This Side of the River

Shannon swung down from her horse’s back, landed with practiced ease on the ground. She took the reigns and led him down to the river at the base of the ranch. The herd was far off, but their peaceful lowing carried across the prairie.

There, boy,” she said, patting the horse’s flank as it drank from the shallows. “Drink deep.”

The last rays of sun stretched across the far side of the river as she walked down the bank, feet crunching pebbles. She sat down, took off her hat and laid it beside her. Two brown braids hung down her back. She sat motionless and listened to the water until the first stars came out.

It’s over,” she whispered at last. Propped up on her hands, she leaned back to the sky. Diamonds slid from her eyes as she tried to smile. “I’m not ready.”

She clenched the gravel, flung it forward into the stream. Ten kerplunks in the dark. She dug her heels into the riverbank, got up. Pulled off the boots and left them on dry land. She stepped into the stream. The water felt good.

It was final, this time. They weren’t even going to try chemo. Hopeless, they said. Six months at most before your cells burst apart.

You always knew it was going to end sometime.

Not like this,” she said to the river. “Not so soon.”

You didn’t used to feel this way about it.

When I was young,” she murmured, “it was different.” The river swallowed her words.

Now life’s caught a hold of you. Now you have so much to lose.

I can’t!” Her voice echoed from the far bank, dropped again to a whisper. “I’m not strong enough…”

You don’t have to be.

I’m afraid.”

You don’t need to be.

So afraid.” Tears welled from her eyes, but her face betrayed nothing.

Everyone’s been here before.


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