By Stone Showers
That first week after the funeral our house was besieged with visitors. They came at our porch in twos and threes, parents holding their children out in front of them like shields. My father suffered their sympathies better than I would have expected. He even invited some of our neighbors in to sit for a while, and sometimes, if I were nearby, he would call for me to come stand by him. I did so reluctantly. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate our neighbors’ kindnesses—I did. But even at the tender age of twelve, I knew that few of these people actually meant the things they said. Most had come only because they were curious, or because they felt obligated in some way.
When the Cochran twins came to visit they sat one on either side of their mother, their hands tucked primly under their legs. Mrs. Cochran handed us each a card with a picture of Jesus on it and told us we ought to pray for my mother’s soul. I wanted to ask her what she meant by that, but my father’s stern look kept me quiet.
Marne Hawkins patted me on my head as if I were a small child and told me how much I reminded her of my mother.
“I can only imagine how you must feel,” she said. “But I guess your mother must have had her reasons. Lord knows, life can be difficult sometimes.”
When our neighbor George Hoover came to call, he sat on our couch and staunchly returned my father’s scowl with one of his own. The old man didn’t say much, but then, he rarely did. After five minutes of gruff silence, he stood and told us he had cows to tend to. He said this in a way that made it sound like cows were more important than people were. I suppose to him they were. But then, just before he stepped off our porch, the old man turned to me and smiled. I’d never seen him do that before.
“Don’t listen to what them others is saying.” He cleared his throat. “Your mother was a good woman—a lot better than most. I don’t know why she did what she did there at the end. But that don’t mean anyone ought to fault her for it. Understand?”
* * *
As the onslaught of visitors diminished to an occasional annoyance, I began venturing outside to play again. Sometimes my father would sit on the steps and watch me, his cigarette turning to ash in his hand. Other times, I could see him through the windows, wandering from room to room like he was looking for something. As the days passed, we went to work and to school, to work and to school, and then to the store when supplies ran low. For the most part, we kept to ourselves. Going through the motions, my father called it. I suppose we might have gone on like that forever.
We saw the whales on TV. For reasons that neither of us could ever quite explain, this single event changed everything.
* * *
They were on the evening news. A young reporter with hair the color of straw stood at the end of a low bridge. The railing behind her was crowded with people. Two days earlier, the reporter said, the whales had been spotted in the river. As she spoke, the camera zoomed in on the water below. At first there was little to see but ripples and weeds and the occasional duck necking for algae. But then the mother whale appeared out of the depths, her baby close beside her. The two whales broke the surface together and turned, tails sending twin plumes of iridescent droplets into the air.
Momma had always dreamed of seeing a whale close up. But even though we lived close to the sea, she never did see one.
* * *
When I was young, we used to take road trips almost every weekend. I remember one trip where the three of us drove out to the coast. We walked together along the base of the dunes, each of us searching for hidden treasures in the line of debris that had washed up onto the shore. Daddy found a toy truck with Chinese writing on it and Momma unearthed a plastic doll. The doll was missing one arm and most of its hair, but Momma kept it anyway. The missing hair gave it character, she said.
Later that day we came across the carcass of a harbor seal. Most of the flesh of the animal had already been eaten away by flies and scavengers, but the skeleton remained. I remember my mother walking up to the seal and standing in front of it for a long time. She then lifted her camera and began taking pictures. She circled slowly around the remains and said she was trying to find just the right angle and quality of light.
* * *
“Can we go see them, Daddy?” I asked, pointing at the whales on TV. I knew we had to go visit them, but the idea seemed to make my father uncomfortable. Instead of looking at me he began worrying at a scrap of fabric that had come loose from his chair.
“I don’t know,” he stalled. “I’ve got errands to run. And there’s a lot that needs fixing around here.”
Since Momma had died, neither of us had ventured farther from home than Crescent City, and then only to stock up at the Wal-Mart. My father often talked about projects he had planned, but after the funeral he spent most of his time in front of the TV, or locked away in his room.
I looked him in the eye. “Momma would have wanted us to go.”
* * *
The three of us took our last road trip together a little over a month before Momma died. The doctor had recommended bed rest, but Momma had never been one to sit still for very long. An hour home from the clinic, she told Daddy that she wanted to go for a drive. He didn’t answer. While Daddy fumed, Momma went into the kitchen and made a half dozen tuna sandwiches. She loaded these into a cooler along with something cold for us to drink. She grabbed the keys off their hook and stood at the front door, waiting.
“You two can either come with me or you can stay here. Your choice.”
But, of course, we didn’t really have a choice. Even before she got sick, my mother always got her way.
* * *
The three of us drove north along the coast that day and then inland to an old-growth stand of redwoods that Momma had visited as a child. A light rain misted the windshield and dampened the road ahead. Half way in, Momma asked Daddy to pull over so she could take pictures of the trees. Daddy waited in the car, his expression grim.
When Momma climbed back into the car, she said she wanted to go for a walk, and so Daddy drove down to the campground at the end of the road. After pulling on our jackets and caps, the three of us walked single-file through the trees, my father trailing far behind. Momma tired quickly, and a hundred yards in she sat down on a log to rest. When Daddy caught up with us, Momma smiled and told him she was fine. Daddy sat down next to her, and I lay down in a patch of salal, the leaves surrounding me luminescent in the early morning light. Momma lifted the camera from her neck and said she wanted a picture of her daughter, and then another, and then one of my father and me lying on the ground together. The leaves began to tickle my cheek and I started to laugh. Momma started laughing, too. Eventually, even Daddy joined in.
* * *
On the day we went to see the whales, we took the back roads to Crescent City and then turned south on 101. Sunlight dappled the highway ahead of us. My father and I barely spoke.
The road followed the coast for a few miles, and then climbed toward a line of low hills overlooking the ocean. From that point on the pavement wound through clear cuts interspersed with stands of redwood and pine. A few miles further on, the traffic ahead of us began to slow. The bridge was close now. Vehicles lined both sides of the road, some nosed all the way up into the brush. Knots of people stood beside their cars, or walked together along the edge of the highway. My father drove slowly, looking for somewhere to park. When he found a space large enough for our Subaru, he eased the car in and turned off the engine.
“We don’t have to do this, you know. We can drive back to Crescent City. Maybe get some ice cream.”
I shook my head. “We came to see whales,” I told him.
He looked out at the people streaming toward the bridge. “Alright. But stay close to me.”
* * *
As we walked together along the edge of the road, our shoes were followed by tiny contrails of dust. We couldn’t see the water yet, but the bridge was up ahead, its narrow entrance flanked by two gilded bears. There was no sidewalk here, only a gravel shoulder leading up to the bridge—and then, on the span itself, a wide curb separating road and railing. The curb was so crowded with onlookers that the only place to walk was a narrow strip of pavement at the edge of the highway. Cars sped past only inches from our shoulders, their drivers straining to see through to the water below. The river was only occasionally visible, and the whales not at all.
“I can’t see anything,” I complained.
It was only partially true. While we couldn’t yet see the whales, the scene on the bridge reminded me of a carnival. A few of the younger children had climbed up onto the railing and the more daring leaned far out over the edge, their feet hooked under the metal bar. A news crew had set up shop at one end of the bridge, a vendor selling popcorn and corn dogs camped out at the other. A man on stilts trailed a flock of red balloons.
“Keep close to the curb,” my father warned. His voice was tense, almost angry in its abruptness. All around us people were laughing and pointing and taking pictures of the whales. He was oblivious to the spectacle, and unlike the rest of the crowd he seemed to have no interest in whatever swam below.
When we reached the middle of the span I pushed my way to the railing and Daddy stepped in behind me. I gazed down into the murkiness. Sunlight flashed on rippling waves, blinding me until my eyes adjusted. I saw them then: two dark forms gliding through muddy water below. The mother was long and sleek and gray, her mottled flesh spotted with barnacles. Her baby was smaller, his hide brighter. The mother rolled onto her side, her tail arcing out of the water. As the two passed under the bridge they crested the water together, their blowholes blasting misted breath high into the air.
“Can you see them, Daddy?”
“Yes, I see them.”
I remembered Momma’s camera then, and began taking pictures. All around me others did the same. There was something magical about this moment, this place. The mother whale rolled onto her side and dove, her gray belly sliding down toward the river bottom. The two whales passed under the bridge, turned, and came back. When they broke the surface the crowd applauded.
My father tapped me on the shoulder and pointed in the direction of the car.
“I’ve seen enough,” he said. “Time to go.”
I gaped at him in disbelief. “But I don’t want to go. It’s beautiful.”
My father looked down into the water. “Emma, this isn’t beautiful. It’s sad.”
Turning away, I leaned out over the railing. My father grabbed hold of my shoulder and pulled me back. This action both surprised and frightened me. Several people in the crowd turned to stare at us.
“Emma, these whales don’t belong here. There’s something wrong with them.”
“You can’t know that,” I said. “Maybe they like it here. Or maybe they came because it’s peaceful and safe.”
He looked at me closely, his eyes narrowing.
“Emma, these whales came here to die.”
I didn’t know how to respond. I wanted to tell him it wasn’t true. Instead I started to cry. My father lifted me off the curb and set me down in front of him.
“Watch out for cars,” he said.
* * *
One of the last memories I have of my mother is of being with her in the garden. We both sat with our knees buried in dirt. Momma grabbed hold of a clump of weeds, and in doing so found a baby bird lying dead in the grass. My mother inhaled sharply. She lifted the bird and cradled it very gently in her hands. Neither of us spoke for a long time. My mother dug a small hole with her trowel and covered the baby’s body over with a blanket of fresh dirt. Later, when we were putting our things away, I turned and asked her a question.
“Momma, what happens when you die?”
She removed her gloves, then lifted the trowel out of my hands and set it next to hers on the workbench. She didn’t look at me, but instead let her gaze drift back to the garden and the small grave she had dug earlier that day.
“Do you remember when you were six years old and we drove up to Yosemite?”
I nodded even though I remembered little of that trip except the rocks and the fact that we had camped next to a river. Momma smiled. “On our last day there we rented horses. The three of us rode to a place high in the mountains, and when we got to the top we all stood on the edge of a cliff and looked out over an expanse of clouds that seemed to go on forever.”
She paused, remembering.
“A group of jumpers were there when we arrived. We watched them as they checked their gear. Every action was so methodical. They helped each other climb into their harnesses, tighten their straps. They were smiling, and I remember thinking how odd it was, considering that what they planned was both illegal and dangerous. But then, one by one, they walked over to the edge and leapt out into nothingness.”
She grew quiet, her fingertips lightly touching the top of the workbench. Her smile lingered.
“That’s what I imagine the end to be like.” Her voice was barely more than a whisper. Her hand shook. “In my mind, death is like the precipice,” she said. “And life merely the rocky trail that delivers us to the edge.”
* * *
I didn’t speak to my father on the ride home. I was angry at him for the things he had said, and for making me cry.
When we got to the house, he made us a pan of ravioli. We ate in silence, the only sound the murmur of the TV. I didn’t pay much attention to what was on until I saw a picture of the Klamath River and the bridge we had visited earlier that day. I turned the volume up.
On the screen, a blurry video showed two men motoring out to the center of the river. The reporter with straw colored hair told us the men were biologists from the local university. They had come to check on the health of the whales. The scientists took pictures and poked instruments down into the water. When they returned, the young reporter asked them what they’d learned. The older-looking of the two scowled and kicked at the dirt in front of him. A slight breeze ruffled his collar. The mother was sick, he said. There was nothing that could be done.
* * *
The next few days were difficult around our house. Neither of us spoke of the whales, though we both watched the news each night for updates. Each report was worse: The mother’s skin is changing color. The muscles in the mother’s tail are weak. The mother’s condition is deteriorating rapidly. Four days after we went to see them, the mother tried to beach herself on a small island in the middle of the river. The current eventually pulled her back into the deeper water, but it was clear to everyone watching that the end was near.
* * *
Unlike the whale, my mother didn’t wait for death to claim her. Six weeks after Christmas, long before anyone in the house had yet risen, I remember waking to the sound of my bedroom door opening then gently closing. Momma knelt down beside me, her eyes staring into mine.
“You’re going to do just fine,” she said.
She had lost a lot of weight by then. The skin of her arms hung loose and dry against her bones. She squeezed my hand a little, and I could tell it took all of her strength. She stood and walked back across the room, then turned to look at me one last time before she slipped out the door.
“Just remember, Little Fish: even in the darkest storm there’s always a little bit of light.”
* * *
The police found Momma’s car two days later near a cliff overlooking the ocean. The doors were locked, the keys still in the ignition. A small trail led away from the Subaru, out toward the edge of the precipice. My mother’s body lay on the rocks below, broken, lifeless. No one could say for sure whether she had jumped or fallen, but we all knew.
* * *
Two weeks to the day after we went to see the whales the baby abandoned its mother. With news cameras rolling the smaller whale nuzzled her then swam downstream toward open water. The mother whale tried to follow but didn’t have the strength. Her breathing was labored, her eyes glassy. The people on the bridge above were somber now: no more chanting, no more singing. The few that remained watched in silence as the mother whale rolled onto her side and let her body be carried downstream on the current. An hour after her baby swam away, she washed up onto the very same island she had tried to beach herself on only a week before.
My father and I watched all of this on the morning news. We sat next to one another on the couch, our arms nearly touching. The young reporter struggled with her voice as she narrated these last events. When the newscast was finished, my father leaned over and put his arm around my shoulder. A week earlier I might have pulled away.
“If you want, we can drive out to the ocean. Maybe say goodbye.”
I leaned my head in against his shoulder to hide my tears.
“I think I’d like that,” I said.
I hope you enjoyed “The Precipice” by Stone Showers! This is just one example of the kind of work we’ll publish, and it illustrates well this point from our submission guidelines:
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