This is an excerpt from my personal story in The Mockingbird literary journal. You can read the entire narrative in the latest issue, no. 4 Winter 2015, available here.
YOU CAN’T LEAVE WHO YOU ARE UNTIL YOU KNOW WHERE YOU’VE BEEN. I feel stretched out thin, and lonely, as my boat drifts slowly down Dividing Creek. But I also feel alive, or at least thrown into the midst of life, surrounded by wild green growth so heavy and impenetrable I could just as well be on the backwaters of the Amazon as navigating a small tributary of the Pocomoke River, a blackwater stream that makes its own meandering way to a widening sound, then into the lower Chesapeake Bay beyond, and from there to the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. Where I put the boat in back upstream the trees met overhead and dark woods and dark stream merged in muted light and an indiscernible dawn. Nothing was distinct; only blurred shapes and masses rose from a dark plane of flat water. Now there is a serpentine band of sky overhead, mirroring the course of the creek, palely lighting the surface of the water and the walls of the forest on either side. Right now the creek is narrow. I can almost touch opposite banks with my oars extended, pulling slowly just to keep to the center. But the banks still aren’t really banks, just where branches and leaves find an edge in the air and allow space for the creek to pass. The dark, tea-stained water stretches into the underbrush and surrounds gray-brown bald cypress trees and occasional small hummocks of not-really-solid earth. I am not a naturalist, so I can’t identify half of what I see around me. Cypress knees, some three feet tall, rise out of shallow water, feeling ancient with peeling bark and knobby surface. Waxy, emerald-green laurel leaves, grasping for what little light makes its way down here, fill in spaces at the creek’s edge. It is now mid-morning, but everything is still in shadow, and at gaps where I can peer farther into the swamp tree trunks like pillars recede into the dim and deep quiet, enclosed by the waters at their feet, finally forming a wall I cannot see beyond. It is not frightening, but it is alien. I am wondering if I even belong here.
My course is rarely straight. I pull right, then in a few yards pull left, as the creek turns and bends, never deciding which side of the expanse of cypress forest it will favor. The creek widens gradually and the day becomes bright, with a clear blue sky overhead. Rising heat and humidity make the air a felt presence, part of the landscape, merging with forest and water in a seamless whole. This pressure of warmth and moisture, dark water and dense flora wants me to become part of it, to fade into the background, to dissipate into thick air. Clouds of insects—mosquitoes, gnats, and greenhead flies—seem to condense out of the swirl of green forest, blue sky, and sepia water, and swarm around me. I pull my outer shirt over my head, leaving a small opening to mark my progress downstream.
This cypress swamp is the habitat of venomous copperheads and a harmless cottonmouth look-alike, the common banded water snake, but I have seen neither. Occasional splashes disturb the silence. They are probably snapping turtles slipping off half-submerged branches as my boat approaches, but I only catch the traces of their presence as ripples widening out in concentric circles from a central point, which now marks their absence. Otherwise, I slip quietly downstream.
The confluence of Dividing Creek and the Pocomoke River marks little visible change. Dark water merges flat and smooth with dark water, cypress swamp spreads out from the mouth of the creek on either side and from the opposite bank of the river, about seventy or eighty yards away. The air cools only slightly. The surface of the river ripples lightly when the wind passes. But the depths of the river, more than sixty feet in places, hide a strong current. The river is also tidal, and tricky; few people ever swim in it, except sometimes by City Dock, about 2 ½ miles downstream from where I emerge at the mouth of the creek. I turn left, upstream, and pull more strongly to make progress against the downstream flow. Lily pads flourish and spread in the bright sunlight against the river’s banks. The prow of my boat parts them to either side and my portside oar occasionally gets tangled in the tough stems. The other oar dips and disappears in the deep channel on the starboard side. After about a half mile or so I sweep the oars in opposite directions to turn the boat in its length and return back to from where I came.
I am here because my father is here. My father is here because the town is here and the town is near his livelihood. The town is here because the river is here. The river passes through ancient geography, where the small towns and farms aren’t much more than momentary wounds on the landscape. Time will erase them as it erases everything. As it will erase me.
The Mockingbird, issue 4, Winter 2015: http://magazine.mbird.com/