On the Grandfather's Last Camping Trip
Rebecca Givens Rolland

Our cooler’s packed with food—bread, hard yellow cheese, and jam, and a few packets of honey. I don’t recall packing all that, but maybe I did. These days, I’ve been drinking my food. Erin lays a napkin out and places the food down, carefully, as if she doesn’t want to spill. Two plastic glasses she fills with water. Two pieces of bread, the hard, crusty kind.

I put a slice of bread in my palm and feel its weight. My fingers curve around the crust. I’m tired. More than tired. Exhausted. There’s no right word.

Floating through clouds, that’s how I’d describe the feeling in my head. Drifting through a cloud that’s coming toward me, and the light’s nearly breaking as I walk toward it—walk of my own accord, and enter the cloud as if I were entering an avalanche—and the cloud overtakes me as I walk, envelopes me in its white-on-whiteness, its layers of unrelenting fog, and the closer I get, the more its whiteness feeling like a part of myself—a part of my body even, brilliant against the dark green of the pines, and the willowy oak leaves—yes, even the oak leaves are only windows for my body. Even my body’s only a window for my mind.

I try to eat, but the bread only crumbs. I taste its texture, let it settle in the crevices behind my molars. The taste changes from bland to salty to suddenly sweet.

Erin grabs her bread and laughs as she bites down.

We eat what we can—bread and cheese, a few smacks of honey—and leave what we can’t for the birds. Erin scatters crumbs over the ground until they make a hillock of their own. The napkins she rolls up and sticks back in the cooler, letting them unfurl for a second before shutting the top. The lake shines.

“Are you up for whale-watching?” I ask.

“Sure,” she says.

She must know I’m joking—there’s no way a man in my condition could go out whale-watching, and in any case, in a Virginia lake, there are no whales to be found. But maybe—I can’t help thinking—I could prove it to her. Prove that there are, against all logic, these magical creatures, their fins lipped out as they swerve, bodies spattered with black and white spots. Killer whales maybe, or smaller versions. They might look huge, but they sail through water the way a pilot sails through air, checking their speed.

Erin stands and strides to the lake edge. Dunks her shoes for a second, then leaps back. My soles are weighty as boats now. Impossible to lift.

“Let’s catch some fish at least,” I tell her, as she leaps along the shoreline, stopping for a few jumping jacks. “Some fish the color of winter. Bright white scales.”

I’ve seen those fish before, sailing with my father on this lake the week before he left. Night fishing—I couldn’t see the bottom, the water was so deep, and my father’s jacket rose up bright yellow against the flashlight’s glow. We sailed out to the middle and sat for an hour in the deepest silence I’ve ever known.

I’ve told the story before, but there was one part I forgot. Back then, my father pointed his flashlight down, the fishing pole in his right hand, and said, “Here, look.”

I followed his gaze. A hundred fish, or maybe more, circled in a whirlpool, only a foot off from the port side. As I bent down, they leapt up with a flash. Their tails shimmered with a bright, white fire for a second, then fell back. A brilliant light rose in their bodies, as if their tails had been laced with batteries. As I watched, they spun faster and faster, in a tight circle, held by centrifugal force. I imagined that, if we caught one, the entire ring of them would break.

We’d stand open-mouthed, holding the fish in our palms, distracted by their inner crystalline light, and unable to see the entire lake—the entire country—crashing down around us, the way a tsunami crashes down on a city and sweeps the buildings up, and the more you replay the series of recorded events, the less clear and decisive the water’s sweep becomes. In the end, it looks as though there was never a start to the destruction—rather, the destruction was inside the city itself, buried within its buildings, inherent to its very architecture, and the more you try to draw the thread out, the faster the destruction would occur, until the entire landscape would crumble, and I’d stand open-mouthed with nothing, only a single shimmering fish in my palm.

“I’ll get them,” Erin says, bending down to scoop up water with her hand.

“Not so fast. We need a boat,” I say.

My father has vanished. All of a sudden, I remember. He left the way he said he never would, absenting himself without a single word. Battles he fought are far off now, so far I can’t see them anymore. Sometimes the cold gets in my bones so bad, isn’t that what he sung once? Sometimes the night comes down on me, and I know what’s ahead.

“Let’s make a boat,” Erin says, grabbing a bundle of sticks—white, rough-hewn. Probably from a tree somebody cut down. She’s only got a handful, though.

“You want to make one?”

“Yes, of course.”

Leaning against my wheelchair, I crouch beside her. That’s as much as I can possibly move. Sun breaks against my back. A slat of light drops over her face when she turns. She looks, for a second, like my mother, the way I remember her from the one photo I have left. Brilliant gold, almost white curls, a slight stiffness to her upper lip. Skin so pale I worry she’ll get burned.

I clasp my hands and watch. I can’t help her, so I just sit on the shore and nod as she rips the string from the cooler’s zipper and lays down a handful of sticks. She lashes the pile together with the thread, weaving loops under and over, until the thread becomes impossible to see.

“That’s it,” she says, and sits down beside the neat mat of perfectly aligned sticks. She yanks a daffodil from the shore’s edge and places it facedown on top.

“Really.” The mat’s only around eight by ten inches. No way a human could fit on.

“Yes, let’s send it out.”

“Hold on.” I have to choke the words out.

In earlier years, I wanted to shout against the fog, to pretend my body wasn’t bounded. Now I’ve lifted to the end of my strength. Now my body’s started to lock me out. Damn anyone who says you need a glass of water. Damn anyone who calls this life a practice run, a substitute for the next. Who rehearses the past over and over, shooting the past’s gun, wearing the past’s dirty clothes. Trampling through wheat fields as though the past counted. As though we could live it for real.

It’s strange, the worse the body gets, the more the mind flares. Now, my mind sails up into the sheerest, crispest altitude, up and out like one of those cable cars in a ski town, caught in a morning of the sheerest, most heartbreaking mist, where a single bird rips across the horizon, and tourists read newspapers in a café inside—higher than the café, higher than the mist, up and out into some unknowable space.

I’m done rehearsing. Done putting on dead men’s clothes. This is the life that startles me. These are the details that matter—the flood of water over my fingers, the speckle of light over Erin’s cheek, the breadcrumbs stuck to her lips.

This is the moment before I sweep the crumbs off, before the collection of sticks sails onto the lake’s surface, tied together well. The distance between Erin and me feels brightened, impossibly sharp. This is the moment I hold like a memento. A single image—Erin lashing sticks, building a boat that only a tiny animal could sail.

“One second,” I say, remembering the notebook I’d stuck in the cooler. I was planning to tell her stories if we had the time.

“Will you pass it over,” I ask, gesturing.

She stands and, with a heave of her shoulder, sends the notebook flying in my direction. It’s incredibly heavy. As I unzip the top, I look away, not wanting to see the stagnant water I know that’s caught inside. My notebook has gotten soaked, its front cover darkened with messy water stains and stray breadcrumbs. A diagonal line of liquid pools over its spine.

“You okay?” Erin says, and rushes over to grab me by the shoulders, her face almost reflectively pale. She looks smaller than ever, more fragile, against the flat shine of the lake beyond. Breath spools from my chest. My heart whirs, the way I know a heart’s not supposed to.

My stories. The gift I had wanted to give her. Yes, I’ve got the recordings, but the actual writing. The passing of fingerprints. The gift of what a person makes by hand, the way a sculptor creates a miniature from wood. One copy only, and ruined. What I thought I wanted. Leaving a mark. Allowing the pages to speak for me, when I no longer could.

And where are we now, dear soldier. Dear father. Granddaughter. Dust to dust. The scribbles of one old, fast-aging man, a man who convinced himself that his mind was needed. That his mind—ravaged by false wars, by sheer pretense—could be of use. Seeing that the mind, in the end, desires nothing. That it refuses, even as the body guns forward, to allow anything other than a rush of smoke to pass through. Anything other than a clutch of words.

I’m weeping hard. I can’t stop. My lungs hinge open. When I sit up, the ache worsens. I lie back down. Close my eyes. Let tears gather. Let the lake’s light sear.

Will you come to find me, father. Will you come to find me, anyone. I think back to the grass I used to lie in, to the moment before I felt the gun’s barrel shiver at my cheekbone, skitter over my mess of dark hair. In that moment, when I sensed the soldier coming close but couldn’t see him, when I felt the threat of death—in that moment lived such terrible deliciousness, the terror of the end maybe coming and maybe not coming near.

Back then, every time I lived to tell the tale. Now’s different. My father’s gone. Left for good. No joker will come to shake the leaves off. No lullaby will make me well.

Erin runs off, I guess to find her brother Henry. I feel terrible for having burdened her.

Closing my eyes, I imagine a different scenario, one in which I’m not beached like a sad whale. We’re flying, Erin and I, in some clear, bright atmosphere. No weight, no muscles, no bones. Nothing but water fills my body. Erin picks me up, light as a feather, stiff as a board, the game my friends and I used to play, the group of us twirling each other around in the basement, in darkness that made us dizzy, made us laugh with the crazed mixture of movement and song, and the sick feeling that rose up in our throats when we stopped, and the flags outside our windows waving with wind, and the weight of war lingering in our breath, and something like love in the touch of one body to the other, the touch of sheer aliveness, each of us clinging to the other’s lungs and hearts and knees, our kidneys and livers and brains jumbled as we spun, not worrying what that would mean for our later lives—wanting the jumble, wanting to be mixed-up in the head, so the fog of a century ago would dissipate, and the wind of two centuries back would rise.

I relax my limbs. The boat lifts off with me on its back. I let it lift me, sinking ever so slowly into its slats. The notebook doesn’t matter. It’s only paper. Only words.

My eyes roll back in my head. I’ve shrunk to the size of the boat, or the boat has grown. The two of us are a pair now, a boat and a human, sailing off into a lake that feels like summertime. I’m sailing off into its waters. Ripples churn around me. My father grasps one edge of the boat. Erin the other. Nicole rises up from the far side.

I give them a kiss and a slow wave. Bid them farewell. Joyous silence. Waterfall. I’m going to go find the whale. Catch it. Lasso its body. Climb onto its spine. I’m ready to return in a new life, as a whale with a dappled spine, in sunlight, jolting through the water, arching up, spurting water the way only a wild mammal can. Clearing out old waters. Blasting words. Yes and yes. Yes and no. Forever. Here we go. Forever. Yes. Goodbye.

Rebecca Givens Rolland is the author of The Wreck of Birds (Bauhan Publishing) and the winner of the Dana Award in Fiction. Recent short fiction can be found in the Michigan Quarterly Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, and North American Review