The creek that runs through the fifteen-mile canyon north of Sedona is lined with box elder and ash trees. Their campground, terraced into a wooded slope, overlooks a rocky bend, and towering limestone hugs the opposite bank. The girl sits on the largest boulder, midstream. She wears checkered flannel, her last clean pair of jeans. Her shoes are good for slippery stones. She waited all morning for the light to hit the water. Now, she closes her eyes and lifts her face.
A rustling noise makes her jump. She hasn’t forgotten the host’s warning. “Rattlers,” he’d said, poking through dark vegetation. All weekend, he carried around a bucket and pronged pole. Now, she scans the bank grasses and bower vines. But all she sees moving are some white butterflies and the shifting leaf shadows on the graveled shore.
Her new walking stick lies within those shadows. It’s smooth and dove gray, with purple-rose shading along its textured lines. She wants to take it with her. She looks up at her mother wrapping the breakfast mugs in towels. Their tent is gone, stuffed into the duffle to be hauled to the car. They’ll cart things out this way—in bundled loads up the concrete steps. From where she sits, the stages are clear: bank rise, then campsites, then cars. Her gaze slips across the narrow parking lot and up the steep ramp that cuts to the road. Through the mingled canopy of pines and creek trees, the girl makes out a red car flashing around the highway curve like an apple on the move: there, then there! then gone.
When they’d arrived, someone was parked in their spot. It was late Friday, and three tents were already clustered on the site next to theirs, the largest glowing from a lamp inside. The two smaller tents were the low-slung type meant just for sleeping. They glowed, too, though more softly, and only on the side that faced in.
Her mother had dimmed the headlights coming down the ramp, and now they idled by the other car, staring through the darkness at the tents, until the host brought his face to their window. “One campground, one car,” he said, marking his clipboard. “I’ll have them move.”
The girl slides down the big rock and tests a few stones for balance. If she wanted to, she could make it to the opposite bank. But there’s not much shore, and the wall of rock goes straight up, higher than any building she’s seen. Besides, she’s already tried what she could to engage it: on their first morning, she crouched with both palms against it and pushed.
Now she balances on two flat stones and squats down, eyeing a shallow pool for the flicker of trout. She’s quiet, patient, but only something minnow-sized glides through. When she twists up she sees her mother again, closer, standing with her hands on her hips. Just above the crest, the girl can make out the tops of her mother’s boots, but the splashing of the creek makes her still seem far away. The girl frowns when her mother points towards those boots, towards the ground where she’s standing.
It takes both hands to climb up the bank. She leaves her walking stick propped at the base of a tree and uses roots and vines to pull herself up. Near the top, a wolf spider darts across her thumb. It vanishes under leaves before she even registers what it was.
“I called you three times,” her mother says, pulling a white scarf over her dark hair. The scarf reminds the girl of her old pirate costume, and she wants to make a joke—after all, this weekend was different. They’d played cribbage and cards, plowing through every two-person game they knew. Her mother didn’t try to let her win, and she won anyway.
Instead, the girl looks up. A fat squirrel sits above their heads. Flakes of what it nibbles float down, and a piece lands on the scarf, then another one. The girl is getting taller. She can see the little pieces like pepper on a tablecloth.
They start hauling bags to the car. The biggest they carry up together, with the girl pulling, stepping backwards at the top. The neighbors are cooking bacon, even though it’s lunchtime, and it smells like the pancake restaurant near their house.
“If you lived on another planet,” the girl says, stealing glances towards the campfire, “how many moons would you want?”
Her mother arms her forehead, but doesn’t stop. “How many can I have?”
“Neptune has thirteen.”
“Too bright! I’d never sleep.” They drop the bag near the trunk. “I don’t know,” her mother says, slowly thumbing a knuckle, “maybe last night’s moon was enough.”
They fill the trunk, the passenger seat, and all the space behind the driver. It’s not the best arrangement: the cooler only opens partway, and on sharp turns the aluminum chair slides off the bedrolls, smacking the girl’s shoulder. She wishes aloud that they still had the truck. Her mother is bent away from her, leaning into the stacks to make everything fit. Without looking back she answers, “I know, baby. I know.”
The girl has the same hair as her mother, dark and wavy. They used to wear it in similar braids, and it pleased the girl when people joked they were twins. But her mother recently had hers cut. “Chopped,” was her word, and she had tried to explain about fresh starts. The girl still likes her braid, but she knows the only way to match her mother again is to cut hers, too. She reaches back now, considering this, and hooks the braid forward to suck on the end.
Side-by-side, they survey the empty site. They hear less of the creek where they are now, and more small noises from the trees and other campers. Nobody talks too loudly, but they hear a few tent zippers and a short beckoning whistle that echoes. Even after the sound dies, the girl lets the fragment pulse in her memory. Her mother says the canyon is like a church.
Everything’s loaded, but they don’t leave. On previous trips, they would have been gone right after breakfast. There would have been concerns about traffic. This time, she and her mother are continuing north, passing over mountains and through national parks.
A great deal has been explained to the girl: the trip will take all summer; they are not in a hurry; they will zigzag and sleep in the tent or a cabin, every so often a motel; some of the mountain roads pass above 10,000 feet. They’ll visit old mines and swimming pools, and eat ice cream cones in every town. Everything her mother can promise has been promised.
The girl thinks she sees a Painted Redstart and whispers to her mother. They crisscross the parking lot, trying to spot it again. It becomes a race and they split up, creeping around different cars. Her mother almost laughs when they bump into each other, both of them backing up, scanning opposite trees.
Back at their own car, they spot three boys climbing single-file over the rocks down by the water. The girl recognizes them from next door, and the first boy carries her stick. “That’s mine,” she says, but her voice is quiet. He’s older, and in any case, she is never allowed to take things out of nature. Sticks, rocks, even wishbone wands: everything stays. It’s still a family rule.
The night before, the boys set up cots to sleep under the stars. The girl fell asleep thinking about whether she’d like to do the same, and in the morning, she poked her head out. Two boys had disappeared into their sleeping bags. But the one with her stick now had his face turned towards her. After a second, he pulled his arm from the warmth of his bag and gave a small wave.
The girl watches the boys reach the tree where she’d found egg-shaped stones in the space between two roots. She doesn’t protest about the stick again. She’s already pushing the want away, packing it up, taping it closed like all the boxes: winter clothes; Mom bath; tournament albums, SAVE.
Her mother looks over at the clustered tents. The adults are eating at the picnic table. Suddenly, the girl is glad about the family rule because she wouldn’t want her mother going over there, explaining. But when she looks back her mother is already hopping down the steps, striding across their campsite—not towards the adults, but towards the water. The tall boy stiffens and glances at the girl. She wants to drag her mother back. But it’s too late, her mother has dropped over the bank and is at the water’s edge, extending her hand. The girl has never seen her mother do this to a kid. The boy takes the hand slowly and shakes it.
He quickly relinquishes the stick, but her mother stays down there. She reaches out and because of whatever she is saying, they all look in the direction of the towering rock. While the girl waits, she kicks at the old retaining wall edging the lot. She looks around the treetops, the parked cars, then over at the neighbors, who don’t seem to notice her mother at all. The girl hears one of the boys laugh as she toes the crumbling mortar.
In September, she’ll start a new school. They’ll live in Spokane, first with her grandmother, then, when the boxes arrive, in an apartment. Her mother doesn’t know if the school has many stories, a lot of kids, or even if the playground has swings. The girl is almost too old for swings, but she’d like them to be there anyway.
When she spots her mother again it’s her hands that show up first, over the edge of the bank. Then come the scarf and new haircut. But the girl quickly forgets both these things because her mother’s got the stick between her teeth like a dog. At the top, her mother steadies herself and looks up. Even with the stick, the girl can tell she’s grinning. She spits it out and stands there with her hands on her hips, panting in an exaggerated way. The boys are laughing. Her mother laughs, too. But the girl covers her mouth: she’s too happy to make a sound.
Her mother starts the car, cracks the windows. Sunlight strikes their knees. “Those boys just saw a snake,” her mother says. “In the rocks where they were standing. Can you believe it?” She turns in her seat, but she doesn’t look scared, or even relieved. Just happy.
The girl smiles back. “I wish we’d seen it, too.”
Their little car crawls up the steep drive. The girl rolls her window down the rest of the way and the boys wave from the abandoned site. “Say, Bon Voyage,” the girl yells to them. At the top of the ramp, she’s surprised to realize she can still hear the water. She closes her eyes to capture the sound.
When they’re past the first big turn, the girl pats her stick propped against the stack to her left, holding back the bedrolls and aluminum chair. She feels the coziness of the car, the gentle strobe of sunlight as they skirt high walls and break away past the trees. “Jupiter has sixty-three moons,” she says, resting her feet up against the seat in front of her.
“Why so many?”
The girl shrugs. “And some of those moons are huge, with names from Greek mythology.” She pulls her braid forward, flicks the end. “They’re practically planets, too.”
Jennifer Williams is a graduate of Pacific University’s MFA Program. Prior to writing, she worked as an engineer in Phoenix. Her short story “Gore Junkies” appeared in the Oregon anthology, The Night, and the Rain, and the River and she lives in Portland, Oregon.
Read an interview with Jennifer here.