AN INTRODUCTION BY LYDIA MILLET
Allegheny Front has few sentimental trappings. Traveling salesmen meet up with the guns of the landed poor; tourists die, loggers die, cranky uncles are pulverized. But as often as men kill each other, in Matthew Null’s singular, strong collection, they kill animals more. And not just game animals, either: black bears are massacred, bald eagles killed and crucified. Men’s stubbornness is a rock face, in these intelligent and unpretentious stories, their anger a crown fire, their occasional tenderness a rill.
In an era where even the more esoteric of literary fictions tend to have moved away from the rural, away from the beasts of the forests and fields, away from land-based individual sustenance and the rhythms of seasons and tide, Null’s stories are remarkable for both their sharp relevance and their otherness. They seem to uncover a texture of living that’s increasingly alien to urban readers, who, for better or worse, make up the lion’s share of buyers and borrowers of contemporary literary fiction in the United States. It’s a gritty texture precisely defined by the details of natural places, without the slickness and bright primary colors of highly engineered, exclusively human habitats. Null’s subtler palette is browns and greens, yellows and grays, the blues of sky and water.
It’d be disingenuous of me to call these stories “authentic,” since I’m frankly unqualified to judge the authenticity of foreign cultural representations — and make no mistake, the divide between rural and urban life in this country in 2016 is stark enough to make one foreign to the other. Of course, it’s not a literal divide and is far more nuanced than this reductive formulation (for instance, I live in the middle of the desert in a warm, red state, but I grew up urban and cold, and I don’t change my own flats).
Like much of my reading demographic, I know almost as little of hardscrabble country life as it’s possible to know. But I know a bit about land-use policy, a smidgeon about wildlife management, and a fair amount about natural resource conflicts, and Null’s stories have an extensive grounding in all of these. They interest themselves in the brutality with which we’ve plundered our legacy of wild places, in the excruciating social limits that drive personal choices, and the economic corners into which we paint each other and ourselves. Almost every piece touches on some part of the class enmity that festers between rich and poor, educated and uneducated, those who understand the land as a treasure to be protected and those who eke out a tough living directly from it.
Yet Allegheny Front is anything but one-sided or simplistically dualistic. It remains at a distance from judgment, at a remove from easy definitions, unspooling a lucid and often painful history of appetite, exploitation, and bereavement.
Author of Sweet Lamb of Heaven
by Matthew Neill Null, recommended by Lydia Millet
Labor Day. We could hear the bellow and grind from the Route 19 overpass. Below, the river gleamed like a flaw in metal. Leaving the parking lot behind, we billy-goated down the fisherman’s trail, one by one, the way all mountain people do. Loud clumps of bees clustered in the fireweed and boneset, and the trail crunched underfoot with cans, condom wrappers, worm containers. A half-buried coal bucket rose from the dirt with a galvanized grin. The laurel hell wove itself into a tunnel, hazy with gnats. There, a busted railroad spike. The smell of river water filled our noses.
Finally, sun spilled through the trees, and we saw Pillow Rock rise as big as a church from the waters. A gaudy lichen of beach towels and bikini tops coated it over. Local women shouted our names. “Happy Labor Day!” When we set foot upon it, the granite seemed to curve to our bare soles, radiating an animal heat. Wolf spiders raced off. We made the top, where Pillow Rock flattened. The river nipped at its base. So much water. The Army Corps of Engineers had uncorked the dam below Summersville Lake. The water churned and gouged at the canyon walls. The Gauley had the reputation of a drowning river, even before the Army Corps wrestled it out of God’s control and gave it power.
Upriver, scraps of neon: rafters. Dyes like that don’t appear in nature. Their paddles flashed like pikes in the sun.
Rafting brings in millions of taxable dollars a year. The commissioner says it’s the best thing to happen to Nicholas County since the Coal Severance Tax. “Coal was king,” he says. “Coal was king.” Men in their twenties and thirties and forties shouldn’t stand idle. We who’d lost our mining jobs would work in whitewater, plow that wet furrow. Nice thoughts. Invigorating lies. For our bread, we worked filling stations, timber outfits, hospice care, county schools. The two big successes among us, Chet Mason and Reed Judy, started a welding outfit out of Reed’s old, echoing barn. The rafting operators — from Pennsylvania, Oregon, Croatia — brought their own people and did little hiring, until Kelly Bischoff started Class Five. He hired locals. The papers gushed over Kelly. He’d graduated from Panther Creek High School. One of us. Ex-miner. He looked rugged-good and dusky on a brochure, glossy and smiling, holding a paddle. His mother’s from Gad.
On Pillow Rock, men and women spoke to one another, casual and cunning. Someone fiddled with a portable radio: white jags of static, the silver keen of a steel guitar. We pried open prescription bottles that carried names other than our own.
Too late for trout fishing, too early for squirrel season — time to sun ourselves like happy rattlesnakes and watch the frolic. Five weeks running in the fall, we did, every Saturday, every Sunday. Opening day was always best. Every few minutes, another raft tumbled over Sweet’s Falls and crashed in the shredding whirlpool. After a tense moment, the raft popped up like a cork in a sudsy bucket of beer. We cheered. Agonized faces glanced back, blooming with smiles. They loved us, or the sight of us. They held paddles aloft in pale, white arms and their orange helmets shined. Some claim we don’t care about those people, we just take their commerce. Not true. We wonder about their jobs, their towns, their faces, their names.
Kelly Bischoff swore he heard a cash register chime every time they tipped over the falls. I love clientele, he liked to say. Kelly moved between the two worlds, sleek as an otter. He knew us. He knew the rafters. Their names, their faces. He had everything you could want.
“Look, that one’s so scared he keeps paddling, not even hitting the water.”
Laughter tumbled down the rock. “What a jackass.”
“A happy jackass.”
“Would you do that?” Chet Mason asked a woman. “Go over the falls?”
“I’d love to scream like that. I never scream like that.”
“You hear that, Jason? Sounds like you’re not taking care of your husbandly duties.”
Reed Judy said, “You pay big money to holler like that. Old Kelly gets two hundred dollars a head. You got to come with a full raft, too. He got plenty of rafts.”
“How many heads is that?”
“Six in that one, not counting the guide,” Chet Mason said. “Slick as a hound’s tooth, Kelly is. Course, fall’s got to pay for winter, spring, and summer — that’s awful heavy math. There he is. That’s Class Five, that’s Kelly’s.”
The forty-seventh raft that day. Class Five River-Runners had blue-and-yellow rafts, same colors as the Mountaineers’ football team. We were proud of Kelly. After they sealed the Haymaker Mine, he mortgaged his house to start the outfit. Kelly punched out Mayor Cline last year at the festival. Wasn’t even drunk.
“Hey, Kelly boy!” We cupped hands around our mouths. “Hey, Kelly!”
He didn’t wave back, riding closer on the careening swell. The raft hit at a bad angle. Rocks scraped the wet, blubbery rubber. As it made the lip of the falls — in our bellies, we felt a feathery sympathetic tickle — the raft toppled and shook out bodies.
Quiet. Then the screaming. We bounded down to the water’s jagged edge, we tried to tally them, keep the numbers right. Neon tumbling in that gullet of foam, and one frail arm. We reached and missed and cussed ourselves. Reed managed to hook a belt and flopped a man onto the rock.
One disappeared under a boulder for a few sickening moments and shot out the other side. His mouth a hard circle.
With a strong crawl, Kelly led some into a backwater that bristled with logjams and lost paddles. Their heads broke the surface. The current sucked them back.
Kelly and the girl reached up at the same time. Chet Mason was closest. He had one set of hands. He hesitated for a millisecond. He reached for Kelly. “Got you.”
A sharp little yelp cut the noise. The girl’s helmet disappeared downriver. She was gone.
Young boys slid off the rocks like seals. Tethered with rope, they felt for corpses with their feet; we fished for the dead and walked the living — Kelly and four rafters — up Pillow Rock.
Like nothing had happened, another raft came tippling over the falls. The rafters looked surprised when no one waved. Supplicants, we circled the rock with prepaid cell phones raised in hand, trying for the best reception. Soon an ambulance squalled onto the overpass.
The rescued were quiet now. Hard to believe they’d been wailing, keening, moaning just moments ago. Flogged by the water, they looked haggard — pilgrims who’d been turned back from the country of the drowned. We sat them on beach towels and tried to give them sandwiches. They wore mere bruises and abrasions, but the paramedics nursed them just the same. One kept trying to slip a blood pressure cuff onto them. A blond woman with a tank top and a little too much sun wept and cussed in alternating jags. She did this while wringing water from her hair. She had a stiff, shocked look, like a cat you just threw in a rain barrel.
All the while, more rafts going over.
The survivors sat a ways from Kelly Bischoff. He shivered under a towel, smoking a damp cigarette. He’d stripped off his life jacket and spread it in the sun to dry. His hair, gone gray in patches, had grown out like a hippie’s. “Of all the goddamn things,” he kept saying.
“How many times you been over the falls?” Reed Judy asked him.
“Three hundred and thirty-one.”
“How many times you roll it over on you?”
“Three,” he said, pulling on the cigarette. “This was the third. My line was right.”
“Looked like you hit it funny.”
“My line was right. They let out 3,800 c.f.s. today. Too much river. That,” said Kelly, “is God’s honest truth.” He pressed his ear against the warm granite to draw out the water. He was shaking.
Deputies arrived. They were locals, Hunter Sales and Austin Cogar, young, crewcut, sweating from the hike. Austin stood by the survivors and jotted on a pad. “How old you say she was?”
“I don’t know exactly,” a rafter said. He was half of a whisper-thin couple who were holding hands on the rock. “She’s my friend’s daughter. She’s in high school.”
“Her name’s Amanda,” Kelly cried. It was sudden, like the fury of a wasp.
Everyone turned to him. Hunter took his arm and tried to lead him aside.
“I know all my clients,” Kelly said. He liked calling them by their names. It set things in motion, the tumbling of keys in locks. It made us feel unprivileged.
Hunter asked, “How you doing, Kelly?”
“I been better.”
“Turn a boat over, did you?” “Looks like.” Kelly flicked the cigarette into the waters.
“Got good insurance?”
“Damn good. The best.”
Hunter told us to give them some room. He lowered his voice and began to question.
“I had one beer,” Kelly said, more loudly than he should have. “Washed down my sandwich at lunch. Ask anybody.”
The blond woman who’d been wringing her hair spoke up. “You drank three of them,” she said, putting a nice little snap on her words. “You put them away fast.” She turned to Austin. “He had at least two. Then he sneaked off at lunch with them and — ”
Kelly said, “Christina, this is between me and the police. You’ll get your turn.”
We blushed at the mention of her name, like they’d admitted something sexual. Austin’s pen quit scratching.
The blond woman walked over to Kelly. “I have something to say and it’s my right.”
“Aw, shut up.” Then he called her something that made us cringe, even the deputies.
“I’d like to speak to you in private,” Austin told her. “All you people go. Come on, get.”
She spoke in low tones, her hands fluttering in a crippled-dove dance.
Slowly, we folded our towels but didn’t stray far. Kelly sat off to the side like the condemned. Austin talked into a radio pinned to his shirt. “Blond teenager, female, fifteen years of age. Male, forty-three years of age, scar through his eyebrow.”
The sun weakened. As the temperature fell, the air began to smell like rain. Deputies said go on home, they didn’t need no more statements, though we’d have been proud to give them. The coolers pissed final streams of melt-water, and we made our exodus, one by one. A drizzle fell. Kelly sat in the back of a Crown Vic cruiser on the overpass, head bowed against the seat in front of him. The drizzle turned to nickel-hard rain, and we heard the blades whapping long before we saw. The helicopter dipped into view. Pterodactyl-ugly, it switched on a searchlight and circled many times. Then it swooped away, called back wherever it came from. The rain turned to roaring curtains. Faintly, the music of rescue disappeared over the ridge.
We found the dead girl wrapped around a bridge abutment at the mouth of Meadow Creek. Her skin was bleached canvas-white by the waters, her eyes pressed shut. For that we were thankful. The rafters aren’t supposed to see this stretch of river. It’s a world away from Pillow Rock. Here, Meadow Creek sloughed mine-acid into the Gauley after any good rain. It streaked rocks orange and sent a cadmium ribbon of yellowboy unspooling downriver. No fish, no life. The sight of it could make you cry.
“You guys ought to pull on gloves.”
We waved off the sheriff and waded in. Hadn’t we been raised to treat our hands like tools, our tools like hands? Blue jeans drank up water and darkened.
We built a chain of ourselves then pulled her from the shallows, her hair tangling like eelgrass around hands and arms, refusing to let go. On the green table of pasture, we laid the dead girl’s body: coltish, young, trim as a cliff-diver’s. An athlete. Her hair twisted into a wet question mark. One leg tucked under her at a funny angle. We pulled down her shirt where it had ridden over her small breasts. Leaves in her hair. “Walnut leaves,” someone said.
She looked okay for someone who’d been traveling all night. We wrapped her in plastic and carried her to the road. Sheriff said, “Sure glad Kelly ain’t here to see this.”
Everyone nodded. It was a solemn occasion. It felt almost holy, to carry a visitor’s body in the morning light. None of us had touched one before.
The dead girl’s picture found its way into the newspaper, pixilated and gray. She was a high schooler from Bethesda, Maryland, her father a midlevel administrator at the Federal Department of Labor. The mother an ex-wife. Her father was Greg Stallings. We never found his body. We learned the things we did not know. Amanda.
You couldn’t have gotten all the leaves out of the dead girl’s hair. Not even if you’d sheared it off.
With her death, life changed, a little. Insurance payments were made, rumor and accusation leveled, a dram of ink spilled in the papers. Kelly Bischoff sold his company to a fellow from Connellsville, Pennsylvania, who owned a northern operation on the Youghiogheny and the Cheat. Seventeen of Kelly’s people went on unemployment and COBRA, drawing as long as they could. Connellsville had his own guys. No one made big lawsuit money off her death; rafters sign risk papers beforehand, absolving companies of blame. So earth turned, bears scouted their dens, the Army Corps eased their levers down. The river returned to its bed.
We have a tenth of the mining jobs our fathers had.
But Kelly had connections. He found work running a dozer at a strip mine — a fitting job, where he dumped blasted rock into the valley, staunching creeks and gullies with tons of shattered mountaintop. He crafted a featureless flatland where the governor promised malls, industrial parks, golf, chain restaurants. A new round of permits cleared the EPA.
It hurt to see Kelly out of the rafting game. And yes, maybe we’re guilty of feeling something special for Kelly, of yoking our fortunes to his. We rooted for him. He showed what our kind could accomplish, if given the chance, in this sly, new world. We could go toe-to-toe, guide with skill, make that money. We were just as good as outsiders, almost equals, we weren’t just white mountain trash. The sting of the rafters’ uneasy looks when we pumped their gas or offered directions — with a few more Kelly Bischoffs, why, all that would end. Now, nothing.
Then, December. Reed Judy was driving the overpass, making for the tavern at Clendenin Mill, the one that burned last year. A lone figure was washed in the spastic glow of headlights and sucked back into the darkness. Reed pulled over, grit and snow popping under his tires. The man walked up to meet him.
“Can I give you a lift?” Reed asked.
“No, bud. Just taking a look at the river.”
Reed heard the Gauley muttering in its dumb winter tongue, but the canyon was black, no river there. He could see the distant warning lights, like foundered stars, where the dam stood low in the sky. Where it divided river from lake. He asked, “You sure? It’s blue-cold out.”
“Oh, I’m parked down at the turnaround.”
It was Kelly.
“Suit yourself,” Reed said.
“You Steve’s boy? The welder?”
“You don’t look like your mother.” Kelly pinned him down with a stare. “Say, you was down there that day. You drug the river. I know you did. Down to Meadow Creek.”
Reed panicked, lied. “No,” he said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes, you do. You seen her. Amanda Stallings.” Kelly winced. “Did she look okay? God, she was a good girl. She wasn’t tore up too bad, was she?”
When Reed didn’t answer, Kelly said, “I didn’t mean to drown her.”
“Course you didn’t! Nobody said you did! You don’t have to say that.”
Kelly said mournfully, “I don’t think you understand,” and said no more.
Telling it around, Reed itched a particular place on the back of his hand. “Looks like he’s aged twenty years, he does.”
A month later, Chet saw Kelly on the overpass, hands clamped on the rail. When Chet told the story, he fidgeted and blushed. The sight had shaken him. “I thought about hitting him with the truck and saving the poor son of a bitch from, from — I don’t know.”
And this was something to say, because in a place with so few people, each life was held precious, everyone was necessary. We saw Kelly again and again that winter. State troopers made him walk the line. He was not drunk. “Kiss my red ass,” he cried. “Public right-of-way.”
We waited for him to jump.
Every night the dam drew Kelly there. To avoid Route 19, we looped far out of our way, over the crookedy mountain cuts. It hurt too much to see him. But others were vigilant. Every morning, the dam operators of the Army Corps — three lonesome, demoted engineers — scanned the banks and the tailrace with binoculars. They had a pool going as to when Kelly’s lifeless body would finally wash up. That sortie out of the powerhouse was the high point of their day. This, after all, was a backwater post among backwaters.
Lyndon Johnson, a president we loved, dedicated Summersville Dam in 1966. Before cutting the ribbon, he made a joke about losing his pocketknife on the way and maybe hav- ing the Secret Service throw up a roadblock at the Nicholas County line to find whoever had pocketed his Schrade — too fine a thing to leave just laying around — since he reckoned all West Virginia boys come out of the womb knowing a good knife when they see one. We laughed, and Lyndon took out a bandanna and swabbed at his brow, looking like any worried man.
Acres of virgin concrete. Smooth, vertical. The dam was tall as the face of God. There was nothing else to compare it to. Nothing of such stability, such mass.
The rising waters flooded the village of Gad, home to a store, a filling station, and three hundred people. Eminent domain moved them, even the dead from their graves. (When Kelly stood on the overpass, was he trying to see his mother’s village through ninety feet of water? No. He thought only of the girl.) Quietly, later, Gauley Season was created in 1986 by an act of Congress. We had no idea how life would change.
Over unruly rivers and hogbacks, the rectangular Gauley River National Recreation Area was placed like a stencil. It’s shaded aquamarine on the maps. Lord — maps and new maps. The rapids had names before the rafters came: Glenmorgan Crossing and Mink Shoals, Gooseneck, Musselshell. They brought a new language: cubic feet per second, high side and chicken line, hydraulic and haystack. They renamed the rapids: Insignificant, Pure Screaming Hell, Junkyard, the Devil’s Asshole. Unwritten, our names flew away like thistledown on the wind. Except for Pillow Rock. Our fathers named the rock for the river drivers napping there in the sun, after a punishing morning of busting jams and poling logs downriver. Chet snuck to the foot of the overpass and spray-painted in green neon, Pillow Rock Ahead!!! The last thing a rafter sees before tipping over the falls.
True, the release goes against nature. Gauley Season scours the river, blasting fish from their lies, eyes agog, air bladders ruptured. Even so, Gauley Season brings certain benefits. To atone for the fishery’s death, the Department of Natural Resources grows California rainbow trout in hatcheries and drops ten thousand pounds into the canyon by helicopter. The fish have nubby snouts, open ulcers, and tattered fins from rubbing against the concrete raceways. Gray trout, we call them. They taste like they’ve been stamped out of cat food, but they’re free. Come spring, we watch them rain and smack the waters. We cast hooks until every last one’s caught and creeled. Sometimes the fish hit the rocks as the helicopter swoops away. Raccoons revel in the blood. They lick their wiry hands, fumbling them in an attitude just like prayer. They rejoice.
“There he is!” an engineer cried. “You win, Sully! He jumped! He finally jumped!”
The others ran out of the powerhouse. He adjusted the parallax of his binoculars in a gloved fist. “Shit. False alarm.” What he thought was Kelly was a dead deer twisted — twisting — in sunken willows.
A year passed as they do, quickly, as if in a dream or a coma. We thought of the dead girl and her father less and less, or tried to.
Snow and thaw and rain. Hay was cut in the fields, sallies hatched off the river in lime-and-sulfur clouds, deer grew their velvet crowns. September gleaned a cool wind from the Alleghenies. Labor Day weekend, Pillow Rock gathered its people. We hollered as the Army Corps opened up the gates. Upriver, the beating of ten thousand hooves. We inhaled the water’s breath of iron and cedar.
A standing wave broke over Sweet’s Falls. The river augered and torqued, a muscular green. Shards of flotsam and jetsam: broken sycamores and garbage bags, bleached timber, a child’s tricycle. A water-bloated calf wheeled downriver, eyes blue as heaven.
The air crackled with anticipation. Gas stations and hotels and campgrounds had pitched their banners early: Rafters Welcome, Cold Beer Hot Showers, Ask About Our Group Rates. This would be a record-breaking season. The Washington Post had featured us in their Sunday magazine. The headline read Montani Semper Liberi. West Virginia’s secret is out: the number two river in America, number seven in the world. One question remains. Can the whitewater industry save this place? With the glee of discoverers, they told of the spine-rattling, third-world pike that is Route 19. That wasn’t so bad — maybe the Department of Highways would be embarrassed and put in for federal money. What nettled most were the things they plucked out to describe: junk cars in the river, raggedy bear-hounds jumping in their kennels, crosses at Carnifex Ferry that say Get Right with God and There Is No Water In Hell. All eye-battering, all to be laughed at. Didn’t talk about the landing we poured, the oil-and-chip road we laid for their wobbling, overburdened shuttles. “Relax,” Mayor Cline said. “Sometimes the fire that cooks your food burns your fingers — you can’t bitch.” It’s dog Latin, the state slogan. We are, it says, always free.
Kelly Bischoff walked in long pants down the fisherman’s trail, with a ragged red backpack on.
Pillow Rock went silent.
Work-blackened jeans, dirt in his hair. He peeled off his shirt, shook it of coal dust, and folded it with care. The words Sweet and Sour were inked in cursive blue over his nipples, with arrows offering up directions. A black panther climbed his bicep, claws drawing stylized blood. A Vietnam mark. He shucked his boots and tucked his cigarettes, wallet, and keys into them. Finally, he pulled out a penknife and snagged off his work pants to the knee.
“You’re back among the fold,” Reed said to him.
Kelly smiled. “Good to see you all.”
“You working that strip job?”
“Yes I am,” Kelly said, looking side to side, daring anyone to say a word against it.
“Jesus Was Our Savior, Coal Was Our King. Say, you probably ain’t watched from this angle.”
Kelly said, “I seen them go over. 1979, it was. Fishing here. Seen Philadelphy Pete Dragan go over Sweet’s, back in them too-big green army rafts. Said, Hell, I can do that.”
Kelly watched the falls, apart from the rest. What could he read there? The water herded yellow foam into the backwater, a rancid butterfat color, thick enough you could draw your name in it with a fish pole. Where we’d saved four lives last year. Five if we counted Kelly’s. If Kelly longed for his old life, he did not say. He just watched the water’s horseplay like he could augur it. Maybe he could.
Rafters! We waved and hollered as usual, but Kelly radiated a complex silence. So we grew quiet, not so joyful, and the day grew old. Shadows slithered on the rock. One hundred ninety-seven rafts. Not a one drowned. Clouds came and snuffed our shadows. The air had a little bite to it, so we pulled on sweaters and packed to leave. Slush tipped from coolers, the last orphan beer cracked and drained. Kelly just sat there.
“Them are your people,” we said, waving at the last raft.
Kelly shrugged. We gave Reed Judy some hopeful looks, so he hunkered down next to our fallen idol. “You coming? We’re going to Bud Shreve’s, grill some food. Be fun.”
“No, I’ll set here awhile.” Kelly rummaged around his backpack and found a gray army-surplus blanket. Was he too good for us?
“Alright, bud. You hear about the blind kid up here got bit by the rattlesnake?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Least he didn’t see it coming.”
Kelly smiled and looked at the ground. “That’s a good one,” he said. Didn’t even flinch; there was hope for him yet. But then he whispered something that turned Reed pale and bloodless — and that Reed wouldn’t tell about till years later. “You’re the one lied about Meadow Creek,” Kelly said. “Lied about finding her. Why would you do that to me?”
We left him there as the drawknife of dusk peeled back the world.
In heirloom, fifteen-verse ballads, lovers of the drowned flung themselves in, so their bones could frolic and mingle. But Kelly never trucked in old ways. Instead he sat with us.
For the rest of the season, Kelly was the first on Pillow Rock and last to go. Word went round he’d slept there through the weekends, under a ragged tent of laurel. “But he looks to be shaving,” someone said. Sure enough, he never missed a single raft. He perched there like an osprey. When the maples flared, he began telling stories of the dead girl.
It was hard not to listen. He’d sidle up if you broke away to piss or get another beer. She wanted to be an environmental lawyer, he said. She was an athlete. Once she ran a mile in five minutes and thirty-two seconds, a fluke — her average was six-fifteen. She stayed with her father weekends and summer. She loved dogs. “Oh, who don’t?” Chet asked him.
On a coolish day in October, for the first and only time, he spoke to us as a group. Our numbers had trickled, as they do at season’s end. Kelly chewed his fingernails, his thumbnail. Sucking the taste from them. Then he spoke.
In Bethesda, the dead girl’s home was the size of — he struggled for comparison — of the county courthouse, the one with the statue of Nancy Hart, who seduced her jailer, shot him in his stupid mouth, and brought back a Confederate cavalry to burn the town. Why did our forefathers raise a statue to someone who destroyed them? Our people fought at Carnifex Ferry. Left the trees full of minié balls, as much lead as wood, so they grew hunched and buzzardy under their mineral burden. We sparred and set the boats on fire. They whirled like burning flags in the night and snuffed themselves hissing in the Gauley. Why not a statue to that?
“That’s history,” Kelly said. “Pull your head out your ass.”
“Nothing happens no more. Day in, day out.”
He said, “You got no idea.”
Well, maybe not. “Idea of what?”
To prove us wrong, Kelly plucked up and spoke — confident now. He explained the last day of his rafting career.
When they broke for lunch in the canyon, Kelly offered to lead any stouthearted rafter up Barranshe Run to see the five falls, a stairstep of cataracts up the mountainside.
Hours from drowning, Greg Stallings asked, “Is it far?”
“Little bit. Just follow me, Greg. Anybody else?”
The group sat at a table made of the raft turned turtle. One stood up: the dead girl. Kelly kicked his accent up a notch. “A young thing. Great. You’ll lead the pack, Amanda.”
“I can take it,” she said, with a measure of pluck.
Kelly looked the dead girl over: strong legs, sleek lines. “You can carry her up there on your back,” he said to her father, appraising her like a foreign coin. “She still your little girl, right?”
Greg smiled. The others waved them on, faces full of sandwiches and potato salad, bright and ridiculous in their water-sport clothes — chartreuse and pylon orange, same color as the Powerbait we sling to the government trout.
Ascent. The two of them did what Kelly did, clutching the same wet points of rock, the same dry patches of moss for footholds. The trail stitched itself in and out of the creek, where trout danced like Salome in the tannic water. Smell of rotting wood. Squelch and rasp of wet tennis shoes on rock. Kelly explained Barranshe Run was named for a sow black bear that never whelped a single cub. “No one ran their dogs on her, ever, even when she was reelfoot and gray. Don’t know why. We kill lots of bears here.”
Greg said, “That sounds like a story to me.”
“It’s just what they say.” Kelly knew the rafters were obsessed with fact. They paraded it at him again and again. “Would have been a mercy to kill her.”
“That’s so callous,” the dead girl said.
“Here, you need to stay hydrated. You forget that out here.”
She unscrewed the water bottle and took a drink. She wiped her mouth, cocked her head at him.
The trail narrowed. She kept flicking him little looks.
Hands scrabbled for holds. Calves burned with acid. “One more bend,” Kelly hollered. There, Great Swallow Falls, thirty foot tall. It sluiced over a mossy lip of stone and sent a misty perpetual rainbow into the air: a fisherman’s cast-net frozen mid-throw. The world smelled of cold, rich limestone. Swallows nipped stoneflies. The colored hoop shimmered.
The dead girl showed Kelly how to work the switches on her camera. “Wait, show me again,” he said, grinning. She slapped his arm. “Pay attention.”
Kelly snapped a picture of father and daughter, perfect for the Internet. “Think that’s nice, you ought to see the next one.” Each falls more riveting than the last: deeper drop, darker hues, emerald, topaz, Prussian. The swallows piping like bone flutes.
Panting now, Greg said he couldn’t go on. He sat on a log, nursing warm spots that promised to blister.
“But the last one’s the best,” Kelly said, pointing ahead. Now the trail ran vertical, just a thin trough of root and rubble through jagged stone. A deer couldn’t run it. The ground called for a more agile animal, say a bobcat, a lean leaping ghost with splayed pads and tight haunches.
The dead girl wanted to try it. Kelly promised to bring her right back.
Greg hesitated. “It looks dangerous to me.”
“We take people every day. Amanda be fine.”
“Take your camera,” her father called after.
Kelly led her around the bend. “You got to climb up this little rise to get there.”
Her face went slack. “Are you serious?”
“Grab hold of that laurel, Amanda. That plant there. There you go. Give you a boost.”
Kelly gave it — touching her! — and she pulled herself up. Over the rise, she saw the last waterfall. It was nothing more than a tiny gurgling delta. She began to laugh.
She turned around and found Kelly there. He had a dusky look, shards of coal dust imbedded in his face. Nine years in the Haymaker Mine, riding the mantrip into the belly of the mountain. At night, his skin leaked metal. He woke to blue slivers on the pillow. He kissed her open mouth. She felt his beard and its pleasant rasp on her skin. Swallows singing through the air, soft blue sickles. And the two worlds touch, in a way we always hoped they could. Kelly jumped the wall. He became one of them.
“I turned that raft over,” Kelly said. “I turned it over on purpose.”
“My God,” said Reed, “them people trusted you. My God, that’s fucking awful, that’s terrible.”
The air crackled with alarm. Kelly stared at the river, the sculpted earth and water.
“’Deed I did. Her dad was looking at us,” Kelly said. “He come up behind and saw.”
Reed went on mindlessly, “No, no, no.”
“I know these falls. Think I’d make a mistake right here? These falls is my bread and butter. Been over a thousand times. Been over them blindfolded.”
Everyone yelling, “What’d he see? What was he gone do?” Frenzied and shouting just anything that came to mind.
“I had to. I didn’t mean to drown her,” Kelly said. “Just her dad.”
That settled in. Chet was saying, “Hold on! Kelly, you did it because he seen you and her?”
“She wanted me to get rid of him.”
“Wait — ”
“She hated her dad. She didn’t care if he seen us. He wasn’t her kind. He wasn’t like us.”
We took in his words.
“She told you that?”
“Listen,” he said. “Listen to the water.”
“She told me yesterday,” Kelly said.
It started with cursing. You could taste anger in the air, taste it on your tongue. We’d been had. Kelly didn’t have two worlds. He had one, ours, the lesser. “You evil liar,” Chet Mason told him. Kelly babbled on. Everyone howled at him to quit.
“She told me today.”
We shut him up the only way we could. He slid and danced under our hands. Reed had to take off his belt and hit him with the buckle. Grabbing hold of crazy arms and kicking legs, we flung Kelly into that blind, sucking roar. He flopped in with a smack.
Raw white noise. Kelly was gone. Had we really done it? The Gauley took him under. We blinked wildly at one another. No one said a thing. Let it drag him to the ocean.
The river made a shushing sound. We hadn’t kept track of the days. Sweet’s Falls trickled down to nothing. The Army Corps had lowered its levers. The water was placid. A carnival ride unplugged. Kelly floated to the surface, sputtering, blinking at the sky.
Gauley Season was over. He paddled to the riverbank and pulled himself ashore with fistfuls of cattail. Bloody, he managed a grin and gave us a thumbs-up.
Nothing’s painful as embarrassment. Our credulousness stung like bedsores. Even now we nurse those wounds.
Outlandish as it was, Kelly’s story nagged at you. There were three witnesses: two dead, the other lost in that white country of madness. Could it be true? Part of you wanted to believe Kelly flipped the raft on purpose. Kelly and the girl — rafters and locals, one people — a beautiful story. That is, a mawkish lie. If Kelly Bischoff can’t equal them — to know their names, brush their lips, be loved, respected — no one on Pillow Rock can. Once again, the world let us know what we are. Swallows in flight. The rasp of shoes. Kelly built himself a legend on that. He believed. Maybe he’d come to cherish the girl out of a terrible guilt, which can midwife the strongest, most wretched kind of love into the world. Those cold nights on the Route 19 overpass, he believed. For a man like him, like us, one mistake — one botched run over the falls — could ruin him forever. It wasn’t entirely his fault. When they signed the papers, the rafters delivered their lives into Kelly’s hand, they bought the thrill of giving yourself over to a stranger, and the bill came due. And we were the ones who chose Kelly, after all, one of ours. We let the girl die. When Chet Mason reached for Kelly’s hand, we damned him to his own true life. A life with us. But Kelly couldn’t let go of the dream. He couldn’t join in our quiet decline.
Soured by it all, we gave Pillow Rock back to the rattlesnakes. Now, we let them lie coiled to soak up the heat like powerful conductors.
We found ways to occupy our time: machining engines, welding catch-gates, jacklighting deer. The lesser waters no one coveted, so we dove off the cliffs at Summersville Lake till the state fenced it off. Then we cut the wire with bolt cutters — the West Virginia credit card — and dove at night, our jacklights trained on green water, attracting a fine mist of moths and mayflies.
Yet Gauley Season never ceased to be part of our year. The rafters buy potato chips and high-test, they flag us down for directions, but they don’t miss us, our catcalls from the rock. They palm tips into knowing hands, book next season’s trip, tighten luggage racks on foreign cars. As we do our chores, we imagine the shredding water, the cry of clients, the slur of rubber on stone. They slalom down Sweet’s Falls with nothing but the growl of water in their ears. We hate them. We hate them with the fury that is the same as love.
The rafters notice a single man perched on the granite. Shirtless, Kelly Bischoff raises a hand or touches a hat brim. A wise, gray-bearded fisherman gone down to ply the waters. Hair lank, skin mottled like a Plott hound’s. Bedraggled, harried by weather and briar, the river guide has earned this lonesome place by great effort, by true compass. Stalwart, wiry, keen of limb. A true mountaineer, rifle-true. But they know no better. The river guide has made good on his mortgage. With the yellow tusks of a bulldozer, he breaks the mountain. He draglines the coal.
The river guide cups his hands and calls to the rafters, but they can’t hear, they tip over the falls and lose sight of him in a joyous crush.
The nude crag of Pillow Rock, stripped of its people, scrawled and scrimshawed in the shit of swallows. They don’t know that we — the true fishermen — will not return until season’s end, rods ready, faces hard, when the heavens part, the rotors of helicopters mutter their staccato hymn, and we receive the silver benediction of government fish.