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Season of the Snake
By Claire Davis
Picador Copyright © 2005 Claire Davis
All rights reserved.
On the valley floor, the morning fog rises, a slow unveiling of trees, homes, and hills banked like cooling coals on three sides. The clean hills — an ascent of a thousand feet and more — limned in a woolly nap of cloud. The valley floor is T-boned by two rivers, and bunched about the banks on either side of the greater river are the small towns of Lewiston and Clarkston. On an inlet of this larger body of water, the Snake River, is Swallow's Nest Marina. A boat launch. A dip in the road, a bit of park, and a parking lot abutting the single boat ramp and floating dock. The dock planks are patchy with damp, and while the captain ferries equipment into the aluminum jet boat, Nance oversees how it is stowed. She does a rapid count of boxes, and fusses in her pocket searching for her list. It's not a thing she routinely does, make lists. And this is why. Just another thing to lose. She looks over at Ned, a tall brown-haired man standing at the back of the craft. Her husband. Sometimes it startles Nance, even now, to realize he is connected to her, or perhaps, more accurately, it is that she's surprised by the way her life has turned around again. Ned's standing with a foot hiked up on the back bench, and he's staring down into the water, where a school of blunt-headed carp mosey about on the stony bed.
"Ned? Did I give my list to you?"
He looks over his shoulder. "You don't do lists."
"I did this time."
He picks through a pocket, shakes his head.
"How about the other one." She points to his chest.
He pats his suit coat. "You don't make lists," he says again.
She plants a fist on her hip, looks up over the boat rail, up the dock. There are still boxes to be on-loaded, foodstuff mostly. The camping gear's stowed, the jugs of water. Down the shoreline where the cottonwoods crowd, her sister Meredith's turning something over in the sand with the toe of a shoe. Nance watches. It's been years since she's seen her sister, and she hadn't anticipated seeing Meredith for several more. But there she is, and now Nance is trying to understand how she feels about it.
Meredith squats on her heels, head bent, brown hair fanning over cheeks. She picks up a stick and prods whatever it is at her feet. And then she's snapping to a stand and backing away. Her nose wrinkles and she's rubbing the tip of her shoe clean in the sand.
Nance sighs. Some things never change, she thinks. She looks over at her husband. "I know I made one. ..." She pats the back pocket in her jeans, pulls out a folded piece of paper.
Ned's rubbing the back of his neck with a hand; he grins. "Getting scary, Nance." He walks over, lifts the list clear, glances at it. "You really got all this?"
She looks around. "It's that or eat what we catch."
"Now that's an intriguing idea." He makes a face. "Still, it's only nine days and two women. You've got enough here for two weeks and a full crew."
"We'll be hungry," she says. "And hey, I have an idea — you could join us." Though she knows he has a genuine phobia about her work with snakes. "You could just stay at the camp, hang out. Relax."
He shakes his head. "I have work, too, Nance. Responsibilities."
Nance nods. It's part of what she finds so reassuring about Ned. She turns her face up. "Can't talk you into taking just one day off? Come along for the ride, and return with Pete."
He rests his chin on the top of her head. "I'm hardly dressed for a river trip. Some other time, okay?"
"Another time," she agrees, though it's always and never another time. She sighs. "Anyway, you're probably looking forward to being rid of me. You get to hog the bed —"
"Tell you what." He gives her a kiss on the forehead. "I'll make a point of missing you every evening." He glances at his watch.
Nance raises her face, and he kisses her — a long, sweet kiss that's mildly embarrassing in front of the captain and especially her sister. But when they finish, Nance sees Meredith's back is turned. The captain has the last box stowed.
"Looks like we're a go," she says, and walks Ned to the boat's edge. "Take care. Remember to eat." She tucks a finger in his waistband. "I'll see you in nine days."
He smiles. "I'll see you in my dreams." He rolls his eyes in a mock swoon.
She's pleased with the play, but she also feels a bit ridiculous to be so apparently in love with her own husband. Her sister's settling into the back of the boat, and the captain's waiting on Nance to pull the lines. She reaches for them, and Ned bends over, squeezes her hand.
"You be safe now, you hear?" he says. "I don't know what I'd do without you."
He looks so sincerely worried that Nance finds herself wanting to smooth the crease between his brows. At the same time, she feels strangely gratified to be this needed. It was such a long dry spell after Joe's death — seven years — first of grief, then a blessed numbness in which she neither needed nor wished to be needed by anyone else. Even now, she's surprised by how alive she's come to feel again during these three years of marriage to Ned.
"I'll be fine," she says, "as always."
He steps back, looks over Nance's head, and waves to Meredith. "Enjoy," he says, but there's a bite to his voice. He hands Nance the line, then strides up dock, frees the bowline, and tosses it to the captain.
The boat idles into the lagoon, and when Nance looks again, Ned has disappeared into the fog layering the upper lot. The mist holds to a ceiling just above their heads, and though the first light of the sun halos low in the atmosphere, for now, the three in the boat move into that corridor between cloud and water, pressing toward the river, where a great blue heron stands, its scissored head turning. The bird bounds upward, wings wading the air, legs trailing like an afterthought.
The jet boat swings into the main channel. It has a hull of lightweight aluminum, a canvas top, and Plexiglas windows: a riverboat designed by local boatwrights to navigate the rapids and shallows — the mouth of Hells Canyon. Nance tucks spare sweatshirts under the bucket seat. The captain, Pete Everwine, is a man in his early forties, features already blunted and rubbed to bedrock. Under the noise of the engine he's humming a tune as off-kilter and out of pitch as only a jet engine will allow. Nance glances at Meredith sitting on the bench seat in the boat's open back.
It'll be a three-hour bucketing ride up the Snake River. This journey has become for her just part of the job, getting where she needs to be — the depths of Hells Canyon, where she's conducting field research on the den attrition rates of rattlesnakes. They clear the park boundaries on the Clarkston, Washington, side. Across the way, on the opposite shore, is Lewiston, Idaho, where she's lived this past five years. Together, the two cities comprise the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley, with a population of roughly sixty thousand — large by Western standards. At a steady thirty-five miles per hour, they're cruising the slack-water pool created by the downriver dams of the Snake.
The Snake River. Boundary separating three states within an easy drive of the valley: Washington, Idaho, and Oregon. Ahead of them, the deepest gorge in North America, formed in a geological violence that uncoiled in increments mostly discernible only to the eye of God. From the Lewiston basin, a young 17 million years in age, they'll travel roughly 200 to 300 million geologic years up canyon.
They jet by the dipping beds of the Atlas quarry, where the floods that shaped the valley basin, the Missoula flood — 600 million cubic feet per minute — and the subsequent Bonneville flood — 18 million cubic feet per minute — are marked in two narrow lines of clay, one darker than the other. Sandwiched in the deposit is a lighter hash mark of volcanic ash from the Mount Mazuma eruption, a mere 7,500 years ago.
A cluster of cliffside homes reel away along the waterline and rise in staggered rows up the hillside. On the Idaho side, the Elks Club — roughly a two-hundred-foot climb. The building sits at the head of a landslide, a rubble of rock and dirt spearheading from the foot of the building and ending over the river road, where it forms an upstart archipelago on which a legion of yellow Cats and backhoes hum and worry like dim-witted bees. Erected in the sixties, the building sits on a sliding bed of alluvial clay, a kind of peanut butter and jelly composition that withstood the local geologist's gloomy predictions for thirty-odd years. Until this year, when after a spate of heavy rains and thaws, and under the additional weight of country club, irrigated golf course, a crosshatch of roads and subdivisions, it was discovered the hillside had been oozing out from beneath all along. The great pocket stopped just short of the club house, which stood like a grudge on the last ten feet of ground. An imprudent monstrosity with its darkly paneled walls, its many elk heads, and its shag-carpeted remains. Serves it right, Nance thinks.
They boat past Swallows Nest, a chunk of basalt angled out of the greening hills like the prow of a landlocked steamer, barnacled with the mudded nests of swallows. The banks are noisy with the birds, such busy-bodies, and some few dip and skitter across the river's surface like skipping stones, snatching up early insect hatches.
It's late March, and the water's a muddy mix of silt and early snowmelt. The peaks of the Blue Mountains, the Seven Devils, Waha, the Wallowas, and the Gospel Humps are snowcapped, weeks away from the major melt, by which time she'll already be safely home.
Twenty miles upriver, they pass Hellers Bar, with its small community of Rogersburg. It's the dead end of civilization: a clutch of homes, church, bar, minimart and gas pump. Here the real journey begins. Everwine throttles through the chop where the Grand Ronde converges. The hills are softer here, and broader, a green overlay of grass on a 200-million-year-old anomalous deposit of limestone.
Nance thinks to tell Meredith all this, but her sister's head is turned, so that what is visible is her brown hair rubber-banded into a roll like a fist at the back of her neck. Nance is pleased to see her, but she's also suspect of Meredith's overwhelming need to reconnect. Wonders What's behind it? Suddenly, night before last, she shows up on Nance's front stoop, 1,800 miles from their family home, where she lives, along the Mississippi, in LaCrosse, Wisconsin.
At the back of the boat, Meredith looks smaller, as people tend to against the backdrop of a mountain, or so much sky — a thing Nance has noticed since moving west, how humbling the landscape can be, how a wrong step, say, or a turn in the weather can set your perspective in order, or realign you in the food chain. But she also knows there's something about Meredith that has always provoked protection. At five five, she's taller than Nance, but less steady somehow. A thinly planed woman, a little underfed, with a square face and eyes deeply set. At thirty, she's younger than Nance by three years. Not a woman you'd call beautiful, no, but attractive. Enough to have been through one husband in a short six months at age eighteen, and any number of less than desirable men friends since, most of whom Nance has forgotten or never met in the first place.
She suspects another candidate's just been scratched off. For why else would Meredith show up, unannounced, tight-lipped and looking ... snake-bit.
Everwine lines up with the channel markers, a line-of-sight course, and he swings the craft up and over the rollers, bores a parallel line to the white-capped curve, and guns it so that the back fishtails into the calm at the end. In the slower flow, he throttles down to root through a paper bag at his feet, from which he frees a thermos. Nance pours him a cup of coffee. "How about your sister?" he shouts. The captain's clearly on his way to smitten, and Nance, knowing the kind of man Meredith attracts, finds herself suddenly suspicious of his life outside of river guide.
Nance hands a cup of coffee to Meredith, then returns to the fore with a cup for herself. She takes a careful sip and her teeth ache with the heat, pain needling up behind her eyes, so that she blinks once and then again.
She loves her sister. Always has. Even during the worst of it. But damned awkward. She thinks about Ned's reaction when, over breakfast, he was informed of Meredith's unannounced late-night arrival. "Well, it's too late to do anything about it now," he said. "You'll have to take her with you."
"Ned, this is work, not a picnic."
He held up the slab of bread he was buttering, the blunt knife probing.
"I think you missed a spot," she said.
He smiled. His winsome smile. No other word for it, really. Ned. Gray eyes like washed stone. Charismatic, but effortless. A careless charm. On the downside: The way he butters bread. His horror of her career. His dislike of anything in the "great outdoors." His reticence about himself. "Maybe you don't want to know" — his boyish smile. "Maybe I'm just trying to spare you the worst." Her feeling that, for as well as she believes she knows him, there's something withheld, some knowledge exclusively in his keeping.
She'd meant to tell him that it would be difficult having Meredith up canyon. She'd get in the way. It wouldn't be safe. But she knew he'd scoff. "Right, but handling rattlesnakes is?" And truthfully, Nance knew it was up to her to do the right thing. Meredith was her sister, after all.
She'd meant to say this and more, but he was already off into the other room, as involved as he intended to be and as quickly absolved of dealing with the nettlesome sister-in-law.
They're entering a stretch of river where the orientation of the rocks changes, the canyon formation becoming part of an island arc system — volcanic islands akin to the Aleutians, drifted on plates into the continent, jammed into the great shelf of land that was to become North America. Here the canyon deepens, the river becomes chop, and then a series of broad watery steps that is Wild Goose Rapids. Meredith's hanging on two-handed to the back rail of the boat. In the calm afterward, she moves forward, face flushed, looking for more.
The morning sun breaks over the rim, limns the boat's ripples with a brittle light. Nance relaxes, lets Everwine describe the history of the place, the flight of the Nez Perce and Chief Joseph down this corridor. How the tribe crossed the Snake near the Imnaha River's confluence during the height of spring flooding. The women, the children. The horses.
The water's a hazy blue along the rock wall and bars of sand finger into drop-offs. They are moving and not moving. It's a dizzying sensation, stepping in time with the river without being taken in by it, for Nance knows that this river, with its one thousand miles of riverbed covering four states and its twenty-six dams, harbors in its depths sunken steamers, rafts, canoes, and dories. Entire forests — the effluent of a thousand spring melts — the bones of trees stirring in the hydraulics, and a stew of animals: elk and deer, coyote, cattle, horse, sheep, the numberless fish, the swallowed hatches of midge and gnat and salmon fly.
People, as well: the boating accidents, the suicides, the centuries-old murders. Nance stares into the water, half-believing she might see the thing she's always suspected — that larger world that moves beneath, the underside of daylight, the thing we write off to ill chance, bad luck, or circumstances. But there's only the drone of the engine.
The deeper they travel, the cooler it gets, and Nance hands a hooded sweatshirt to Meredith. "Put it on under your coat," she says.
Meredith stiffens at the suggestion but then bundles up.
Everwine combs his fingers through his graying hair. "You a snake wrangler like your sister?" When Meredith laughs, he says, "Rest of the family's normal, huh?"
"Everwine, who's paying for this trip?" Nance asks.
He turns to Meredith. "So. You come to visit and she takes you to the snakes." He shakes his head, turns to Nance. "I ever tell you 'bout my friend got chased by a snake once."
Meredith shifts in her seat. Nance rolls her eyes.
"No. Really. Hunk —"
"Hunk?" Meredith asks.
Pete nods. "Hunk Rabay, he's climbing the banks of the Clearwater, and this snake comes flying out of the rocks —"
"Flying," Meredith says.
Nance smiles. "Technical term."
He nods. "In a manner of speaking. It comes out, slithering and striking —"
"Slithering and striking," Nance says.
Everwine purses his lips. "Whose story is this anyway? This snake's hot on his heels, and Hunk races up the hillside, but when he gets to the top, the snake's already there. Waiting."
"How steep was the hill?" Meredith asks.
"How slow was this guy?" Nance asks.
Everwine shakes his head. "You two make a habit of ganging up on the unsuspecting?"
Excerpted from Season of the Snake by Claire Davis. Copyright © 2005 Claire Davis. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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