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The Long Haul Back
By Maddy Butcher Gray
With a clean rag, Oscar ran his hand across the fine lettering,
. He'd painted the name in elegant, gold script across the stern of his small barge. It was a nod to the old canal near his childhood home. Like any decent boat name, it had a double entendre.
Oscar looked over the barge and smiled broadly. His pride - the thing born of years of hard, impassioned craftsmanship - now started to bubble up from his toes. He was beaming. Inside, he was bursting. His heart beat at twice its normal rate. He had to remember to breathe.
Upon retirement five years ago, he said goodbye to Pennsylvania and a successful corporate career. He and his wife, Lou, were fulfilling a dream of ex-patriot living in France. He had traded white collar for white wine and was loving it.
Oscar was ready to go. All the bits of his final checklist had been ticked off.
“Looks great, honey,” said his wife, Lou. “She's gorgeous. The carvings and trim work, especially.”
He readied donkeys’ stalls with hay and water, then loaded the donkeys.
If he was going to do it, Oscar planned several years ago, he was going to do it right. No motors to push them back up river. Their diminutive donkeys, Napo and Leon, would do the job.
He finished loading up for the maiden voyage. Lou embellished his supplies with extra wine and fruit, carrots for the donkeys, treats for the dog.
Oscar nervously directed his crew.
At Oscar’s signal, their friend and neighbor, Raoul, untied the bowline, then the sternline, tossing the thick hemp cords aboard. The two men waved zealous goodbyes – a bit overzealous perhaps as they were still close enough to reach across the water and shake hands.
“Au revoir, mes amis!
” said Raoul.
They were off. Lou even took off her neckerchief, laughed, and waved it dramatically. Yank, the dog, barked exuberantly and wagged his tail, thumping it against one of the portholes.
And then, as if for the first time, he saw the bridge. It hung over the river, just around the big bend, half a mile downstream from their home. Lou and Oscar had admired it during countless walks.
Built 500 years ago, Raoul had told them, with mammoth boulders carved perfectly to shape. Its graceful, arcing curve made the river that much more beautiful, they had agreed. It was a treasure to behold.
But in an arrogant, ignorant instant, Oscar hated it.
“Lou! Lou!” he screamed. “The bridge!
Le pont! Le sacre pont!
That blessed bridge!”
Lou didn’t need to see it to know. Instinctively, she moved back to the stern, closer to Oscar.
“The cabin,” he said, in between moans and whimpers. “I don’t think the cabin will go under it.”
He calculated furiously: they traveled the speed of the river. In this region, that meant at a brisk walking pace. Given the distance, they had five minutes, maybe six, to avoid disaster or worse: utter, sincere, and stereotypical American buffoonery. He could hear the locals cackling already.
“Ok, here’s what we’re going to do,” Oscar metted out his frantic plan. “Help me with Napo and Leon.”
Oscar moved towards their stalls, grabbed their harnesses and lines, tacked them up hastily, and moved them onto the deck. They were the size of Shetland ponies but Oscar, in his adrenalized state, lifted them up and into the water, tossing them like wriggling oil drums into the river.
He striped off his boots, Cleveland Indians ballcap, and denim shirt, and dove in after them, gripping their harness lines.
For an instant, the bewildered animals thrashed back towards the barge. But when Oscar joined them and started swimming to shore, they turned and headed with him.
Oscar reached the river’s edge and bounded onto the old dirt path running alongside the river, gently cajoling the soaking donkeys by the reins and pleading with them to trot. Napo and Leon obliged.
In another minute, he had secured their lines and waited until the
drew them taut. Lou watched and manned the lines on board, glancing ahead and then back to her sopping, pathetic, frenetic husband.
“Ok, Oscar, ask them to move out.” Lou yelled.
” he called. (Purchased from Raoul’s cousin, they understood only French commands.) Napo and Leon strained against the lines. Oscar pulled, too. Together, they stepped.
” Oscar grabbed the lines between the donkeys and the barge and attempted to lighten their load. Still, the threesome shuffled actively backwards.
Closer and closer, they inched towards the bridge. It seemed to grow in size as they approached - bigger in every way but height.
By now, one hundred feet away, Oscar could see that the cabin would indeed be too high. By six inches perhaps. Six inches of finely sanded, detailed, oiled, and caressed mahogany. Might as well as have been six feet.
flowed gracefully, defiantly, majestically towards her doom.
On shore, the three creatures strained against the ropes. The ropes strained. On board, Lou cheered them on frantically. Yank yipped incessantly. Alerted by the commotion, Raoul raced through his field and joined Oscar on the dirt path. Together they pulled and shouted and pulled some more.
continued her proud pace.
The slow, cacophonous, reverse parade approached within feet of the bridge. From her station in the stern, Lou could see the hewn stone from a new perspective. It was indeed terribly beautiful.
And then, the
, the river, and all the involved beings reached a brief détente. The current seemed to ease.
The donkeys and men redoubled their efforts. The barge stopped and then ever-so-slightly reversed course.
Oui! Oui! Allons-y, mes amis!
” cried Raoul to the donkeys.
Oscar didn’t dare looked downriver and instead dug his chin into his sweaty chest, grunted loudly and soldiered forward several shuffling steps.
“You’re doing it, guys!” cried Lou. “She’s coming back!”
Their few minutes of glorious downriver travel replayed now as forty minutes of agonizing retreat. Oscar plodded step by step with his tiring donkeys, imploring them to make the final stretch.
When they reached the dock, Raoul wrapped the lines around the cinches and doubled the knots, just to be sure.
Lou and Yank disembarked.
The three of them collapsed in the folding chairs. Oscar shook his head, wiped sweat off his brow and replaced his ballcap.
“Home again the same day, Lou,” panted Oscar. “If you can’t cry, then laugh. We didn’t lose her, did we?”
He laughed. It was hearty and rich with relief. Lou and Raoul looked over to the man, to be sure he meant it. They smiled and laughed and cheered, too. It was a victory cheer. Of sorts.
View Reader Comments:
Great story Maddie! It is very well written and was a fun exciting read. You have been blessed with a gift/talent for writing! Thank you for sharing your story with us!
It did indeed, cheer a dreary day. Really, in all trials and tribulations...what can we do but laugh? and always, from that deep place within.
O Yes Maddy - carry ON! - this was fantastic more more....Loved it!!!!!Can't wait to see your stories in a short collection book. I read all the stories out loud to my mother as she is visually disabled...this one was a real winner! thanks
As I read the story I pictured in my mind the whole scene. Awesome and on the edge as to what would happen. Great!! Thanks!
Great story!!! I began sitting forward as I continued to read because I felt the desperation of your characters :)
Maddy - can you post this one on Facebook? - it is a marvelous read...
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