List of Names......................................................ix Love Song for Tulanie Rey..........................................3 1. Saviors.........................................................11 2. The Red Fox.....................................................19 3. Rika, Marika: Love Song for Griffin.............................25 4. Morning Twilight................................................31 5. Silent Snow Singing Sparrow.....................................41 6. River's Edge....................................................47 7. Niña, Pérdida: Love Song for Iris.....................51 8. A Song Unbroken.................................................67 9. Love Song for the Unsaved Father................................79 10. In This Light..................................................91 11. Love Song for the Mother of No Children........................105 12. Lost Children..................................................117 13. Deer Song for Juliana and Roxie................................131 14. Retreating Light...............................................139 15. Survivors......................................................153 16. Unforgiven: Lullaby for Lela...................................163 17. The Companionship of Stone.....................................167 18. Birdsong Under Water...........................................179 19. Early Darkness.................................................187 20. The Miracle: Lullaby for Lost Children.........................197 Acknowledgments....................................................199
3 February 2006: 6:26 A.M.
Talia paces the dark hallway. If Kai doesn't get her out soon, the whimpering will start and then the yelping. Frost on the windows this morning, cold air from Canada moving down the Rockies. The boy would like to sleep another hour, but he promised long ago she'd never need to howl again if he could help it.
He loved the shivering dog the moment she saw him. Five years now, and Talia was going to die that day if he didn't take her. Half-starved, half-wild, two years old and not housebroken: the dog cowered in her cage, Talia, a tattered rag, long gray hair thin and tangled.
Kai's mother wanted him to love the sweet spaniel or faithful shepherd. She wanted him to take the little black terrier who danced on his hind legs like a tiny bear at the circus. But the girl with one blue eye and one gold-flecked hazel chose him, and he heard her name as if she spoke it.
Talia was afraid of the leash, afraid of the collar. She'd been smacked too many times, chained in the yard all night in winter. Kai's mother locked him out one day. He couldn't remember how long—fifteen minutes or five hours—but he did remember how cold he was as he ran door to door, window to window, trying to break into his own house, trying to see his own mother. Six years old, a lifetime ago. He wanted to forgive her even now, but she pretended to forget and never said that she was sorry.
In the house where Talia lived before his house, the bad dog shredded the pillows and drank from the toilet, pissed on the bed and dumped the garbage. She growled at the crawling baby. And why not? The little girl grabbed Talia's long hair and pulled, or climbed on top of her when she was sleeping.
Eight days before Kai found her at the shelter, Talia nipped one soft baby hand. Now the condemned dog had four hours left to live in exile. The baby's bright-eyed mother said, If the gun had been in the kitchen drawer and not in my husband's glove box, I would have killed the bitch, I swear it.
The baby wailed but did not bleed, and the mother dragged Talia into the yard and whacked her face with the chain as she hooked it. She never said the dog's name. She didn't know it.
Kai did not own Talia any more than his mother owned him or his grandfather owned the river. He loved her because she wanted to live. Talia chose him and spoke her name and shivered. He was twelve that day, and she was two. The dancing terrier could go home with any child, but this torn animal needed Kai, and only he could save her.
She's housebroken now, seven years old and mostly patient, but her howl could still pierce the dark and wake his mother. He thinks of his cousin Tulanie Rey, paralyzed more than two years, what a privilege it is to walk in snow, a mystery and a miracle to go out in the world and move without wheels. He whispers, Shush, I'm coming, and the dog lets out a shivery cry, already joyful.
Theo hears Talia's voice. He has ten minutes at most if he hopes to walk with his grandson. He loves the beginning of day: the cold, the quiet, the dark hour before the boy goes to school and the dog spends the day mourning him.
The question for Theo this day and every day is not one of will and desire, but of hips and knees, hands that can or cannot pull on pants, fingers that can zip and button. He's too proud to ask any seventeen-year-old boy to help him. Across town, Theo's other grandson wakes and touches his legs, and does not know them. Tulanie sees the dark shape of the chair beside the bed. This dream is mine. This dream is real. Sleep is better. Sometimes the legs are gone, and Tulanie floats free without them, up the stairs and out the window. Like smoke, he says, soon enough, some day. He's not afraid. What could be more strange than this? Stone, air, water.
Last fall, a one-legged man pulled another man from a truck on fire. Theo remembers the photograph of Willis Brodie in the paper, left pant leg rolled to expose his prosthesis. The crippled savior is a spur, a spark, a reminder of a thousand failures. He remembers Louise Brodie holding her husband's arm, smiling like a girl, gazing up at him with adoration. You could see how they were: more in love each day after forty-nine years together. Behind them, their little house appeared, a tiny tilted log cabin sinking into the earth south of Coram. They were poor, yes, but their front window reflected tall pines and open sky, a whole world.
The man Brodie saved had a pregnant wife and three children. Willis and Louise had driven down to Polson that day, sixty-six slow miles to celebrate the wonder of Brodie's birthday. He'd almost died in January, knocked flat in the snow, heart clenched and nearly strangled. Chopping wood, he said, like a fool. Now he had a pacemaker and three bypasses. Little brother Sam played mandolin, and cousin Marty sang, ragged as Johnny Cash, then tenderly as Elvis. In praise, in gratitude, Willis pulled the sweetest sound he'd ever heard from his harmonica. They were old men, but they still knew how to whoop and laugh, how to let the song be the spark that set their sweet old bodies humming.
Nine days before he saw Vincent Flute's truck on fire, Willis Brodie couldn't even walk, hot wires of pain in the hip of his half-leg strung so tight they left him weeping. Two shots of cortisone had him in his shoes again. Ambulatory, he said, my life is perfect.
The Brodies headed home at dusk and were fifteen miles up the lake shore when they spotted the rolled truck sparkling. Three drivers passed ahead of them. Almost dusk now, so Willis couldn't say for sure whether they'd noticed the vehicle down the ditch and the shadow of a man dangling.
Dead or alive, Willis said, I couldn't leave him. Brodie wavered at the crest of the gully just long enough to speak to his legs. You're going down there whether you want to or not. Don't ask him how. There's no logical explanation.
Vincent Flute was alive, but not conscious, thirty-eight years old, 216 pounds, trapped in the cab, flames flickering around him. He hung upside down—no chance Brodie was going to yank him out that smashed window. Then the battery sparked and Louise yelled my name and the flames doubled and I thought, yes, this is how hell will be in winter, face fried and backside frozen. Vincent woke—just enough, just a little—and Brodie said, I need your help, sir.
So polite, as if he were the one in trouble. His sweetness amazed the man on fire. Flute unhooked his seat belt and crawled through jagged glass as the old man pulled and Louise yelled: Run, as if running were possible. Sometimes a single word can save you. The staggering pair reached the highway thirty seconds before the gasoline exploded. Louise helped Willis roll Vincent onto their tailgate, and together they wrapped the slumbering man in a blanket. Flute was out cold now, totally depleted.
Two more drivers passed, but the third one stopped and this one had a cell phone. Louise whispered, It's okay. We're safe now. The ambulance took seventeen astonishing minutes. Willis and Louise sang the whole time, soft and low, sweet rock-a-bye love songs, as if the man were their first and last and most belovéd only child. Vincent survived with cuts from the glass and bruises from impact, broken collarbone and dislocated shoulder, burns on his face and hands, and yes, he might have a few scars to show his friends, a white flame from throat to ear, but nothing serious.
Willis Brodie had saved Flute's parents and sisters, his brother and wife, six nieces, five nephews, the child in the womb and the children walking in the world, all who loved Vincent Flute now, and all who might learn to love one another in the future. Brodie had torn the veil of despair, altered the inevitable. If God couldn't get the man out on his own, one-legged, seventy-three-year-old, heart-stuttering Willis Brodie would have to help him.
Theo wanted to be glad, but the photograph, Louise Brodie's tender gaze, pierced him. She won't, not ever, his Naomi. He can't let go of it, and when he thinks of Willis Brodie this morning, he slaps his own legs and says, Get going. He will have this day, one more day, to walk with Kai and Talia.
Talia bounds ahead of Kai and his grandfather. She's a narrow slash of animal, face sharp, hips bony, a long-legged leaping dog, some strange, wild crossbreed. All these years she's been trying to teach the boy what she knows about the world. She wants him to sense the white hare sitting still in snow, ears twitching. He's quick—five seconds and he's gone, two hundred feet beyond her. Talia wants Kai to understand that when they walk in dark woods, the great horned owl watches them. He'll kill a dog, a cat, a skunk, a porcupine—rip the hide off a fallen cow, snatch a coyote. Nothing is beyond his grasp: only the whirling hawk or a congregation of crows makes him flee in frenzy.
Talia moves fast when she feels the owl's golden eyes turn toward her. Her footsteps are thunderous to him, her breath a wild roaring. The hunched bird perches high in snagged branches, ready for a day's sleep, belly full of other creatures.
Why can't Kai smell the red fox? The scent of him makes Talia crazy. She wants to kill or chase or love him, lie down in the musty maze of his den and hide and wait there. It's easy enough to find: he's left a pile of wings and bird bones.
The boy's poverty, his stunning lack of awareness, spares him certain dangers: barbed quills in the face or searing sulfur spray harsh enough to blind him. Talia knows a burn worse than barbs, a smell so fierce she thought she'd die from it.
But fear is just another word for sorrow, and she wants to lead Kai to the dark cave where the black bear has borne two young in her miraculous slumber. Crawling on hands and knees, the boy could slip into the mouth of the cave and enter the world's deepest secret. Why doesn't he follow? The two weigh less than a pound together. He could hold a cub in each palm, let them suckle his salty fingers. This is where love begins, with pity and with laughter. Talia could take him to the cave, today, now, this very morning.
Why does he call her name? Why does he resist her?
The boy is so far behind, almost blind in early morning, lost between wisps of fog along the river—a graceful, long-limbed human child, fast in his way, but oh, not nearly, not ever as fast as Talia. He calls again, and she loves him, and she wants to wait, to obey, but the smell of all these living beings in the woods, and the sweet warm blood of ones just killed, and the cold air she sucks down her lungs, and her own dark blood pulsing from her wild heart just as the river pulses wild from its mysterious source are too tempting and too strong.
Sometimes Kai believes he is fully awakened, that Talia has restored his senses, resurrected him from the cave of human misconception. He believes he hears the mouse tunneling beneath snow just as she does, that he can leap and dig and catch it. Then Talia, his benevolent teacher, leads him a long mile into the woods, to the place where a whitetail deer fell three days ago, where her blood has frozen in the snow, and blood and ice are all that's left of her. Last November Talia did this, and Kai realized she had sensed the place from the road, followed a trail through trees, as if the frozen blood still trembled.
And it was true, the place was sacred. The doe turned in his mind as if in memory: her eyes opened wide, and she gave herself to him. The voice of the gun was his heart hammering, and his shoulder hurt where the butt kicked back against him. Tamarack and fir hummed, singing the story. Talia had found her way through a thousand other smells: spruce and pine, smoke and raven. He is nothing compared with her, a fumbling foolish human idiot. She loves him even in his crushing failure. For all she knows through her spectacular senses, she remains oblivious to shame and wonder. She is a dog, a creature, splendidly alive in every moment, purely joyful to eat pink snow and share this holy mystery. Kai wants to kneel and eat with her, let the blood of the deer become part of his body, but he is afraid of love so vast and silent.
Today Talia runs along the river, keen on the trail of an invisible squirrel. Only Kai's voice touches her. Theo follows far behind, struggling in snow, breaking through the frozen crust, dragging his heavy boots back to the surface, walking a dozen careful slippery steps, then breaking through again, but walking—walking on his arthritic legs, thankful for this small mercy, the gift of another day, a boy in the world who loves him, who turns to wait long enough for the blue beam of Theo's flashlight to catch him in the mist of fog, to illuminate his willowy human shape there in the trees at the edge of the river.
3 February 2006: 7:15 a.m.
Father, son, hungry dog—Lela wants them home and with her. She cracks six eggs in the red bowl, starts nine fat sausages sizzling. She's listening for Talia at the door, the dog's impatient yipping. Her father will want his coffee black in a light mug with a big handle, the green one easy to grip and lift with crippled fingers. Kai likes his half milk and chocolate. She's on her second bitter cup, dangerously buzzed, already jittery. She'll be sorry later, at the hospital, trying to tap a vein, hands trembling. She worked thirteen hours yesterday, eight drawing blood and collecting urine, five more driving the hotel shuttle. Today will be the same, Saturday just the shuttle—Sunday to shop and clean, Monday to Wednesday just the hospital.
Where are you? Lela folds a flowered napkin at each place, scarlet poppies for Kai, a tangle of tiny edelweiss for Theo. The violet bellflowers are hers, always, bloom into bloom, silent bleeding. She remembers Mother sewing these, two of each kind, stashing them in a drawer for thirty years, saving them for something special. She took them out at last, after she survived the night with the red fox, twenty-seven bites, six rounds of shots for rabies.
Theo saved Naomi from the fox, batted it with a stick, smashed its skull with a rock, weeping. She'd gone to the river to sleep alone. One more blesséd night: As long as the water talks, I need to listen. What choice did he have? No word Theo spoke could stop her.
She'd slept there with Griffin, a thousand and one nights on a narrow bed in the silver trailer, because the boy refused to sleep in his father's house, refused to speak his father's language.
Why hurt me now? Isn't our son good and grown, safe on his mountain?
Theo waited till dawn to walk through the woods, to bring bread and jam, cream and coffee. He found Naomi entwined with the red fox. They'd wrestled since dusk, twelve hours. She'd been sitting on the top step, watching the light go, so peaceful, and the little fox slipped from the woods and stood in the light as if to show her how beautiful he was. A gift, you are, some mysterious consolation. His fur caught the last rays, red and radiant. Nothing between us now, no difference. He was becoming light, all light, moving toward her.
Is this love?
The fox leaped as if to answer. He bit and clawed, knocked her to the ground, and she heard the brittle snaps of hip and elbow. He ran away, but came back, and bit again—face and arms and bare ankles. The sun had set; he was all animal. Sometimes he rested, weary beside her. Every time she twitched, he pounced again and bit more fiercely. She couldn't kill the fox because her hands were too small and her arms too weak and her elbow broken. She couldn't rise and run. The pain in her hip seared her. She couldn't see, glasses out of reach, in the dirt behind her. Finally she clutched the hissing fox to try to calm or comfort it—and he was calmer this way, and he did tear less hard, and he did bite less often.
That's how Theo found her. He struck the creature a dozen times with a stick and finally used a flat rock to crush his skull. The old man wept and flailed. He saw how Naomi pitied the fox even now as he killed him. He hated the broken body of the animal, its coat dull with dust, its blood on his own face spattered.
I'm glad you came, Naomi said, as if to call him back and save him.
Excerpted from THE VOICE OF THE RIVER by MELANIE RAE THON Copyright © 2011 by Melanie Rae Thon. Excerpted by permission of FC2. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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