Prompt: River Cliffs
A dozen proud pines stunk and softened along the river’s edge, back to the open earth after half a millennium. “This is what I’m talking about Sara, this is paradise!” I tasted the sweet grass in the air. “Ah! It’s like we’re adventuring across some fantasy land.”
Sara didn’t respond, but struggled under the weight of her pack to close the distance between us. She hooked her thumbs under the straps and lets her elbows bounce about. “Maybe you’ll see what you came out here for today? And we can get back a bit early.”
“Maybe. I don’t know love, I’ll try, I mean, I’ll try hun, but look at this place! I’ve never followed a meandering river like this, it’s incredible. And there, look,” I gestured to a point up ahead. “The land slopes up there, it creates this cliff you see?” The cliff slopped up over the white water in an arc of grey stone that plummeted onto a bed of eroded boulders. The water churned and bubbled white; crashed around the stone warts of the watery steps.
A mile further on, the drop evened out with the riverbed. Stout pines clustered in tight patches, some directly at the river’s edge, others far across the plain grass. Steaming old pine logs scattered like the debris of a blown bridge. Somewhere, a Purple Martin’s liquid gurgle chortled out a low tune; then called out in two final notes cherr-cherr, and fell silent again.
“What’s this up the hill, near the top of the cliff thingy?”
“Looks like … Well it looks like a campsite.”
“A campsite? I thought the point of coming out here was nature, to get away from regular day-to-day things. You brought us to a family camp site.”
“Yeah, yeah, funny. Come on.”
Near the apogee of the cliffs, we came to a brown canvas tent draped over two vertical branches that sunk deep into the flood plain. The cloth was anchored with wooden picks punched through its corners. An animal skin with dark grey fur and a three-inch hole in its side served as the front door.
“Okay, that’s not creepy.”
“What’s creepy?” I said. “This is rad, it’s like a Renaissance faire or something.” Just in front of the primitive tent lay the remains of a stone fire pit that was no more than ten white stones, the color and shape unlike its immediate neighbors in the area, with ash and burnt clumps of what looked like animal droppings littered throughout its belly. I crouched and held my palm over the pit.
“What do you sense young one?”
“Shut it, I’m trying to see something.”
“Ryan, this camp is like ancient. What are you—”
“I’m not kidding you Sara, come here, you can smell it too.”
“That’s gross Ryan, that means this is some hobo’s home, don’t touch that!”
Under one of the pit’s stones I spotted the tan edges of unburnt paper and discovered a note handwritten in pencil.
“Just put it down, we should go, I don’t want to keep poking around.”
“Yeah, yeah, hold your horses.” I pocketed the note and pushed aside the animal skin to peer inside the tent. Inside lay a thin woven horse blanket decorated with faded red stripes. On the opposite side of the tent hunched a bright yellow box. Along its mouth were painted black diamonds. “What if he’s got gold in here or something?” The latch was held in place with a metal pin, but yank and wiggle as I might, the chest remained closed.
A jagged twig stabbed into the tent and flipped back the animal hide. Sara shrieked. “Don’t touch that! Jesus Ryan, get out of there now! You’ve got to be kidding me—let’s go. No more joking around Ryan.”
Outside the tent, I unfolded the note and read out loud:
“Time. Into the river mouth, down the river cliffs, beyond the oxbow lakes and to the ethereal kingdom of Orkor.”
“Wow this guy is nuts.”
“I told you, you don’t need to be an anthropologist to get that, so let’s leave crazy Joe’s trinkets and rat blankets alone, and let’s move on. Please.”
I stared at the note in my hands. The water wind threatened to suck it away from me. Just then, a red bellied fish popped out of the water and climbed several feet before crashing back down into a million water droplets. Just beyond where he fell, a glint caught my eye. “Sara, you see that? There, something like metal?”
Sara rolled her eyes then turned where I pointed. “I don’t see anything. Just a crazy loud river and a bunch of rocks and maybe a fish…”
“No, there, see? Like glasses or something. Yeah, like a pair of glasses.” Sara gripped her hips and squinted her eyes. I jogged up river to get a better angle. “They are glasses. Shit Sara, they’re glasses.” A pair of ovoid glasses tipped and rocked against the water raining down on them, their moss bed, and the boulder that raised them out of the rushing current. A petite white-petaled flower multiplied itself in jagged glass still left on one side of the frame.
“Oh my God.” Sara was beside me.
“Oh man. We need to get back to the car. We need to … I don’t know what do you do in this situation?”
“We have to tell the police Ryan.”
“You really think he jumped in? Those can be anyone’s glasses.”
“The note said he was going to meet the river people, so yeah, I do, and I’m tired of being ignored on this. Ryan Curtstun, we’re leaving now. We can try again tomorrow, but I am done.” She started down the slope. I blocked the sun with my hand and tried to intimidate the glasses into giving up their story, but after several moments of the thin metal frames wobbling and doing little else, I turned and followed Sara toward the car.