Not that long ago, but back when we all took for granted that we did not live in a river, Daniel Forte stole a long leg bone out of the bluff at the bottom of Bells Bend.
He had been fishing off of the end of the boat ramp, when he decided that the small shore, just downstream, littered in white shells, was a better prospect, since there was a large upended tree in the shallow water there.
He had to wade through the river to get there, but the Cumberland was so calm he barely felt it tug on the legs of his jeans, as he skirted along the bottom of bluff to the tiny beach. Maybe twenty steps, maybe fewer.
He found the bone almost immediately. He was grabbing onto bare roots for balance and, as he stepped onto the shore, he put his hand out to steady himself and, when he touched the bluff, he touched bone.
Maybe it had already been raining that spring, and we just thought nothing of it. Maybe, when something wants to be found, you can’t escape the misfortune of finding it. Either way, he pressed his fingers into the mud, grabbed hold of it, gave it a slight yank and out it popped, with surprisingly little effort. A whole thigh bone.
He squatted down, washed it in the river so clear, watching as the mud slowly swirled away and off down stream.
When he went to go home, he tossed it in the passenger side of his truck. He wasn’t even as far as the Ashland City Highway when he thought he saw a man out of the corner of his eye, sitting shotgun. Forte almost died right then, swerving off the road like he did.
A few days later, he asked his girlfriend what she’d done with the bone from his truck. He was going to take it down to the bar, show it to a few of the guys, see what they thought.
“I gave it to the dog,” she said.
Before he could even think to be mad, he was running through the house and out the back door. The bone sat under the catalpa tree. The dog stood nearby, its chain stretched taunt, staring at something.
“Come on, boy,” Forte said, but the dog would not take its eyes off of the spot under the tree where the bone sat. Forte walked over and grabbed the bone. The dog, his dog, lunged at him, barking and growling and snapping.
“What’s going on?” his girlfriend asked.
“Dog’s fucked up, I guess,” he shrugged.
During the flood, Daniel Forte was out of town. He was over in Missouri helping his cousin move. He called home a couple times, but his girlfriend never answered. He didn’t think much of it.
I don’t know what he thought about on the drive home, as he passed swollen creeks now the size of rivers, as he was detoured around washed-out roads. I do know that, by the time he got to Nashville, he was afraid.
He couldn’t get to his house. He parked at the end of the street and walked to the police tape and watched, along with a small crowd, as rescuers launched boats off the low point in the road.
“The dog’s dead,” was the first thing his girlfriend told him, when he finally found her. “Water rose so fast, and I couldn’t get out to him.” He waited for her to say what she always said, that he shouldn’t leave the dog tied up out back. But she seemed uninterested in blaming him.
“How did you get out?” he asked.
“I heard something,” she said, “a voice or a laugh or…” again, she lost interest in trying to explain. “I just got out. I waited on the roof. They came and got me.” After a long while, she said, “Here.” and handed him the bone.
“Do you think this was it? Do you think I did this?” He asked, but she said nothing.
For the next few weeks, she was like a ghost, walking around the hotel room like she had lost track of what anchored her here. Forte wondered if she might fade completely away.
One Sunday, he took the bone and went back down to the end of Old Hickory Boulevard, deep in Bells Bend. The water in the Cumberland was still high, and brown and fast moving. He slipped going down the boatramp, but righted himself. The shore was smaller, mostly under water, and so it was further, thirty steps, certainly, maybe more. And from the moment he stepped into the river, it pulled at him, swirled around him, and brushed brown mud and sticks against him.
When he stepped onto the shore, it sucked him in and, without thinking, he pulled back, trying to get his foot out of the mire. He struggled to regain his balance and, at the last second, pitched himself forward. He fell in the mud. The bone rolled out of his grasp, towards the water. He grabbed after it, stopping it before it went into the river.
He stood, with some difficulty, in the shin-deep mire. The driest spot was nearest the bluff, so he struggled over to a small patch of firm ground. He dug into the side of the bluff as best he could, and put the bone back.
He waited to see if something would shift, if he would feel that something had been righted.
He felt nothing.
He ended up having to scramble up the bluff, just to get out. And I’ll be damned if he was barely to the Ashland City highway, when he saw, out of the corner of his eye, a man riding shotgun.