Enclosing Mom’s hand in mine, I tucked it into the crook of my arm as we followed the path along the river. I placed my feet carefully, the crunch of gravely sand loud in my ears. The Napa River rolled slowly to our right, a black ribbon tracing its path downstream as we headed up. The water flowed dark, this river Dad had known for eighty-four years. Light filtered through the crooked oak and bay trees, bouncing back off the water, shards of glass shattered on a black tile floor.
Vines of plump blackberries twisted around poison oak near the riverbank. The purple berries glistened in the sunlight alongside the blood-red thorns, and I remembered the summer I was fourteen, the wonder of plunging my hands into the immense tangle of blackberry bushes I’d discovered behind Noni’s leaning barn. Dad said they’d been there forever, back when he was a fatherless barefoot ten-year-old, missing school because there was no one else to drive the tractor on the family ranch. He couldn’t see over the steering wheel without standing up.
Weary cabins and mobile homes bore silent witness on our left, but Mom and I kept our gaze right, always right, on the river and the cold blackness as it flowed away from us. Soon we would reach the old stone bridge, which Dad and I used to cross when we’d go for a drive along the winding roads tucked into soft green Napa hills, hidden lanes lined with fences made of stone. Weeds grew over the rounded rocks that had toppled out of place.
On the riverbank, bushes trembled with the fluttering wings of invisible birds, and I wondered if watercress grew in rivers the way it used to flourish in the creek behind Noni’s prune orchard. On that warm summer evening so long ago, Dad led me and my brother and our border collie through the creekbed, showing us the watercress and explaining that the rounded leaves were edible as salad. We trudged home through the cow pasture, the sweet-smelling grass brushing our pant-legs.
Where light shone through the ceiling of trees, bugs as light as air floated in spirals, around and around, in a hurry after things I couldn’t see. A lip of water flapped against the river’s bank, against a rock, then against a fallen tree with a gentle slapping sound.
My skin felt the heat, but the sun didn’t warm me. With my mother’s hand pressed against mine in our vacant world, silent, forever-empty now without my father, we followed the path upstream, along the river.