By CB Anderson
Every day at lunchtime Sean paddles upriver, pulling against the current until his mind is sky and white-capped water. The precarity suits him. After a while he lands the canoe and eats a sandwich. Crows comment from the birches.
The sandwiches: unmemorable, whatever he made for the twins’ lunches. On the way back downstream to his workshop, he sometimes rides the current. Breathes. His muscles hint at the ache that will come later.
It happened fast — Renee’s affair, the confrontation, her departure. Joint custody, although Sean has the girls all month except for two weekends. He doesn’t mind. Already he did most of the parenting. Renee ran a bakery, ten-hour days. Sean got the girls ready for school and picked them up at 3:00. In between he built furniture in his rented wood shop. He covered school vacations and sick days; Renee made more money. Sean thought the arrangement reasonable — he thought everyone was happy.
We were done, Renee said. You stopped seeing me, Sean. It was all about the girls.
Sean’s view: It wasn’t all about the girls, but it was a lot about the girls. Ella and Ava, eleven. The four of them camping, watching movies, decorating the porch for Halloween.
Fall rains have made the river fast. Things at home — not good. Ava seems okay but Ella is angry, more so after Renee’s weekends. I’d rather be with Mom, she says one Monday morning. Sean feels an ache that begins at the base of his throat and spreads. Grief? A week later, an email comes from the twins’ teacher. Ella isn’t completing her work. The teacher suggests homework supervision and a Zoom meeting.
At lunch the next day, Sean paddles upriver but doesn’t turn around. Instead he hides the canoe in brush and hitchhikes back to his woodshop. The following noon he drives to the canoe, paddles farther upriver and leaves the boat again. New plan: he’ll canoe the fifteen miles home then pull the boat for the season.
That night after dinner he asks, how about doing your homework here at the table?
Ava finishes her spelling, then leans toward him. Can we go apple picking this weekend?
Good idea, Sean says. Maybe we’ll make some applesauce.
Ella seems somewhere other than with her page of fractions. Sean smiles — You want some help, El?
Um, not really.
How are things at school?
Ella picks up her phone. I don’t want to go apple picking.
Ava glances away. She’s learned to navigate her sister’s moods.
We’ll figure it out, Sean tells Ella. Put your phone down and finish your math.
So. He looks forward to noontimes, paddling upstream through the rapids. Splintered light, the thunk of water beneath the bow. After a century of misuse by paper mills, the river is coming back. When he was growing up, his parents didn’t allow Sean near it. But the Mallontic’s cleaner now — tighter regulations and the river’s own staunch nature. It flows hard, washing away sediment, laying a new bottom. Every spring at ice-out, the water looks clearer than the year before. Trout are running again — he should teach the girls to fish.
At 9:00 he goes upstairs to say goodnight. The girls are in the lower bunk, where they often start before Ava climbs to the top. Truth: Sean’s always found her easier. The chemistry thing was surprising. It happened right off. Ava stayed colicky longer when the twins were infants, but Sean gravitated to her —the way she leaned in when she did relax, her gummy smile faith itself. When he held Ella, she lurched toward Renee. That Ava was easier made Sean love Ella that much harder. She was, actually, a lot like Renee. The day he and Renee had met, on a ski slope when they were 19, she was side-stepping uphill to retrieve one of her poles. Sean skied it down to her. She’d hurt her shoulder when the pole snagged but said she was fine, though he could see her arm held close to her side. Ella was like that.
Goodnight kiddos, he says. Sweet dreams.
Ava: Night, Daddy.
Renee moved to Portland to live with her boyfriend. Sean doesn’t know his name and doesn’t want to know his name. A friend of theirs who chose Sean’s side — sides! — said the boyfriend is a singer in a local band. Sean thinks of him as unemployed.
A week later on Zoom, Renee looks beautiful. Sean sees his own image smiling at hers before he forces impassivity.
The teacher begins. Ella seems a little better, he says. Other than one history report, she’s been turning in her assignments. He recommends continued supervision of her homework. The teacher peers into the camera. Says: The two of you must be co-parenting well, turning things around like this.
No response from Renee. Sean sits there. Will she mention he’s the one who has the twins all week, every week?
No. The meeting ends. Renee’s face disappears. Feebly, Sean thanks the teacher.
That night at home — still not good. When he calls the girls down for homework, neither comes. He climbs the stairs. They’re sprawled in their room on the rug.
Did you hear me?
Ava: Yeah, but we’re already working.
You should come down to the table.
Ava closes her book. Ella doesn’t move. I’m not leaving, she says.
Sean thinks of picking her up and setting her on her feet, but then what?
We’ll compromise, he says. Since you’re working, I’ll stay here. Then tomorrow, it’s downstairs again.
He sits. Up close the rug looks dirty — he hasn’t vacuumed in a month.
The next day, windless and sunny. Sean takes the girls to school and hurries to his woodshop. No paddling today; he has a project to finish. He sands a cherry table, varnishes some chairs. Working, he listens to Coldplay and imagines the Mallagontic offering up a reflection of blue sky and cumuli.
By 2:45 he’s done what he can. He calculates: if he asks his brother Matt to give the twins a ride to soccer when he picks up his daughter Mia, there will be an extra hour. He sends a text. Yes. Sean’s heart lifts. He drives to the canoe.
The first strokes feel right — he’s gotten good at this. Tonight after homework, he’ll dish up ice cream and tell the twins what he’s been doing. Then he’ll explain that people have paddled the Mallagontic for thousands of years, that they used it like a road, to trade things or visit friends. So much history in rivers, he’ll say, and he won’t mind if Ella barely listens.
He’s pulling hard against the current now, trying to make time in the wind that’s come up. He passes Abbott Farmstand, closed for good, and a shuttered school. The Mallagontic’s newly clean, but Grand Falls is in tough shape overall. The population has dropped by half, more people leaving every year. What will the twins do? Already they come home from Renee’s weekends excited about Portland’s restaurants and stores. But Grand Falls: the foothills and the valleys. The river that headwaters wild and narrow, then runs for 200 miles until the Atlantic tugs it in. And the girls’ roots — Quebecois on Renee’s side, Irish on Sean’s. Their great-grandfather Murphy was a river driver. Log dancing, he called it.
Sean will remind the girls that every day the river here is new, the water always flowing.
The first drops come as a surprise. Then it’s full-on pouring, wind roughening the surface. Sean tries to keep the bow up-current, but it wants to swing. He fights, arms burning. Whitecaps break and reform.
Three feet from the bank he tosses his backpack ashore. And now the bow does swing, and the canoe broadsides. Flips and seconds later, swamps.
Forty-degree water — Sean goes under but barely feels it. One desperate hand on the gunnel to keep the boat from slipping downriver. Up again, he thinks only of getting the submerged craft to the bank. Too heavy, and the river bottom slippery. A minute passes. Two. Last ditch, he plants his feet and shoves the bow high, water pouring out the stern. With what he has left, he heaves the canoe toward shore. But the river takes it.
On land he lies soaked and very cold, his arms bloodied. The canoe — he had it twenty years. The river churns past, inches from his face. Another thing: the Mallagontic carries anger.
Sean tries to stand, but his legs won’t hold. He can’t feel his feet. When Renee drove away from the house that day, he and the twins were standing on the porch. They’d all talked about the new schedule, how they’d still be a family — but he had to look away from the girls’ faces as Renee pulled onto the road.
He tries again to stand. No. He rummages in the backpack for his cell. It’s wet but works. Matt’s number goes to voice. So does Ava’s — she knows to keep it off at school. Sean dials Ella. Two rings and she picks up.
The rain is still coming when they show up. Sean’s bleeding has slowed, though his arms are a mess, and he’s colder than before. Matt hands over his jacket, helps Sean up. Ava rushes over, crying, and wraps her arms around his waist. Mia stands to the side, horrified. But where is Ella?
In the back seat of the car, scowling. Matt puts Mia up front, Sean in back with the twins on either side. He jacks the heat to high. I’m alright, Sean says. I’ll be okay. Briefly he explains about the paddling, the storm, the capsize. In the quiet that follows he tries not to picture the canoe breaking apart when it reaches the falls. I’m okay, he says again.
Ella stares ahead. Actually, you almost died, she says loudly. She turns toward Sean, eyes narrowed. Didn’t you, Dad. You almost fucking died.
First time Sean’s ever heard either girl say fuck, but it barely registers. He’s shivering, heart ragged in his chest. He shouldn’t have gone out without checking the weather. He is irresponsible. And Ella and Ava — one way or another they’ll be damaged. Everything’s different now — the separation, the twins back and forth between Renee and him with no say about any of it.
Ella is still staring at him. Sean can smell her breath, an undertone of sour. Her expression he remembers from when she was an infant, staring up. Need and anxiousness. Would there be enough milk, enough love? Could she depend on them? Apparently not.
That was stupid, Ella says.
Ease up, Matt tells her. He drives up through the field toward the road.
She’s right,” Sean says. “It was.”
Apple picking is for little kids, Ella says. And Mom makes the applesauce.
Is it Sean’s fault Renee left? True what she said, he stopped seeing her. That last afternoon, he could have refused to help carry things to her car, could instead have said I love you. Stay. He imagines telling her now and knows he won’t.
I can make applesauce, he says. I can do that.
See? Ella says. That’s probably why Mom left, because of you. And anyway, the house is a mess.
She brings up her phone log, deletes the first call. His.
Silence again, Ava staring into her lap. Sean pats her leg. Pressure builds behind his eyes. Love and shame. Ella’s right — the house is dirty.
They cross Center Bridge, the river aswirl beneath. Renee left because he and the girls and Grand Falls weren’t enough; Sean thinks but doesn’t say this. He plans for when they get home: he’ll order pizza, turn on Harry Potter, change clothes.
The road here runs right along the Mallagontic. Sean peers out. The storm is letting up, though the river is high. It will rise for hours, and may or may not flood. He can’t get enough of trying to know it.
CB Anderson’s fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, Hayden’s Ferry, Pangyrus, Crazyhorse, Tupelo Quarterly, Indiana Review and elsewhere. Her book Home Now received honorable mention in the 2020 New York Book Festival, and her fiction collection River Talk was a Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2014. She lives in Maine, teaches writing at Boston University, and enjoys ocean swimming, Scotch, and raising succulents.