She didn’t know how long she’s laid there. She didn’t really care, either. All that mattered was that the river no longer raged—well, not like it had in the rapids. She was aware, though, that the current was moving much faster than it had before, and she wondered if the calm around them would last or if they were headed toward something even worse. That anxiety haunted her even in her sleep, which had been fitful at best since emerging into calmer waters; in fact, she was certain her utter exhaustion was the only reason she’d found any sleep at all. It’s my own fault, she thought to herself. I let myself trust the calm; I let my guard down.
She lay there watching the landscape watch them on their drifting course. Whereas before, the presence and rhythm of Nature around her had been comforting and companionable, now she felt unnerved by it all, as though the natural elements knew something she didn’t, as though they were waiting to be entertained at her expense. The clouds that used to seem lazy and carefree now seemed to be fleeing as fast as they could in the opposite direction. Along the shoreline, the trees’ rustling that had had once sounded pregnant with hidden and magical meaning now sounded like the whisper of secrets being passed around a schoolyard of taunting children. Bird calls now sounded like warning signals, and the scamper of woodland critters now looked more like a frantic search for refuge. Even the river life seemed to abandon them for the still pools resting among the rocks closer to shore.
Sitting up, she hugged her knees to herself and sought for some sense in what seemed like pure paranoia welling up inside her. She could hear him behind her moving around the other side of the raft, tapping at something. She didn’t want to think about him at the moment; she just wanted to be alone with her thoughts, to calm herself down and find a reprieve from the frenzy taking over her mind. She tried to focus her attention, to block out his presence, his movements, to consciously shift her thoughts back to sorting herself out, but every time she seemed to make progress, his tap tap tapping would seep through somehow, growing in its persistence and volume. Finally, frustrated and downright annoyed, she twisted about, ready for a fight.
“What are you doing?” she demanded.
“Looking for the broken places,” he responded, his gaze never wandering away from his task. He continued poking and tapping at the chinks in the raft as though nothing were out of the ordinary. The calm in his tone stoked her ire. Yesterday, that same calm had been her anchor, her refuge, but today it smacked of cold and calculating. She watched him move from spot to spot, appearing to know just where to press and how much pressure to apply to uncover the weaknesses and holes, and cold realization started to dawn on her.
“You knew, didn’t you?” she asked, accusation lacing her words.
“Yes. Of course I did.”
“Why didn’t you say something?” Her confusion and hurt mingled with anger and indignation as the questions and accusations tumbled out. “You knew and you just let me fall asleep totally unprotected and . . . and . . . exposed?! I almost washed away! I almost drowned. Again! And you just sat there! How could you just sit there??”
“What would you have had me do?” he asked, finally pausing in his work to look over at her. The compassion in his eyes would have undone her completely, but she also saw what seemed like amusement in his expression, and the idea that he found her indignation even the slightest bit funny goaded her deeply.
“Oh, I don’t know, you could have, you know, warned me?” she snapped. “Or told me to stay close? You could have at least given me a life jacket, for crying out loud, just in case, ya know? Or, I don’t know, maybe we could have skipped it altogether! Gone ashore and hiked down below the rapids and built a new raft to keep going. Now, there’s a novel idea!”
He waited patiently for her to finish her rant, and then with deep understanding in his eyes calmly replied, “But then we wouldn’t have found these.” He gestured to something in the corner of the raft near where he crouched, then to each of the other corners.
“Found what?” she snapped back.
“Come look,” he invited.
Begrudgingly, she got up and stalked over. Her arms crossed and expression stormy, she stood stiffly over him and snapped, “What?!” being sure to direct her glare at him rather than to whatever it was he’d wanted to show her.
He paused a moment, meeting her gaze steadily. Then he silently gestured with one hand to the boards he’d been examining as he reached for her hand with the other and gently invited her to crouch down with him. “Look,” he said again, more softly than before, as she finally complied.
She looked where he’d indicated and noticed holes in the boards of the raft. They didn’t appear to be from damage, age, or use; instead, they were perfectly round and smoothed on the inside and around the edges. It was clear to her they were placed there intentionally, but she was certain she had never seen them before.
“What are they?” she asked, trying to hide her curiosity behind a sulky tone. “They weren’t here before.”
“They are tether holes,” he answered, his voice full of patience. “And yes, they were. They always have been.”
At that revelation, her eyes instantly snapped up to meet his, which were already calmly watching her. Confusion and shock must have shown on her face because he chuckled and then continued. “They were part of the original design and carefully crafted in when the raft was built.
She shook her head in disbelief. “Wait, what? That can’t be right. This has always been my raft, but I’ve never seen them before!”
“Yes, you have. You just don’t remember them.”
“You’re going to have to give me more than that,” she demanded, irritated by the lack of detail in his explanation.
He smiled and took a moment to make himself more comfortable. Patting the boards next to him, he invited her to do the same, but she wasn’t in the mood to be comfortable. She stayed put, challenging him silently to get on with the explanation.
“You wouldn’t remember them given how long they’ve been unused and hidden away. When the raft became untethered, you were worried and scared, so you filled them in with a makeshift mortar hoping that the absence of holes in the boards would keep the raft stable, make you feel safer while adrift.”
She studied him for a moment. He’d never lied to her before, but that didn’t mean his words always meant what they seemed to at first. His expression, however, remained honest and inviting. She wasn’t ready to respond, though, so she allowed herself to sit back and her gaze to wander as his revelation began to sink in. She pondered, trying to dig up memories of when, if ever, the raft had been tethered and to what, or of the events he’d just described, but there was nothing there. That realization totally disarmed her.
She glanced over at him; he’d lain back on the raft, his head pillowed on his hands, and seemed to be watching the clouds pass overhead. Her gaze shifted back to her hands now fidgeting in her lap as she tried to decide which of her many questions to ask next. Clearing her throat a little, she finally spoke up.
“You said you were looking for broken places, but the plugs weren’t broken until you broke them. And they worked—did what they were supposed to, right? So why get rid of them now?”
“Because they didn’t work,” he replied.
Stunned, she twisted around to face him. “Clearly they did because I am still here on this raft,” she answered decidedly. “It is still safely bearing me in whatever direction we are headed, is it not?”
He turned his head toward her, his expression pointed. “Yes, but that has nothing to do with those plugs.” He paused—clearly he meant to let his meaning sink in, which it did quite forcefully—but then he continued. “Besides, they are not what is broken.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, humility finally softening her tone.
“Tell me, what does it mean for a thing to be broken?”
Her eyes narrowed as she considered how to answer. “Well, I suppose it’s when something doesn’t w—” She stopped abruptly as realization dawned. “It’s when something doesn’t work the way it is supposed to.”
He nodded but said nothing, turning his attention back to the sky above them while she continued to try and make sense of this puzzle.
“So,” she continued, “the holes are what’s broken because they aren’t being used the way they were intended?”
He nodded again, this time with a smile stealing across his face. He then sat up, gathered his tools, and silently moved off to another corner of the raft.
She watched his methodical movements and found them to be oddly soothing despite her confusion. “Well, then what are they for?”
“To anchor and connect, of course,” he answered as he continued working.
“But . . .” She hesitated, unsure if she really wanted to know the answer to her next question. Finally, though, her curiosity won and the question escaped in a hoarse whisper. “But to what?”
He paused and looked at her, his gaze steady, unconcerned, compassionate. “Time will tell,” he said softly before resuming his work.
Her gaze wandered back to the holes in front of her. She watched the water softly slosh up through them with the same rhythm as the bob of the raft, while her mind worked to process their conversation. She didn’t understand, had more questions than answers, really, and she knew better than to push for answers he wasn’t ready—or willing—to provide yet. But more than anything, at that moment, she felt unbelievably tired. She laid herself down and closed her eyes. Her muscles relaxed as the tension and worry were soothed out of her by the rhythmic sounds of the river around them and the tapping of his tools. No, she didn’t understand at all, but one thing she knew was certain: he was still at work, and that would have to be enough for the moment.
“Untethered” © 2017 Amber Crafton. No part of this story may be reproduced in any form—neither in print, nor in speech, nor on the web—without my express written consent. You may use the contact form here on this blog to request permissions if you so desire; please be very specific about how much you wish to quote/reproduce, for what purpose, and where. Thank you.