Late in the overcast afternoon, they came upon a cluster of housekeeping cabins, otherwise deserted in this season between skiing and hunting. They were given the cabin farthest from the road. He could hear water through the trees as he followed her in with their luggage. She carried only the small white box. First she set it on the dresser near the TV, then she shifted it to the middle of the one small table, pushing aside an ashtray and ice bucket. He had dropped his overnight bag on the table, but when she moved the box there, he slid the bag to the floor. He told her he needed to check the car and went back out alone.
A brown paper grocery bag slumped on the front seat, about to lose its contents. He went past the car, through the trees at the back of the lot. He came out above a stream. The water moved easily around rocks and snags. A kingfisher perched on the elbow of a fallen tree that leaned out over the bank. From there, it darted back and forth, dipping into the stream for minnows or whatever small lives it fed upon, secret beneath the surface. After however many trips, the bird swept away upstream. Its departure woke him to the fact that she was standing silently on the bank, a little apart from him. He wasn’t sure what she had seen. With a touch on her arm as he passed, he headed back to the car and retrieved the grocery sack. Bottles rattled. As he climbed the steps of the cabin porch, she stuck her hand into the bag and relieved him of 40 ounces. She went ahead of him through the open door, unscrewing the cap.
She was content to let him drive, and leaned against her door, staring out at the vacant ski lodges, ghost hotels and abandoned summer resorts, bare trees just coming into bud. She had the map spread out across her lap, holding down their destination with a finger, but the one time he asked her which turn to take, she didn’t answer. Somewhere on those confused roads she had fallen asleep with her forehead pressed to the glass. He saw a sign for the park and took the turn; the map no longer mattered.
They passed no other cars. To one side white water flowed toward them, faster than the stream near the cabin but not by much. They reached a small lot with a camper parked in one corner. The truck, plastered with stickers from hunting and camping associations, appeared untended. He pulled into the opposite corner, turned off the engine, let the silence wake her.
They walked close together, steadying each other, along a path that followed the river. A rushing sound grew louder up ahead, but was never more than soft. Her hands were chilled. Normally she would have complained about the cold, but today she just looked over at the river, then up at the trees and sky, saying nothing until they came to a bridge. Wood and stone, it crossed the river just below a broad pool fed by falls from high above. The water foamed, was caught and cradled by shelves of stone, kept descending.
“Oh,” she said, squeezing his fingers. “Beautiful.”
“Here?” he asked, waiting through her stillness.
“Up there,” she said.
He gazed up toward the origin of the falls. He couldn’t see much; the peak was only implicit in the solidity of shadows, the sweep of trees. But the water poured out of hiding, rushed at them in a shimmering screen of silver beads and broken light. No rainbows, though; they were too far into shadow for that.
Across the bridge was a wooden sign with letters gouged into it: Falls Lookout. They stopped there.
“Come back in the morning?” he asked.
She pushed her head into the pit of his arm. He felt her nod. Pulling her around with him, they started back to the car.
All the next morning they climbed through mist and never came out of the trees. The sound of the falls was everywhere. He groped at rocks and skinny trunks, sometimes stopping to give her a hand up a section of crumbling trail. They saw no one else. The camper had been gone from the lot when they pulled in a little after dawn. It was not hard to imagine these woods a hundred or a thousand years ago. The same sounds, the same sky, maybe the same trail. There were deep reasons why the path, rather than cut straight to the top, instead took this complicated route between eruptions of ancient rock.
They emerged into a pocket of silence, as if the river had taken a breath and held it. They stepped out onto brown rock beside a silvery pool that rushed to the edge of the cliff and sprang into the air. The roar of the falls was silenced, even though they were as close as they could get to the edge. The water came down to the pool through a jagged defile, a staircase of stone they had no reason to ascend.
“Here,” she said.
He twisted his shoulders free of the backpack, unzipped it, reached in, handed her the white box. She knelt, pulled the hair from her face, tucked it behind her ears, opened the box, and from that took a silver metal can, like a canister for loose tea. She gave the cardboard box back to him and he stuffed it into the pack before joining her at the pool.
From here, looking out beyond the falls, he could see the lot where they had parked, though not their car. A serpentine of road, mostly hidden by trees. Mist softened it all. Normally such a height would have given him vertigo; he might have imagined what it would feel like to jump, to fall, or even fly. Today he was all too aware of the rock underfoot, the breath of wind coming back wet with spray. He heard a hollow pop as she prised off the lid.
She held the can toward him, waiting till he put out his hands, then she tipped and poured. He had expected ashen dust and not this gravel. Almost immediately he turned his hands over the water, dropping chunks into the current, to be caught and carried into spray, into air, down to the ledges and pools and river curves. He realized that when they retraced their steps, they would have to pass over and alongside the river, where the crumbs would be resting or trapped or travelling forever. He brushed his palms clean and stepped back so she could take his place. She poured the rest of the matter straight into the pool without touching it. She had her eyes closed, her head turned in profile to him, and he couldn’t bear to see her face. Unsure where else to look, he cast his eyes to the ground.
Someone with a skilled hand had carved a portrait there, gouged it into the warm brown rock. It was a replica of a dime, an antique Liberty dime, currency from the days of their great-grandparents. The head of Liberty, in profile much like hers, centered in the circle of a coin. He could barely make out the goddess’s curls, a trace of a winged cap, eyes without pupils. Even though the details had been worn away by weather, it was clear that much craft and care had gone into it years ago. Why such trouble for a dime?
He looked up, having forgotten himself, about to point it out to her, but there was no room in the moment for his remarks. She was dipping the can in the pool, rinsing it slowly, swirling it, letting it empty again and again. He took the can from her, shook out most of the water, and stuffed it back into his pack with the empty white box.
The mist was almost gone from the woods below. As he straightened, he caught a glint of sunlight from their distant car.
She went off to the stream while he cleared out the cabin.
There were more big empty bottles than could fit in the little wastebasket. He crushed the white box in on top of them. The metal can remained in his pack; it didn’t feel right to discard it here. He looked around to make sure they weren’t forgetting anything. He thought he remembered one more bottle, unopened on the dresser by the TV, but he didn’t see it now. How many bottles had they brought along? He considered counting the empties in the trash, but that would require digging under the crushed white cardboard.
She appeared on the threshold. “What’s taking you?” She had the missing bottle, empty now; she forced it in among the rest, making him flinch at the sound of shattering.
He followed her out and closed the door, hearing it click locked behind them, leaving the key in the room.
Everything had flattened out, woods and hills were far behind when he turned off the expressway, descending into strip malls. She had slept curled against the door most of the way home. As he pulled into a parking lot, she stirred and opened her eyes just enough to see the neon “Liquor” sign, pale red in the daylight. “Cigarettes,” she said, and put her head down again like a cat going back to sleep.
A bell pinged as he went in. He made his way to the cooler in back. He took four large bottles carefully to the register. “Camel Lights,” he said, “two packs,” and as the old clerk turned to snag the smokes, his eyes wandered over abundant shelves of liquor as if he had discovered a treasure cave.
The clerk put the cigarettes down beside the beer, poised fingers over the register keys. “Anything else?
He nodded toward the shelf. “That…which one is bourbon? Have you got any rye?”
The old man gave him a look, turned and brought down a bottle of Jim Beam.
“Which is that?”
“It’s bourbon, kid. You want rye?”
“No, this is fine.” He felt flushed and eager to get away. He showed his license, pushed across some bills, quickly scooped up his change. The bottles clinked in the bag which he gathered to his breast in one arm, protectively. As he pushed through the door, out into the cold white day, he looked down at his hand, thinking that he should have counted his change.
Among a few dull pennies, slightly overlapping a tarnished quarter, lay an antique dime brighter than the afternoon.
“Liberty” copyright 2106 by Marc Laidlaw. This is its first appearance.