Only now that they are zooming south on the freeway can Anne outrun the disaster fantasies that kept her awake the night before: one of the boys is bitten by a rattlesnake. Or they are all murdered by a roving maniac who specializes in families out camping. Something she can't protect them from.
From the back seat comes only the sound of pages turning as Adam, eleven, and Benjamin, eight, devour new paperback books, bought to ensure peace. Reading is all they have room to do, wedged in as they are among camping supplies.
Her husband's eyes, those kind eyes that promised safety thirteen years ago, are steady on the road. Sometimes she's maddened by the way John keeps doing a thing unswervingly whether it works or not. But on the road this steadiness is a good feature. He can go on for hours, days.
Now, as they approach Eugene, breast-shaped hills begin to rise from flat pastureland. Her eyes devour their contours.
"Finished my first book!" Benji announces.
"Yours was short," his brother says.
Anne is relieved when Benji starts on his battery-operated spell toy. A muted synthesized voice poses him word after word, congratulating him with robotic cheer when he types in the right letters which he usually does." Crisis. That's right! C-R-I-S-I-S. Now try, O-pportunity. Very Good!
The soft hills with their green declivities become timbered mountains, and Anne combs the woods with her eyes, searching hilltops for the spreading arms of sugar pine. As a child she lived an hour south of Roseburg where they are now. When she was Benji's age, eight, she and her best friend Susan had invented an alphabet, drawing with sticks in the smooth dirt behind the gym where they weren't supposed to be. Anne still remembers the first three letters: a, the profile of a stairway going up: b, a spiral: c, a circle with a dot in the middle. With their new alphabet, they recorded a plan in a wide-lined, cloth-bound notebook -- to live their grown-up lives together on a Palomino ranch, raising babies and horses.
Benji breaks the silence: "What if the bear comes back this year?"
John yawns as he often does before speaking. "It hasn't for several years. Not since we started camping on the far side of the river."
Anne adds: "Maybe Mama bear gets all she needs from what campers leave at Store Gulch."
"I want her to come back," Adam says.
"Me, too. I want to see her again. I was only -- how old was I, Mom?"
"Four. And I can't remember him very well. Her, I mean. How did we know it was a girl?"
"How do you know whether anybody is a girl, Doofus," Adam says.
"Can you remember that she ate everything in camp but the garlic?" John asks.
"Yes. And I said, 'Pick me up so I can see! I've never seen a real bear before!'"
"Yes, you did." Anne says. "You started howling, so I imagined you were afraid, but you were crying because you didn't have a good view.
"Where was I?" Adam says. Anne suspects he knows, but wants to hear the story again.
"Way at the far end of the sandbar on one of your adventures. I wasn't very pleased to have the bear between you and us. She didn't want us, though. She wanted our pancake syrup."
Anne recalls the female bear, standing on her hind legs not thirty or forty yards away from them, lifting and flaring her loose, acquisitive lips, nostrils working, as she searched the air for what she wanted. And what she would have. Next day they returned from a hike to find their campsite a garbage dump of cans and plastic bottles, punctured, their contents sucked out as neatly as if bears had hollow teeth like straws.
Remembering, Anne shudders, not from fear of the native black bear, but of its unapologetic appetite, the prehensile flexibility of the lips, the unflinchingness of the gaze that said, I will have what I crave.
"Dad shot at it, didn't you, Dad?"
John yawns again. It's not a sleepy yawn. It gives him time to think. "I shot over her head to scare her off. But she wasn't very scared. She took her good, sweet time ambling up the hill."
"As she sauntered off, we heard her say, "I'll be back, suckers," Anne says.
The boys giggle.
Everyone gets quiet again. In her mind, Anne flies ahead to their destination, the Illinois River, a strip of dark liquid jade easing melted snow water from the Siskiyous in northern California through granite walls north to the sea. The boys are too old for her to skinny dip in front of them, but that's how she wants to swim, naked in water like icy silk sheets.
Morning. The sound of the tent zipper, like coarse fabric being torn, splits Anne's dream of a robber woman who breaks into their Portland home in the night, through a skylight they don't really have. Anne doesn't want the dream to end because of the way the woman leans toward her in the moonlight. But she must wake. Sweet morning light seeps in through blue nylon. She puts the dream away to think about later. Then in a few minutes, she hears John breaking sticks for the fire, then its crackle.
"Call me when there's coffee," she stage whispers out the door of the tent, trying not to wake the boys, and shivers when chill morning air pours in.
"Come on out here. It's beautiful," John says.
Reluctantly, she pulls on blue jeans that chill her thighs and climbs out of the tent. He's right. The sun is just glinting over the canyon wall to the east, tinting the inverted bowl of white sky blue, first in its very center as if the pigment pooled in that deepest part. It sends shafts of light to the river's polished surface, revealing motes of tree pollen hanging in the air.
John carries the coffeepot and a saucepan back from the spring and sets them over the fire, then settles on the bench they have made from a driftwood plank laid across two stones.
"Thanks for the fire." Leaning into the heat, she admires the fireplace she built the evening before while he rafted supplies across the river. When she got to the campsite, an ancient mandate, something from a Paleolithic race, had taken her over as she had known it would. For a little while, it had given her the relief of wanting only one thing: to gather flat, warm stones and fit them together into a firepit. Cook meat and bread for her family, a ragged band of hominids on the narrow bank of this dreaming river, her two near-naked man cubs leaping from boulder to boulder, yelling. Which in real life, they were. Though it was a future dream the boys were living: "Stop!" Adam had shouted at his brother, brandishing a driftwood firearm,"Stop in the name of Intergalactic Justice!"
John brings her back to morning by pouring ground coffee into the boiling pot, the recipe for muddy but wonderfully strong camp coffee. "It's impossible to remember what it's like, isn't it?" He nods toward the river kingdom spread before them. The river is black onyx, deep, deep, shading off to tan and chartreuse shelves a few inches to a few feet under water at the edges. Gray granite columns, twisted like the stone bowels of the earth, rise thirty to fifty feet on the other side.
A long, frantic zippering, then Adam emerges sleepy-eyed from the tent he shares with Benjamin and hurries behind it where his stream of pee can be heard shushing into the sand. Then he comes to join them at the fire, still cross with sleepiness. "When you guys go back, I'm going to stay here," he says.
He's been saying this ever since they started packing for the trip, a silly thing for a smart eleven-year old to say. His obsession worries Anne a little.
"It's hard to think about leaving," she says, combing the hair off his forehead with her fingers.
"I'm not leaving," he says, shaking her hand away by a slight gesture. "I'm going to move here."
The grounds have settled, so Anne pours John and herself cups of scalding coffee.
"Your mother and I will have to go back to our jobs," John says. "You can't stay here alone. What would you eat?" He takes a loud slurp, trying not to burn his tongue.
"I'll trap animals."
"Trapping is complicated. I doubt if even I could."
"Maybe you couldn't, but I can. And fish and catch crawdads."
Anne has emptied a packet of instant cocoa into a cup and poured hot water in for Adam. She hands it to him by its enamel rim so he can grab the handle.
Then Benji emerges from the tent and hurries behind it. "Make pancakes," he directs as he approaches the fire.
"Can't you say anything better than that, like 'Isn't it beautiful?' John says to their younger son.
"Beautiful pancakes," Benji says. "Beautiful bacon, beautiful syrup." He snuggles against Anne.
"I won't eat pancakes when I am here alone," Adam says. "Just strips of meat roasting over the fire."
"Are you sure you want to hurt the poor animals?" John says.
"Who wants to go for a pre-breakfast swim with me?" Anne asks.
"No one," Benji says, shivering. "I want to wait till it's hot.
"You eat meat," Adam narrows his eyes at his father. "You just let someone else kill it for you."
John yawns. "I've killed animals. I was just -- "
"John, can you get the pack down from the tree?" Anne asks him pointedly.
"Come on, Ben," Adam says. "Let's go catch lizards while they're cold and slow," and suddenly the boys are halfway down the sandbar.
Midafternoon. John lies under the wild azalea bush, extension tubes of his camera aimed down the peach-blushed throat of one white bloom. The shade has moved past him. He is burning between his freckles again, making them stand out, brown against the pink. Anne likes to tease him about doing a connect-the-dots. Sometimes she tries with a ballpoint pen until he tells her to knock it off, but she can never find the pattern.
She takes her eyes away from the constellation on his back and studies the sleepy woods across the river. The scene looks ageless, but she knows it is always changing, the hills wearing down every time another piece of serpentine flakes away and rattles down the rock slide. The canyon deepening as the relentless river finds its way to the sea.
Then, a distant roar. A plane? No, a car engine. A green sedan, close now, crunching gravel, raising dust. They all look up because it's the first car they've heard. Two women with a rubber raft on the top of their car. The car disappears behind live oaks, then reappears farther down river. It stops, and Anne knows the place because they have camped there before. She climbs on a rock and perches, pretending to look at the river, but trying to get a look at them.
"Look, Velcro," Adam says, scaling the rock one-handed to squat beside her. Coiled around his left hand is a little water snake. The snake's tongue, black with a red tip, darts in and out. "It doesn't have teeth, it has Velcro. For catching tadpoles. Feel."
Edgily, Anne follows his fingers into the snake's mouth that he holds open at the jaw. He's right, it feels exactly like Velcro.
"How do you know it eats tadpoles?" she asks.
"I found one in its mouth. Here. Keep it for me." He hands her the snake and is gone.
She studies the little snake now wrapped around her hand, its breath expanding and contracting against her fingers: blunt nose; eyes, black irised, clear around the edges; a finely-tooled jaw it can widen, streamline, widen again. Its back appears checkered, a fine gray tapestry of all the colors of the granite lining the river. It would be nearly impossible to spot from overhead. Its belly is enamel-plated, iridescent salmon and green. At first she thinks this color must be a whimsical concession of nature's to beauty alone, then decides it, too, is protective coloring, making the snake look like a slice of the shimmering sky to a predator looking up at it from under water.
She imagines carrying the snake to the women down river to show them, then wonders why she's thought something so goofy. One of the women is tall, she notices, with short dark hair and broad shoulders. The snake its position, a pulse of aliveness against her skin.
She hears breathing behind her, little scuffles on the rock. Benji sneaking up. Ah! Cold, wet arms around her neck. "Did you hear me coming?" he says.
She bends her cheek to caress the cold arms. "Just at the last," she says.
Tentatively, Benji reaches down and pets the snake, now resting with its tail tip coiled delicately around its shoulders -- waiting, she imagines, to be eaten.
With the protective coloring of a child against my back, she thinks, no one would recognize me from the sky.
Late afternoon, the sun almost over the hill behind them. John and Anne lie reading in the shade. He reads a book about living called Don't Push the River. She reads May Sarton's novel Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing.
John takes notes on little scraps of yellow paper that the wind keeps blowing away.
The boys are in the their tent, a few feet away, reading, too. Adam is reading aloud to Benji a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, offering him the choices.
"Okay, Benji, listen. You come to two doors. One is a beautiful, polished wood door with a big brass doorknob. There is a sign on it, but it is too high up for you to read. Next to it is another door. Plain and old. It is already open a crack. It's dark behind it. Which one do you go in?"
"I go in the fancy one."
"You shouldn't just go in for appearances, Benji."
"Do I get to choose, or not? I go in the fancy one."
"O-kay," Adam says, in an it's-your-funeral tone. "Then on to Page 83. You find yourself in a narrow room, unlit except for glowing embers in a fireplace at one end. As your eyes adjust to the light, you see that beside the embers sits a beautiful wooden chest, and on top of it is a small demon with green, glowing eyes. He grins at you, then flies at your head. What do you do?"
"I take out my sword -- "
"You don't have a sword."
Anne wonders how much of the dilemma Adam creates is in the book, and how much he makes up. She rolls her eyes at John who rolls his back. Aren't they a pair, their eyes say. Isn't Adam happy being boss?
"Okay," Benji says. "I duck out the back door."
"The door is locked."
"That's no fair."
"Do you want to play this, or not?"
"Okay," Benji sighs a long, indulgent sigh. "I stare at him and say, 'Don't hurt me. I haven't come to steal.'"
"Perfect! He leaves you alone and flies back to the top of the chest."
Anne lays her book open to keep the page, and gazes across the river at the woods, khaki-colored live oaks and red-barked madrona with their canopies of sunny green from which occasional gold leaves hang vertical like mangoes. Though she didn't come to this river when she was a girl, she imagines herself and her friend Susan here. They'd have played Mama and baby animals in little sand rooms, walled off with boulders on which lizards, in a hum of sun, lifted flame-blue throats to the sky.
She closes her eyes, imagines the taller woman down river as the robber woman in her dream, the intruder coming through the skylight.
The boys continue. "You're going through this tunnel, Benji. It's dimly lighted. The way behind you is locked off. You can just see a few steps at a time, when suddenly, the floor disappears and what's ahead is water. You don't know how deep it is or what's in it."
She gets up and without a word, crosses hot, sloping sand, to cool, wet sand, wades onto the submerged stone shelf, then pitches forward into the water. She breaststrokes upstream a hundred yards through water that looks black at her chin, barred with swells of chrome.
She turns to her back and floats downstream, past her sons, now out of their tent, Adam, trying to catch something in the shallows, Benji, watching him, squatting, clutching his toes.
She closes her eyes and sees the fiery network of veins in her eyelids. Pictures of translucent embryos in the how-babies-grow books, networked with these branching lines. Placentas, rich with veins. The hills above her, veined with gold. Life paths, branching like veins, form patterns that looked back upon, seem inevitable. Her back to the water, her face to the sun, she is cradled, unafraid.
When the boys were small, they loved to cling to her while she swam on her back, a water animal caring for her young. She is a water animal now, immense, powerful on the black river. She can carry them both, and will. She drifts downstream where she can hear the women's voices.