A father smiles as his daughter finishes tying a double surgeon's knot, connecting the leader of her fly line to the tippet. He can remember her eyes when she was six years old, wide and unblinking as she watched him tie knots for the first time. He can remember the first time he guided her fingers through the process. He hid a smile when she threw the lines down in frustration. He patted her back when she cried. He countered her desire to quit with reassurance. “You can do it,” he'd said, “with a little more practice. You can do it.” Now, four years later, sitting on a rock at the edge of the Deschutes river, she proves his prediction once again.
“Nailed it!” she says, throwing her hands up. The knot is secure, excess line is trimmed, and she didn't jab herself with the hook the way she has so many times before. She curls and uncurls her fingers, garnering praise from an invisible crowd.
“I knew you could do it,” the father says. “I think it's safe to officially declare you a fisherman.”
“Fisherwoman,” she retorts.
The girl considers this.
“Fishergirl,” she says, nodding. “For now.”
The father smiles. The girl secures the hook to the her fly rod's cork handle and the two rise and make their way down the trail. It is another half a mile of singing Disney songs and talking about the girl's upcoming historical figure presentation before they see their special spot, a wider stretch in the river with rocky shallows and an open area for casting. There are fewer trees and bushes near the water here, fewer things to snag a fly hook and dampen the day. As the father sets his backpack down and goes to get their waders, the little girl looks down the river.
“Hey dad,” she starts. Her voice rises at the end, an inflection he is getting more used to hearing. A question is coming, a question that will almost certainly involve reminding the father of his little girl's continuing search for independence. He loves and hates the inflection and the questions that follow. His mouth smiles and his eyes wince.
“Have you ever gone farther down the trail?”
The father looks out at the trail, at the surrounding forest. His eyes scan to the river and he watches the water hiss around a distant bend.
“Farther, here? Well, now that I think about it, no I don't think so. I think this spot is as far as I've gone. Yeah, I've been to other areas of the river, but never farther on this trail.”
He has a hand on the waders but stops.
“Do you think we could... keep going? Maybe find a new spot to fish?”
Farther down the trail, a new spot to fish. Change. She looks up at him, hopeful. The top of her head lines up with his sternum. He hasn't noticed this until now. Last he checked, her hair had the tangles and dirt of a little girl who climbed trees and played with bugs and he could tussle the hair at about stomach height. Now, the hair falls in long, shining, straightened strands, sheets of light brown silk brightened by the morning light. It falls the way it falls on the girls from from the TV shows, and he wouldn't dare mess it up.
“You want to try something new, huh?”
“You tie your own flies and catch your own fish and you want to explore the world?”
“Well, I just think maybe it's time for something new. I love this spot, our spot. But maybe it's time for... an adventure.”
The father raises an eyebrow.
“A grand adventure,” she says.
He zips the backpack back up and throws it over his shoulder.
“Lead the way, adventuregirl.”
The trail continues along the river for another mile. The father asks her about each new pool, and each time the girl tells him no, that they need to keep going. As they walk, the girl asks her father about other places where he has fished in his life. She listens quietly to his descriptions of the Snake River in Montana, of fishing for salmon in Alaska, of his trips to Scotland and Chile and New Zealand. She asks about the fish he caught, the other animals he saw, and the people he met along the way. He is talking about the brown bears in Alaska, fat on spawning salmon, when they reach the end of the marked trail.
“Well, end of the line,” he says, stopping. The river is narrower here, flanked by tall, thin pines and scrub brush. It is narrower, but deeper. He realizes it would be a challenge to fish, even for him. “You want to try to put in here or head back?”
The girl steps over the log barriers at the end of the trail and ducks her head under the tree branches.
“Let's keep going,” she says without looking back.
The father follows, lifting the branches away from his face. The forest is thicker here, darker, with more trees growing more closely together. The girl can slip in between them easily, twisting her body left to squirm around one pair of tight trees, then right to slip around another. Without carrying a back pack, she is able to duck under the lower branches and fallen logs and scramble up and down the increasingly rocky terrain. The father tears through the brush and branches. The limbs grab him and slow him down. He stomps into the bushes in his way and loops around tight groupings of trees when he needs to, and tries to keep up.
The morning sun's light is dimming, choked by clouds and by the thickening canopy. Twenty feet have opened up between them, and the father tries to get his daughter to slow down.
“Wow, look at these mushrooms,” he calls out. The girl doesn't respond, doesn't stop or turn. The father is starting to notice the labored sound of his breathing. He pushes on, faster still, in one more attempt to catch up without having to yell for the girl to stop and wait.
The river is dropping down into a valley now, more sharply than before. The sound is changing. Water is slashing against rock and tree trunk, pinched by the valley walls and forced into an tightening tunnel. The descent has created pooling points that build up and cascade down over rocky dams into more pools below. The churning of falls and rapids is rattling through the trees, and when the man calls out to the girl to slow down, she doesn't hear him. When one of his footsteps catches moss and his foot slides out from under him, she doesn't hear him. He pitches forward and drops toward the rock and his arms come up just in time to shield his face. He rebounds off of the slippery surface and bounces to the right, his balance lost, and he tumbles sideways over a bush and lands on his back on the forest floor. The waders pad his fall, but the impact stuns him. He can't breathe. For a moment he thinks he broke his back, but the feeling returns to his legs and he can feel the slow scrape of his boots on the leaves and dirt.
His diaphragm relaxes and he fights for a breath. The first breath is a battle. The second is easier. After panting for a few seconds, he groans and rolls over onto his hands and knees. When he looks up, the girl is gone. He tries to call out to her but he can't get enough air into his lungs. The call leaks out with a wheeze and is immediately swallowed by the rush of the water.
He struggles to his feet, leaning against the nearest tree, and calls out again. This yell is a little louder, but he gets no response. He works his way around the rock that took him down. He looks up the hill, follows the ridge out to an overlook. He can't see her. His right ankle is hot. He can feel a pulsing throb start just above the boot line, but otherwise the fall doesn't seem to have been destructive.
A distant whisper, a voice on the wind. The man stops and looks up again. He isn't even sure whether he heard the yell or imagined it. When he calls back, nothing. He continues scrambling along the rocky edge, grabbing tree branches and ripping roots from their soil to help him climb a little higher with each step.
“Dad!” the voice calls out again. This time he is certain, he heard it, and it is his daughter calling out for him. The pain in his ankle leaves and he surges faster up the side of the valley. His hands pull at the rocks and dirt and he doesn't notice the tears in his skin or the blood beginning to run. His daughter is calling to him, she needs his help, and he claws and pumps his feet and surges upward.
He pulls himself over a final boulder and reaches a flat, high clearing overlooking the river. A final series of falls has lead to a long, deep pool, and at the edge of a rocky cliff overlooking the pool, the girl is standing. She hears her father's footsteps and turns.
“Look!” she says, pointing to the tallest waterfall, a fifteen-foot churning slide down a step and flat rock surface. After she points it out and then looks back at her father's face, she notices his dirty clothes and heaving breaths.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
“What are you doing?” he yells. “You can't just run off ahead by yourself! I was yelling for you!”
The words spill out between harsh gulps of air. Without noticing, the father has hunched over to rest his hands on his knees, hulking, a furious ape. His panic and fear are now pouring out in anger. He expels them like poisons that have to be drained before they fully infect him.
“I'm sorry,” the girl says.
“Do we ever separate when we're hiking?”
The girl shakes her head.
“Do you ever run off where no one can see or hear you?”
She shakes her head again.
“I thought you were right behind me.”
“Well then you weren't paying attention. Pay attention. Out here, you always pay attention.”
The father straightens up. He finally feels the cuts on his hands and looks down at the state of his clothes. There is dirt on his knees and thighs, on the front of his jacket. He starts to brush off the dust but looks at the blood on his hands and stops.
“I'm sorry,” the girls says again. The father shakes his head as he kneels in the dirt. He gets a water bottle from the pack and pours it over his hands. He rubs them together and removes most of the blood. He considers where to wipe them off and chooses his pants. They are dark and even if the blood doesn't wash out completely, it won't matter.
“You've got to be smarter than that,” he says. His voice has calmed. He is breathing full, slow breaths again, and the poison is mostly spent. Part of him regrets the harsh outburst, but part of him needed it. Part of him wanted her to feel upset, to realize how her lack of attention had made him feel, and remind her how dangerous the forest can be when you don't pay attention.
The blood is still running from his hands. He steps down the rocks to the edge of the river, a few feet from the top of the tallest falls. There is a rocky platform near the rush of water. He kneels down there and puts his hands in the torrent. The water washes away the new blood and the cold helps numb his hands and stop the bleeding. Even with the crashing rush of water a few feet from him, he still hears the careful footsteps of his daughter coming down after him. When the feet stop, he pulls his hands from the water and wipes them off on his pants again.
“You just have to be careful,” he says. “I heard you yell for me and I thought...” He stops and stands, wipes his hands on his pants a few more times. Even glancing at her only for a moment, the father sees that the girl's eyes are shiny with tears. He swallows the rest of his poison and reaches out for the girl. He grabs the beck of her neck and pulls her to his chest.
“I'm sorry, daddy,” she cries into his jacket. He pulls her closer and she hugs his waist and squeezes.
“I'm sorry I yelled,” he says. He kisses the top of her head. They hold each other and let the rushing water fill their ears and drown out the girl's sobs and the memories of the angry words.
An echoing splash rises from the long, dark pool below. Even fifty feet away, even amid the noise of the rapids and falls, even pressed hard against her father's chest, the girl hears it. The two look up together. The splash was massive, and they watch the ripples run outward from the source. They consider what could have made such a splash, and figure it could have only been one thing.
The father pulls a pair of waders from his bag and tosses them to the girl.
“Go get 'em,” he says.
The girl races down the rocky cliff and scrambles along the ridge to the pool below. She has to make her way down river for a few hundred feet before back-tracking around five-foot-high scrub brush and a crowded line of fallen trees, but after a minute she appears at the edge of the pool. The ripples from whatever made that massive splash are still visible in the deeper, slower moving water.
The girl pulls the hook from the cork handle and pulls out the line. She begins her casting, checking behind her for branches that might snag her fly on her back casts. She steps out into the cold currents and looks back again. She isn't convinced she is in the clear, not for where she wants to cast, so she takes a few more steps. When she feels confident her casts will have the room they need, she is fifteen feet into the river and the water is nearly to her stomach.
The line flits back and forth through the air six times before she has an adequate amount of line out for her first attempt. The fly floats out over the churning water and drops gently onto the dark surface. The light catches the hairs jutting out from the fly's back and the girl easily follows its path down the pool. The father can see it from his overlook. They both watch and wait for a splash, or a ripple, or for the fly to suddenly disappear below the surface and the line to go taut.
The hairs shine in the low light. No ripples, no splashes. The girl jerks the fly from the water and casts again, four flicks back and forth, and sends the line back out a few feet farther. They wait again, staring, the girl's hands poised and ready to set the hook if that monster fish finds her nymph too tempting to let pass. The fly stays on top of the ripples for nearly thirty feet and the girl pulls it back into the air again.
The father tries to keep his eyes on the fly as he makes his way down the embankment toward the edge of the pool. The girl took the long way, the safer way, around the cliffs to the left side of the pool, but he is going to take a straight line over the rocks and moss and fallen logs, skirting the base of the falls, to the head of the pool. He has his waders, so he will be able to make his way to her through the water rather than having to claw and crash through the harsh, largely untouched forest.
As he reaches the last small cliff before the water's edge, he sits down and pulls the waders from his pack. He slides them over his boots and up his calves to his knees. Then he stands up so he can pull them the rest of the way up over his waist and secure the straps over his shoulders. Another massive splash interrupts him. He looks up in time to see something slide back beneath the water's surface as the splash settles and the waves begin their outward ripple. It was green, shining, with a long frilled fin running along either side of its body. He knows there are big fish in the river, and maybe his distance from the splash and the low light made it seem bigger than it is, but he wonders if it was a fish, at all. There shouldn't be any other kind of water creature in these pools, but for a moment, when he first saw the color and structures of the figure, the father's mind went to crocodile. He dismisses the idea. Crocodiles in Oregon? He shakes his head. But crocodile was his second thought. He doesn't even reconsider what he first thought he saw.
The girl is staying calm. She is following the procedures they've talked about before. She is staying patient, watching carefully, sending the fly on good lines through the current, and she is remembering to breathe. The man smiles. He smiles until her fly slips below the water's surface.
“Fish on!” the girl yells as the line goes taut. The force of the catch tightens the line and pulls more out of the reel, making it click and whiz in her hands until she catches the lever and pulls up on the rod to set the hook. The rod bows into a high, long arc and the water bubbles and swirls beneath the line.
“You got it!” the father yells back. “Take your time! Make your way back toward shore and reel that puppy in!”
The girl doesn't hear him. She is watching the spot where the line is stabbing into the river as it moves slowly down stream. She can feel the weight of whatever is on the other end. Whatever it is has a strong pull and is ready for a fight. Her hands tighten around the reel and she begins to crank the line back in.
The father sees that she isn't making her way back to the shore. She is strongly rooted in her place, and her shoulders are higher now, tensed. She is laboring. He cups his hands around his mouth.
“Walk back to shore and reel it in!” he yells. She turns back toward him for a moment, but then is back to fighting the power of the line. She takes a step forward. It almost looks like a stumble, like she is being yanked. The water is deeper here, up to her chest. She takes another step.
“Honey?” the man calls. As the call leaves him, another splash draws his attention. He sees the form again, green and scaled and edged by frilled fins. It isn't a fish. It isn't a crocodile. The first thought he had when he saw it returns and he squints into the water and tries to understand what he is seeing. It almost looks like... a tentacle.
A sudden crash of water from the far end of the pool pulls his attention back to his daughter. Her reel explodes under a new surge of pressure, and all of the line goes out in a matter of seconds. The pull is so hard the reel can't keep up with the speed and the coiling mechanism catches. There is a crunching sound, plastic and metal breaking, and then a final snap yanks the spool from its place on the fly rod and pulls it into the roiling water fifteen feet from where the girl is standing. She is stunned by the sudden jerk, and once the reel is gone, she backs up toward the shore. She backs up because she is staring at a moving mass of squirming limbs a few feet beneath the river's surface. She, too, is trying to understand what she is seeing. She is seeing what her father saw, but where he saw one tentacle of the creature, she is seeing dozens twisting and unfurling together like a tangle of writhing snakes.
The father is watching from above when the girl's hypnosis is finally broken. When she turns back to look for him, her eyes are wide and wild and her mouth opens into a scream the man can feel in his bones.
“It's okay,” the man whispers. “Everything is okay.”
Her scream fills the small valley for a few seconds before the river opens and a dark mountain of churning flesh and scales and fins climbs high into the air. The crash of the water and rocks sends an umbrella of debris up and out over the small stretch of river. Rocks rain down, but the girl doesn't shield herself. She stares up into the shifting black mass and watches as four tentacled arms wriggle up from the waves and splay out into the trees and brush at the river's edges. The tentacles slither through the dirt and fallen leaves. They each find a hold on various tree trunks, and as the slimy arms wrap themselves around the trees, the beast shudders and pulls itself up from the river bottom. It slides along the rocks, upstream, toward the little girl. Another set of tentacles appear, and the water cascades down from them and splashes into the river. Some of the falling water splashes up into the little girl's face, but she still doesn't shield her eyes or try to get away. She doesn't hear her father scream for her to run. She doesn't hear him leap into the water and thrash his way toward her. She doesn't see him swim with the current and reach for her. She is watching the creature twist its tentacles around her fishing line so it can pull the hook from the flesh of its face. The hook seems to be lodged in one of the scaly folds under its one massive, quivering eye. As the girl watches the creature pull at the line, another series of smaller tentacles wriggle out from behind two splayed fins at the sides of the creature's mouth. These smaller tentacles tap along the scales, searching. When they reach the line, they tear it from their flesh and the forest fills with a shrill siren that shakes the leaves from their branches and sends every beast to its burrow and every bird to flight.
“I'm coming!” the father yells, his head barely above the surface. His hands claw into the water and he kicks as hard as he can. But the waders filled with water the moment he leaped into the river and the weight of it is pulling him down. He is too busy trying to get to the girl to notice his feet sinking lower and lower in the water with each kick. At first, he can thrust with his arms and pull himself well up and out of the water. The second time he raises his head to yell, his chin barely breaks the surface. Now, twenty feet from the girl, he kicks his feet and cranes his neck to take a breath and call out to her again. His mouth doesn't break the surface. He kicks and pulls at the water again. Only his eyes and the top of his head are above water. He suddenly feels the weight of the waders. He suddenly feels the chill of the forty-seven degree water. A wave from the creature's movements washes over his face and he goes under. The shoulder straps are easy to slide down over his shoulders, but freeing his boots is not. It takes multiple kicks and pulls before his boots slide free of the waders. When he pops out of the water and gasps in his first panicked breath, his daughter isn't in the water anymore. She is at least fifteen feet in the air, her legs dangling as her tiny balled up fists slam into the tentacle wrapped around her waist. She is screaming. The father's head slips back below the surface and the scream disappears. He fights the river's pull and thrusts his head above the water again. She is still screaming. His legs slam into a submerged rock and he goes under. The pressure has pinned him to the boulder, wedging his right foot. His arms twist wildly through the water. As he reaches upward, the hands break the surface and feel air. He can feel his daughter's fear. He brings his arms back down to the rock and presses against it. His legs don't move. He pushes again, arching his back against the weight of the thousands of gallons baring down on him. Another hard push, and another, and on the fourth effort he feels his foot shift. He pushes again, his hope renewed, and the boot scrapes loose and he tumbles forward over the boulder and back into open water.
He flails and claws his way back to the surface. He doesn't realize how desperate he was to breathe until he feels the fresh air on his face and opens his mouth to suck it in. This time he doesn't sink back below the waves. This time he bobs, his arms flapping enough to keep his head upright and his chin out in the quiet autumn air.
The quiet air.
There is no screaming.
He looks up into open sky. His daughter is no longer suspended by the creature's tentacles. The massive creature is gone. His daughter's screams are gone. His daughter is gone.
He pulls toward the shore and kicks his legs until he feels the rocky riverbed. He presses forward until he can stand. He trudges through the water until waist deep, and his chest heaves at the chance for multiple deep breaths in a row. He stumbles to a boulder and collapses across it. He coughs a spray of water out of his throat and tries to open his lungs back up against the bitter cold.
He looks left and sees the water falls where he entered the water. The falls are much farther away than he would have thought. When he turns to the right and looks down river, he sees nothing at first. His eyes are blurry from the water and his glasses came off during the swim. He rubs his eyes and squints and a dark mass moves slightly back and forth in the distance. The creature is far down river, sliding away from him. He can see the blur of tentacles rising and falling and rolling along the terrain.
He can't see his daughter.
He pushes back to his feet and sloshes through the rest of the shallow water to the shore. He tears through the stalks and bushes and runs through the brush hoping for something resembling a path. He finds none. The trees are tightly bunched and jut up from the rocky ground at random angles. He slides around them and over them. Their branches reach out and take sections of skin, dig into his scalp, and carve short, bloody canyons in his cheeks and neck. He pays no attention and presses forward. When he realizes he is mumbling his daughter's name, he begins to scream it. He screams it over and over, to every tree, to every rock he steps over, to every leafy branch that mars his face. He screams it across the water, against the walls of the valley, up into the tree tops and into the clouds and deep blue above. Four miles down the river he is still screaming it. He never caught sight of the creature once he left the river, and when National Park Rangers find him hours later, he is still trying to scream her name. When they ask him what is wrong, her name leaves his cracked lips in hoarse whispers. When they take him by the arms to stop him from stumbling on, he pushes them away. Her name lashes out at them with a hiss and a growl and he fights on. He wants to tell them a monster has his daughter and it is headed this way and he can't stop chasing it or he will never see his daughter again. He wants to tell them to get help, to call in the national guard and get helicopters and fighter jets and Navy Seals to hunt the creature down. He wants their understanding. He wants them to see. But all that comes out is her name, again and again, through his stuttering mouth and his flared nostrils and wild eyes. The only monster the rangers can see is him, all cuts and bruises and insanity. He is still rasping her name when they restrain him, when they put him in their cruiser and drive him to the nearest hospital. Once on the gurney his voice is gone. He is still mouthing her name when the nurses sedate him. In his nightmares, a man stands in a doorway into darkness. The man knows where his daughter is but won't say. The father is running toward the man, and the harder he runs the farther away the man gets, until the man finally disappears into the darkness. The door closes just before the father reaches it. No matter how hard he slams his fists into the door, it will not open. It will never reopen. The father is alone, screaming and slamming his fists into the door when the tentacles squirm their way around his legs, around his stomach and chest, around his neck and armpits. He is still screaming when the scaly wet limbs jerk him backward into the darkness, still screaming as he disappears into the twisting, crushing mass.