Thursday, January 24, 2013

Chapter Twelve: DRIFTING DAYS

Bed in the bush with stars to see, 
Bread I dip in the river-
There's the life for a man like me, 
There's the life forever.
-Robert Louis Stevenson

Harlan's night had been restless.  He usually slept well, but last night, memories of drifting days pressed on his mind.  A small part of him still yearned to head down river.  With first hint of dawn, he faced the day with these thoughts.

Was it a mistake to tell young ones how dangerous drifting could be?  He didn't think so. Anyone willing to accept the river as the moody stream it is could be taught by it; then the river reveals its secrets.  The years on the boat were some of their best, but he would be hard-pressed to advise anyone to try it today.  Now, barges were a big problem for small boat navigation.  Wind, waves and current push to have their way.  Rough water could upset a houseboat to where it was difficult to work on board.  At times, the stress left them both totally exhausted.

Dams, bridges, chutes, sandbars, boils, or eddies.  He could make a long list of all the challenges.  Sometimes they maneuvered with the help of sweeps; two very long heavy oars with a square blade.  And sometimes a second hand pulled in the johnboat while the other used lines and poles to propel the boat out of trouble.  The mud sail, an underwater canvas on poles, utilized the current more effectively to steer the boat.  All this proved both exhilarating and at times frightening.  Remembering how strenuous it could be, sadly, Harlan again accepted that his drifting days were over.

Now they lived with one foot in the water.  But in foul weather, they had their snug little cottage in Payne Hollow to retreat to.  They delighted in reading before the fireplace while they knew the wild river rushed not far from their door.

The morning sky broke open before him.  Harlan quickly collected painting supplies and made his was to begin some watercolors of the horses from Iceland, of all places!  It fascinated him that these friendly horses whose ancestors had been brought in streamlined Viking ships to a new land so many centuries ago, were now here munching Kentucky bluegrass.  He admired the sleek design of the open Norse sailing vessels, and now his admiration fell on their horses too. They proved most cooperative, and he saw a generous and protective spirit in them toward the girls.  The Icelandic horse was small, but the words that described them best were big. 

The painting went so freely that his thoughts went back to the shantyboat trip.  Once during the middle of the night, when he ventured out to retrieve a board hitting the side of the boat, he fell head first into the icy river!  He might have hit his head and drowned, never to be seen again, while Anna lay sleeping!  The river could take you down.

Even so, there was nothing like that boat.  Sometimes he would tease Anna.  "Here we are Annie, going down the river like Anthony and Cleopatra on that barge!"  The shantyboat looked something like an unwieldy barge on the outside, but inside the clean cabin was a haven from the outside world.  Anna made any space so comfortable.  She was a marvel to him.  Whatever food they caught or grew, whatever grain or staples they bartered or foraged, Anna turned simple foods into nutritious elegant meals.  Evenings inside the boat reading by the fire or playing music had set their pattern for peaceful living.  Harlan remembered serene harbors where frogs chirped and marsh grasses blew, and the boat was everything a home could be.

While living on the water they took few photographs, but the view out their door changed almost daily, so he painted sketches to chronicle their journey.  Harlan discovered art when he was influenced by his brother as a boy.  His progress and development was ongoing, but his subject was almost always the river.  It was a part of him.  Now Harlan's two brothers both had successful careers, which brought some recognition for them.  But when they visited Harlan and Anna on the boat, or at Payne Hollow, they seemed to be filling a need by just being there. The vague expressions of longing was in their eyes. His greatest success was the happy life he and Anna shared on the riverbank.

The horses nickered for attention.  Thad eaten almost everything growing in their yard down to a nub.  Harlan was satisfied with several paintings that he would give to the girls.  He heard stirring in the house.  Ranger raised his head from his paws, looking from Harlan to the house expectantly.  His tail started to swing.  "Ranger ole boy, you're enjoying your company, aren't you?"

The horses heard familiar voices and became restless looking toward the house.  It was time to see to morning chores.  He usually spent some of the morning adding to the wood supply, but that thought completely left him when he saw smiling young faces at the door of the cottage.  This day was different.  He would relax and enjoy it because it looked like his time for quiet thought was over.

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