Below the Falls

Ross McMeekin Click to read more...

Ross McMeekin’s fiction appears in Folio, PANK, Green Mountains Review, Hobart and Tin House (blog).  He received an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts.  He now lives in Seattle, where he teaches creative writing and edits the literary journal Spartan.

Through his good eye, the boy could only just make out the passing trees, boulders, and bushes in the little light they received from the moon, which was veiled by a river of mist coasting a dozen yards above his head. A gust of early morning wind through the river valley brazed the bare skin of the boy’s hands. He pulled them into the sleeves of his parka and crouched low against the bow of the drift boat. From there he looked up at his father, who sat above in the crossbar seat, crowned by a headlamp, correcting their drift with his large wooden oars.
~
The father’s headlamp shot a spotlight here and there along the river and the bank and occasionally on the boy. The father liked that the air smelled of damp vegetation and earth. He also liked that the only sounds were of waking birds, crowded stalks of brush rubbing together, and the occasional gurgles and slurps of slow moving water. He liked these smells and sounds because they reminded him that he existed in the natural world; sometimes during his long days working the assembly line, as he rehashed the same blunt action over and over, like a machine, it felt as though he did not.
~
The boy lived with his mother in an apartment in the city. His mother worked at a department store most days and as a waitress at a chain diner two nights a week. The boy took the metro bus to parochial school and back during the school year. He was responsible for the washing of clothes and dishes and the preparation of dinner during the days his mother worked.

The boy spent one weekend a month with his father, who lived two hours north. His mother told him she wished that he didn’t have to visit his father, but that they had no choice. Every month, upon his return, she urged the boy to tell her everything that happened, even if there didn’t seem to be anything worth telling.
~
The boy was very small for his age, and the way he now crouched deep into the bow of the boat diminished his stature even more.

The man tried his best not to blame the boy and the boy’s mother for his size, but it was difficult because the man believed that had he stuck around, the boy would have turned out more substantial.
~
The boat shifted and rocked as the boy and his father switched places.

The boy felt the warmth leftover from his father on the seat. He palmed the oars and felt the warmth there, too.

Whenever he thought of his father, the first image that came into the boy’s mind was the domed curvature of his eyes and the hawkish way they protruded from his sockets. Even in pictures his look could startle.

There on the river, the boy couldn’t see his father’s eyes, only the cool glow the headlamp lent his father’s breath, which twisted and spun in front of his lips before dissolving. But those eyes never left the boy’s imagination; the figments remained fixed to his father’s face, even in the dark.
~
The father slid a leather case from beneath a storage shelf below the gunwale of the port side of the drift boat. He unzipped the case and slid out a rifle. The beam of the headlamp searched up and down the length of the rifle, illuminating small circles of its structure with light.
~
Though the boy had never before seen a rifle in person, the rifle was not the object that captured his attention; it was the brass shells. In the light of his father’s headlamp they shined like pieces of gold. These shiny thimbles were what rifles hurled through the air. These glossy gems were what plugged holes into skin and hide.
~
The father had many memories of his own father, but the beatings stood out. His father, when drunk, struck him and his sisters with his hands and his knees and his cane and his belt and his shoes and even once with a ceramic lamp.

The time with the lamp had left a crescent-shaped scar on the back of his head, around which hair still refused to grow. The scar was on the back of his head because, at the time of the blow, he was crouched over his younger sister to protect her from the storm.

The boy’s father tried to understand his own father, but couldn’t, even though he ended up working in the same factory, drinking the same beer, and sipping the same bourbon from the same flask at his lunch break. He didn’t understand him, even though he too married a woman who wanted to save him from himself, even though he too had children he hoped would change him in the ways he felt he should.
~
One fine morning in a September of his childhood, the boy’s father and his own father went out fishing before dawn. There the father learned how best to catch salmon. One came upon them unawares in the dark, using the headlamp as a guide, and fired a shot just above the fish’s snout. The rifle shot would serve as a concussion blast and the salmon would float stunned to the surface.

That it was illegal to do this, that they agreed no one else should know, that they made up a plausible story should they be questioned about poaching, all of this only made the time between the boy’s father and his father more special.
~
The jet stream of mist above the river had now sunk to eye level and the boy, through his good eye, watched its small shimmering beads glisten in the light of his father’s headlamp. The boy could also feel it dampen his lips, but not his cheeks on account of their chill.

In the haze and lumen from the headlamp his father’s outline stood, the butt of the rifle against one shoulder, hand fanned over trigger, his other stretched out, palm up, steadying the barrel.

The spotlight beam of the father’s lamp followed slow, searching arcs across the surface of the river. Where it struck, the water turned shallow green, like that of half-brewed tea.
~
The salmon floated, white belly breaching the surface, toward the boat, just as the rifle report ceased echoing along the canyon. The father reached out and sunk the net into the water and then hoisted it up, pausing for a moment before setting it down in the hull, so the boy could see the shuddering arc of the salmon bulge in the bottom of the fluorescent green netting.

Chinook, said the man to the boy. See the mouth? That’s how you tell it’s a hen.

This was verbatim what his own father had said to him years earlier.

The boy nodded.

In the light of the headlamp, the father noticed the opaque film covering one of the boy’s eyes and remembered that it was a fake. The boy had lost his real eye as a result of the father striking him with the palm of his hand. The father struck him with the palm of his hand because the boy had been using some of his father’s prized baseball cards for spoke flaps on his bicycle.

Since the event, the father often reminded himself that it was an accident, and that it had occurred while delivering a punishment that was justified, a punishment meant to teach the boy a lesson he needed to learn.

The father reminded himself of this often, because the image of the boy’s real eye dangling loose against the boy’s young pink cheeks appeared in his mind often, and the shortness of breath accompanying the image wouldn’t go away without a fight.
~
The chrome, green, and blue salmon dazzled in the light of the headlamp, but gave off a harsh smell, somewhere between asparagus and gasoline. The boy reached out and touched its silvery skin near the tail. It felt smooth, a little slimy. Little lumps lined the white scaling near the posterior fin, resembling little pearls.

The boy’s father coughed into his fist a few times then caught his breath. Finally, he said: Sea lice. This hen’s fresh from the salt. Maybe even came up yesterday.

His father wiped the bugs from the salmon with his finger then flicked them into the water.
~
When a moth became trapped inside their apartment in the city, the boy’s mother would capture it between her palms and release it out the window.

~
The boy’s father pulled a sheath from the front pocket of his jeans and slid out a bone-handled knife. With the blade he crunched a hole through the fish’s skull.

There was something brutal, the boy felt, about the snapping of the bones. It wasn’t a sound he had heard before. The boy wished he had never heard it. He felt he would hear it now in his dreams. He felt now he knew the salmon in a way he wished he didn’t.

The boy watched the fish in its death throes. Gills bleeding, the salmon opened its mouth and wiggled. Its pupils widened beneath the glow of the headlamp and its body curved, as if stretching.

The boy felt something stretching inside of his skin as well.
~
The officer wore large aviator glasses that reflected the surroundings in a distorted way. Wedged beneath his armpit was a notepad. In his fingers spun a pencil. He strolled around the boat and looked inside. He set his notebook on the ground and leaned deep into the boat. His feet nearly left the ground.

The officer exhaled audibly and returned to his feet. He picked up his notebook and flipped a few pages. He took off his glasses and slid them between two buttons of his tan collared shirt.

Let’s start with your licenses, he said.
~
The boy had been taught by his mother not to lie. The boy had been taught by his father not to lie. The boy had been taught in parochial school not to lie. This had left the boy unprepared to lie. He was willing, but without practice.
~
A gust of canyon wind rattled the papers in the father’s hand. He stretched the papers flat against his knees and finished reading, there on the picnic bench near the boat landing. When finished, he folded them up and slid them into his breast pocket, where they stuck up nearly to his collar.

The tires of the officer’s tan pickup truck spun gravel as they carried the rest from the parking lot.
~
The father and the boy sat next to each other in the cab as they drove along the empty highway, towing the drift boat behind. Neither of them had said a word. The boy felt as though his lungs didn’t work, that they wouldn’t fill up. He tried his best not to reveal this.
~
His father’s chapped lips wrapped snug around a cigarette while his teeth worked on something behind it. A vein popped up and disappeared on the side of his forehead in rhythm with his grinding. His hawkish eyes strained out of their sockets.

He settled his foot onto the breaks and palmed the gearshift down a few notches and slowed onto the shoulder of the highway until they were stopped.
~
The boy picked his fake eye from the floor of the truck and licked his fingers and began to rub the eyeball clean in his palm. It felt warm to the touch.

His father said, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean–

The boy interrupted him and said, It’s okay.

The boy said this because it did feel okay, now that the ridge along his eyebrow throbbed, now that the inside of his empty eye socket was hot and itchy, now that the side of his face felt as though a hot moist towel was being pressed against it. The world felt somehow righted. He didn’t understand why, but there was now more room in his lungs to fill with breath.

The father reached over and hugged the boy.

The boy leaned in.

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Discussion

5 Responses to Below the Falls

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  2. Isabella Martin says:

    I was impressed by the way the father’s character was handled. He is neither demonized nor characterized in a completely sympathetic way–he is an imperfect person who expresses an imperfect love toward his son.

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