May 11, 2018

Fiction by Larry Fronk: "The Moss Falls"

After receiving my MPA from Indiana State University I moved to Cincinnati to pursue a career in urban planning and City Management. After a rewarding 36 year career in local government I retired and pursued a personal interest in creative writing. The move from technical writing (memos, white papers, staff reports) to creative fiction was very refreshing. I have one published work “Bad Soldiers” that was published in the online Spring 2016 edition of The Writing Disorder.

Moss Falls-Photo courtesy of Larry Fronk

The Moss Falls

I feel my chest heave with each breath and with a slight stumble I reach the top of the ridge.  Logan, having reached the top first, is heading down the trail, a blur of red and brown, running as fast as his small legs will carry him.  I grab a water bottle from my backpack and take a swig, swishing it around my parched mouth before I swallow. I toss off my Tilley and sunglasses and wipe the sweat from my forehead with a white handkerchief I have stuffed in my pocket.
The view from the ridge is both unsettling and sublime. The gorge is not as I remember.  Of course it’s been twenty years. The once green landscape of the mountains and the gorge has taken on a desert motif. Brown chaparral grass covers the hillsides. A grey ribbon of rock meanders through the center of the gorge and a few stands of withering evergreen trees dot the mountainside.  I hope this depressing view isn’t the surprise Logan promised.
“Hurry Grandpa,” Logan, my ten-year-old grandson shouts, “We’ve reached the river.”
“Slow down Logan and stay away from the edge,” I yell for at least this fifth time this morning, “Stop when you reach the water.”
Twenty years ago, during a visit to the University of California Santa Barbara, my wife, Abby, daughter Kelli and I hiked this trail on a warm spring Saturday morning.  We packed a picnic lunch of turkey sandwiches, carrots, celery sticks and a can of Pringles. We ate lunch while sitting on a rocky outcrop with a view of the gorge; a view shrouded by a wispy, white fog.  We dipped our feet into the cool river water and playfully splashing one another. Such great memories. I’m glad Kelli invited me to visit with her family. It’s been a year since the accident and Abby’s passing.  I fussed about putting her out, but I didn’t fool Kelli or myself. We both knew I didn’t want to be alone.
Logan reminds me so much of my wife.  It’s more than his blue eyes and blonde hair.  He has her love for the outdoors and especially the mountains. I miss our hikes along mountain trails, walking hand in hand, enjoying a cool breeze and realizing the woman next to me was and will always be my soulmate.  It seems like yesterday. Where does the time go? It flows ever forward until that one day, that one hour when it just stops. That minute when your world seems to come to an end. That moment when you know you cannot stop the inevitable.  A rainy day, a slippery trail, a misstep, a missed grab and a scream I will never forget.
The past two weeks are a blur.  I have so enjoyed spending time with Kelli’s family.  Especially Logan. He sees the world as his playground and wants to explore it all.  “I wonder what’s over the next hill?” he would ask and then run ahead. He has such exuberance and curiosity. He could be a great scientist one day.  I will miss him. Classes start next week and I need to get back to my physics students in Boulder. Separated, connected, and then separated again.
With a hiking stick in my left hand, and watching each step to avoid tripping on a rock or tree root, I walk down the mountain path to the river.  It’s not much of a river anymore. The last time I hiked this trail the river was twenty feet wide. Water flowing from the mountains, moving around obstacles, always flowing forward until uniting with the ocean. I look upstream and at first glance all I see is a path of grey rock that disappears as it bends to the north beyond the bridge.
Logan is standing on a large rock in the middle of the riverbed. So much for listening to good old granddad. I look down and what I thought was a dry river has water trickling between
the rocks.  Strands of water each forming their own small, individual stream, then combining with other strands and separating again.  The metaphorical pathway of least resistance.
“Look, Grandpa.” Logan shouts as he balances on a rock waving his hands in the air.
“Logan, be careful and come over here. If you get hurt your mom will be mad at both of us.  Let’s rest a minute and have a drink and a snack.”
I open the backpack and take out two breakfast bars and some gummy fruits.  I watch Logan hopping from rock to rock like a giant frog to join me at the edge of the riverbed.    
“Grandpa, when we’re done can I play on the rocks some more?”
“You sound just like your mother when she was your age.   The last time we hiked here we had to be very careful around the river.  The white rapids moved over the rocks with such energy the water could easily push you over and carry you downstream. We had to cross the river on that log bridge up there,” I said pointing upstream to the narrow wooden bridge that has turned grey with age, “Look at the river now. The water is almost gone,” I take a bite of my chocolate chip granola bar, “So, when do I get my surprise?”
“Pretty soon Grandpa.”
“No hints.”
“That would spoil the surprise.”
I sit quietly a few moments staring at the mountain.
“Are you OK Grandpa?”
“I’m fine Logan.”
“Thinking about Grandma? You miss her don’t you?”
“You’re a very perceptive young man, aren’t you?”
“Yes.  It means very observant.  You sense things others miss.”
“Mom likes to use big words too.”
“Your Mom is very smart.  Yes, I was thinking about Grandma.  I think I miss her even more when I’m in the mountains. She loved being outdoors, being one with nature. She said it was exhilarating. Another big word.”  
“She liked chocolate ice cream, too,” Logan said, “Do you think they have ice cream in heaven?”
“I’m sure they do, Logan,” I run my hand through his thick blonde hair, “Let’s climb on some rocks.  Race you to the bridge.”
Logan sprints to the riverbed, turns and climbs up and over every large rock in his path as he heads upstream. I follow, at a very slow jog, striding from rock to rock.  As my left foot slips, I jab my hiking stick between two rocks to regain my balance. I slow to a walk.
Logan reaches the far side of the riverbed at the bridge and runs to the middle waving his hands over his head again.  It must be a ten-year-old boy thing. Maybe a sign of victory. I wave back. He doesn’t understand how easy it is to win a race against a sixty-year-old man.
We pick up the trail at the bridge and start hiking around the next mountain.  I remember the trail ends at a chasm with a beautiful waterfall. About a mile more I guess.  As we round a bend the dry river disappears from sight. We’ll pick it up near the falls.
“Not too much further to the surprise Grandpa.”
“Still no hint, uh?”
“No Grandpa, but it’s going to be cool.”
My muscles are tight and my knees ache with each step, but I continue moving forward.  The trail is steeper than I remember. As each breath becomes more difficult I slow my pace.  On the far side of the mountain the trail transitions from dirt to rock. The first sign we are getting close to the waterfall.  I glimpse the cliff just ahead and listen for the noise of falling water. All I hear is the wind blowing through the gorge.
“We’re here Grandpa.  Here is the surprise,” Logan shouts, “Look.  It’s a green waterfall.”
I reach the end of the trail and see green moss attached to stone cascading down the fifty-foot cliff.  Where is the waterfall we ran under twenty years ago? Where is the pool of water we swam in? The river that carried fresh, cool water that once nourished the gorge has shriveled up and died.  The river that offered such beauty and recreation is gone. As I set down my hiking stick I see the veins protruding just under the wrinkled skin on my hands.
“Grandpa, isn’t it the coolest waterfall you ever saw?” Logan said.  His eyes bright.
I look at the falls and see a memory.  My wife standing under the falling water with soaked hair covering her bright blue eyes, water dripping off her bathing suit and a big smile on her face.  The same smile Logan has on his face right now. I wipe a tear from my eye.
I force a smile and say, “What a wonderful surprise Logan.  Thank you. It is the coolest waterfall I’ve ever seen.”
~Larry Fronk

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