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Night Crawlers
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A dark shadow crosses my face and my heart jumps. Standing over me, Tyler says, “I’m ready to go.”

“So soon?” I say, shaking something away from me, something that buzzes around my head like a fly. The sun holds steady above the canyon wall but the air has cooled. I startle at how long I may have dozed.

As my mind clears on the drive home I ask Tyler, my nine-year-old son, if he had a good day. “No,” he says.

The road, like most in this county, traces the course of a river. I look at Tyler as I round a bend. He glances at me and quickly away, but not so fast that I miss the tears in his eyes. “What is it?” I say.

We have just gone fishing for the first time this spring, which means Tyler fished and I lay beside the river in the sun, having dug out a sandy bed between the rocks like the dogs. Clouds coasted across the sky high above the canyon walls, the sun’s warmth pushing through their thin layers and into my skin. This alluvial flat of land, made eons ago by tributaries flooded with snowmelt, rain, and mud, is connected to the highway by a bridge just downriver. A few years back that bridge was access to one of seven busy lumber mills; today the abandoned mill rests in pieces. The lone mill continuing to operate in this Sierra Nevada county of a single stoplight and no fast-food drive-thru is near my house, near one of the few tiny towns, all of which are peopled by generations of loggers and ranchers, hunters and fishermen.

I have hunted—with Tyler’s father—but never fished. In the earlier part of his life Tyler was raised by his father the hunter as well as by me; now that he wants to fish he has to learn on his own, no man to guide him. I have thought this would be good for him, help build his confidence and independence. Besides, I am tired. Always tired—too tired to learn how to help him learn to fish, too tired to even think about finding a man to replace his father. I won’t know for some years that this fatigue is due to more than single motherhood, that I’ve got a life-threatening disease, which I will later defeat, which in the end will not take my life. In the meantime, I find myself asleep at wrong times, unable to fight it—even teaching, I have to go into the bathroom and put my head down for two or five quick minutes of slumber. Doctors say I’m healthy—apparently they don’t know how to read the blood tests that say I’m not—so I continue to live an active, albeit randomly sleep-filled, life.

We were the only people at the river this morning and when we got there Tyler settled himself near a low rock wall made by winter water, prepared his hook, cast his line. At that bend the river pulls itself together to make what might be a Class I rapid. I’ll call it a riffle. There are no obstacles, no jutting rocks, no holes, just a slim wave train that would splash enough water over my whitewater raft to make us laugh and want to run it again. If the water were warm and lifejackets available, it might be a good riffle to float through boatless, but today the river still has enough power in its current to carry us into the waiting arms of dead ponderosa pines downriver, where large snags brought down by winter’s floodwaters hug the supports of the bridge—those branches, worn smooth by the weight of rocks and water, could reach out and grab, holding a body tight in their grip until more floodwaters came, or summer’s low water exposed the victim.

Someone told me once about spotting an arm flapping above the current in a snag on a southwestern river—a Navajo boy had gone swimming without a lifejacket, as they’ve done there for centuries...

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