Andrew willed the drive to seem aimless, like it used to be with Ruth Anne, but it was never convincing enough. He wanted to meander along for a while, aimless and natural. Driving right to the spot was too impossibly painful.
He knew where he’d end up eventually, their spot always the destination, timing it just right before sundown, a small trailhead just off the river road. Now a spot he couldn’t fool himself into thinking was suddenly found. There was no reliving it no matter how hard he tried. No lifting back how only theirs it had all felt.
But it was nice then, the spot found on the side of the road, a little hint. Ruth Anne in the passenger seat watching, trees giving, the wind signaling a right place over the embankment, both quietly feeling out the rightness of a perfect spot. Now it was only him trying to trick himself on the drive, hungry for some flash of back then.
How the brown of her eyes had shown clearer when she got excited. Almost clean through, though they were so dark. Almost black. Andrew never understood that. I must have been the sun.
This was his Friday evening ritual now, meandering the back roads, reworking in his head what little of their conversations hadn’t soaked down quiet into the forgotten. They’d talked so much, him driving, her in the passenger seat watching. Days of accumulated conversation, about everything, nothing, and the all between. Now it was running away, dripping through his fingers. It was like he could feel each separate conversation slipping through.
On that first day they’d pulled over to that hint of a trail, they’d made their way down, hand-in-hand through kudzu, through tangles of grape vines, wisteria and honeysuckle, over root-balls and snakes dens, grasshopper smacks and frog groans. Down to the sand bar, the rocks calling sun stripple under the water. Leaves bobbing. Sand grains and pebble, stone and boulder. Down to a warm spot in the sun.
They were hurrying off to Gatlinburg to get married that night, like they were secreting off to Vegas. They’d made love on the soft sand, the river water so loud they could barely hear each other call the other’s name in pleasure. After their lovemaking she’d stacked a rock pyramid to commemorate the moment and the vows they’d claim that night. A cairn she’d called it. A bond on the never-ending river.
“I figured you as a witch.”
“Don’t joke about such things,” she half-laughed setting the final balanced top stone.
# # #
After that, almost every Friday all spring and summer, into fall, Andrew would pick her up from work and drive down to the river, back to their spot. A Friday evening date of sandwiches, warm beer, and Ruth Anne’s odd stone stacking art. Making out like teenagers trying not to get caught, timing sundown just right, but never before a new cairn was complete and standing almost in watch, some symbolic undertaking blessing their act, left behind for nature to do with what it wanted until their return.
“Why do you love stacking stones so much,” he’d asked her early on, watching her take her time examining single rocks in the water and tossing them up closer to where she was building. The stack seemed impossibly balanced against gravity’s will. Her concentration that of someone seeing something he couldn’t.
“Come help me,” was all she’d replied.
So he did, following her lead, though at first he only wanted to relax and drink his beer. But as he searched with her and carefully stacked the stone, the coolness of the water like a relaxing song as it passed them, he understood better. They’d take turns placing them, one rock, another, some collapsing, forcing them to try again. They’d create something together, some precariously arranged beautiful thing on the river’s edge, the gentle waves licking the base.
“The balance takes work,” she once offered once, humming a little chant he couldn’t quite hear.
“It surely does. The water will knock it down if it rises.”
“If the river decides to, that’s fine, but it’ll come up slow, cover a little at a time. Unless a heavy branch comes by, it’ll stay put, under the water. Stones are stubborn.”
“Just like you,” Andrew had joked, though telling the truth.
“Just like me, for sure.”
Andrew had finally screwed up his nerve enough to go back. Ruth Anne had been dead since the end of fall and he’d abandoned the place all winter. Now it was the middle of spring, the world was mostly alive again and something was calling him back. Something alive in him was back there, like it was the only place to search for it.
“Cairn is an old Scots word. Like memorials on tops of hills and trail heads. It’s an old, old word.”
“I’m a mutt,” he’d joked. “I don’t where us Rennings are from.”
She was smart and he loved her for that, even if it did intimidate him a little.
“I like to think this is our special place right here on the river.”
“I reckon we’ve marked it in better ways than a bunch of rocks,” he laughed.
“You know what I mean,” she smirked, knowing what his obvious flirt meant. “What we’ve done here is all the more reason to mark the spot as special as far as I’m concerned,” she answered with as big a kiss and heated embrace as he could remember in their short lived but lively history.
Their whole experience was a God-cursed tragedy as far as he was concerned. For things to be so good then so gone. She’d seemed fine, but to be sick the whole time? What was the use?
All he could do was shake his head at it.
He parked on the opposite side of the barely graveled river road reaching the trail head and stomping down the weeds that had risen since the week before. By now he could barely see the water down the hill, but it was up after some rain by the sound of it. The spring weeds and vines were climbing. It amazed him how jungle like the wood could grow almost overnight come spring, like these weren’t individual lives growing, not trees and vines and flowers, but one large being in charge of everywhere you walked.
His steps slipped in the damp, clotting sand and root slime as the trail to the bank thinned, but as he neared the cane break before the sand bar clearing he caught what sounded like a humming over the water, not too close, but out there, foreign to the birdsong, but just as nice. He stopped short of breaking through the cane, offering a long concentrated listen.
It was a song, over the sound of rock on rock, splashes. The lift and grunt of pleasant work.
He plied his fingers through the stalks and parted just enough to spy a view.
Out the middle of the river, in shin-high water, wrestling now with a heavy flat stone, was a woman stacking river rocks in a sort of way familiar to him.
Andrew locked in his gasp of surprise as best he could, given the strangeness of the scene and all it implied rushing his mind and trying to outdo the words in his grieved heart.
Whoever this was had managed stones stacked thigh high and a few feet across, a strong structure and not something the river would sweep away soon. A canoe was anchored a few feet away from where she worked, bobbing in the gentle rapids. Her hair appeared long, black, up and out of the way while she worked, her long skirt, trimmed like something bought in a new age hippy shop in Asheville was wet and heavy, hugging her legs, her arms sleeveless showing dark skin in the sun. A slim, pretty form, making him blush a little in the heat.
Her song was familiar. Not quite the tune, but the voice, the lilting alto, a sweet vibrato tuned to the water. He could have stood there hiding and listening all day.
He almost fell through the cane stumbling over himself to get out of the bushes to firm footing and onto the sandbar to get a closer look. He was gawking, not minding the noise he was making, walking closer to the water’s edge.
It was Ruth Anne. By God, it was Ruth Anne.
His clumsy racket startled the woman, even at that distance and over the rush of the water. She crouched from noise, animal like in response, tossing away a stone and pulling up her skirt, holding still, eyes locked on Andrew at the shoreline.
It was Ruth, out there. Or was it?
“Ruth Anne?” he whispered. “Ruth Anne?” he asked, more to himself, but louder.
Stunned at the resemblance to his dead wife, caught somewhere between the thought it was her and of some stranger looking like her, the strangeness of it all, stuttered his mind, made him hesitate. His feet felt like they were sinking in the sand. He couldn’t move.
She didn’t speak, but backed away smoothly, her eyes wide in response to his calling out, pulled in the anchor line, stepped into the canoe and let the swifter water naturally pull her down and out of sight past a bend in the river faster than Andrew knew what happened. He was too enthralled to do much more than stare.
It was all over just like that, the only thing left of the moment being the pile of stacked stones in the middle of the river, an odd-spelled reminder of his loss.
He wondered what to do, staring up and down the river as the sun fell, not waiting on him, and finally waded out to the stones. It wasn’t an aberration. There they were, two feet down into the water, stacked on solid foundation then another couple of feet higher. Not ghost work. Or was it? His imagination at this point wasn’t to be trusted. Even he knew this.
His head spun. Part of him wanted it to be her. Or something left of her. Something left the brain cancer hadn’t robbed so quickly in a season. Some element. Anything, please.
It resembled her, didn’t it? From a distance. Facial features. Cheekbones. Hair color. Body shape somewhat. And here it had been at their spot stacking these damn rocks she loved so much and he’d always tried to play along with. And wasn’t that what ghosts did? Come back to repeat what they did in life? At some place of comfort or tragedy?
The idea of it made him smile past the chills running up his legs into his back from the cold water. Or was he just cold? The sun was nearly down. He’d come back, but it was time to leave this place for now.
But for good measure he grabbed a few good stones at his feet and arranged them on the stack just as he’d done Ruth Anne, perhaps meaning it as some stunned prayer, trying to make sense of this ghost cairn, as he’d named it in his head for now, for himself. Just in case. If nothing else the day had brought him closer to her memory.
A few days later and he’d almost talked himself out of what he’d seen.
It was all too convenient, wasn’t it? He could peg a cliché when he smelled one. He was believing what he wanted to believe. Some girl had seen their rock art in the past and copied it.
That’s it, he figured. I probably scared the daylights out of the poor thing when I came tearing hell through the tree line like a river squatch. She’d probably pissed herself that day. Yea.
He was too curious not to go back. And she was there about half the time. He’d watched her three times by now. By the second time he believed whoever – whatever – she was, there was some mystical element to her. He didn’t dare disturb her. Yet, at least. The place was still his, but he’d grown comfortable enough to share it, at least with a ghost. Had he settled fully on it being a real person there would be resentment there.
The stones were shoulder high now, some five feet across, a small rock hill moated all around with rushing water. Only an uprooted tree in a flood was going to dislodge this oddity.
She’d hum tunes he could catch parts of and almost sing along with from his hiding spot. Any guilt he’d felt was long gone. How could you be a voyeur of a ghost? The water would soak her long dress and cling to her calves and thighs as she worked, balancing her bare feet there among the submerged stone. She’d shake her long hair out sometimes and put it back up with whispy fingers. The sun’s red setting would glance off the water and her skin at the same time, tricking his eyes, making him wonder if he could see right through her flesh at times.
When he visited the river and was alone he’d wade out and stack a few stones on his own, carrying them from the shore, sometimes from older cairns Ruth Anne and he’d made before, carefully balancing them atop the specter’s work. With each stone he’d play tug of war with weather we was losing or adding the burden of her memory. Of the sudden lightening headaches the first doctor claimed were simple migraines, the bloody noses, the insomnia, the nightmares, before her passing out, the quick coma, the news of cancer almost as sudden as their having met each other. Here where it had felt like they were the only people in the world, it all came back clear. Where they played in the bank water barefoot like Adam and Eve, skipping rocks, inspecting rocks as if they were the first to ever pick them up off the earth’s surface and stack them one upon the other, where they laid with each other in the grass and learned each other’s soft bodies.
He was early today, taking off before work was finished. He carried a stone in each hand and walked out over the sandbar where it turned to pebble to gravel to smaller stone, to deeper colder water, then larger rock where it reached his shins and stayed that depth until he waded all the way to the middle of the river’s flow and to the cairn’s formation.
It was a work of formidable art by now. Large as an upturned car with another layer like a step along the bottom edge. Flat at the top like an altar. A stone island. You could stand on top and see all the way down the river. There was something about it, an ancient mood as if they’d uncovered it there rather than assembled it.
His back was upriver when the faint hum reached his ears, mixed with the rippling water around his feet. A new wind was working the trees up. A storm was readying to move in and the leaves were turning over to their whites.
He stood up straight to stretch his back, not daring to turn. Not yet, but knowing, half-dreading what approaching behind him up the river. It was her. Probably. He wondered if she’d noticed him yet.
The humming kept on, like a voice imitating a fiddle’s notes.
He couldn’t run to the shore. She’d surely seen him.
Whatever spell was at work, whatever he’d believed or not believed, or held off of over these months, was hinged on this moment. He felt like just swimming down river and not looking back.
The humming got louder, prettier. It might as well have been Ruth Anne behind him humming right to him.
Then it quit.
There were wet sloshes of footsteps nearby. Then nothing.
A heat pulsed in his chest and dropped burning into his belly. Her sun rippled reflection was in the water next to him. He turned, not sure of what would be there or what he wanted, still tempted to retreat.
He squinted at her form, some reality breaking through, letting out a sigh.
“You’re not Ruth Anne.”
It seemed the woman knew something rode on her answer. Hesitated.
“No. No, I’m not.”
Silence but for the river and birdcall and the storm wind whipping up.
“I’m Josey. She was my baby sister, by a year.”
Another silence, broken only by a long off roll of gentle thunder.
“Why you here doing this,” he asked, almost demanded. Disappointment and confusion growing in his voice.
“I’m sorry, Andrew. She’d written me about being sick. And about you. Getting married. How happy she was. How worried she was about you.”
He smiled a little, a mirror image of Ruth Anne’s smile calming him. Proved out the sincerity he needed in the moment.
“She never told me about having a sister. Never talked much about family at all. Said her parents were dead. Didn’t know she had brothers and sisters.”
“I’m her only one.”
They stood there sizing each other up, the waters rushing by, both wanting to fill the quite with something.
“But why are you here?”
“She told me about it. This place. How she loved it. I took a chance on maybe you not coming around. She sent pictures of some of her rock art. I promised I’d come build her a memorial of some sort. I guess I got carried away,” she offered, pointing at the cairn’s massiveness.
“I kind of figured you wasn’t her after a bit.”
“You look like her. At a distance. Thought at first you were her ghost.”
She didn’t know what to say at that.
“People thought we were twins for a long time. You disappointed?”
“I sort of wish you had been. My wife’s dead. Of course I am.” He held off telling her how many times he’d spied on her out there while she worked.
“I was only getting to know her when she was gone. Brain cancer. She didn’t know me toward the end, right before the coma. I wanted to bring her here before it got too bad but she wouldn’t have appreciated it.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be. Really. I see how silly I was now, thinking some spirit was out here, for my benefit in some way. I’m an idiot.”
“No. You’re not, Andrew.” She was tempted to move in to hug him, but hesitated.
“Ruthy is here, in spirit. All that time you spent here. All this effort and energy. The strength of these rocks. The eternal river. The symbolism of it all. Don’t you see? This is her, right here, forever. It’s all connected. You just have to believe this and let it be.”
The truth was, as awkward as this was, as heavy as his heart felt, as part relieved and part confused as it all made him, her familiar visage intrigued him in a way leaving him feeling guilty for trusting her so quickly. It wasn’t Ruth Anne. It wasn’t her ghost. It was neither. Nothing he’d considered in the least.
The storm was rolling in harder now. The sun gone behind the clouds.
“I’m sorry this is so strange for you. It is for me, too.”
“Rain’s coming in.”
He looked south past the agreement of swaying trees and nodded.
Lightning struck somewhere off past the hills.
“I have an idea, if you might go along with it,” she offered, sounding hopeful.
“I suppose you have my sister’s ashes?” she asked gently.
He gave a long sigh.
“I do still have them.”
“Why don’t we meet back here before sundown tomorrow evening and you bring your wife’s ashes. I think we’re about done here, don’t you think?”
Twilight burnt orange as it tore off across the east the next evening, dancing over a million ripples on the eternal Powell River, Andrew and Josey’s legs splitting folds in the white water as they wadded back from their final work, a new scarlet burn reflecting off into the waters. From the top of the cairn where it flattened grew flames now, a final purpose in its existence. Within the consuming scavenged brittle limbs rested the ashes of the man’s wife, the ashes of the sister’s kin, rising now into the failing evening, the coming night, the man’s resistance to healing finally giving in, his acceptance of reality recognized by the sister, the dead sister’s promise kept, a new bond formed from new ash. Streaks of light flew up to the black and sought the stars, mixed indistinguishable for an instant, then were just stars. All kinds of elemental sacrifices wandered until they found where they must go. Loss. Pain. Questions. Answers. Stone. Fire. Stars.
# # #
Larry D. Thacker is a writer from Tennessee. His stories can be found in issues of The Still Journal, Fried Chicken and Coffee, and The Emancipator. His poetry can be found in journals and magazines such as The Still Journal, The Southern Poetry Anthology: Tennessee, Mojave River Review, Broad River Review, Harpoon Review, Rappahannock Review, and Appalachian Heritage. He is the author of Mountain Mysteries: The Mystic Traditions of Appalachia, the poetry chapbooks, Voice Hunting and Memory Train and the forthcoming full collection Drifting in Awe. He is taking his MFA in poetry and fiction at West Virginia Wesleyan College.
Photo credit: Kae Sable