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a novel: coeur   -   d'alene waters

T he first novel excerpt is now available! "hot ink" presents Coeur d'Alene Waters, by Robyn Taobene. Check back here every week for the next part of this new novel -- available soon at!

Coeur D’Alene Waters


            The light blue windbreaker begins as a speck of nothingness far out on the waters of Lake Coeur d’Alene. From shore, it seems a trace of outboard gasoline in the water washes over the grain of color. As the rower pulls past Sparrow Point, he is part of the reflection of the sky in the water. The boat moves closer, surging in under the steady thrust and pull of his arms. The outline of a far away jacket is apparent against the wake-sized swells. Finally the shape of Matt Worthson rowing an old skiff comes clear. The oars move slow but solid, without pausing.

            Every day for years, Worthson has rowed halfway across Lake Coeur d’Alene. Worthson does not usually row all the way out to the Polish rocks. He does not row regularly, so that his body will become accustomed to the pull -- he rows far enough to remind him of the strength that's gone.

            Twenty odd years ago, in 1962, Worthson was Idaho state wrestling champion. Under the blurring of middle age, a certain power still remains in his shoulders and chest. Worthson has worked to stay strong, looking younger than his years, even now, at forty-seven years old.

            Deputy Matt Worthson is a lieutenant in the Sheriff’s department. It is a job he has had for a long time. It is a job he often considers leaving. There is only so long one can keep going. He doesn't like to feel himself staying in place.

            If he doesn't move on, he feels that eventually he will come back to the parts of his life he wants to avoid. He’ll repeat himself, and he feels he will like himself even less the second time around. One of those times is on his mind.

            Four years ago, Matt Worthson lost his job. Then they gave it back. What the department decided about the accident was not the truth of it. They said he had not been awake when the two cars collided. There were other explanations as well.

            He knows the truth. It is one of his secrets.

            The things that keep him in Coeur d’Alene are things that in this part of the country only come with a uniform: his own car, his own office, a working schedule he makes for himself. And he is not often asked to think, in this job. For a long time, that has been reward enough to keep him here.

            There is also the boat. It is mostly his by now. Worthson is the only sheriff’s deputy in Joiner County, Idaho, to ever use the old skiff. When he rows hard enough to hear the oarlocks tear at the wood, he remembers how long he’s been rowing.

            When he was suspended for three months, he stopped coming to the lake. Rowing has not been the same since. Even before he lost the election for County Sheriff, it was not the same. He thinks that it is different because many things have left his life since then. He has been glad to see them go. He keeps thinking that the feeling will come back, the old feeling of the oars in his hands, moving him forward.

            The accident and the election seem connected for people who know him only from the newspapers. Those in town who know him well discount what the newspapers said about him then. He has never told anyone that the two events are also connected for him.

            But he has remained with the Sheriff's department. The uniform brings a responsibility that holds things together. It has kept him "dry," as they say in the meetings. And it allows him to use the boat. These are not small things.

            Worthson began rowing in the lake years ago, when he took his son fishing early on summer mornings. It is one of the places his wife, Sall, will not go with him. After all, this boat is small, too old to be reliable, barely big enough for a man and a boy. It is his alone. For all he knows, City Hall has entirely forgotten the boat.

            By now, the wood is cracked and splintered all along the port side, as if some great fish smashed against the side when it was pulled from the depths.

            Matt can not remember catching any fish worth keeping.

            Each spring, the Coeur d’Alene city seal and the waterproof "Property of Joiner County" decal are replaced by maintenance men, but any name has long since worn off the bow end. Twice in the past three years, Worthson has himself patched leaks in the hull, and repainted the wood. He does his best to maintain it.

            On odd occasions, the boat is needed by the County. Once a pickup trailer full of huckleberry baskets and Russ Syler’s half-drunk teenage daughter, Sheila, tipped its load into the east end of the lake. Matt happened to be rowing when someone decided they needed a rowboat to retrieve the floating huckleberries. But the Syler girl could swim, and by the time Matt came to shore all the huckleberries were underwater and sinking fast.

            There have been other accidents, more serious, most of them pulled out by motorboats. Over the years, swimmers have drowned in these waters: a child here, a cramped marathoner there. That was before they closed the entire west side of the lake to swimming. In time long past, even the rowboat was used for regular lifesaving patrols. Near the west end of the lake, where the Spokane river flows out, the currents are very dangerous.

            Matt Worthson has helped pull enough bodies out of the lake to not be surprised any longer when people think water must be safe because it is clear and blue as the north Idaho sky in summer. It is an attitude that he imagines disappears sometime between the current taking you and the first inhalation of water. The leaving of it would be, he thinks, something unexpected, surprising.

            This afternoon, an echo of that panic comes over him when the balance of the boat alters under him. The movement is solid, as if a heavy waterlogged thing is slipping under the gunwhale, submerging itself. For some reason he can not place, Worthson connects this sound to fishing, and looks at the port side, where the wood is splintered. The bottom of the boat scrapes again over something soft and rotten, moving in the current.

            It strikes him that there could be another body in the lake.

"            Who are you, who are you then?" Matt mutters, and back-paddles hard with the oars. A round shape like a forehead lies immobile in the waves, tied somehow to a long smooth form with hair, covered by rags and broken wood. He back-paddles again and the boat moves far enough for him to see the great pale shape of the largest Polish rock beside him. Things shift then.

            The Polish rocks and their debris are all around him. In front of the boat is only a mass of twigs and currents moving against the rocks. Leaves and debris without a form.

            Except for him, there is no one in the lake at all.

            In the failing light, he can see that nothing is there. He's scraped over a log between two of the rocks.

            He is past the point he usually stops. He is near the Polish rocks, where the currents change. Things catch here and hold for a time, rotting and sinking into the lake bottom. It is the best bass water in the Coeur d'Alene.

            During much of the year, the rocks are underwater. When the water level drops in late summer the Polish rocks emerge white, like capped swimmer’s heads, drowned things. He had forgotten what they looked like this time of year.

            The idea of what he could have seen is still on his mind when he moves the boat back towards shore. The sky is streaked now with lines of deep violet. He thinks of soot or grease. A jet contrail has lanced them across some time ago, leaving pockets of spreading white behind. He sees in one of the large vapor clouds a face, turning itself away from the shoreline. He can just make out a muted profile: an eye, an ear, nose, a cheekbone, before the sky eats it into the shades of a bruise. He pulls on the oars again, and feels the strain.

            By the time he manages to get the boat all the way from the Polish rocks to the dock, he is too tired to care what his eyes see in the water, in the darkening sky.

            Worthson thinks of his son. His son, Michael Doug, is in town for dinner tonight, after almost four years away. Matt cannot remember the last time they’d eaten dinner together. He does not know if Michael left because of him, or because of other, less pressing problems. Matt hopes a few of the problems have been solved by now, although he doesn't have much faith that this would change anything. There would be new problems. Michael made his own.

            But it matters to Matt to see him. His son Michael has just driven in from Oregon with a girlfriend that morning. Worthson's thoughts of Michael have softened somehow while he's been gone.

            He imagines, even, that his son might be waiting for him, wanting him back. This moves him across the lake. His son is anxious to see him; yet he will be late again. There is no way to get there faster. Worthson still has to move the boat off the water.

            When he reaches the north end of the boardwalk the wearing of the oars has settled into the muscles of his shoulders. The municipal dock and the city boathouse stand out of the water, leaning into one another.

            The beach is steep and gritty like pumice there at the Coeur d’Alene municipal dock and Matt drags the boat all the way up the sandy verge to chain it up. This night, he moves stiffly, as if he's left his strength out at the Polish rocks. The fatigue can be seen in the time he takes to chain the rowboat up to the dry piling on shore.

            There are some things that cannot be maintained all the way.


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