like a secret

I sat riverside watching the river flow by, skipping rocks across the surface. The cottonwoods were shedding and there was a soft stream of puffs gently wafting down towards the river. The cotton would almost get violently grabbed from its soft descent into the brisk current of the river.

‘Beautiful day,’ said a voice from behind me.

I turned to see a man standing in the path along the river. He stood, wearing a large hunting pack from his back. Hung from it were all sorts of interesting little things from pots and cups to feathers, but it all looked placed with great, almost ritual care and intent. He wore an Indiana Jones style fedora and a bright orange camping jacket. He had an unkempt beard and had a small wooden pipe tucked in his shirt pocket. He looked like stories had been sticking to him for many years.

“Nothing beats springtime on the river,” I said to him, returning my gaze to the water. I picked up a rock and skipped it across the surface of the water. It pinged nearly eight or nine times before kerplunking into the water.

“The cottonwoods are goin-” I turned to say to him, but he was no longer standing there. Birds called out in the trees and the occasional gust of a breeze seemed to answer them. I actually felt jealous of him for a moment, heading out on an adventure.

In my younger days I’d thought that might actually be my life, a nomad with no place, in particular, I was heading.  My pop had firmly shamed the wanderlust out of my soul – there were responsibilities, and land, and family to support.  I grew out of such ideas like every boy does in a small Idaho town eventually does. Life became a series of routines, of chores, of responsibilities.

I had never figured out the girls, or the women for that matter. And I didn’t live in an age like ya’ll where “figuring out the guys” was something you could do either. I was the bachelor. I had good work – and made sure my family was safe. So I’d helped my sisters raise their families, taught their boys to fish standing in the river at this very spot, watched their husbands give their daughters away in the meadow upstream to fine young men who started their own families. I had just decided that those kinds of love affairs had been kept from me like a secret.

My sisters, always understood my wanderings. My hikes up into the foothills, my camping trips alone. My time out reading or writing in a book for myself up in the pasture. but even they were gone now.
Being the runt, I’d spent a lot of time alone upon this river. Nieces and nephews hundreds if not thousands of miles away discovering their own worlds and their own paths.

My mind returned to the stranger – – and is if on que, he came trotting back out of the woods.

This time, he walked closer, hoisted his pack off, setting it near us on the rocks. Free of his pack he said rather matter-of-factly, “Hows about you come with me?”

The question stunned me for a moment.

“I mean, can’t have you wishing stuff on me, when you can come along.”

I didn’t speak. The softness of his offer seemed genuine and not as uncomfortable as one would suspect. Then he reached over and took my hand.

His embrace was soft, and in his eyes I saw an intimacy, almost a recognition of who I was. Almost involuntarily I took my other hand and covered his, touching his hand and tracing the hairs on the top of his hand like a small boy with a treasure map.

“I ‘spose I could walk with you a ways.”

“Good,” he said, his face spreading into a wide smile.

I grabbed my walking stick, and stood up and slowly ambled up. He strapped his pack on and we started on the red clay path along the river towards the mountains. We paused for a moment, looking back down the shore.  Walking hand in hand, we disappeared into the woods, each step becoming freer than the one before it. My thankful, and lifeless body remaining there staring out over the rocks.