Midsummer day was drawing closer. Ann could see it in every bucket she dipped in the river. The water level was falling. Now she could pick out distinct shapes on the riverbed where before had only been murky silhouettes. The water was falling. It would not be safe.
“Midsummer day, midsummer day, yahoo!” Van chanted. He was splashing by the bent willow that served as their mooring point. To him the day held nothing but change, which meant excitement to him. He had never been off their little island, the place that squatted between the two riverbanks like a toad in dry weather.
“Van,” she called. The boy stopped. She never needed to say more.
She handed the boy her bucket. Van balanced it carefully as he brought it in to pour in the stockpot. The river water was clear and cold, but she boiled it all just to be safe.
The river had always been a faithful barrier to the land on either side of the island. But it had been too many dry summers, too many winters without enough rain. She hadn’t seen water this low since fleeing to the island.
There were snags, on the river’s shore and close to her little island. Ann made it her duty to clear them out every day, taking their little boat and sending the bigger sticks downstream with a flick of her wrist. Anything that could be used to cross, she broke. But even these little precautions would not save her.
Van was playing in the shade of the cottage. He traced his shadow with a chip of shale.
Ann had come to the island alone. Van had arrived nine months after the last time someone had managed to cross the river. Ann remembered that day in her sleep sometimes and woke up beating the covers.
Van smiled at his silhouette, white-gold hair dancing in the breeze.
Abruptly she said, “Van, house.”
The boy obeyed immediately.
There was not much to lock up. The island was just big enough for a vegetable patch, a single milch cow, and their little cottage. Before she dropped the latch, Ann kissed each of Van’s eyes.
“Stay indoors,” she ordered, and was confident it would be followed.
Marten lived upstream. He walked the top of the dam, looking for leaks and errant trees that might break the wall. When Ann ran low on supplies, she always stopped to call on him first. She thought them amiable enough, but when he heard her request Marten shook his head.
“Can’t do it,” he said. He poured tea out of a rusty iron kettle.
Ann wet her lips.
“Please don’t give me grief, lady. I would do it, if it were at all feasible. But I can’t let that much water out of the dam just to protect one woman and child. The water is low for everyone, not just you.”
“I know it,” Ann said, looking down at her cup.
Marten sighed. He was a strong man. His house sat atop a tower buttressed with thick sapling stakes. But he could no more protect her than anyone could. And she’d known that.
“Leave,” Marten said gently. “find another cove to settle in. Just until the weather cools off.”
“And leave my house to them?” Ann asked, “and eat what? I can barely take enough from the garden to feed us now. I can’t forage offshore. What do I do?”
Marten’s mouth worked in thought.
Ann finished her tea. “My thanks, Marten.”
They shook hands. Marten held on after she let go.
“Ann,” he said.
Ann began saving thick saplings instead of turning them loose to drift downstream. She trimmed away the slime and sharpened them with her mowing blade into rough points. She buried them point-up in the scree by the shore. Van watched, perched on a high branch with the ducks.
Ann’s fingers bled. She didn’t sleep well at night. Sometimes she saw the faces of her family. Sometimes the face of the man who sired Van. Sometimes she thought of laying down and giving up. But the day approached no matter what she did. So she worked.
The dawn of midsummer day was already hot. She felt she was arising from a bath, not her covers. Van slept on while she kindled fire. If all else failed, she could stoke it hot enough that it would eat the house, and them with it.
The day was deceptively peaceful. Ann toiled at her chores, ear to any little noise. Van was subdued. He played quietly, obediently staying within Ann’s sight. She had almost relaxed when she saw the first one.
The body was almost the same color as the underbrush around it, it snapped into focus so abruptly she nearly fell backwards. The distance between both shores seemed to retract and she saw the approaching figure with awful clarity.
Its eyes were milky blind, it had festering sores flooded with flies open on its face and neck. It walked with a numb shuffle. Any hope that it was alone sank when another stumbled from the thicket just behind it. And another. And another.
As Ann watched with fascination, the dead flooded the shores with their bodies.
Van stood, a stone held in each hand, gaping in fascination. He had only caught brief glimpses of them on the far shore in the whole of his life. Now he fled to her skirts as Ann watched them shuffle to the edge of the water and keep walking.
They came on other days, of course. Days when the current would drag them, unresisting, after only a few steps. But the water was too low. Ann could see white quartz wink at her from underwater. The current had lost its teeth.
Ann watched as the forerunners entered knee-deep water. Then waist deep.
The water didn’t get any deeper. They were halfway.
Ann drew in a breath and took her splitting maul to hand. Van hefted his rocks as if he would strike them all down.
There was a sound from upstream. It was not the rush of water, as she’d hoped. It was the sound of something large pushing against the current. Ann pictured a raft of dead bodies and dreaded.
A thick, brown line appeared at the horizon. It grew bigger, gained a crown. When it drew into focus, Ann laughed. She laughed so hard she nearly sat down.
It was a tree, a massive oak, the king of all flotsam.
“Marten!” she cried.
The lead walker was three-quarters of the way across the river when the trunk swept by. It bowled over the leaders. The stragglers were unseated by the backwash, they swarmed off their feet and followed the trunk downstream. Ann laughed and put her arm around Van.
Those on the shore remained, scenting the wind. Some, through their unfathomable logic, left to walk along the treeline. Some tried the water again. A cottonwood trunk swept by, smaller, but with more branches to snag.
Ann and Van sat outside and watched all day as they attempted again and again to invade. At sunset they stopped, chasing the warmth back into the trees. One last trunk drifted by, a branch jutted out at a perpendicular angle as if raising a hand. She and Van waved back.
“Back to the house with you,” she said, shooing Van. “Shell the peas and douse the lights. I will start supper after I empty the privy bucket.”
Van skipped off, singing “privy bucket, privy bucket.” Ann chanted along under her breath as she lifted the heavy thing. The privy house was at the far end of the island, so that the waste would float away from them. The little shack stood just over a pocket of water. The privy was just a little wooden hole over the swift water. Ann sang the little tune Van had composed under her breath.
The dead man glared sightlessly up from the hole. Features he shared with Van were visible for only a moment before the bucket contents splattered them over again. The dead man let out a wheezing groan.
Ann checked the water level. Most of his body still lay above the surface. She reminded herself to keep careful watch of the levels, it might be time to shorten his chain again. She let the door clack shut behind her and walked into the wind, letting it carry the smell into the past.