Two months after Stockton’s Dam broke—the final sign according to his sons that Hannold’s Smoked Game was officially dead—George skinned out starlings beside June in the garage. The birds were still warm, their thin gamey smell competing with June’s faint sweat and the garage’s mildew and oil. The ripping of starling skin felt right in a way that nothing had in weeks.
George was grateful to the old-timer that gave him his license back after the bust, the revoked licenses just as devastating as the $2,500 they’d scraped together for one out of season deer. The boys would still have to wait, but during the agency hearing, it hadn’t been hard to make their case based on hardship.
The girl picked up the second to last starling, shook hair that had sprung from her ponytail out of her face, thanked him, and said she could finish the last two birds. She flashed her smile before she bit down on it, keeping it for herself.
Eager to get to the river, George nodded and washed up in the garage sink. He dried his hands on a rag. The small pile of skins sloughed a downy belly feather, and he watched it blow across the cracked concrete floor of the garage. Beyond the driveway and the smokehouse, he squinted at the morning sun filtering through trees.
The girl, efficient with the small filet knife in her hand, had been a quick study. Again. She’d taken to skinning the starlings just as she’d mastered the deer, rabbit, and groundhogs. Her fingers, thin and long, seemed to have been meant for beamer and scraper. She didn’t mind mixing brain solution, enjoyed scudding hides.
The starlings were beneath her. Her fingers, speckled with fine belly feathers, were wings themselves. As she released the birds from their mechanical appendages—freed them of their pointed beaks, scaly legs, and clawed toes, so that they were all feathers and plush and down—George considered if she unleashed their bird souls. He shook his head, ridiculous, and hawked a lugee into the sink. He ran the water and watched his phlegm go down the drain.
As usual, he and his daughter-in-law said little to one another. The pile of feathered skins on the shower curtain covered folding table, the only proof they’d been there. A guy who also sold his wares in Riverview had seen June’s hides and wanted starlings for fly tying material. She’d asked, and George had been happy to kill the birds that morning, the starlings not only perpetually in season, but as raucous as any batch of hoodlums. The girl, not so much a girl now—thirty-three and splitting the difference between his boys’ ages—was just as quiet as ever, pushing her rolled up sleeves past her elbows with the whites of her underarms. Sixteen years they’d been working side by side, since ‘70. Sixteen years she’d been living in his childhood home, Lenora jumping at the chance to move from the cabin with the excuse that the kids needed a place of their own when Mac knocked June up their senior year of high school. Sixteen years ago the baby died during delivery and her damn father came to live with her. In the house George’s father and grandfather and all the Hannold fathers before that had lived and worked. In my house.
June swiped the hair from her face with the crook of her elbow and gnawed on her lip as she worked. The wren shattered the morning with his song: teakettle-teakettle-teakettle-tea. If the girl hadn’t set her shoulders so square, if the silhouette of her back hadn’t looked so much like her father’s as she stood at the table backlit by the rising sun, he might have thanked her for learning to cure hides, something his sons had never wanted.
He said, “I’m going to the lock,” and opened his tackle box.
“By yourself?” June asked, looking up from her work, her winged hands pausing.
“Just hunted your damn birds by myself.”
She tucked her lips together, bent her head to the starling in her hands, sliced the skin at its breast and said, “You were close. I could hear if you yelled.”
He humphed a response, sick of being watched by his wife and sons and now even the girl setting in on him. He grabbed his waders and pack and disturbed a small pile of feathers as he brushed past the carcasses—the dark iridescent tumble, a thing that almost stopped him it was so beautiful. Squinting at the sun as he emerged from the garage, he shook his head again, thought the stroke had softened his head, and he was glad June had nothing else to say.
He was hungry for the river, something he could almost trust, more so than his aging body anyway, his limp no worse on the riverbed than anywhere else. He hefted his gear and crossed to the bank, shocked again at the sight of his missing river, the dam’s bursting having let all of the false depth he’d always known run somewhere else.
As a boy, how many nights had he dreamt himself underwater swimming with catfish and suckers? Haunted by eels? He had loved escaping to the lock, turning off the motor as he’d angled away from the old Hardsole. He had used the oars to navigate into the still, swampy water that hugged the lock’s stone walls, once used to move boats mounded with coal downriver. He’d never seen anyone else in it during all his days on the Hardsole. Not even his father had liked to turn off into the lock, and his father had never been afraid of anything.
The river was luring George back, again, after a lifetime in tree stands and woods, after all the butchering and smoking, packaging and delivering. Suckering him in. He wouldn’t let himself think of drowning. Or drying up. Maybe that was it; the stroke the first sign that he was following the river, and now that the Hardsole had decided to flee, he too would diminish.
Halfway to the lock, he breathed in the cool, minerally spring air and felt his fingers fattening with exertion. The doctor’s warnings about doing too much be damned, though it had been stupid to put his waders on; he should have just changed into them once he was ready to cross to the lock. Muck turned his boots to anchors. Neoprene suffocated his skin, and sweat ran at his temples and armpits. It pooled where his stomach folded over itself.
What if the lock, too, was just covered in the pie crust mud that lay everywhere since Stockton’s Dam burst when it couldn’t battle the ice any longer? He couldn’t imagine that the river’s depth at the lock could also be navigable by foot, that the places he’d loved so well for so long were altered so significantly, that even the Hardsole was proving untrue.
The tires were the worst. It wasn’t that he’d idealized what the underwater world looked like. He’d even liked knowing it would be dark, a swampy green dankness where water ran cold against decaying logs, river stones, and tangles of weeds. He’d watched his father enough to know about the trash. His dad made a living off the river and used it as a dumping ground for empty bait tubs, aluminum cans, or whatever else was on the boat. But as far as George knew, his father had never dumped tires in the river, and they were everywhere. At Rosie’s Diner, after Stockton’s burst, George and Lenora had talked to a buddy of his dad’s, who said he remembered a flood so bad it wiped out the back section of a dump, and he’d supposed that’s where the tires were from. Lenora had said, “Figures,” and his dad’s friend had agreed, and neither of them had looked at George as he flicked his eyes between their faces, waiting for something more. Lenora just as dead set against the river as she’d ever been.
He’d tried to free her from the business, had thought their move would allow her to cut some ties, but when he’d headed to the cabin to help the kids, she almost always came with him. She said June wasn’t following the recipes, or if she was, didn’t know how to tweak them for the difference between rabbit and venison, eels and suckers. Mac and Rick insisted they didn’t need the help, but, sure as shit his sons did; there was always something to do. George knew all too well how the business could suck a man dry.
And now his boys had given it all up. Not that he hadn’t felt that way when his father first died and again after the double hurricanes of ’55. But letting go now, when he thought he’d given his sons what his own father couldn’t? Guidance to make the business give back. All this time only to find out he’d been wrong. The girl the only one clinging to any of it.
George bent to a rock the size of his palm. He turned it over, hoping for some bugs, some life still on this old, wet land. But there was nothing, just darker mud, not yet cracked by the sun. He chucked the stone as far as he could, and it splashed in the middle of the new, thin Hardsole, the sound disappearing in the slight bubble of running water. Hardly running, more like limping through more current without the dam to wrangle it. George wiped the sweat out of his eyes with his thumbs and trudged to the next bend where he would cross the river to the lock. He knew he shouldn’t be hoping it was still the same. Nothing was, nor had been for a long time.
Wading the river, he felt its cool, then as he got to his waist, its cold. The current tugged at him, and his wader boots slipped over the rounded rocks. As the water rose to his second rib, he considered going down with it, letting the current have its way. He thought of his body hanging up on one of the big tractor tires so that the current would rip over him, and his body would be tossed about, beaten. He kept moving, lifting one foot and then the other, slipping with the slick muck and current, and soon the water moved down his waist, and he started to emerge, a swamp thing in the April sun.
When George found the trickle that led to the lock, it confirmed his worry that the water inside the structure would be nothing but a puddle. He stumbled on a wet slab of schist and steadied himself by reaching to the rock wall of the lock. Before he entered the rectangled room, he could smell it—mold, humus, and stagnant water. With his hand on the wall, he took a step to the threshold of the walled room and saw water still stood. It didn’t make sense. Only a thin sluice, not much wider than his stance, fed the lock. The river seemed to flow up into the rock walls, the lock cradling it.
He took another step in the murky water, and the ground underneath him lurched. He put his hands out as if he were falling on land, catching himself with his other foot before he face-planted. In water up to his waist, he laughed nervously as if someone were watching. Only as he leaned back against the wall to regain his balance did it become clear to him. Just like Stockton’s Dam had manipulated the flow and height of the water, the locks had been dug out to give barges room to advance upriver. They had to be deeper than the Hardsole itself. And while the river had easily dropped twenty feet, it was still deep enough to feed into the lock. Once there, it remained—the lock, a cavernous bed, a pool for the river to rest in. George leaned against the slate walls, trying to wrangle his breath.
During the third year that June’s father Richard had lived in George’s house, on an early Saturday evening in May, he’d gone into his boyhood bedroom. No one else was at the house besides Richard: the boys making deliveries, though maybe late enough that they stopped for a beer at the Joint, the girl at her friend’s apartment, Lenora bartering at Mayslack’s or maybe she’d finished and gone home. George had something to say. And still needed, after all those years, for Richard to know what George knew: he’d won.
He’d start by telling Richard he knew Lenora visited his room. Besides the first time, two other occasions, Lenora flustered when caught coming out of the bedroom, tucking her hair at her ear. He would never ask how many other times she’d been in there.
The door was closed but not latched. Through it he could hear a blue jay yammering. With his fingertips, he pushed the wooden door open. It swung without a noise until the handle bumped the wall. In his bed, Richard didn’t move. George hoped he hadn’t waited too long.
The room smelled sick though the window was open. He looked out the glass, and there was one of his bird feeders made from a Hill Bros. coffee can. He hadn’t noticed it was missing from the front yard. It swung wildly, and he guessed the blue jay had flown from the feeder when he’d opened the door.
He crossed the room to Richard’s bed. The man was little, hardly a man at all. The lines in his face and thin strips of hair made him look haggard, ancient. The blue-white of his skin reminded George of a sucker out of water. Richard’s mouth hung open, emanating a sour milk stink. His breath came in rasps, a fight, every one.