Colors of a River, 2017 First Place Winners’ Circle

By Terri Picone

I pick my way down the trail to the Clearwater River in Idaho’s panhandle, following in McRuff’s footsteps. I slide as sand gives way to body weight, giving me a floating sensation with each step. It’s like we’re on a pilgrimage each day, compelled to go, unsure we want to find what we’re looking for. We go forward in silence, focused on the river.

McRuff nuzzles sand, rocks, shrubs. They seem the same to me, but he checks still, and that is good because, though I come—I must come, I’ll get there soon enough. His haunches bow left, right, left. His fleshy jowls scrape a path before him.

Does his bloodhound nose catch whiffs of Louise’s scent on the beach after all these months? Does he smell her in the river’s notes?

McRuff was Louise’s dog. She’d picked him out of the litter because his bark made her laugh. Named him right then, babied him for all the little ones we never had. He’s had to settle for me and our beach visits now.

His black nose blows bursts of wet sand at the trail’s bottom. He stops, lifts his head, sniffs the air. We peer toward the river, as black as Louise’s hair before it turned white. A cold wind blows behind us and raises McRuff’s fur.

The river—the reason we stayed on here, the reason Louise convinced me to buy this property. “Frank,” she’d said, “five hundred yards from the river. And isn’t it beautiful?” As if she needed more clout, she smiled all the way to her green eyes.

I shiver and pull my flannel shirt around me, though, except for the occasional gust, it’s warm for early April. Over my shoulder, the sun hides between dark clouds but its warmth forebodes summer is coming.

Tall grasses at the trail’s bottom brush my pants. Birdsong erupts behind me, and I cock my head to listen. An osprey perches on a dead limb not far downriver. The empty beach around me is like an old black-and-white TV, dotted by bare bushes, rocks, sand, and driftwood.

McRuff wanders the water’s edge. The weathered picnic table and a few scattered wooden lounge chairs that wintered where they were, crowd the small beach. Because the water level is still high this early in the year, the beach area could fit into most living rooms. I sit at the table at the far end of the beach, my back to the water, my gaze fixed on the dormant beach garden Louise planted. Her red beach roses, yellow poppies, lavender, Indian paintbrush, and buttercups.

“Who ever heard of planting flowers on a beach?” I’d asked her then. She smiled and kept on painting her beach with those hues, both hardy varieties and wild, transplanting them from wherever she could find them to plant more color. My domesticated wild garden, she’d called it.

Before I turn to face the river, I remove my shoes and socks. The sand feels cold as I burrow my feet into its dark dampness. Numbness engulfs them. I shut my eyes and let the sensation overcome me, holding my feet under as long as I can. When I finally lift them from their grave, they throb as I walk to the river, the sand clinging to my feet in shadowy patches.

McRuff rushes from bushes to grasses to flowers, and then bounds over logs washed ashore to sniff again the water’s edge. When we come to the river, though McRuff may be old in dog years, he’s a pup again.

I force myself to find a stick to throw, keeping it close to shore because the water is still icy cold with spring runoff. When my arm tires, I rinse the slobber from my hand in the moss-colored river and peer across to the other shore, more than a football field across when the river is high like now.

My chest seizes when I can’t help but think of Louise swimming across, her white head bobbing in a diagonal line as the current carried her along. It always made me anxious, but as soon as soon as she could, it had been her routine. She never panicked, not even that day.

* * * *

 McRuff nudges Frank’s hand as he crouches down at the shore, traces with a stick in the wet sand. Frank pats his head but keeps watching the river. McRuff yips and lifts his head. He wants Frank to know she’s out there and that he misses her, too.

He misses their routines. Every morning Louise rose before Frank, and McRuff would pad after her from the bedroom. That was McRuff’s best time of the day. And their last morning together, McRuff remembered clearly. He waited for her to pull on her robe while he stretched his legs and arched his stiff back. The bedroom door shut behind them, he led them down the hall and into the dark kitchen where Louise switched on the light, plugged in the electric teakettle, and patted his head in silence while they waited for the water to boil.

In the living room, McRuff lay next to her flowery chair as she read from that big black book, stopping every once in a while to write in another book that was balanced on the chair’s arm. She sipped her tea and murmured nice things to him. He knew they were kind because, even though he didn’t know what they meant, Louise’s words always felt like a cool lap of water or a pat on the head or a strip of green grass under a tree. That day she scratched under his ear for a long time. If he’d been a cat, he might have purred.

When she shut the black book and closed her eyes, she moved her lips as if she was begging for a special treat. McRuff wanted to help her so he put his paws on her lap and tilted his head. “Woof.”

She rested her hand on his head, but kept her eyes closed, and her lips spilled the same words she always said before she got up. He recognized Frank and find and God. She always talked about God like he was a special person who always helped her, but McRuff hadn’t met him yet.

Then she opened her eyes, roughed up his neck fur, and headed to the kitchen. “Time for breakfast, McRuff.”

And he was already running ahead because he knew that meant she’d fill his bowl first.  

Now, McRuff leans into Frank, causing him to lose his balance and land kerplunk on the damp sand. Frank chuckles and puts his arm across McRuff’s back, pets him in a way that’s not like Louise would at all—though McRuff still likes it.

“Did you fall asleep, McRuff? Or just daydreaming again?”

* * * *

I allow myself to look at the river where the bottom drops off suddenly into deepness and the water turns from khaki green to black. It’s the place Louise got trapped in the undertow nine months ago.

* * * *

After Sheriff Norton had called off the search, I kicked the sand, cursed the river. Rain and wind pelted us while the rescue posse loaded their boats onto the trucks.

Even though he was known as a blunt man, he hesitated before he added, “There’s no good way to say it, but sometimes it takes the river months to give up a body.”

His words sounded like heavy thunder. Months echoed deep into my being. And I dropped to my knees. “Louise.”

The river shimmered even in the darkness.

Norton cleared his throat. “I am really sorry. I’ve known Louise all my life.” He coughed. “But we both know if there’s a heaven, she’s there. You can hold onto that, Frank.”

“Can we?” I didn’t hide my bitterness.

A truck on the road above honked. “Let me know . . .”

* * * *

I shiver, suddenly colder. McRuff barks at a heron diving for breakfast. With some effort, I squat and search for just the right pebble, my hand raking over several. I turn stones over, stir them, move some aside. Not seeing the right one, I settle for a smooth, oval shape, the size of a tennis ball, and toss it underhand about thirty feet out. It plops into the deep. “McRuff, see it, Boy?”

I lob two more at the same spot. When Louise drowned, McRuff was at the vet. I always imagine if he would’ve been with her instead of me, he might have saved her. And when the neighbor brought him home to the commotion on the beach, I’ve wondered if he understands what happened. Throwing rocks might help, or if not, I’m building a memorial out there. Anyway, it might make me feel better.

I look for a jagged stone further up on the beach, find a black one, and rinse the sand from it. When I raise my arm, my shoulder pinches with a pain that halts me for a few minutes, yet I reach back and fling it anyway at the other shore.

It lands short. The river swallows it. Rotating my shoulder, I massage the joint and breathe into the pain.

* * * *

McRuff accepts Frank’s anger, stays beside him as he throws. McRuff is over that part, but he did chew up sticks and bones and run hard up and down the driveway for a long time, chasing ghosts. Frank thinks McRuff doesn’t understand where Louise is, but he knows. He sensed something was wrong when the neighbor picked him up that day from the vet. And his nose told him what he needed to know once he got home.

* * * *

At the water, I shout, “Why did you wear the dress? Why, why, why did I chase you?” I lower my voice. “If only we’d gone to town early . . .”

These are the same questions, and I know the answers, but it’s my way to try to find a different reality, or maybe only a way to spend my anger. But she looked beautiful in her paisley dress with her purple scarf flying behind her.

I’m back in the confession booth, and I drop my head and mumble, “I’m sorry I didn’t learn to swim.” Shame washes over me instead of holy water.

Dropping to my knees, I bury my hand. The cold and wet shroud it, and I shove it in to the wrist. When I finally raise my hand from its tomb, I shake the loose sand and bring it to my forehead. My index finger remembers the childhood ritual and traces the sign of the cross into my skin slowly, the cool grit burning it deeper.

McRuff lies on the sand by my side, resting. I rub my palms together, try to brush the sand from them onto my jeans. It clings under my nails, but that will have to wait until I can scrub it down the drain with a brush. The diamonds that stretch across my wedding band are dulled by the grit.

I slide it to my knuckle and, with my other fingers, release the sand that were entrapped under it. Rubbing the ring on my sleeve, I work to restore its luster. The friction shoots warmth in its wake. I tip the band to the sun to catch its light, but it remains dull.

Below the ring, the river’s surface sparkles silver.

Let it go. My heart pounds. I walk to the river and I can’t stop and I watch as a hand—my hand—tosses my wedding band to the silver river.

It vanishes into the deep.

I stare at the water, and my heart slows, and I wonder, Why hadn’t I done that before? Because somehow it feels so right.

A breeze wafts by, rinsed with a sweet smell of locust tree blossoms. From the wild blackberry bushes that encase the shoreline on the west side of the beach, a small splash sounds. I expect to see another bird, stuck in the bush. Or see a fish jump. But I see nothing.

I wonder if I heard anything at all, but suddenly McRuff bays and trots toward the sound into the water. With his muzzle up, he barrels into the bramble and noses around. I follow until I reach the edge of the bushes just as McRuff backs out with something in his mouth.

Before I can see what he has, I react. “No, McRuff,” sure he has a wounded bird.             But when he turns around, I see something purple, half floating on the surface.

I realize it isn’t a bird but a scarf.

It must be, it has to be . . . Louise’s purple scarf.

McRuff stands still in water chest deep. He raises and lowers his head, lets the scarf drape from his mouth like a flag.

“Oh,” I say and wade in, ignoring that cold water seeping through my jeans and embracing my legs. McRuff wags his waterlogged tail. I pat his head, reach for the scarf. He releases it into my hand, but blackberry thorns hold onto its other end. As if it were the baby Moses himself caught in the rushes, I untangle it. Though torn and faded in my hands, I smile at how beautiful it is.

I clutch it to my chest as water bleeds into the wool of my shirt. “It’s time to go call the sheriff.”