We go to the well. Thirsty and tired and weary with grief, we will ourselves to rise from our beds and return to the well.
Two weeks after we bury our mother the three little girls who grew into big girls pack our fishing gear into the back of the van. And though we plan to only be gone one day, we gather enough emergency food to guarantee our survival should we become trapped in the elements for a month. We purchase temporary Idaho fishing licenses over the internet, print them out and slip them into our pockets, then load ourselves into the van and follow the ribbon of highway between Farmington and our piece of the Little Lost River. Dave and our brother-in-law Steve come along. It’s a five hour drive. Five hours for a little stretch of stream in the middle of nowhere in the belly of the Arco Desert.
I think maybe it takes five hours for the present to sift out. We pass the nuclear testing site, diving deeper and deeper into wilderness, taking a right at Howe - the tiny micro-cell of a town with its old abandoned post office and schoolhouse. I can feel the energy shift. As we get closer, I grow younger. I feel my wrinkles tighten and the limbs shrink and my hair grows thicker and longer until by the time we arrive I am ageless and my mother is alive and well and ready to flick her graceful wrist and let her line dance over the wistful waters. I do not have to close my eyes to see it, nor beckon memory to feel it. It comes easy and natural-like, all on its own.
As we tiptoe through sleeping Howe, down past the specks of farmhouses that line the road, I look out over the expanse of sage to a line of trees in the distance. That’s where the river runs, out there by the trees. Like a thin blue vein in the breast of Mother Earth, the trees hug the water as she runs, crossing now and again under the road we are travelling, the water shimmering in the Idaho sunlight, singing in her comings and goings. Eventually we find the turn off, marked now days by a forest service sign. Back in the day we knew it by heart, with the aid, perhaps, of a smoke signal leading us to Aunt Mae and Uncle Les’ campfire. We pull up beside the barbed wire fence, freeing the prickled thread at the loose fencepost that becomes a gate. The water whispers as we move on through, the dust rising behind us like we are pioneers on the trail. There is a distinct aroma on the river; something of an earthy perfume of fish and grassy mulch infused with sage and earthworms. It comes to us in wafts sent by the Idaho wind, mixed with the swirling dust and the dry hot Idaho air. We are alone out here. But we are not lost.
We change our shoes, gather our individual gear, and disperse. We know this section of river, and her place on this piece of land. She is constant and steady, and though the trees, through the seasons, rise and fall beside her and over her, her bed is dependably true and her waters dependably clear and accommodating. Libby and the boys wade out in their rubber waders, their flies tied on featherweight line. Ann Marie and I weave in and out of the banks, our poles cocked and ready, our juicy wriggling worms tempting at the bottom of swirling deep throated holes tucked into the crooks and bends we know so well. Our lines first wet themselves in that comfortable spot where mom sat when her legs quit working so well. I channeled her, my heart throbbing as the tears poured out, my hand imagining her hand on it, her belly against my seven year old back, her arm leading my arm, whispering when it was time to let go with my thumb, watching the weight of the sinkers carry my bait out over the water and plunk into the center of the hole across stream. I am my mom when I fish.
Right off I get a nibble. I hear her voice… “Wait a minute…wait a minute. There he is again. Give him time to want it bad.” We watch the end of my pole quiver.
“Now!” she calls, and I jerk my pole back and begin to work the reel. Keeping the tip of my pole close to the water, the line taught, my hands steadily turn and turn until the creature comes to me there at the water's edge. I work my thumb and middle finger up under the gills, and remove the hook, then dip my dry green creel into the cool running water. I thank the fish for the nourishment he will provide, then let him slide into the mouth of the creel. He flips and flings in there until I put the creel back in the water, the strap wrapped safely on a willow branch. The men, and my little sister, like to let their fish return to thir waters. Ann Marie and I have to ask them to keep them if they want to eat. We are the keepers of the fry pan.
We follow the river to the barbed wire that marks the farmer’s property upstream, pushing our way through thick clusters of willows, listening to the pitch of the river, knowing that the deeper gurgles indicat deeper waters, cooler waters, where the bigger fish like to rest in their journey. My wet tenny runners squish a steady beat as I walk, the suctioning sound playing against the pulse of the river and the descant of the wind in the willows. As we make out way back downstream the sun descends behind the mountains to the west, her thick soft paintbrush washing across the canvas of sky in deep amber and orange hues, the colors intensifying as she falls until in the end, there is just a brilliant sky and the silhouette of mountains below, like God had used a pair of scrapbooking scissors to scallop the edge of the earth.
They call it the Little Lost River, because she disappears into the ground at some point. But she comes up again somewhere over that mountain range, somewhere near Sun Valley I think, though I’m not really sure.
But I know she comes up.
Like I know one day we will; all of us. All of us will go down into the earth at some point, though I can’t say where. But I know we will. And I know we’ll come up. I’ll come up, and so will my mom, and my sisters, and my brothers and husband and children. We will all find ourselves like that water, clean and clear and very much alive, weaving our way through the spanse of eternity. I can’t say how. But I know it as well as I know that stream still runs out there in the desert on this winter day.