Stonework is published by Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college located in New York’s rural Genesee Valley. Stonework seeks a diverse mix of mature and emerging voices in fellowship with the evangelical tradition. Published twice a year, the journal reflects the arts community at Houghton College where excellence in music, writing, and the visual arts has long been a distinctive.

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  • Issue 6
    Poetry by Paul Willis and Thom Satterlee. Fiction and interview with Lori Huth. Essay by James Wardwell, and student poets from Christian campuses.
  • Issue 5
    Poetry by Susanna Childress and Debra Rienstra. Fiction excerpt by Emilie Griffin. Art from Houghton's 2007 presidential inauguration and a forum on women writing.
  • Issue 4
    Matthew Roth--new poems. Diane Glancy--from One of Us and an interview. John Tatter-on gardens and poetry. The Landscapes of John Rhett. Stephen Woolsey--on the poetry of Jack Clemo. James Wardwell--on Herrick.
  • Issue 3
    Poetry by Julia Kasdorf, Robert Siegel and Sandra Duguid. Fiction by Tom Noyes. The portraits of Alieen Ortlip Shea. An anthology of Australian Poets
  • Issue 2
    Thom Satterlee - Poems from Burning Wycliff with an appreciation by David Perkins. Alison Gresik - new fiction and an interview. James Zoller - Poems from Living on the Floodplain.
  • Issue 1
    Luci Shaw — new poems with an appreciation by Eugene H. Peterson & Hugh Cook — new fiction and an interview

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Heron River

By Hugh Cook

Adam is finished doing the breakfast dishes without Jay and goes to his room to see whether there’s anything else he has to do. On his bedroom wall there’s a vinyl board that lists his chores for the day. He sees that other than doing the dishes the space for this morning is open—the first thing written for him in blue felt pen is dishes again after supper with Jay. That means he will have to do most of the work. Tacked to the wall beside his job board are framed photographs of him with his mother and his brother Jesse. He doesn’t have any photographs of him with his father. His father left a long time ago and he does not remember what he looks like. His mother takes him somewhere every Saturday afternoon. Jay’s parents don’t ever visit but Donnie’s mother and Eric’s father come to visit. He takes the harmonica he received at Friends several days ago and sticks it into his pocket.

He tells Roseanne he’s going out for a while.

Where to, Adam? she says.

He shrugs. There are times he feels he’s looking for something but when he tries to think of what it is, or where and how to find it, it escapes him. Going for a walk, he says.

Back by lunch, right? Roseanne says.

What time are we having lunch?

He leaves the house not sure where he’s headed and not knowing where his feet or his
moods will take him but just starting out walking without thought of where he will end up. As he does often. Habit takes him toward town that morning because town always gives him things to do and see as opposed to the times he sets out in the other direction because he wants to get away from people and complications and he will walk for hours until he realizes he has not paid attention to time and he’ll see that it’s late and that he will not be able to make it back before dark. Then he will have to go up to a house and knock and show whoever comes to the door the card in his wallet that gives his name and the telephone number where he lives and Roseanne or Woody or Lionel will drive out and get him and they’ll be friendly to him on the drive home because they’ve been worried about him. There are also the times when he’s angry because he’s been told to go to his room after he’s lost his temper or has refused to do chores and he will slip out without telling Roseanne and begin walking knowing he will go farther than he can walk back that day and then he will be gone two days or even three until he feels ready to come back and will show a stranger the card. Those times it will not be Roseanne or Woody or Lionel who drives out to get him but sometimes the police and when he arrives back home Roseanne and Woody and Lionel will ask him where on earth he’s been all that time and where he has slept and they will be somewhat angry with him. But today is not one of those days. He has not been chewed out and so he heads for town. He’ll be back before twelve.

He walks the sidewalk that passes by large brick houses and underneath tall trees and then by the cemetery that has round stones larger than cantaloupes standing on a low stone wall. He’s walked it off: one stone ball every twelve steps. Between the headstones inside the cemetery a large yellow machine is digging a hole in the grass. Somebody will be buried tomorrow. He walks past the high school where his mom teaches. The schoolyard is quiet with the students inside but other times when he walks by students will be playing soccer or just fooling around. Girls stand together in little groups and the guys’ push each other and their voices will be loud and sometimes they swear or use dirty language at each other. He reaches the drive-in restaurant that has a huge picture of an ice cream cone with its edges lit in orange and white neon. Just beyond the drive-in the bridge begins. He stops at the edge of the road and looks both ways because the road curves slightly there and cars sometimes come off the bridge without being able to see people crossing the street, and when he sees it’s safe he runs across to the other side.

He steps onto the bridge and leans over the concrete railing and looks down at the brown water flowing by beneath him. He stands watching the water a long time. When he looks up he sees a large grey bird standing in the middle of the river very close to the bridge. He knows the bird’s name. Heron. Blue heron. He sees the birds often, standing still along the banks of the river or at either tip of the island that lies in the middle of the river below the dam. He stands watching the heron. It has long yellow legs and stands halfway up to its knees in the water. He can tell the river is shallow where the bird stands not only because the water does not come very far up the heron’s legs but also because the ripples in the water are made by rocks and small stones just beneath the surface of the river. The heron’s legs look strange because they do not bend forward at the knees as human legs do but its knees bend backward. A black stripe runs back from the top of the bird’s eyes and down its long white neck and it leans forward peering into the water. It stands very still. Adam watches it a long while. Suddenly the heron’s head shoots forward into the water and when it comes back out it holds a small fish speared in its pointed yellow beak. A moment later it swallows the fish head first.

He begins walking across the bridge in order to get closer to the heron, walking slowly so he will not scare it away, but then a strange thing happens. As he is walking across the bridge he sees that the bird no longer stands looking down into the river but is turning slightly in the water so that it never has its back toward him but always keeps sideways to him as he’s walking toward the middle of the bridge. The heron keeps turning slowly as he gets closer to it. When he reaches the middle of the bridge the bird stops turning and stands watching him. He is very close to the heron now, closer than he has ever been to a heron before, and he remains absolutely still and looks at the bird standing still and watching him. He wants to be sure of what he thinks has just happened so he turns and begins to walk back the way he came so that he can see what the bird will do and again the bird turns slowly to keep itself sideways to him. He knows it’s because the bird does not trust him and he wishes it would know he would never do it any harm.

He is not sure then whether he should walk back toward the middle of the bridge where the bird is and possibly frighten it away, but if he can come up close to it again he can show the bird he will not harm it so he begins walking toward it on the bridge. He is almost back at the middle when the bird crouches and then rises out of the water stretching out its giant wings. It takes off flying low over the brown water of the river with its head tucked in towards its body so that its white neck is bent double and its yellow legs stick out straight and long like a tail behind a kite. The bird flies upstream with very large wings that are blue-grey on the inside and black towards the tips and he stands watching it fly, something inside him flying off with the bird, until he can no longer see it against the dark bank of the river.

Maybe if he walks upstream he will catch sight of the bird again. He sees them standing under trees in the shallows of the river above the dam. Dam, he knows, is not the same word people use when they say damn cops or those damn Indians. Roseanne won’t let them use that word.
At the end of the bridge he takes the concrete steps that go down to the river until he’s at the water’s edge directly beneath the bridge. From above him comes the whoosh of cars and the deep rumble of trucks crossing the bridge. No one is under the bridge. Sometimes high school kids come here to smoke or paint things on the cement and younger kids come to throw stones or bottles into the river. Three months ago after the snow had finally melted the water in the river was deep and driftwood would float down the river and come to rest against the concrete bridge supports but now the water does not come as high up the bank anymore and it rushes by in the shallows directly in front of him and forms little whitecaps as it streams over the rocks and then drifts toward the middle of the river where it joins the slow deep current that slides beneath the bridge. Just below the bridge a small grassy island large enough for one tree to grow on it lies in the middle of the river and there are times when he would like to live on this little island or on the larger island below the dam with no one bothering him. He looks into the water now and sees an automobile tire covered with sludge and green moss and not far from it a half-buried cinder block. Off to his left the peeled trunk of a dead tree hangs above the surface of the water. By the end of the summer he will be able to see even more things he is not able to see now. Pieces of green glass and pop can tabs and beer bottle caps.

He turns away from the water and climbs the riverbank towards the long concrete pillar supporting the bridge on which kids have painted various messages, which he knows how to read. One uses the F word which Donnie says when he gets angry but which Roseanne does not allow them to say in the house. On the concrete pillar one message in green letters says, the magic of the mushroom—WEED IS #1. He does not know what this means. Another in blue paint says AMANDA IS A WHORE. It’s a word the high school kids say, hooer, which Woody says is not a nice thing to say about a girl. Kids can be mean and he thinks Amanda is probably a nice girl and probably attends the high school whose yellow brick walls he can see across the river from underneath the bridge. Another message in white paint says JIMMY HENDRIX and he wonders whether Jimmy Hendrix also goes to the high school with Amanda.

He climbs the steps back up to the crushed gravel path along the river. Something high in the trees overhead is making a sharp whining noise, and he doesn’t know whether it’s a bird or an insect, but they seem to make their nose only when it’s hot outside. He walks past the ball diamond and the tennis courts where the green paint has begun to peel on the cement surface, past the swimming pool with the blue bottom and the kiddies’ cement wading pool which will be filled with water and kids when school is out.

By the railroad bridge ahead two fishermen stand up to their knees in the water just past the island below the dam. They’ve walked in from the other shore and are flicking their fishing rods towards the water that slides down the dam fast and smooth and brown compared to the way it flows choppy and white in the shallows underneath the bridge in town. In summer it’s possible to walk into the river from the opposite shore. He’s waded to the island in the middle of the river and got sopping wet up to his knees but the two men fishing by the dam today wear green rubber waders to their armpits. They keep throwing their lines towards the dam but neither of them catches a fish. The water slides over the dam and into mounds of white foam that look as if a giant might have taken a bath in the river and pieces of the foam separate and drift downstream like small icebergs. He doesn’t know what causes the white foam.

On the riverbank just ahead a man and woman are also fishing. The man sits in a green lawn chair smoking a cigarette, and the woman is standing beside him. The man turns to him when he comes up to them. Long black hair comes down almost to the man’s shoulders from beneath a blue baseball cap. The fabric on the front of the man’s cap has started to come apart. The front of the cap says Labatt’s in white handwriting, then Blue in capital letters. Labatt’s Blue is beer. He finds the brown bottles beneath the bridge left there by high school students after they drink. It’s already hot out and the man is not wearing a shirt. On the ground beside the man’s feet are a fishing net, an empty plastic pail, and a green tackle box full of silver fishing lures and white bobbers and spools of fishing line. In front of the woman sits a plastic margarine tub half filled with dirt. Two or three large worms squirm their way into the dirt. Adam stands beside the woman, looking at her a moment. She’s pretty. She wears jeans, leather sandals over bare feet, a blue T-shirt that says ROOTS on the front. The man and woman have cast their lines into the water here where there’s a back current from the dam and the water lies brownish-green and still. He watches the woman’s line with a slight slack in it looping out to a white bobber which moves up and down lightly with the small ripples of the water.

He wonders if they’ve caught anything, but does not see anything that might hold any fish. It’s not a likely spot here, he thinks, not like where the men in waders stand in the middle of the river where the brown trout are.

Any luck? he asks.

Nothin’ so far, the woman says. She takes out a kleenex and blows her nose. Do you fish?

He shakes his head.

Neither of them says anything. Talking about fish reminds him of last summer when Woody and Lionel took him and Eric and Donnie and Jay to Niagara Falls. I’ve been to Marineland, he says.

The man looks at him. How did you like it? the woman says.

I liked the dolphins. Do you have kids?

No luck there either, she says. I must not be using the right bait, if you know what I mean.

The man in the Labatt’s Blue baseball cap looks at her.

What’s your name? Adam says.

Mona. What’s yours?


Do you come here often, Adam?

Most days. I haven’t seen you before.

The woman shrugs. Come just now and then. Sometimes in the mornings like today when Randy here works afternoons.

Look what I got, he says, holding out the harmonica.

Let’s hear you play it, the woman says, do you know how to play it?

He’s practised but it’s been difficult to play a tune. He can’t figure out when to breathe in and when to breathe out. He puts the harmonica to his mouth and plays a few notes.
It’s got a nice sound, the woman says.

The man flicks the butt of his cigarette into the water and goes back to watching his line. Adam wants to tell the man not to throw his cigarette butt into the river but doesn’t say anything. He puts the harmonica into his pocket and looks at the woman’s line, ready to let her know when her white bobber disappears.

You must live nearby, the woman says.

Down the road there, he says, pointing toward the end of the bridge half a kilometre downstream. Do you know Jesse?

The woman shakes her head. Don’t know any Jesse, she says. Jesse who?

My brother. We don’t know where he is.

The woman doesn’t say anything.

I live with Donnie and Eric and Jay. We each have our own rooms. Roseanne and Woody and Lionel look after us. Me and Jay do chores together. Sometimes he washes and I dry or I dry and he washes.

The man looks at him. He dries and you wash, you mean.

Randy, the woman says.

At the water’s edge large green stalks of grass grow just like the grass he remembers from when Paula read the Bible storybook at church about the baby Moses whose mother put him in a basket and hid him in the grass at the edge of the river so he would not be killed by the wicked pharaoh of Egypt and then the boy’s sister Miriam hid on the river bank and—

Suddenly the woman hollers and he sees her rod dip toward the water and she sweeps her rod up sharply so that her line sings as it rises out of the water. She raises her rod slowly, then drops it and reels in her line with a whir of her right hand, raises it slowly, and drops it again and reels in. The rod bends in an arc toward the river.

Could be a decent one, the man says, make sure you keep the line taut.

Randy, I know, she says dropping her voice the same way Adam does when Woody or Lionel tell him something he already knows. The man reaches down and grabs the fishing net and walks with it toward the grass at the water’s edge. The woman keeps reeling in her line which stands straighter now as it comes close to the river bank.

Easy now, the man says. Don’t wanna lose that trout dinner.

Adam watches, waiting for the fish to appear as the fishing line creates a small upside down v in the water as the woman reels in her line.

Then he can see the fish’s head break the surface, its mouth open. The fish snaps its tail with a splash and disappears again into the greenish-brown water.

Don’t give her any slack, keep her taut, the man says. I think it was a brown trout.
The woman raises her hands slowly and begins reeling in. Once more the fish breaks the surface and the woman reels in while she brings the tip of the rod down towards the fish swimming on the surface of the water. He can tell by its mouth it’s not a trout.

That’s it, the man says. The end of the rod keeps dipping and dipping as the fish tries to swim upstream.

Then the woman lifts her rod and the fish comes up out of the water and the woman swings the rod to her right to bring the fish onto the riverbank while the man lunges to catch it with the net. He misses but the fish lands in the grass where it flops several times and then lies still. The woman lays down the rod and begins to place her left hand over the fish’s body but the fish flops again in the grass and she draws back her hand sharply until the fish lies still and she places her left hand over the fish’s body again and pins it to the ground.

Don’t know whether this one’s got stingers, she says.

I’ll get some water, the man says and gets down on one knee and dips the pail into the river. He comes over and takes the fish from the woman with both hands and begins removing the hook from the fish’s mouth with his right hand, twisting and twisting the hook. C’mon you sucker, he says, and then the hook breaks free. The man places the fish in the white plastic pail.

I could have done that you know, the woman says looking at the man.

Thought I’d do it for ya, the man says and shrugs. He tips the front of his baseball cap with his thumb and looks at the fish in the pail. Don’t think it’s a trout, he says. Looks like it might be a channel cat or something.

Adam walks over to look at the fish. It flops several times in the water and then hangs still. A brown fin comes up from its back and its sides are covered in yellowish green scales in a diamond pattern. Its mouth is located below a blunt snout. Small rubbery spines stick out from the corners of its upper jaw.

It’s a carp, he says. They’re no good for eating. Too bony.

A carp, eh? the man says. You the authority on fish around here?

Randy, the woman says.

If you want trout you have to fish in the middle of the river like those guys out there, he says, pointing at the men fishing by the dam.

Well if you’re finished gawkin’ maybe you’d like to leave us alone now, Mr. Field and Stream.

Give it a rest Randy, the woman says.

He turns to go and as he’s turning he sees the blue heron standing in the shallows on this side of the island in the river. The heron—how had he not seen it earlier? It had turned to watch him when he was on the bridge and he felt the heron had let him come up close and that when it flew off it was leading him to some special place. He sees now it’s the island.

The water on this side of the river is too deep even in summer but if he wades across the other side where it’s shallower he can reach the island. He knows exactly where the water is no deeper than a foot and the river bottom is gravel. Once he’s on the island he can crawl through the grass and trees so the heron won’t see him and he can get up close. He’ll have to walk over to the other side. He looks at the bridge half a mile downriver. It’ll take him too long to walk there and cross the bridge and walk all the way up the other side past the old mill and to the island. By that time the heron will be gone. He has to get to the heron.

Then he sees a way to cross the river. The railroad bridge. He can walk across the railroad bridge.

He runs to the embankment where the bridge crosses above the road and he scrambles up the dirt and grass until he’s standing at the beginning of the wooden bridge. He looks back and there’s nothing behind him but the curve of the railroad until it disappears behind trees. Ahead of him the river flows far beneath the bridge. The tracks crossing the bridge lie bright in the sun. He’ll walk between them to the other side.

Beneath the rails the heavy wooden beams are tarred black. They’re about a foot apart. Too close to walk on comfortably but too far apart for him to skip one with every step. He knows the gravel stones between the beams means he’s not on the bridge yet. He begins walking slowly. A step for every beam. When he’s taken seven or eight steps the gravel between the beams suddenly disappears. He can see the pavement of the road now far beneath his feet. It’s higher than he thought. Much higher. Higher it seems than when he climbs up into the top of
the old mill. He stops. He doesn’t want to look down. If he could just look ahead of him as he’s crossing the bridge he’d be alright but he’ll need to look down in order for his feet not to miss the tarred beams. After a moment he forces his feet to start moving again. Six or seven steps later he feels he’s finding a rhythm. Left. Hit the beam. Right. Hit the beam. Never mind what’s underneath. Then he sees he’s crossed the road and is now high above the grass of the riverbank. He stops again a moment and looks ahead. The bridge seems to run forever and it’s a lot narrower up here than when he’s looking at it from below. And no railing. He hadn’t realized looking at the bridge from below that it didn’t have a railing. The tracks on the bridge run in squiggly lines but beyond the bridge the tracks run in nice straight lines until they curve to the right and disappear. He begins moving again. Left foot hit the beam. Right foot hit the beam. Never mind what’s underneath. It’s a long way down. There’s water beneath him now.

He keeps his feet moving left foot right foot looking at the beams rather than at the water between them. It’s awkward taking such short steps but he’s getting used to the rhythm. He doesn’t want to look back to see how far he’s come and concentrates on hitting the beams. He’ll know when he gets there. He can keep his arms at his sides now instead of having to hold them out. He can feel the wind ruffling his hair and flapping the sleeves of his Maple Leafs sweater. Beneath his feet the rails are nailed to the beams with huge spikes. The heads of the spikes are rusty and black. The bridge smells of tar—something sharper and deeper than tar.

Suddenly he hears someone shouting to his left and he turns. The voice is shouting at him from below:

Get off the bridge, idiot, you trying to kill yourself?

He crouches down so he can look to see who it is and not lose his balance. It’s Randy,
the man fishing with Mona on the bank of the river far below. Randy’s not looking at his fishing rod but looking up at him and he’s hollering again:

Get off the damn bridge_

He’s frozen now. He knows he has to get away from there. Away from the man’s voice shouting at him. He can see it’s still too far to the other side. He’s not anywhere near halfway across. He’ll have to go back. He stands up to find his place on the bridge and focusses on getting his feet to turn without falling into the gap between the beams. Then he’s facing the direction he came from and begins moving his feet again in a rhythm on the beams.

He’s walked six or seven steps again—left foot hit the beam right foot hit the beam—when he sees something beneath his feet. A dark shadow moving. Large and grey. He stops.

Below him to his left the heron suddenly appears from under the bridge. It’s flying above the surface of the water larger than he has ever seen it. As large as something he might see in a dream. Its huge wings beat the air and he stops to watch the beautiful bird make its way unhurriedly yet steadily upstream. Its huge wings move in rhythm carrying the blue heron over the water away from him and it’s as if he’s flying with the heron above the water and after a while the bird slowly grows smaller as it flies farther and farther away. Then it veers to the right and he loses sight of it behind some trees.

He sinks to his feet. Both his hands grip one of the iron rails for support. After several minutes he forces himself to stand. Then he forces his feet to begin moving again and he’s walking back toward the beginning of the bridge without looking down at the beams beneath his feet.

He was higher than the heron_

Ahead of him the trees beyond the bridge blur through the water in his eyes. He feels hungry and looks at his watch and sees that it’s past twelve-thirty. Roseanne will remind him he was supposed to be back by twelve. I know, he will say, as if to let her know he has not forgotten.