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Wind sweeps a stray cloud across the sky, exposing half of a gray-mottled moon. It’s nine-thirty in the morning, and the moon looks like an island in a pellucid sea. Sitting in the mossy crook of a hickory tree, my legs dangle above the creek. A walnut leaf drifts past, on its way through the valley, destined for the river and finally the bay. For a moment, I think of taking off my sneakers and socks, rolling up my jeans, and dipping my toes into the soft silt lining the creek bed. The meandering stream is only shin-deep and with four strides I could sit on the other shore. In the October chill, however, I reconsider; instead, the smells - mud, fish, decaying leaves - intoxicate me.
“My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air.”
I know it’s a romantic idea, reading “Song of Myself” on a stream bank. In fact, if Walt Whitman’s spirit were to brush by me in the gusting wind, I’d probably hear him say: Close the book and watch. Listen.
A shriek pierces through the orange and gold treetops like a blast of steam escaping a teakettle. Looking up, I see the silver belly of a red-tailed hawk as it glides in circles below the moon.
“I fly those flights of a fluid and swallowing soul,” writes Whitman. He, too, must have witnessed the swooping undulations of a ruddy-winged bird. His heart, like mine, unburdened.
From my rough but solid seat in the hickory tree, I hear, at first, the sounds of Annville’s busy thoroughfare - the drone of engines, squealing brakes, the chime of a church bell. Soon, however, other noises trickle into my consciousness. Water over fallen branches. Staccato crackles of a squirrel in the brush. My own breathing. The world has been reduced to a microcosm in which I am the center. In this cosmos there are no thoughts of the future, only a mingling of the present and past.
Maybe it’s my solitude, or perhaps it’s the wind caressing my face with the smell of wet leaves, but I feel suddenly close to my home, a farm that is sixty miles west and a mountain away from this hickory tree on the Quittie. Closing my eyes, I see the familiar wisp of smoke curling from our brick chimney, the crooked lightning rod on the barn roof, and the mountains that surround the valley, Hidden Valley, like the walls of Jericho.
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I’m eight and well-padded underneath the vest my mother has made me wear in the autumn breeze. My blonde hair is stuffed under an AGWAY cap, and the cuffs of my overalls are tucked into bothersome rubbers. Dad, too, wears a vest, though his is peppered with fishing lures. A cowboy hat shades his brow, and I catch a whiff of horse manure from the soles of his boots. He dips his hand into the ice cream bucket between us and scoops out a handful of black dirt, alive with earthworms. Gingerly, I pull one from the mass.
“They don’t bite, you know,” Dad says, grinning.
“I know,” I reply, indignant, not wanting him to think me afraid. Spearing the worm through its middle with my hook, I watch as it convulses in the air.
With a dirt-stained finger, Dad points to tree roots, gnarled like witches’ fingers, probing the water from the other bank. “Right there’s the spot,” he says.
I shake my head, whispering. “But I’ll get my line tangled up. You do it.”
He takes my rod and gives the slightest flick of his wrist; the now-limp worm plops into the greenish swirl below the roots. Turning the reel once to set the line, he hands the pole back to me and cautions, “Keep an eye on the tip of your rod.”
Then, we wait.
Water trickles over rock beds. Twigs crackle as a pair of squirrels play a curious game of tag. Dad and I inhale deeply. Mud. Fish. Decaying leaves.
The rod tip quivers as an unseen fish nibbles at my worm. “Wait till he takes a big bite,” Dad whispers, “then give a jerk and haul him in.”
My pole bows toward the water. Now. Yanking the rod tip over my head, I reel as fast as I can. The line zigzags in the current, and the sun flashes off the dark green back that rises to the surface. I pull the fish ashore where it flops violently, soon covered with bits of leaves and grass. “It’s a rock bass,” Dad says, extracting the hook from its lip with doctor-like care.
I think it looks evil with its red eyes and spiny fins, and I tell Dad to toss him back. We sit together as the afternoon drifts away in pink and orange streams.
Now, under the morning moon, I read again from Whitman. “Faithful and friendly the arms that have helped me.” I am cradled in the arm of the hickory tree. It is a hard, rippled arm, and I feel safe - it will not bend or break or let me fall. I can see my father’s arms browned from elbow to fingertips. I remember his forearms, how they knotted with strength as he lifted me onto my pony’s back or carried me piggyback across Sherman’s Creek. I remember hard, rippled arms that held me safely above the water.
One night in July of 1989, our family was awakened by a telephone call from a farmer eight miles up the valley. “It’s really soaking this end of the country,” he warned. “The pastures are flooded. You better get your animals in.” Two of our horses - my pony, Ranger, and a stocky bay mare we called Casey - grazed in the farm’s lower pasture beside Sherman’s Creek. But Dad wasn’t worried. The creek, he reasoned, was shallow, and the rain was only a gentle patter against the windows.
At three o’clock, however, he awoke again, this time to a thundering of water.
My God, the horses, he thought, buckling his jeans as he stumbled down the dark stairway. Behind him, Mom gasped, “Fred, what are you going to do?” With flashlight and wire cutters, he ran into the blackness, past the barn, and toward the creek, now a roaring river of logs and fence posts and road signs. Water swirled around his waist and tugged at his knees. He waded fifty yards in the torrent, shining the flashlight, searching for the glow of eyes. There they were. Ranger and Casey huddled on a rise of ground behind a walnut tree that cut the strength of the current. Though Dad whistled, they stayed on their mound. He groped for the wire fence and cut the top strand; reaching underwater, he cut the bottom wire. Still, the horses refused to move. It’s the light, he realized, they can’t see me. Switching off the beam, darkness enveloped him. He whistled once more. Then came a splash. The pony was swimming and the mare was lunging toward the call that had always meant hay and a pat on the neck. “Good boy, Ranger. That a girl, Casey.” As the mare passed, Dad grabbed her mane and pulled himself onto her back. Bending over the powerful neck, he urged her across the flooded field. “It’s okay. Keep going. Almost there. Good girl. Good girl.” Finally, sides heaving, she floundered into the barn.
I slept through the night, waking only in the pale yellow light of dawn to find our hay fields strewn with branches and tires and wire fence. The creek had receded to its banks, tamed once again. A flock of ducks circled the barn and landed on the pasture’s shallow pools.
Mallards have just circled and landed on the Quittapahilla. I count more than thirty ducks paddling upstream in pairs - male and female, side by side. With their splotchy-brown bodies, the females blend in and out of the sunlight filtering through the trees. But the males mesmerize me with their glossy green heads and white-collared necks. Grayish bodies streaked with black.
I can almost hear my father ask - Are you sure those markings are black? Squinting, I realize that the mallards are tinged with purple. I realize, too, that my father’s voice is an echo of Whitman’s:
Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.
It is not far, it is within reach,
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born and did not know,
Perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land.
You have to pay attention. That’s the way you learn, my father told me, pointing his browned arm at a circling hawk or a fishing hole. Like my father’s arm, a voice directs me here, beside the Quittapahilla; it is at once the voice of a poet and a father, the voice of the learned and the learning. Jabbering sharply now, the lead mallards spatter the water with their wings. Be still, is the whisper in my ear. They know that something’s not right.
I hold my breath. I am listening.