Willa took out her ear buds to listen to the geese on the river, chattering like a party of people needing to shout to be heard. Muddy trail, but sometimes almost dry, and many places where the packed snow hung on as slush or eroding ice, so she had to watch her feet. Then a sound she hadn’t heard since last summer when big kids rushed into the river on a hot day, the river that deer walked across two weeks ago, still floating blocks of ice downstream. Much too cold for a swim, did someone fall in? Another plunge. She got closer. A dog. Of course, why hadn’t she thought of that?
A black dog chasing a stick time after time, thrown by two men from the pebble beach below the trail. One of the men, in duck hunter camo, waved at her. She nodded and kept on going, but slowed down. Was it someone she knew? Kind of rude to just run by. So she went back to watch from the trail above the riverbank.
When he saw that she’d returned he waved again, and the dog bounded up to her. She backed up to avoid the shower of freezing water he shook off. The man grabbed a branch of an overhanging tree to hoist himself up the bank to stand next to her.
“I’m sorry, I haven’t trained him in shaking etiquette.”
She petted the dog’s slippery forehead. “I was so surprised to hear the splashing, worried someone had fallen in.”
“Our first trip to liquid water this year.”
“Guess he doesn’t get cold.”
“He’s too excited to care.”
He wasn’t from around here, but why was she so certain?
“I’m Liam, this is my dog Henry, down there my cousin Xerxes. We’re from the New Hampton area, needed to find a flowing river,” Liam lifted his head in an arc to include the woods, the cliffs.
“Welcome to Four Corners, I’m Willa.”
Xerxes whistled to Henry who raced off down the bank and plunged in after the stick again.
To keep warm she had to either jog in place or get on with it, and was about to wish him good splashes, but something stopped her. It was the way he dropped his smile as though a lead weight pulled it down into the river.
“‘I don’t feel human unless I get into the woods every day…’”
“I’m sorry, is there something wrong?” she said.
The smile crept back as he shook his head. But he looked away, at the splash fest.
She should just go on. Is there such a thing as hiding something from a total stranger? With whom nothing’s been shared?
“Well, I’m heading towards the spring upriver, have you seen it yet? Underground stream coming right out of the cliff.”
“Maybe we’ll stop on the way back.”
When he glanced up at her, she saw it. That’s how Nicky looked after he lost his pet hamster to the jaws of their cat Yarnball. That was nine years ago and now Nicky was away at college studying poli sci and cello.
The clouds moved away from the sun for a moment, not long enough to feel its heat, and then other ones flew in to obscure it again. At the stream bank Henry dove in again with a loud splash, followed by the smaller sound of swimming, but up here between her and Liam, silence.
Why did she want to take off this man’s camo hat by the bill so she could smooth down the rough spikes of his hair? “It’s good to see you two enjoying the river, most around here take it too much for granted.”
No, this wasn’t a bar and that was not a pick up line. Besides she was supposed to be the one on the other end of one of those.
His smile came back, but it looked like heavy lifting.
Xerxes scrambled up the bank from the little beach towards them with Henry prancing around in jagged circles, until Xerxes took the stick, and Henry sat down, watching all the humans.
“My cuz throws a stick better than anyone I know. Xerk, this is Willa.”
Xerk mumbled something, pleasedtomeetya, but nothing more, like that, except for stick throwing, was his one trick. Shy maybe, but then why did he come up to them? Perhaps he didn’t want to miss out. Younger than Liam, and bulkier, though part of that was his black beard that spread over his chest.
It occurred to her that she hadn’t shared much, so she told them she was a nurse who loved the outdoors. “I don’t feel human unless I get into the woods every day, and this is one of my favorite trails.”
A V of geese formed overhead, the way they do at sunset, moving up and down the river in calls so loud she wanted to turn down the volume. Xerxes, who had squatted next to Henry stroking water off him, sprang up to look for more sticks, with Henry bounding after. Liam leaned against the ragged boxelder he used to climb the bank. “Good thing this doesn’t lean over the path, or it could take out evening joggers.”
When he folded his arms across his chest, and gave the tree more of his weight, she thought how good the rough bark must feel against his back. She wanted to stand next to him there, but instead grabbed an overhead branch with both hands for a stretch. Her feet did not leave the ground though.
“You haven’t told me what you do.” She let go of the branch and stood at the edge of the steep bank, to see what the river would do to a couple of ice floes that bumped against the shore. It was so quiet she could hear them rustle against each other. Liam pushed away from the tree and stood next to her.
“I run a hardware store that my grandfather started in the 1930’s.” He let out a deep breath, which made her think of a balloon losing air. Then he said, “Can’t walk away from a tradition like that.”
Oh, but he wanted to.
Maybe he was one of those guys who could take you to the set of little drawers in the back so you can buy twelve 8-gauge wood screws, or just one hose clamp. The customers loved him, but did their major buying at Menard’s. Is that why he was sad?
She moved away from the edge of the bank and watched her feet mash into the wet snow. One of the pleasures of spring. “Not many people come out on a cloudy day, even when it’s mild.”
“More for us.”
His boots came over to face hers, wide apart.
She looked up at him but continued to raise her head as though her glance at him was unintentional and she only meant to look overhead at the boxelder branches that, unburdened by the coming mask of leaves, arched over the river with such clarity.
Henry came gamboling back with a new stick, with Xerxes behind him, and when Willa said “Hi Henry” he bounded up to nuzzle against her leg, and she had to lean into him to keep from falling over. Xerxes rubbed his ears and chuckled at Henry, then looked at her sideways like a puzzled dog. “Most girls wouldn’t let him do that, being wet and all.”
It felt as though she’d won them over, even Xerxes. But she was getting cold.
“Tell you what, I’ve got to keep jogging or my sweat will turn to ice.”
Liam, still for a moment as if taking this in, jerked like he was coming out of a trance and shuffled over to a backpack leaning against a little elm.
“Here, I’ve got something for you.” He pulled out a wooly blanket.
She hesitated, not taking the blanket, so he set it down on a branch.
Xerxes put one foot on a stump like he was claiming it and said, “Sure and we’ve got hot cocoa too.”
“Do you keep the blanket for Henry?
“Only if he gets cold, but first we dry him off,” Liam dug into the pack again.
She half expected him to pull out some huge hair dryer but it was another blanket, no, a beach towel with the Hawkeye logo on it.
Henry must have had enough of the river, because he bounded into the held-out towel like he was making a goal, then all bundled up in it he leaned against Liam who squatted next to him. When he stood up he let Xerxes take over the job of dog cuddler, picked up the blanket off the stick and again offered it to Willa.
She stood back a step so she could be the one who wrapped it around herself. That left Liam’s hands hovering in space, shoulder width apart. He slowly let them fall, to land inside his pants pockets. She should have let them do their job.
He paced from one foot to another and watched Xerxes dry off Henry.
Willa drew the blanket closer around her shoulders, to show her appreciation. “This is very nice, but after I warm up, I’d better be off.”
His gaze swung back to her. “Better be?”
If he had smiled she could answer in the joking way she thought it was intended, but instead a chill ran down her spine. The smile returned, but it seemed to her now more like that rare glimpse of the sun they had earlier.
Xerxes walked up to them. “Hey boss, how about that hot cocoa?”
By necessity brought on by slush and soggy logs, it was a stand-up affair, not so different from one of those parties with more people than chairs. More fun really, because you can get closer to someone that way.
They only had two cups, but Liam drank out of the thermos. “Nothing like hot chocolate on a chilly day.”
“Amazing how hot it still is.” She almost burned her tongue.
“My Dad’s thermos, thinks it’s still 1935.”
Xerxes lifted his cup after it somehow found a way to his lips through his beard. “Willa, did your mom make you hot chocolate after you went sledding?”
Liam stopped drinking and a slow grin grew on his face as he watched Xerxes. “Nice going cuz.”
Willa finished a long swallow and said to Xerxes, “Sure, it was one of the best things about winter.”
Xerxes nodded to Willa before he sprang up to chase Henry up and down the bank.
Liam took off his hat and put it on again. “That was amazing, he used your name and asked you a direct question. He doesn’t do that with anyone unless he’s known them for years.
“I’m flattered, but what did I do?”
Liam walked to a nearby skeleton teepee made of branches someone had piled against a young cottonwood, and ducked inside.
She followed him. There was enough room for two if you didn’t worry about touching, but not tall enough to stand up straight.
“You stood solid when Henry pushed against you. Most people would have stumbled.” Half bent over, she couldn’t see his face, but his voice sounded warmer somehow, maybe because of the small space they were in. “And you accepted Henry’s blanket.”
Willa ran her hand along the limbs over their heads. “We made a branch tent one Halloween and crammed inside to tell ghost stories with flashlights under our chins.”
“You and your sibs?”
“My little brother Paul, big sister Georgie. Can you tell, my parents kept wanting a boy.”
“I’m sure they weren’t disappointed in you.”
“How can you ever tell?”
Liam, so close now their bent over heads nearly touched, pulled up a corner of the blanket that had slipped off her shoulder, but took his hand away quickly. “By the way other people see you. Of course parents can be blind.”
So that’s what happened to him. “If you didn’t have to take on the hardware store, what would you do?”
He straightened up but hit his head on the tangle of limbs, which creaked and shifted. “Maybe we better get out before it falls down around us.”
The branches held. “OK, but can you answer me first?”
Liam crouched forward again, and let her see his face. The one that reminded her of Nicky and the hamster. The one that, she had to admit, kept her from leaving at the beginning.
“I don’t burden strangers with my troubles.”
“But we’re not really strangers, are we?"
Henry barked like he’d discovered the mother-load of sticks, and pranced around to find the entry.
“No Henry, don’t come in,” Liam laughed.
“He doesn’t understand English.”
“Yes he does, stop!”
He started whimpering, and kept sniffing around the edges, but stayed outside.
Xerxes jogged up, pulled him to the side, good dog, that a boy, stay with your good bud Xerxes. Some chomping, the smell of jerky.
She had to know, and at the same time was sure her only chance was in this moment, a flash of time only as long as Henry stayed outside and the branches held in place.
Liam shifted from foot to foot. “I could tell you more, if we could get together some other time.”
“No Liam, it’ll be harder then.”
He stopped moving. “This is a helluva way to play psychiatrist don’t you think?”
Don’t say anything, she told herself. Outside the river rushed by, Henry chewed his treat, and Xerxes tore away at something papery.
Would she have to lead the witness? Fill in for him?
He sighed. It must have emptied all the air from his lungs. Then a slow intake of breath. “I could sell the store, there are buyers. But could I make it as an outfitter in the Boundary Waters?”
“Of course. What else?” If only she could be so decisive in her own life.
He laughed. “How do you get this?”
“Same way you get me.”
“OK then. I know everyone’s got troubles, nothing special about me.” He tried to turn around but there was no room, so back to heads together. “I lost my wife and I can’t seem to figure out how to live without her.”
As much air as he lost, she took in. “I’m so sorry, when?”
“Two weeks ago.”
“Oh my God.” She nearly dropped the blanket. “Liam, that’s no time at all. It takes months, maybe years, give yourself a break.”
“At least I have Xerxes and Henry.”
“And a community that loves you.” That anchors him, the trusted hardware man.
Warm now, she let the blanket flow off her, and in that tight space, managed to slide it around his shoulders. The miracle was, he let her.