The smothering ennui of an awkward situation cannot stand in the face of an onrushing waterfall. One moment, they had been boating calmly along the Bresque. Papá sat at one end of the boat, stroking the river with his paddles. Chantrell leaned against the other end and thought of their room at La Relais, mostly empty, like her room at his house. Cascade Sillans had surged up on them, like a squirrel up a tree. We should not yet be upon the cascade, Papá had said, glancing over his shoulder. She had taken an oar to help fight the current, not that her arm was any match for his.
The next moment, they were sailing over the cascade and the park below in defiance of gravity. The river rose up into the air like a clear ribbon. Don't stop rowing, Papá said, and Chantrell tried not to think about how fearful he sounded.
The river twinkled, lifting them up and up, the Provençal countryside disappearing below. She thought of hot air ballooning in the Loire. Such outings made a broken family seem so small, so insignificant. Her problems fit inside an empty house; they were nothing compared to the size of a country, or even a département. When Côte d'Azur came into view, she stopped thinking and started rowing.
Don't look down, she said. Papá nodded, mute.
They climbed into a sky colder than the Bresque's summer alpine air but did not shiver. Water drained from the river, to be replaced by stars. Soon, they paddled on nothing but a shining road paved in night. Papá stopped rowing and leaned back in his seat, wiping a hand over his brow. He chanced a look behind them.
There's the Earth, he said, as though this had been their destination all along.
Chantrell's eyes grew and grew as she looked around.
The star-river carried them smoothly past a red planet and a band of small rocks floating in the blackness. The spheres passed them in seconds. Papá, grinning, pointed up, and Chantrell nearly leapt from the boat as a comet flashed by overhead. She could not keep from smiling as they sailed past Jupiter's red spot and the rings of Saturn.
Out, out into the blackness the river flowed. They left the confines of what little they knew about the solar system through a kaleidoscope of tiny crystals that tickled their cheeks. The blackness glowed and warmth suffused them. Chantrell, steps unsteady, moved to sit by Papá, and he wrapped an arm around her as they watched outer space unfold.
A school of kite shapes made of green gas floated past them like fish. The smallest one broke off, looping around and around the boat. Chantrell reached for it, and her fingers passed through, leaving them pleasantly cool.
The kite pumped its wings to rejoin its school, when from their right, a sinuous ribbon, long as a wish, darted across their prow and into the kites. A soft, wide mouth opened at its far end. The kites made tinkling sounds and veered away from it, escaping its bite. Chantrell cheered and clapped, and Papá shouted like he was watching a football match. They stilled when the ribbon abruptly altered course, breaking against a looming behemoth. They peered up at it, and it took their breath away.
A human heart larger than a planet drifted beside the river, serene as it was majestic. It pulsed with yellow light, both cold and warm at the same time. A second joined it, and a third. They pirouetted over the boat in a Gordian dance, and Chantrell and Papá exchanged smiles at the whalesong they made.
Walls of stars parted before the hearts. Through lenses made of pure, bent light, a myriad of suns stretched out across the universe. They glowed in reds and pinks and blues and greens and yellows, in ones and dozens and hundreds, a rainbow of incandescent welcome coruscating across creation.
In a patch of black sky, a large spot lurked, even darker than the surrounding space. From the blackness a line of ghost light emerged and widened to become an eye rimed in crimson, with a pupil the shape of a cross. It turned toward them, and for an instant, their blood chilled.
A constellation of tiny sparkles spun from the center of the pupil. They whirled into lines like neon tubing, red and blue and green. The bottom lid of the eye curved upward, the neon lines formed into a four-fingered hand, and it waved to them as it watched them pass. They laughed and knelt against the boat, waving back as though the eye were the conductor of a passing train. As they moved beyond it, the hand turned back into sparkles and the eye slowly closed, leaving that section of sky perfectly dark once again.
Presently, their travel slowed. The river intersected with another, and another, and still another, each bigger than the last and all shimmering with more lights in a single drop than could be counted in a lifetime. At the center of the confluence stood a headless titan made of stardust. The hearts seemed as mice as they skittered from it.
In the giant's hand was a galaxy. Chantrell gripped Papá's shirt tighter as the giant brought the galaxy down upon a black hole with unfathomable power, casting a spark as big as the Sun. Planets shot from the collision, flakes of metal from a blacksmith's hammer. Again and again, the galaxy slammed into the black hole, throwing off suns and planets that soared to all reaches of the cosmos.
As time moved on, they relaxed. Though the giant's appearance and the primordial fury of its craft had startled them, the continual soul-shaking thump of those mammoth blows worked its way into their beings, a rhythm born from God Himself. It was soothing and enlightening and they felt at one with reality, as no two humans had in thousands of years.
After a few more strikes, the giant wiped the back of its free hand across its shoulders and turned to them. The hand raised toward their boat and, with a flick of its fingers, created a wind that would have reduced an ocean to steam in a heartbeat. Yet it only sent the boat sailing back the way it had come.
Faster, ever faster the little boat travelled back down the river of starlight, and never once did it jounce. Galaxies, stars, and planets passed by in the blink of a thought. Down, down to the little blue and green ball they hurtled. That ball grew, encompassed their field of vision, subsumed their every thought.
Beneath its waters, they sank.
They broke the surface, still in the boat, to the roar of the falls behind them and the confused cries of a tourist before them.
Hey, what're y'all doin' out thar? he shouted. Had they paid his words any attention, they would not have understood them.
They embraced, laughing, checking themselves and the boat and the river and the cascade, and finding all wet but otherwise as it should be.
Did that really happen? asked Papá, laughing like a child and wiping tears from his eyes.
Yes! said Chantrell. Vanished was the ennui, the awkwardness, the knowledge that each of them was trying very hard to do something neither knew how to do. In its place was the sense of a fading dream that had felt more real than the wood beneath them.
She said, breathless, I shall never forget that, Papá!
Whatever it was, he said, neither shall I.
When the townsfolk of Sillans-la-Cascade pulled them and their boat from the lagoon at the base of the cascade, they were laughing still.