Tuesday, January 25, 2011
The Last Rose Of Summer
School had started and the last warm Saturday of the year had arrived. The sun was warm and tingled the last of my summer sunburn but the passing breeze was cool. The leaves on the trees had just started to curl and would be a week or two before they turned brown. I got out my raft and decided to make one more trip down the crick behind our house before it was too late and the ice started to form at the edges with the onset of winter. Besides, time spent on the water beat the hell out of spending time with my sister.
It wasn't much of a raft, as it was a Styrofoam pull-along for people who couldn't water ski but it served my purposes just fine. It was about four feet long, two and a half wide, with the top carpeted with a green felt for grip. There was just enough room for me and a small bag and that was the way I liked it. I set off with a splash and the water oozed over the nose until I adjusted myself to the center. I had one old paddle that was longer than the craft itself but it was good to have the reach for pushing oneself through mud banks and sand. I let the current take me, rested the paddle on my knee and I drifted into our swimming hole.
A lot of people have the mistaken idea that the wild is a silent place. They couldn't be further from the truth. The back woods is certainly quiet, the kind you can't find anywhere else, but it isn't the silence of a church on Monday. Bird song fills the air, from the yelp of a titmouse to the mournful cry of a distant crow. Among the underbrush, a startled raccoon flees with his precious handful of crawdad and he curses me for spoiling his lunch at the water's edge. I float on, hesitant to dip the paddle in for fear of disturbing the peace of this soft moment that I am trying so hard to savor for the times this winter when I will while away hours in a boring classroom.
I gaze up into the pines that line the walls of the river valley and catch site of a cardinal trying very hard to conceal his red breast amongst the rich green of the needles. On the other side of the crick, I hear his mate scold him for not being home on time. He chirps back to her, "Shut your mouth woman! Can't you see the predator in our midst!" I am mildly ashamed for the marital discord that I have caused and I bend my back to the paddle in earnest for the first time.
The water gets shallower and swifter now. I feel the rub of the smooth rocks under my boat more than hear them. I paddle past the spot of the cornfield where I felt the neighbor girl's breast for the first and only time that summer. I think about it's butter color with a rose like crest, and how it was so indescribably soft in a way nature has no right to be. I am uncomfortable with the memory and I shift my weight on the raft although I don't know why at the time.
The current settles down now and I can see my goal. With my destination in sight, I check to make sure that my bag hasn't gotten too wet. The boat noses against the large rock in the stream and the last of this season's dragonflies whiz past as I pull it up. I gather a handful of drift wood and have a small fire going in minutes. The bits of sand caught in the bark of the wood will change the flame to green and blue as it burns and it will flavor my lunch like no spice I've had before or since. The ham makes a reassuring hiss as it hits the hot skillet of my mess kit. I quietly curse myself for forgetting the eggs as I put the greasy bread on to toast.
I eat my hot sandwich in small bites and look around me at the carpet of ferns that make their home beneath these huge pines. My nose is filled with the smell of crick mud, wet grass, rotting vegetation, and wood smoked ham on slightly burnt toast, and for some unknown reason I think to myself, "This is it. It will never get any better than this."
The truth of the matter is that it did get better than that over the next twenty-eight years, but it was never, ever the same kind of better as that afternoon. I kicked my fire into the crick and grabbed the pull rope on my raft and headed for home, walking the same route I had just floated. The cold water stung my toes while I thought of the neighbor girl and her soft, yielding kiss that held a mysterious passion that up until now I had reserved for collecting comic books alone. I thought of the unwelcome grind of homework that was due on Monday and how I was going to get through public school with the least amount of humiliation and ass kicking as I could manage. I wondered about how to make some money. As I pulled the raft up to the barn to put it away for the year, I paused to have a chew of tobacco, a new habit that I had recently acquired. "Screw it," I thought as I stopped to spit, "I'll worry about that tomorrow. I'm only young once and tonight will be the last night for lightening bugs."