring even more people up here?” Pearl made a dramatic gesture at the river. “These are our ancestors.”
“I’m not familiar with your history, but I do know this is National Forest land. Public land. We are entitled to access.” His words weren’t unkind or threatening; more like he was reminding a child.
“This is our church.” Pearl’s voice became tight, her eyes shiny. “Can you understand? My grandfather’s grandfather, back to the beginning of time, came here to be close to the Creator.”
“No one is keeping you from your religion. We can all share access to the river.” One of the camera operators shouted and pointed to the top of the falls. Travis waved.
“Let’s keep this amicable, please.” Travis ran to join the cameramen preparing for the next group of kayaks.
Pearl shot a dark look after them. “Do I look like a woman who does amicable?”
• • • •
Pearl insisted on bringing Nellie around, introducing her to tribal members, the rest of the Council, and a bunch of tribal employees. Together they waited in the big room of the elementary school, strategizing. They all had dark eyes and round faces and the weary expressions of people that were always fighting for something.
“Shouldn’t we have our attorneys here?” one of the councilmen asked.
“For what?” Pearl said. “They’ll come in here and stand around wearing creased jeans with spotless shoes and say more or less the same things those boat-faces are saying. They’ll make a bunch of mushy-mouthed statements that could mean anything and then tell us they have to go back to the office and do more research. After an unacceptable amount of time, they’ll send us a ten-page letter that no one can understand. We’ll get a giant bill and we’re no better off than we are now. We don’t need our attorneys. Our position is clear. We want them to leave.”
“Can we make them do that?” Nellie asked.
“That’s tricky, but I like how you think.” Pearl sat up and looked around the room. “Auntie here yet?”
“Her grandkids said they’d bring her down after her supper,” someone said. “They said not to expect much because she gets tired after dark.”
“She’ll be fine,” Pearl said. “Put a microphone in an elder’s hands and good luck getting it back. She’ll talk their ears off for a half hour or longer. By the time she’s done, either they’ll understand why we’re unhappy or they’ll wish they did.”
The room filled. What must have been the entire contingent of kayakers entered the room. Fortunately, the Tribe put the word out. More tribal members and community members joined the meeting, too. The place was standing room only by the time the District Ranger began.
Nellie’s eyes studied the crowd. Her people. All here for Mak. A swift stinging jolt of shame shot through her at the reminder of what she’d left when she ran.
The meeting began. The lines of authority were muddled at first, but as the meeting progressed it became clear that Pearl did not have the upper hand. As she brought Auntie up to the microphone, Travis stood.
“May I say something?”
“We’re respectful of our elders,” Pearl said.
“The discussion has veered off course,” Travis said.
The District Ranger tried to say something conciliatory but Pearl interrupted, “This isn’t even a discussion yet.”
Travis continued. “We understand your concerns about heavy use of the site.”
“Heavy use?” Pearl said theatrically. The tribal members in the audience grumbled in support.
Travis remained calm. “You might consider what good this brings your community. For example, economic benefits.”
Pearl scoffed. “So you people buy a couple of six packs at the local store. We’d rather have peace and quiet at our falls.”
“The television production won’t last forever,” he said.
“That’s what we’re talking about here,” Pearl said. “The TV show is like a big, blinking sign leading strangers, who would never know of it, right to our sacred spot.”
Travis cleared his throat. “The issue we’re addressing here is the Tribe illegally blocking our access to the river and interfering with our use.”
“We can always call our lawyers,” Pearl said.
“I am a lawyer,” Travis said. He and the others filed out. Nellie checked and his jeans were worn and faded and his shoes muddy, just like everyone else in the room.
• • • •
The last lights of the camp went out, the fires flickered into piles of ash. Nellie made her way to the falls. She crawled down to a boulder close to the edge and sat in the spray. The steady din of water washing through the riverbed brought an unexpected pang of regret that she quickly stuffed down.
“I’m here,” she said. The water gurgled and surged up to touch her toes.
“Leaving wasn’t a mistake. But staying away so long was.”
She pulled her knees up and wrapped her arms around her legs. The falls vibrated beneath her, lulling her to stillness.
The night passed in an instant and light returned to the sky. She intended to get away before anyone from the camp was up, but Travis spotted her and made his way over the rocks.
“Are you here to make trouble?”
“I don’t know,” Travis sat down next to her. “Aren’t you cold?”
“I spend a lot of time outdoors.” She studied his face. “You’re younger than I thought.”
“Same to you,” Travis said.
After a quiet moment Nellie asked, “Why this place? There are falls everywhere.”
“Ah, but not all falls are created equal.” He indicated the gap above their heads. “The geometry of these falls is particularly unique. Up above this stretch, the river is on the verge of being too much but never quite getting there.”
He pointed at the large rocks and followed the water to the steep drop.
“Then right here the river narrows and the flow speeds up. The boulders are placed as if part of a grand plan to create the perfect run. Add one more obstacle in just the right spot and it wouldn’t be passable. The scenery is unmatched, even if you aren’t riding the river. Under normal circumstances it’s easy access”—he gave her a knowing smile—“and no permits needed. Plus, this is the time of year. Later in the season the river will be too low and it won’t be worth it. You’ll have your place back.”
A drift of patchy clouds covered most of the sun.
Nellie’s eyes followed a puff of foam swirling in the drift. She tried to imagine being in the falls, surrounded by bubbling water, and moved along with the current. A wave slapped up against the boulder they sat on.
“I won’t be around,” she said.
“I thought you lived here,” Travis said.
• • • •
Nellie spent the day upriver, above the spot where the boats went in. She hiked through the forest, resting her palm on one tree trunk after the other, working her way up a tributary until she reached an ice-cold pond fed by snow melt. How many days had she spent just like this? She’d wandered through mountains and streams across the world, listening for voices like the ones in the place she’d left behind.
A buzzard glided through the sky overhead. Nellie rested against a hollow snag and watched it float in unsteady circles. When she lost sight of it, she headed down the mountain.
She stopped at the falls to say good-bye to Mak. The production camp was wrapping up another run. People hiked along the bank and shouted back and forth. Two people in safety gear walked along the access trail headed downriver.
Pearl sat in a camp chair that was too big for her, her weary and defeated face a reproach, a reminder that Nellie’s desertion had broken a trust. She resolved to return more often. Once a year. Or, once a decade, at least.
Pearl said, “I just found out what their ratings are like. There are already folks organizing tours to bring groups up here.”
“But what about later when the river goes down?”
“I guess that’ll slow them,” Pearl said. “Forest Service made us move the rig. Like that lawyer said, we have no authority to keep outsiders away from our very own territory.”
“What about permits? Limit users?”
Pearl nodded. “You know how it goes. Letters, meetings, public meetings, proposed rules, comments. Then, when we reach an agreement that no one likes, whichever side is more pissed off will file a lawsuit. They’ll be able to trample over this spot for years. Meanwhile, the bank is worn down and who knows what kind of crap gets into the water. And no peace for our religion.”
Nellie couldn’t argue with her. Travis came over and offered coffee.
“Looks like you’re taking off,” he said.
“It’s time,” Nellie said.
“Time for what?” Pearl said, disgusted. “We need you here. I won’t be around forever.”
“Going somewhere?” Travis asked, trying to be playful.
Pearl sighed with exasperation. “I’m old, if you haven’t noticed. And we got our young people running off. Don’t even know why.”
“I’m coming back,” Nellie said, swallowing back the guilt. “Really.”
“Sure you will.” Pearl shooed her away, a hurt look on her face.
“Why don’t you ride the river before you go?” Travis asked. “Make you want to stay.”
“I don’t know how,” Nellie said.
“You should do it,” Pearl said.
“We’ll go tandem. I’ll steer, tell you what to do. You can admire the scenery.”
“Not me, Pearl,” Nellie said.
“Whose side are you on?” Pearl grumbled. “Tip me out, tumble me through the rocks and their problems are solved.”
“It’s too dangerous for her, but you can do it. You’ll appreciate seeing both sides of it.”
“Get out there and see if it changes your mind,” Pearl said.
Nellie wanted to say no, but Travis handed her a PFD and helped her clip-in and zip-up. She took the helmet Travis gave her and hiked up the access trail. The sound of water slushing over stones grew stronger. The boat waited at the launch site.
“You’ve never been down the river before?” Travis asked.
“Not like this,” Nellie said. In the old world, the river was one of them, sometimes a lover, sometimes a schemer, always up to something. Now here he was, surging water, and she was a runaway.
Travis showed her the kayak and explained the basics. Nellie couldn’t tear her eyes away from the water. The river was wide here, the surface smooth, with wisps of bubbly foam zipping along in the current.
Travis kept talking: the paddle, water temperature, safety, getting in, getting out, navigating obstructions.
Nellie turned her attention back to Travis. “What was that?”
“Oh good, I thought you weren’t listening. There are places in the falls where the options are limited. Listen for my cues. We’ll be fine.” He smiled. “You’ll never look at the river the same way again.”
Travis got the boat into the water and helped her in. He handed her a paddle. The boat wobbled as Travis climbed in and she couldn’t help letting out a squeak.
He laughed. “We’re just getting started.” She could sense his paddle arcing overhead behind her. He steered the boat into the middle where the current picked them up.
The fast-flowing water took them past craggy bedrock. The air stirred her hair. From here the river smelled richer and more vegetal. If she extended her stay, she could join the prayers and be here when the salmon returned.
The boat tipped to one side, giving a clear view through the green-tinted water. She plunged her paddle in, hoping for a closer look at the river bottom, smooth rocks that she could fit in her hands, others too big to lift. The boat bounced; Travis’s paddle clacked against hers.
“Keep it up, left,” he said.
The gentle waves gave way to dips and bumpy white water. The water sloshed against the boat.
Nellie nodded. She rested the paddle and dipped a hand into the water.
“No need for that. The water will come to you.”
The front of the boat dropped down and the river crashed over them. She grew more comfortable with the rocking motion. White water frothed on all sides, loud and thundering. The kayak bounced back and forth. Travis expelled a harsh breath as his paddle stabbed at the water and he worked to steer them through the gorge. Water splashed her face and with it, a quiet voice.
She loosened the helmet strap.
The boat surged up and slammed down; already Mak’s falls were up ahead. The roar of the water filled her ears. The boat shot toward a narrow gap. Travis might still be giving instructions but she wasn’t sure. All she heard was Mak.
How could she have left?
The bow plunged down again, and the boat hung in the air a split second and then dropped into the pool. In the space of a heartbeat, they were submerged.
Nellie worked to free herself and the water did the rest, sucking her out of the boat before it popped up. Travis shouted, his voice harsh and frantic. Something—his hand? the paddle?— brushed her shoulder.
She ducked away and bobbed in the tumult. He met her eyes, his face filled with dismay as the current carried him forward.
“Feet first, watch your head,” he shouted, and tried to maneuver back to her.
She kicked off her shoes and unclipped the PFD.
“I’m staying,” she said.
Travis yelled again but his voice was lost as the water bubbled up in her ears. This was all Mak; everywhere around her was Mak.
The current pushed her around, nudging her into place. Mak’s voice never left her ears. Already she was changing, more like she was before. The memories of the old world blazed through her mind.
In the time before, they’d lived lifetimes preparing for this. The light of the new world faded as she sank into Mak’s embrace; flesh and bone rearranged into stone. What senses remained were filled with the People’s prayers. All their prayers through all time, up to the present moment, where Pearl watched from the riverbank.