Quite early on a splendid summer’s morning, as sunlight shimmied across the treetops or sashayed within a mischief of breezes to brighten patches of farmers’ fields and meadows below, while streams navigating the hills remained wholly shaded and residents of Wakefield stayed asleep or tottered through dawn’s familiar routines, Dennis Jasper O’Farrell caught himself having a moment. Not that he would admit to such a thing. He considered even the expression lame, unworthy of use in any serious vein. Making sport of his wife, he might toss out the line, “You’re having a moment there, sweets,” but in the company of pals—loggers and truckers—a phrase of that nature never slipped off his tongue. And yet, that morning, he acknowledged the thought. Stranded at an intersection, both hands on the steering wheel of his pickup, the brake pedal jammed to the floorboards, he veered precariously close to uttering a stunned admission aloud. “Holy sh—! Can you believe this? I’m having a whatchamacallit here, a moment.”
He’d awakened to the dull buzz of his crotchety alarm. Having been dreaming, the narratives soon forgotten, he flipped through a series of nonsensical suppositions as to what the sound could be when his hand reached across and, as if with sight although his eyes remained shut, tapped the button home with a soft donk. Many mornings he required a further nudge from Val, but today he made it up on his own to a sitting position on the edge of the bed before he succumbed to being fully upright. An initial evaluation concluded that his trucker’s aches were minimal this morning. Once on his feet he received the first of the electrifying images that were to alter his inner polarity. Val’s right foot, little of the ankle visible, poked out from the chaos of blankets. She was a sloppy sleeper. He told her one time that if left outside to sleep at night she’d level a forest, that he ought to invest in a catcher’s mask and a jockstrap for his own protection while in bed. Oh, she pretended to be gung ho for the jockstrap. The blankets this morning were shovelled up around her in haphazard waves, but one foot, as if dismembered, tranquil in its slumber, stuck out from the fray.
The turn of her heel, the slope down to the wee toe, the perfectly rounded cut of the nail, the curl of middle toes, and the atomic twitch, like a clock’s rhythmic tick, of the biggest, the faint delta of veins so fine and precise they’d be impossible to paint, struck him as being one of the truly beautiful sights he’d witnessed at six o’clock in the morning—ever. Floor dust embedded on the bottommost pad. He stood riveted a moment while simultaneously unaware of his own astonishment, as though he was still dreaming. The beauty of the foot—offset by a rummage of blankets and illuminated by a sunrise on the opposite side of the house, so that only a scant reflection off leaves of a glow beyond their bedroom window abetted him—signalled his receptors and snared his interest. The slight blond hairs on the big toe that he never bothered to notice before—lovely. And yet, Denny simply was not prepared nor inclined to be spellbound by such a moment, certainly not by a foot (oh, by the wily wink of a nipple, or a thigh’s gleam, that would be different), and so moved on to the bathroom for the bright gush of his morning piss and the commencement to his day.
He stood still in the tub awhile, eyes closed behind the drawn curtain with its print of mauve falling petals, his face tilted upward while the shower’s considerable velocity raged down upon him.
By the time Valou thumped her tiny fist upon the bathroom door he was officially awake. The occurrence was not daily but lately happened often enough to be considered a new and confounding habit. Denny deciphered that his youngest, his only daughter, waited first for one of her brothers to command the upper-floor washroom before crawling from her own bed, as if being second in line to the toilet gave her permission to enter the master bedroom unannounced to try her luck at the ensuite. She knew darn well that it would also be occupied, the difference a private calculation: bug a brother and suffer his rebuke, or bother her dad and receive in return his loving attention first thing in the morning. Obviously, Denny deduced, puttering downstairs to the other available loo did not constitute a third option. He might have to do something about this latest trick, but not this morning. Wrapped in his housecoat, which spent the night hung on a hook, he opened the door and merrily swooped her up into his arms.
Her little squeak of a cry as she landed on his shoulder helped form the next searing impression of his day.
Rather than accept that he’d been struck numb twice that morning, Denny happily planted a noisy raspberry on Valou’s tummy, kissed her cheek while she giggled, and set her back down on the floor in a single motion.
“You’re a gimmick,” he remarked.
“You’re a gimmick,” Valou chimed back.
He touched the top of her head and shut the door behind her, and then, as though he possessed the ears of a hawk circling above the treetops, able to pick out the imprint of a timid mole tentative on mud (he entertained that very thought, then chose to modify it—hawk eyes, dummy, not ears), he heard the soft pad of Valou’s bare feet across the tiles as she approached the toilet. He hoped the lid was left down, and if not, that she’d remember to clunk it down herself before climbing up. This early, Denny remained slow. Remembering to drop the lid hadn’t been an issue for months now, perhaps more than a year, that incident when she partially fell in and had the dickens of a time getting back out, hollering blue murder, happened eons ago, and really he was the one failing to remember that she’d long grown past the issue.
While sipping coffee downstairs in the kitchen waiting for toast to pop, he was struck again by Valou’s squeak of a cry, as if hearing it for the first time, as he scooped her off the floor and she landed upon the comfort of his fatherly shoulder. Heartbreaking—even as the thought was being entertained he was actively, consciously, pushing the notion aside—how love sang between them. Sang. Oh, joy in his sons crushed him, yet when affection for his daughter stung him, Denny caved, as though the very sting was unbearable. An unwavering emotion fixed in such a way that he need never tend to its care or broach an adjustment, yet the physical manifestation of it, that tingling nip in his gullet, felt so fleeting . . . or so he was thinking, even as he successfully shoved the thought so quickly aside that it lay keenly vanquished and he was merely sipping from his cup.
A Blue Riders cup, his hardball team, from the year they were champs.
He swung the bat well that summer.
Toast popped. He thickly buttered the slices and slathered on jam.
A delightful first crunch, the sound as well as the taste, and Denny ate and drank contentedly.
The slow, easygoing, wide yawn and stretch of morning.
Before departing the house, he poured coffee into a thermos he then clipped to the underside of his lunch pail’s rounded lid. He snuck a peek at his lunch today (peanut butter and banana—stupendous), grabbed hold of his denim jacket, and headed out, letting the light screen door kff-chook behind him like a muffled cough before remembering that he was not supposed to let that happen. He hesitated on the stoop, as if to give Valérie a clear vocal shot at him, but apparently—and he remembered the silence, the silence, of her sleeping foot—she remained too groggy to complain. Coffee’s scent, wafting up from the kitchen, would rouse her soon enough.
If not the coffee, then Valou.
Denny adjusted his jacket collar, which got itself pinned behind a shoulder, but he was promptly off the porch and crossing the yard. First stop, retrieve Valou’s trike. Another gambit of hers, to leave her tricycle in the path of her dad’s pickup. He gave it a little shove with his knee and the toy scooted off the drive, spinning safely onto grass. His daughter was perfectly capable of leaving it out of harm’s way on the lawn. That she failed to do so might prove to be neither carelessness nor accident. She used to be an amazingly obedient wee child, nothing like his sons, and he grappled with an impression that she wanted him to be forced to move her trike. Just as she wanted him to climb out of his truck to move it when he returned up the driveway at the end of a day’s work. The little nipper was actually competing with her devil-may-care brothers, or perhaps learning from them, plotting for attention even if it arrived in the form of mild fatherly wrath laced with an end-of-the-workday irritation.
The little nipper.
He loved trucks, but mostly he loved his own. A midnight blue F-150, a mighty truck, although he had no particular use for its power or cargo capacity, other than for the commute into the woods where his truly massive rig stood parked. More truck than he required. A good car would do, be cheaper, and save on gas. While hunting in the fall, he found the pickup useful, even if his last successful hunt was years ago and not in this particular vehicle. Still, it seemed inane to him to drive to work in, say, some teensy Toyota only to climb up a ladder into the cab of his big rig. Unsafe, went his thinking, to switch from tiny to huge, whereas the progression from a big pickup to a monster logging truck kept his skills up and the roads safe. Proposing that argument to Val when he was dickering over what to buy, he was taken aback by her scoff, then by a laughter so bewildering, so genuine and not the least forced, that he kept the thought to himself ever since. Still.
“Denny,” she told him back then, “it’s called peer fucking pressure.”
He bought the truck anyway.
He caught the weather report on the A.M. station, the promise of another scorcher, then switched it off, preferring the sound of tires on the winding hilly curves as he swept down into Wakefield. Sunlight occasionally flickered through the foliage. The road ran alongside a stream. Few other vehicles were out that early. Stores remained closed and homes slept soundly. Rooftops slouched. Walls gently snored and chimneys rasped. He did not always mind the speed limit precisely but he made a point of it this morning, enjoying the discipline of keeping the needle bang on the mark. He loved his truck and he loved this morning drive when he could kick off the air-conditioning and slip the windows down, rest an elbow on the sill and drive. Just drive. Like that. Like gliding on a breath of summer.
In town, he came to an intersection governed by a stop sign that frequently he rolled through. The streets were free of traffic and pedestrians alike. Cops, he knew, weren’t up. Any cop awake was probably his older brother anyway. So. Nonetheless, he came to a complete stop. And stayed stopped. How light shone on the glass of the restaurant to his right, the chairs within upside down and sitting on tabletops, dust motes floating in the air, how neatly the old timber buildings squatted awaiting the day, the heat, the norm, how calm the landscape beyond the street appeared to him, the trees, the broad river, the hills already drooping before the promise of another languid day and yet somehow the whole scene shot through with light, how birds flitted from tree to bush, catching time on their own amid the planted shrubs before humans and their raucous chaos descended, and Denny feeling, keenly, his beloved family at his back and the job and a day’s honest labour before him, and he felt struck, now for the first time with meaningful awareness, by a certain blissful essential certainty within his marrow that sang, sang, along his bones. He was hugely content, and glad to be at the intersection seated in his F-150, the motor sweetly purring, and suddenly he was dismayed and thought, “Holy sh—! Do you believe this? I’m having a whatchamacallit here, a moment.”
Denny hesitated, in surprise, in dismay, permitting the time to linger. He felt spooked, not sure that he appreciated being overcome by a surprising, lurking joyfulness or whatever it was, an exquisite pain similar to the random charley horse in the night he experienced on occasion, excruciating, that pain, yet at the same time mesmerizing so that he missed the agony once it passed, and he wondered also if he wasn’t having some kind of a freaking stroke or maybe one was imminent and he ought to go see a doctor although he knew that he never would, tell him he was on the verge of a fatal aneurism if he didn’t intervene immediately, like right now, and why, he’d ask him, why is this happening to me?
But he knew what was wrong with him.
He didn’t need to ask or be told.
He simply chose not to admit it.
Then his reflexes took over and he slid his foot off the brake, pressed the gas, and careened away from the intersection. Away, too, from his own thoughts and mood as if fleeing the scene of a crime, or fleeing a powerful inclination to commit one.
■ ■ ■
At a fork in the road, Denny O’Farrell went right. Unbeknownst to him, going left would have taken him past his brother, out of uniform but standing by his patrol car, who was talking to a man they’d both known since childhood.
Ryan O’Farrell was leaning back against the front-side fender of his vehicle, ankles crossed, arms comfortably folded over his chest. He was wearing his policeman’s baseball cap, but otherwise decked out in civvies, jeans, and a short-sleeved, teal, soft cotton polo.
“Nice of you to not bring your gun,” the man said.
“So we’re both underdressed for the occasion,” Ryan remarked.
Save for a thin deer-hide vest better suited for an adolescent half his size, and a torn flag of denim shorts, worn loosely, slit up the sides and cut away as though every stitch of excess fabric was abhorrent to his nature, the man with the darkly bronzed skin sat in the dirt, as carefree and as confident in his minimal attire as the policeman in his off-duty garb. Ryan noticed a bicycle resting on its side down in the ditch.
“That’s new,” Ryan pointed out.
“It’s not stolen.” The man went by the name Skootch.
“Did I infer that it was?” Ryan asked. “But you inferred something about my brother. Do you want to spill the beans or go on talking in riddles?”
Although on the ground, Skootch sat on a level higher than the road or Ryan, at the top of a bank above the ditch. Behind him stood the thick forest that provided a livelihood for so many, and for him a home.
“Rumours aren’t riddles,” Skootch contested.
“They’re lies. Not worth the time of day to listen to.”
“Sometimes that’s true. Sometimes truth is in the listening.”
“Now we’re back to your riddles.”
Skootch untangled his limbs and rose up from the ground. He was tall, as skinny as a sapling. White whiskers speckled his chin.
“Why oh why, Ryan, did an acquaintance of mine get sent to the pen? Christ, Ryan, three to five?”
“Know him well, did you? Do business with the man?”
“Ryan, he was a reserve outfielder. I won’t miss him that much. But apparently your putting him away inspired my third baseman to skedaddle. A middle-of-the-night type thing. He went all paranoid on me. At this point in the season, where am I going to find someone to play third? Unless, you know, you want to make a comeback.”
“You didn’t ask me out here to play third base.”
“I wanted this meeting because stories are making the rounds. Call them rumours. But truth flies around wherever it flies. Out of the mouths of babes or out of the mouths of babbling idiots sometimes, you just never know. If it’s true, it’s true. If not, then no harm is done if I give you a heads-up anyway.”
“Like I said, it’s your brother. Denny’s one hothead mother.”
“I’m not sure that he is.”
“Some loose talk gets spun. People say he might take matters into his own hands. Commit an act of veritable destruction, something of that nature.”
“Why would I tell you this, Ryan, if I didn’t have our own best interests at heart? Yours and mine, both? I’ve got nothing against Denny. You know that. I’m partly squealing on him for his sake. So he can be stopped. I believe he needs to be stopped. I don’t like it that you put my third baseman away—”
“Your reserve outfielder, actually.”
“Same difference. I need a third baseman now because of it. You know what team I’m playing this week, couldn’t you have waited? Anyway, I don’t like what you did but this is not about that. It’s about Denny. All I’m saying is what you already know. If he shoves, there will be some push back. It might not be insignificant. You know what I’m talking about, Ryan.”
That’s all that the policeman needed this summer, a running battle between loggers and conservationists with his own brother at the forefront. Ryan took the other man seriously.
“So you’re hearing that this is about Denny. Reliable sources?”
“At first I wasn’t so keen to believe it myself. But word has a way of going around until it sounds convincing. Various sources. You know that I move in mysterious ways. I keep strange company.”
The man skipped down the steep slope into the ditch and righted his bike. He pushed it up the embankment so that he emerged on the road just in front of the police car. He lifted a leg over and seated himself, the bike looking ridiculously small for a man with such long legs. He scratched his dribble of chin whiskers.
“How about,” he asked, “if you leave my ball club alone for a while? You’ve done your damage. Now leave us alone until the season’s over. As a favour to me, who’s just done a favour for you. Anyway, you’ve got worse things to think about now than my team’s record.”
“I don’t have a clue what it is, nor do I care.”
“Like I believe you. But you’ve got a bigger problem to think about now and I’d appreciate it if you concentrate on that, for all our sakes, and for more goddamn reasons than baseball. I’m trying to keep the peace here, Ryan. Just like you. I’ll see you around, okay? Thanks for the visit. It’s been a slice.”
He paddled the bike with his feet awhile before he raised them onto the pedals, then he was soon zipping off down a hill and out of sight.
Ryan watched him go, then stared off into the dark woods. The sun was coming up warm. He returned to his car, started her up, did a three-point turn, and drove back to town and another day on the job, feeling uneasy.
The River Burns
The River Burns tells the story of a small town in crisis, the mistakes people make, and the courage it takes to heal a community after a horrific act of destruction.
Wakefield is a small town where a unique collection of longstanding citizens has lived mostly in harmony, accepting of each other’s foibles. But underneath the picture perfect exterior a battle rages between those who wish to preserve the historic single-lane covered bridge across the river, and the loggers who want it replaced with a modern alternative. As the days pass with no change in the dispute, tensions begin to boil over, friends turn against one another, and the town seethes with potential violence.
Family man and second-generation logger Denny O’Farrell has been leading the charge to modernize the bridge. When the bureaucratic route fails to produce results, Denny and his friends need a new plan of action. But local police officer Ryan O’Farrell, Denny’s brother, is very worried about exactly how much Denny and friends are willing to risk in order to win the war. Swept up into the dispute, lawyer Raine Tara-Anne Cogshill, a newcomer hiding from her big-city past, hasn’t bargained on getting caught up in a summer of violence.
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Reading Group Guide
1. If you were a citizen of Wakefield, which side of the bridge debate would you support and why? Use examples from the text.
2. The River Burns is told from multiple perspectives, which character do you most identify with and why?
3. “After his wife’s passing [Alex] foresaw a choice. Permit the care and labor that she invested in her gardens over their lifetime together go to seed, and probably go to seed himself, or pick up a gardening spade and dig in. He dug in.” (pg. 30) What does this passage say about Alex O’Farrell’s personality? How would you describe Alex’s relationship to nature?
4. Both Tara Cogshill and Jake Withers are outsiders to Wakefield. How do these two people handle entering such a tight knit, albeit, conflicted community? How do each challenge the traditional roles (gender and otherwise) expected in Wakefield?
5. “Ryan O’Farrell was of two minds coming away from the house . . . He wondered if his brother possessed the same ability, to conceal what fomented inside him, to make it seem as though nothing was going on when really all hell was breaking loose.” (pg. 146) How do the characters in the novel reconcile their true selves with their roles in their community?
6. “The bridge goes to the very soul of this town.” The panel nodded to these comment see more