An azure sky promised a blistering hot day as the first canoe broke the water’s surface that morning. The women knew the temperature and humidity would be soothed by the icy-cold river and rushed to get their float underway – 15 miles being the goal for the day.
“Let’s get this show on the road, ladies. I’ve got a cooler full of beer to drink,” Casey belted out, always ready to pop that first tab. “I lost my watch, but it’s happy hour somewhere,” she said. Used to her brand of merriment, the others laughed and joined in her toast with drinks raised in the air.
They got together for such adventures as often as possible, maybe from some strongly-held friendships over the years since high school, or perhaps simply from a collective longing to rekindle the nostalgia of their shared past. Whatever the impetus, they enjoyed escaping the responsibilities of everyday life, and for a few short days other adult commitments be damned.
All fairly adept at navigating either a canoe or a kayak, the group went at the oars with great vigor and followed the current between deep green deciduous forest lining both banks. Most had some background in outdoor expeditions from growing up in the Midwest region. The beauty of such a place sometimes still got taken for granted, but plush reminders surrounded them on either side of the waterway. Rushing rivulets beneath their boats replaced the concrete confines of work and traffic, drudgery of lawn-mowing and trips to the grocery store, and the monotony of laundry and checking kids’ homework. Laughter became an elixir for any lingering worries about life.
“There’s no way you girls are gonna finish off that mess,” the van driver from the outfitter company warned them at drop-off. Their unanimous laughter scoffed his prediction, as drinking on the river practically became an art in their youth, and their big jug of Kansas City Iced Water already began to diminish by lunchtime. Denise commented how much lighter the container already felt when she lugged it onto a sandbar where they pulled off to eat.
Smaller coolers of sandwiches sat on rocky nest of the riverbank — a tapestry of gray, tan, some darker brown, and even pink quartzite among the riprap there keeping the shores from eroding away. Schools of tiny minnows nibbled at toes left dangling in the water as the women ate potato chips crushed in the dry bags stowed aboard. Kay threw the small fish some crumbs to keep them from nipping at her feet.
She tossed a few fragments downstream hoping to draw them away when an airborne scuffle there caught her eye. “Whoa .. you guys look at that,” she exclaimed, pointing to the opposite bank.
Their attention shifted to two birds that swooped at each other in a swift but embittered battle, with a long-necked heron getting a beating along the way. A smaller bird resembling a hawk yanked at the other’s wing with its sharp beak, tearing away feathers in the process. The larger one’s long neck stretched away in a desperate attempt to escape the slighter but mighty predator.
Their flying fight ended with the more aggressive bird, an osprey, taking to the air after when the rowdy group of women whooped in shock with varying shrieks loud enough to scare off any animal. The heron’s right wing flapped clumsily to flee them as well, although it only scuffed the water’s surface, fresh wounds impairing the ability to flee any other potential danger.
Its injuries kept the majestic bird from escaping the group of boaters, or perhaps the animal instinctively sensed no humans there meant it harm. Marie clambered toward the bird, thinking something could be done for it, practically capsizing her canoe. The woman then realized her own helplessness. She lost a whole beer in the process, and the half-submerged can sailed past the heron’s resting place beside a water-logged walnut bough. What did she know about helping an injured wild bird?
A bale of turtles sat sunning themselves on the downed tree limb but scattered off in different directions when the heron settled near them. Kay said, “What a unique-looking bird. It’s beautiful in it own way, huh?” The women sat ruminating on the notion until she commented, “Surely there’s something we can do for it.”
“You better leave that thing alone,” Casey warned. “It’s hurt and scared … and might hurt you, too.” The others either sat atop beverage coolers or rested on their own rocky nests by the water’s edge, the bunch studying the heron, a sudden pall cast over their otherwise exuberant day.
Marie made her way back to the others on the shore and joined them to reverently study the silently suffering bird. They watched as it hid behind the big limb, wings ruffling, almost trying to shake off its wounds. Kay broke the silence. “My husband hates those things. He says herons always bug him when he goes fishing. They try to steal all the fish,” she said.
Casey shook her head and countered, “Well, that’s just them doing what they do. You know — eat. Everything’s gotta eat. That’s natural.” She usually made a lot of sense even though she might drink too much on occasion.
“It’s beautiful,” said Marie. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen something act so graceful under the circumstances. Can’t imagine how much pain it’s in.”
A distant shriek echoed off a cliff bank further down the river, perhaps even from that same osprey that caused the damage. Maybe it meant to remind them of its power. At the sound, the heron stretched its wings and launched itself from the water. A few of the women gasped at the sight.
“No way,” remarked Denise as a wistful smile crossed her face. “I wondered if maybe it might give up … but look!” They watched it soar off into the air, graceful regardless of the harmed appendage.
Casey popped open another beer and held it aloft. “Here’s to you, bird. Keep flyin’.”
A few jaws still agape, the group lifted their drinks in salute. A tear slid down Kay’s cheek, her being the softest-hearted of the bunch, and she swiped at it with her empty hand. “Some wild things are just too much for this world,” she whispered.
Casey grasped her around the shoulder and motioned toward the canoes. “Come on, now, girl. We’ve got beers left to drink.”
Studio 30+ writing prompt – aggressive
Thank you, Mary, for always reading and commenting on my writing. You will be forever missed.