We were up at the river, the south fork that rolls through the country where my grandparents' old cabin used to be. I like to take the boy away from roads, out where he won't have the constant reminder of cars. Cars must be awful for him.
It was late in the summer, so the river was low. We were walking along the bank, over sand and piles of gray river rock and stranded debris. If this had been June, the river would have been swollen with runoff from the snowpack. The water would have been up to my waist, and over the boy's head.
I was skipping rocks, mostly because looking for flat skipping stones gave us something to do. He hadn't been much of a talker since he moved in with my sister's family, and I found the silences awkward. My sister takes good care of him, but she's got her own family.
The river moved slowly, and wound through the hills and under the oak trees and manzanita bushes. We were mostly silent as we looked through the rocks, all tumbled smooth with time and the slow current of the river.
He wasn't showing much interest in my rock skipping ability, even when I got ten skips and hit the other side.
I picked up a bulbous rock and showed it to him. "Look," I said, "this one looks like a nose."
He looked at it in that purposeful way he had developed since his parents' accident. If he were a 40 year old man, you might take his expression for one of intellectual detachment. But on a three year old boy, it looked more like worry. It had been a long time since I had seen him with an age-appropriate expression on his face.
"It looks like a butt," he finally said. And then, "can you make it skip?"
"I don't know, it's not really flat," I said. "See how it flares?" The flared parts were what made it look like a nose.
He looked back at me with that same earnest detachment. Sometimes, he looked like he was slipping away. Like there was some other, unseen place, and it was pulling on him.
I threw the rock side-armed, and gave it a flick as I released it. It plowed into the current with a failed "plop".
"Do it again!" he yelled, more excited by failure than success.
So I grabbed a fist-sized cobble and threw it as high as I could, out into the center of the river, where the water was deeper.
The river splashed, first a wide spray where the water swallowed the rock, then a high plume as the water slammed together, making two distinct sounds.
"Again!" he yelled.
"Your turn," I said, and handed him a small rock. He threw it at the river, and I yelled when it hit. "What a splash!"
We took turns throwing rocks into the river. I grabbed a small log and threw it in. "Sink the Bismarck!" I yelled, and we both rained river rocks down on the battleship.
I looked at my nephew. There was more little kid in him than I had seen in a long time. He was smiling, and yelling and running around the way he should. He was happy.
"That was fun," he said, as the slow current pulled the log from our view and we held our fire. The serious look came back to his face.
He looked out at the river. He seemed to be mesmerized by the current, slow and strong and constant. He picked up a rock from the pile he was standing on, and held it out for me to see. It was smooth and flat like the others, but it was marbled with veins of white and blue. The river had pulled it from miles away, from a place where the rocks were not all gray and speckled with black, like they were here.
"Do you get to do much fun stuff?" I asked him, because I was worried that he didn't.
"No," he said.
"Do you like living with your cousins?"
"Auntie's not fun," he said. "Not fun like you."
"She has a much harder job than I do," I said. It really was a much harder job. I had not taken it, in fact, because it was hard. It would have changed my whole life. My sister already had a family, so what was one more? But I could see now that was the problem. What do you do with someone who is so far removed from the place he belonged?
He looked back at the rock in his little hand. He regarded it thoughtfully, like he was trying to decide what to make of it. "Can I keep it?" He asked without looking up.
"Sure," I said.
He clutched the rock between his hands, then placed it carefully in his pocket.
We followed the river back to the old dead oak, where the trail met the small beach. I put my nephew on my shoulders and we made our way back to the car.
BIO: Cliff Young attended college at The University of California at Santa Barbara where he studied economics. Since then he has made his living (legally) as a waiter, ditch digger, cartographer, and software engineer, and (illegally) as an undocumented laborer in England. Cliff now lives with his wife, two children, a dog and a cat, in a house with a picket fence in Berkeley, California. His favorite food is fried chicken.