He’s thinking about the smoked salmon dinner with garlic mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus they’ll enjoy later at the lodge and the cold beer he’ll drink with the meal and about the long, cool shower and the nap when this hike is finally over. Four and a half miles down, four and a half back in this unbearable heat. How does the old man do it? The arch of his right foot aches and so does the muscle that runs down the outside of his calf. He trips on the exposed root of a scrubby pinyon pine. Twenty yards ahead on the trail, his father waits for him. His father yells, “Isn’t this breathtaking, Isaac?”
Isaac looks out at the canyon wall and sees two billion years into the past. He knows this because his father, the geologist, told him so, told him the story of the Grand Canyon from the Vishnu schist there at the bottom to the Kaibab limestone where he is standing now, or will be in, it looks like, another fifteen or twenty minutes. “Once upon a time there were mountains six miles high” the story began. What was it his father had called those rose-colored cliffs? Redstone? Redwall sandstone? Was that it? No, limestone. Redwall limestone. Created by a tropical sea 340 million years ago. Isaac sees a mountain goat and her kid stepping along a narrow ledge across the canyon.
Isaac’s father yells for Isaac to get a move on. Isaac points at his athletic shoes. “My feet, ” he says and he makes a pained expression. His father says, “I told you to wear boots.”
The hiking trip to the Canyon was his father’s idea, a last-minute escape, a final adventure before they head back to their universities, Isaac to finish his dissertation on “Time in a Language Without Tense: Aspectual Markers in Chinese” and his father to teach a seminar on Petroleum Resources and Environmental Problems.
Isaac’s foot slides over loose gravel, and he loses his balance. He falls to his back and slides toward the drop-off. He reaches for a black bush but can’t grab hold. This is absurd and embarrassing, he thinks. He has a second to stop his fall, to save his life, and, of course, he will because this is not a movie. He claws at the scree, jams his foot into the hardpan but gains no purchase. He yells to his father, “Dad, help me!”
His father turns. “Isaac, Isaac, where are you?” And then he sees his son drop and bounce off a ledge twenty feet below the trail, and tumble out into thin air with nothing beneath him for hundreds of feet.
All Isaac can do is hope for the miracle that will interrupt his acceleration into the past. And then, to his relief, he realizes what must have happened. He was knocked out when he struck the ledge, and this is a dream of what would have happened if he hadn’t been so lucky. When he comes to, when he opens his eyes, he’ll see his father and a ranger crouched beside him. This is the falling dream he’s been having all his life, and he always wakes up before he reaches the source of the gravity.
And then his shirt is ripped from his body, and he sees it rise above him and float. He screams to his father or maybe he just opens his mouth. Isaac doesn’t know how he manages it, but he turns to face the canyon floor and tries to flap his arms and kick his legs to slow himself. He can do this. He’s slowing down; he’s sure of it. Maybe he’s caught an updraft. If he can land on his feet, he’ll only break his legs. But his arms and legs don’t move and his writhing only starts him spinning and rolling, and he doesn’t know what’s up or what’s down.
Isaac’s father can’t see his son below, but he does see a man on the rim above. The man is looking at him through a coin-operated telescope. Isaac’s father waves at the man. The man smiles and waves back. The mountain goat watches the amazing flying boy and then bleats at her kid, and they step carefully along the ledge.
John Dufresne is the author of two story collections and four novels, most recently Requiem, Mass., and two books on writing fiction, The Lie That Tells a Truth and Is Life Like This? He teaches creative writing at Florida International University. His short story, “The Cross-Eyed Bear” will appear in Best American Mystery Stories 2010.