Sally packed devilled eggs—something she usually hated to take on a picnic, because they were so messy. Ham sandwiches, crab salad, lemon tarts—also a packing problem. Kool-Aid for the boys, a half bottle of Mumm’s for herself and Alex. She would have just a sip, because she was still nursing. She had bought plastic champagne glasses for the occasion, but when Alex spotted her handling them he got the real ones—a wedding present—out of the china cabinet. She protested, but he insisted, and took charge of them himself, the wrapping and packing.
“Dad is really a sort of bourgeois gentilhomme,” Kent would say to Sally a few years later, when he was in his teens and acing everything at school, so sure of becoming some sort of scientist that he could get away with spouting French around the house.
“Don’t make fun of your father,” Sally said mechanically.
“I’m not. It’s just that most geologists seem so grubby.”
The picnic was in honor of Alex’s publishing his first solo paper, in Zeitschrift für Geomorphologie. They were going to Osler Bluff because it figured largely in his research, and because Sally and the children had never been there.
They drove a couple of miles down a rough country road—having turned off the highway and then off a decent unpaved country road—and found a place for cars to park, with no cars in it at present. A sign was painted on a board and needed retouching: “CAUTION. DEEP-HOLES.”
Why the hyphen? Sally thought. But who cares?
The entrance to the woods looked quite ordinary and unthreatening. Sally understood, of course, that these woods were on top of a high bluff, and she expected a daunting lookout somewhere. She did not expect the danger that had to be skirted almost immediately in front of them.
Deep chambers, really, some the size of a coffin, some much bigger than that, like rooms cut out of the rocks. Corridors zigzagging between them, and ferns and mosses growing out of the walls. Not enough greenery, however, to make any sort of cushion over the rubble below. The path went meandering between them, over hard earth and shelves of not quite level rock.
“Oooeee,” came the cry of the boys, Kent and Peter, nine and six years old, running ahead.
“No tearing around in here,” Alex called. “No stupid showing off, you hear me? You understand? Answer me.”
They said O.K., and he proceeded, carrying the picnic basket and apparently believing that no further fatherly warning was necessary. Sally stumbled after him faster than was easy for her, with the diaper bag and the baby, Savanna. She couldn’t slow down till she had her sons in sight, saw them trotting along taking sidelong looks into the black crevasses, still making exaggerated but discreet noises of horror. She was nearly crying with exhaustion and alarm and some familiar sort of seeping rage.
The lookout did not appear until they had followed the dirt-and-rock path for what seemed to her like half a mile, and was probably a quarter mile. Then there was a brightening, an intrusion of sky, and her husband halted ahead. He gave a cry of arrival and display, and the boys hooted with true astonishment. Sally, emerging from the woods, found them lined up on an outcrop above the treetops—above several levels of treetops, as it turned out—with the summer fields spread far below in a shimmer of green and yellow.
As soon as she put Savanna down on her blanket, she began to cry.
“Hungry,” Sally said.
Alex said, “I thought she got her lunch in the car.”
“She did. But she’s hungry again.”
She got Savanna latched on to one side and with her free hand unfastened the picnic basket. This was not how Alex had envisioned things. But he gave a good-humored sigh and retrieved the champagne glasses from their wrappings in his pockets, placing them on their sides on a patch of grass.
“Glug glug. I’m thirsty, too,” Kent said, and Peter immediately imitated him.
“Glug glug. Me, too. Glug glug.”
“Shut up,” Alex said.
Kent said, “Shut up, Peter.”
Alex said to Sally, “What did you bring for them to drink?”
“Kool-Aid, in the blue jug. The plastic glasses are in a napkin on top.”
Of course, Alex believed that Kent had started that nonsense not because he was really thirsty but because he was crudely excited by the sight of Sally’s breast. He thought it was high time that Savanna was transferred to the bottle—she was nearly six months old. And he thought Sally was far too casual about the whole procedure, sometimes going around the kitchen doing things with one hand while the infant guzzled. With Kent sneaking peeks and Peter referring to Mommy’s milk jugs. That came from Kent, Alex said. Kent was a troublemaker and the possessor of a dirty mind.
“Well, I have to do things,” Sally said.
“That’s not one of the things you have to do. You could have her on the bottle tomorrow.”
“I will soon. Not quite tomorrow, but soon.”
But here she is, still letting Savanna and the milk jugs dominate the picnic.
The Kool-Aid is poured, then the champagne. Sally and Alex touch glasses, with Savanna between them. Sally has her sip and wishes she could have more. She smiles at Alex to communicate this wish, and maybe the idea that it would be nice to be alone with him. He drinks his champagne, and, as if her sip and smile were enough to soothe him, he starts in on the picnic. She points out which sandwiches have the mustard he likes and which have the mustard she and Peter like and which are for Kent, who likes no mustard at all.
While this is going on, Kent manages to slip behind her and finish up her champagne. Peter must have seen him do this, but for some peculiar reason he does not tell on him. Sally discovers what has happened some time later and Alex never knows about it at all, because he soon forgets that there was anything left in her glass and packs it neatly away with his own, while telling the boys about dolostone. They listen, presumably, as they gobble up the sandwiches and ignore the devilled eggs and crab salad and grab the tarts.
Dolostone, Alex says, is the thick caprock they can see. Underneath it is shale, clay turned into rock, very fine, fine-grained. Water works through the dolostone and when it gets to the shale it just lies there; it can’t get through the thin layers. So the erosion—that’s the destruction of the dolostone—is caused as the water works its way back to its source, eats a channel back, and the caprock develops vertical joints. Do they know what “vertical” means?
“Up and down,” Kent says lackadaisically.
“Weak vertical joints, and they get to lean out and then they leave crevasses behind them and after millions of years they break off altogether and go tumbling down the slope.”
“I have to go,” Kent says.
“I have to go pee.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, go.”
“Me, too,” Peter says.
Sally clamps her mouth down on the automatic injunction to be careful. Alex looks at her and approves of the clamping down. They smile faintly at each other.
Savanna has fallen asleep, her lips slack around the nipple. With the boys out of the way, it’s easier to detach her. Sally can burp her and settle her on the blanket, without worrying about an exposed breast. If Alex finds the sight distasteful—she knows he dislikes the whole conjunction of sex and nourishment, his wife’s breasts turned into udders—he can look away, and he does.
As she buttons herself up, there comes a cry, not sharp but lost, diminishing, and Alex is on his feet before she is, running along the path. Then a louder cry getting closer. It’s Peter.
“Kent falled in. Kent falled in.”
His father yells, “I’m coming.”
Sally will always believe that she knew at once—even before she heard Peter’s voice, she knew what had happened. If an accident had happened, it would not be to her six-year-old, who was brave but not inventive, not a showoff. It would be to Kent. She could see exactly how—peeing into a hole, balancing on the rim, teasing Peter, teasing himself.
He was alive. He was lying far down in the rubble at the bottom of the crevasse, but he was moving his arms, struggling to push himself up. Struggling so feebly. One leg caught under him, the other oddly bent.
“Can you carry the baby?” she said to Peter. “Go back to the picnic and put her on the blanket and watch her. That’s my good boy. My good strong boy.”
Alex was on his way into the hole, scrambling down, telling Kent to stay still. Getting down in one piece was just possible. It would be getting Kent out that was hard.
Should she run to the car and see if there was a rope? Tie the rope around a tree trunk? Maybe tie it around Kent’s body so she could lift him when Alex raised him up to her?
There wouldn’t be a rope. Why would there be a rope?
Alex had reached him. He bent and lifted him. Kent gave a beseeching scream of pain. Alex draped him around his shoulders, Kent’s head hanging down on one side and useless legs—one so unnaturally protruding—on the other. He rose, stumbled a couple of steps, and while still hanging on to Kent dropped back down to his knees. He had decided to crawl and was making his way—Sally understood this now—to the rubble that partly filled the far end of the crevasse. He shouted some order to her without raising his head, and though she could not make out any word she knew what he wanted. She got up off her knees—why was she on her knees?—and pushed through some saplings to that edge of the rim, where the rubble came to within perhaps three feet of the surface. Alex was still crawling along with Kent dangling from him like a shot deer.
She called, “I’m here. I’m here.”
Kent would have to be raised up by his father, pulled to the solid shelf of rock by his mother. He was a skinny boy, who had not yet reached his first spurt of growth, but he seemed as heavy as a bag of cement. Sally’s arms could not do it on the first try. She shifted her position, crouching instead of lying flat on her stomach, and with the full power of her shoulders and chest and with Alex supporting and lifting Kent’s body from beneath they heaved him over. Sally fell back with him in her arms and saw his eyes open, then roll back in his head as he fainted again.
When Alex had clawed his way out, they collected the other children and drove to the Collingwood Hospital. There seemed to be no internal injury. Both legs were broken. One break was clean, as the doctor put it. The other leg was shattered.
“Kids have to be watched every minute in there,” he said sternly to Sally, who had gone into the examining room with Kent while Alex managed Peter and Savanna. “Haven’t they got any warning signs up?”
With Alex, she thought, he would have spoken differently. “That’s the way boys are. Turn your back and they’re tearing around where they shouldn’t be,” he would have said.
Her gratitude—to God, whom she did not believe in, and to Alex, whom she did—was so immense that she resented nothing.