Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
One day, quite unexpectedly, the narrator’s father orders a canoe made. His wife thinks it absurd for a man his age to think about hunting and fishing, but the man offers no explanation. When the canoe, sturdy and built to last, finally arrives, the man solemnly paddles it into the middle of the river. During the first few days after this strange withdrawal, the narrator worries about his father and regularly leaves some food along the riverbank for his father’s sustenance. The days become weeks, months, years, and it finally becomes clear that his father will never return to his family. His father manages somehow to ride out the floodwaters every year, though he barely touches the food left for him by his son and by other members of his family. The daughter marries and has a son, and the family gathers by the river in the hope that the man will come to see his new grandson, but he does not appear.
The daughter moves away, and finally the mother goes away to live with her sister. Finally, only the narrator, out of some profound sense of duty, stays. When he realizes how aged he has become, he knows that his father must be very old, and he goes down to the bank at last and calls out that his father’s duty is finished, that he, the narrator, will take his place in the canoe. The father approaches in the canoe, but the son panics and flees. His father is never seen again. Finally, the son longs for a place to die, a canoe.