Before the River

Weekends were for alligators, black tannic water, and snakes that swam head up, glistening body behind. Avoiding small cypress knees that could twist an ankle, we carried the canoe across land that was not ours to makeshift launches in the river.

As we walked, just off solid ground, we passed the wetter places where old washing machines, tires, and ovens lay half submerged. They seemed to watch us as we passed, these abandoned pieces that crouched like gargoyles. I tried not to look at them in case they accused us for their disuse.

Other discoveries were exciting, like an old rusted car almost completely hidden, the trees growing up through faded red upholstery and springs. The treehouse too, that was built at partial angles with sagging plywood. You could tell it had once been painted red and blue. The wooden steps that had been nailed into the tree were gone, like Rapunzel’s tower. It was inaccessible and beautiful.

An only child then, I liked to imagine the kids that played there before me, swinging from the now rotted rope and bouncing on the old car’s seats. They rowed shallow boats on the river and looked out for cottonmouths and copperheads. They wore shoes so the mussels wouldn’t cut them.

They were part of a different wild Florida, before they grew up and were replaced by the gargoyles and their memory in my imagination. Before the land was sold and bought and two-story houses with pools and screened in porches were built. The cypress knees somehow turned into a green Bermuda grass lawn.

Before the houses came and we had to drive the canoe to the county dock instead of walk it across the street, my dad dug up an oak sapling from there. It was the child of a massive, centuries-old one dripping with Spanish Moss, that did not survive the waterfront bulldozer.

We planted it in our backyard where it grew with large spreading branches, blessing us with shadows so that we would not burn our feet.

     Now 400 miles and 30 years away, but still connected by a tree, a different oak grows in the yard and peeks over the top of my roofline.  It shadows the front porch and my own children’s feet as they rush inside on blistering days. Their local wild is limited to the possum that lives in our Mulberry tree and eats the cat food, and the small brown D’Kay snakes we can catch in the layered rock wall. Tame, by old Florida standards.

Even so, neighborhood stories still circulate of foxes that used to roam the streets by night, traveling from one patch of buffer trees to another. And deer that run at dawn and twilight, their territory now pulled into vertical lines that follow the greenway across roads. More so now that the old farms gone fallow are growing “urban farmhouses”.  

Weekends now are filled with honeysuckle and the wild blackberries that sprout by the air-conditioner. The clicking sound of a Stag beetle crawling out of our porch’s support beam and wild rabbits that find a feast in crimson clover. Lunch on stone benches by the lake. Baseball games in the lawn seats. How quickly a child grows taller.

Under an oak tree.

Photo credit: Pixabay
This essay was written as a part of Charlotte Lit’s Beautiful Truth Initiative.

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