A short story by Charles McGuigan
During the spring and the summer and into the early fall, my brother Eric and I practically lived on the creek. It was our first body of water, our initiation into the flowing element, our baptism by nature, and we knew it intimately, had traced every inch of it with our explorations and imaginations; and then one day all that changed. After that, Four Mile Run became our personal River Styx, not the sort of place we ever wanted to visit again and hard to avoid because it ran along the edge of our backyard.
That was about the time I started venturing out on my own, without my brother, into Falls Church and later Washington, D.C. Alone, on Saturday mornings, early, before the din of cartoons, I would walk down to Route Seven and then over to Lee Highway to the hub of commercial activity. I bought records, mainly forty-fives, sometimes LPs, scores of them, that I sought covetously, at Giant Music and then ate lunch at the counter in People’s Drug Store, a giant stone building, gothic in its architecture, like a castle. Late in the afternoon I would hike up to Seven Corners and then home. I also started going to Georgetown, hitchhiking up Lee Highway to the Marriott, then walking across Key Bridge, eyeing the cathedral, its spires rising above the rest of the cityscape like fangs, then out M Street, visiting Sunny’s Surplus and an entire village of head shops, each one selling items that were exotic, unlike the mainstream things you’d find back across the river in tamed suburbia. Lined with shops and restaurants, this street, with a spaghetti sprawl of unused trolley tracks running down its center, was always crowded and you could get lost in it all, remain anonymous, an observer, caught up in the buzz of activity, the variety of human experience, which is exactly what I did toward the end of that summer when everything changed on the creek my brother Eric and I loved.
Four Mile Run meanders through Falls Church and Arlington County, eventually joining the Potomac River just across from D.C., almost like a river itself at that point, strewn with boulders, deep, swift running, the water clear as a mountain stream. But behind our house the creek was only about twenty feet wide, shallow, for the most part, with occasional deep pockets, and lined with rounded quartz stones of an almost uniform softball size, some pure white, but most either gray or the color of hard root beer candy or amber. Beneath the stones was pea gravel, and under that, coarse beige sand, as if sand grew into gravel and matured into stones; though, of course, the reverse was true: rocks disintegrated into pebbles and then, by wind, weather and water, were pulverized into sand, crushed by the needling pressures. But we preferred to believe grains of sand grew up to become stones. That one day, when each tiny grain had finally grown up, having passed through the puberty of gravel, the creek bed would fill with these stones, which would spill over the banks edging the properties contiguous to Four Mile Run and create a long serpentine path that would wend through the suburban villages as if laid there on purpose by some mighty hand. We didn’t know how long it would take for this to happen, but we were patient, and waited, studying the creek bed for evidence, and it did seem that there were more large rocks from one summer to the next, and more gravel, too: The sand seemed to be growing up.
If you hiked a half-mile upstream from our house, Four Mile Run became nothing more than a seasonal creek that ran with water only during the rainy seasons. Throughout the summer, this part of the creek was made up of a dozen stagnant pools (we counted them), cut off from life, quiescent, solitary, and beneath the surface, coated with an iridescent sheen, the rocks were covered with brown slime that swayed with the slightest movement, and the only things that lived in this water were hellgrammites and massive colonies of mosquito larvae, wrigglers, spastic about the possibility of becoming adults.
Four Mile Run became a living stream at the point where a much smaller creek emptied into it. This is where the more wholesome life began appearing—Jefferson salamanders, mud puppies, crayfish, minnows. Less than a creek, it was actually a trickle of water, clear and cool, and constant in its flow, that fed into Four Mile Run through the clay bank where it had cut a deep, but narrow, ravine, not more than two feet wide.
My brother and I conjectured that one day this tiny stream would carve a gorge, through clay and gravel, clear through the bedrock, deep into the earth’s crust, creating a canyon miles deep, but we both knew this would take millions of years to occur, that neither of us would live to see its completion. “Or it just might not happen at all,” Eric would say and I had to nod. For, who knew, ultimately, what was going to happen with anything or anyone, even us? All things in life are a mystery, their outcomes unpredictable: we both seemed to know this intuitively way back then.
That tiny stream, as small as it was, spilled enough clear water into Four Mile Run to make it a habitable place. It was tempting, icy water, and my brother and I would often drink from it, throats seemingly cut by the cool spikes of liquid, thirsts provoked to gulp down more from cupped palms, and we never once got sick. This trickle, spring-fed, had its origins on high ground near a fenced in yard, the remnant of a farm, where a single horse, old and sway-backed, stood, more like a statue than an animal. From one week to the next the horse seemed to retain its exact position. The horse was the color of ashes and its ribs showed.
A thick bog flanked one bank of the tiny spring-fed creek, this rivulet of purity and clarity, sweet as innocence, and in April the skunk cabbage thrust their speckled claws through the dark mud, ferns uncoiled like watch springs, and black shelled turtles—mud turtles, we called them—burrowed in the black ooze, blending in, so it was hard to tell where turtle ended and bog began, their camouflage so convincing. On occasion we’d dig through the muck to get at those turtles and take them home as pets. Almost always we’d release them in a week or two, but for the time of their captivity the turtles lived in a twenty gallon aquarium with an endless supply of crayfish, which they would crunch through with can-opener beaks, their orange eyes flaming with carnivorous zest. Despite all these comforts, by the end of the first week, the animals would be getting lonesome for their homes. They would get sluggish. A gray film, like a thin cloud, would creep across their eyeballs, and their shells would soften to the consistency of undercooked pasta. Once a turtle we had caught died. Its head hung from its shell like the head of a hand puppet, sans hand, and we buried the turtle and swore from that time on never to keep the turtles longer than was good for them.
That’s something my brother and I had in common: we loved animals, never tortured them or killed them, and other kids did, shooting birds or squirrels with a .22, performing wanton deeds on neighborhood cats.
In late July one year Eric and I found a box turtle under a hedgerow of privet in front of the house at the top of our cul-de-sac. Its head and arms thrust straight out, needle-thin claws curled inward, skin dry as jerky and stretched taut as a drum skin, eyes hollow—the turtle seemed frozen in mid stride as if it were moving toward something it could never reach. On the shell there were pieces of masking tape forming three crosses that covered small holes. Plying up the brittle tape, revealing the jagged holes and a soft grayness that oozed from them, made us both look away more in horror than disgust. We figured some kids, out of plain meanness, had pelted the turtle with rocks until the shell shattered and then taped the shell and let the turtle, in its misery, wander, for days, perhaps, before it died. It was like a sin, and whenever I thought about the turtle, my stomach would turn into itself. When we caught the mud turtles we would watch them through the panes of the aquarium and then we would return them to their true homes, as if they had just been on vacation. That one turtle had died though, and it still haunted us.
Our love of animals was such that we kept a sort of hospital in the cinderblock shed on the back end of our property overlooking Four Mile Run. At any one time we would have a robin or a jay with an injured wing, a squirrel with a broken tail, a young possum that had entrapped itself in a garbage can on the side of our house during a heavy rainstorm. We nursed these animals back to health to later release them into the wild, such as it was, and when the weather got cold we would smuggle them into our bedrooms, the only rooms on the first floor, out of surveillance range of our parents, who inhabited the third floor.
Our house was new at that time, an intruder, a tri-level built of brick, on a lot carved from old growth woods, and surrounded by a sea of hard red clay that had been trucked in, fill dirt, to raise the house above the flood plain. My father would send us Saturday mornings armed with plastic pails and steel spades on forays across Four Mile Run. Our mission was simple: extract the black, earthworm-rich topsoil from beneath a blanket of English ivy, growing under giant white oaks, tote it back across the water then layer it on top of the clay of our yard to create beds where azaleas and rhododendrons would later be planted. My father paid us a quarter a bucket and one Saturday I made twenty-three dollars, my arms like pendulums at my side when I finally quit the work. It was the last time I robbed the earth for my father, who had a streak of imperialism, and I never told him about the dark chocolate soil of the bog, fearing he would want to invade that space, too. My brother and I were protectors of the bog; it was ours to watch over.
Throughout the bog there grew a number of large gums and the ground was littered with their seedpods, like tiny maces, wicked to our bare feet, but so very light, almost weightless when we palmed them, slapped them into the air like ping pong balls, that light, and hollow, too. In the direct center of the swamp there stood a giant willow oak that dwarfed even the largest gums. It seemed as if these lesser trees had come to pay homage to the great oak, kneeling before it, listening to the secrets it knew.
This oak, our oak, grew on an island of clay and was said to be almost five hundred years old and we conjectured that this tree had been growing before the spring broke through, creating the swamp that killed off all the other trees in what had once been a thick wood. Much later, the gum trees came, and the few sycamores that grew on the bank of the spring-fed creek. Through it all the willow oak had survived, even the rising waters that would have rotted the roots of a lesser tree.
In that swamp we sensed origins of all we knew, and ghostly relics of all that had preceded us. We found arrowheads in the wash of the creek, among pea gravel and sand; and in banks of red clay, we discovered three spent minie balls: one flattened, the other two with curved points. And there was one spot of pure white sand in the middle of the black earth, in the center of the bog, not far from our oak, an old garbage site, we assumed, where, after heavy rains, we always found an abundance of pottery and china shards, some cobalt blue.
In the swamp we saw the generations that came before us, imagined the Grey Ghost, John Singleton Mosby, confounding Union infantry with his slight band of butternut clad bushwhackers, and the Indians—the names of their tribes lost forever—who tried to push back the tide of the European invaders, who were clearing the forests to build log cabins near the spring.
The willow oak grew on a hummock about four feet above the rest of the bog. On top of the mound, in among the thick and twisted roots of the tree, were three holes in the ground. Two of them were small, but the other was large enough for Eric or me to squeeze through. Below those roots, under the tree itself, we would drop down to firm, hard-packed clay, completely dry even during or after a long spring rain, a deep dish, a safe pocket in the earth. We could stand up in the core of the rotted tree, amid heartwood drilled by bores and termites, and a powdering of wood dust sprinkled us whenever we touched the walls of our inner tree house.
Eric and I took up residence there. We inserted half-used candles in the corklike inner walls of the tree and would light them and tell stories that were more reminiscences than anything else, but in the candlelit heart of the tree, every word rang with truth, as if amplified, thrust back at us, by the hollow trunk of the willow oak, the marvel of sound waves ricocheting, like stray bullets in a confined space. It was as if we were inside a drum carved from an old and large log, and if we struck the inner walls of the tree with a thick bough, we could beat out a driving percussion that made us feel like wild men, enamored of animism, absorbed by the tree, part of its very heart, our feet, thrust alongside the tree’s roots, digging into the clay as if seeking the same sustenance as our beloved tree. At night, when we extinguished the candles, we would sometimes, in total darkness—darkness like the blackness of a limestone cave—beat the innards of the tree with such fury we could feel the vibrations in our jaws and brain stems, our fingers and hands numb, our ears ringing like bells, and still we would persist, until finally, a half-hour later, chests and arms and faces covered with powdered wood and the husks of dead termites, we would collapse, sweating, exhausted, exuberant, ready for sleep.
We were waiting for a change, something momentous that would alter the way we perceived reality. We knew it was coming, but had no idea what form it might take. I secretly suspected it would be a young woman and she would have ocean blue eyes and nut brown hair and pale skin and sometimes a mocking smile. She would smell of honeysuckle and cloves and cinnamon and something else, a fragrance that would come to me only in my dreams. I didn’t know who this woman was, but felt certain I would see her one day, would love her for all days after that first meeting. In the meantime I was content with the other girls I was coming to know.
As I talked to Margie Howard—eyes blue, hair blond—I secretly made note of her smell and how she dropped the letter “d” from the word couldn’t. Like me, she always carried a notebook, but unlike me she kept hers in plain view; mine was always hidden in my pants pocket, and I would take notes furtively, not wanting to bring attention to myself. I loved to watch her scrawl, wondered what she was thinking, seeing, feeling, hearing, as her hand slid pen across blank page.
She was my senior by a year, had become a teenager, one step closer to freedom, and I envied this about her. That and the fact that she could hold a note better than anybody I’d ever met and had a voice clear as crystal and just as euphonious. Margie only sang when no one else was around, was as secretive about this gift as I was about my notebook. At times, when I knew, or rather sensed, she was going to erupt in song, I would hide behind the trees that bordered her backyard at the top of our cul-de-sac and just listen, frozen by sound. She sang one song about eagle’s wings and when I heard it there in the shadows of the trees, the sky amethyst, fading into darkness, the first star appearing, and the smell of leaf decay, like wine must, enshrouding me, I could feel tears wetting my eyes. I had never heard anything as moving, and I knew its source, had spoken with her, even laid my eyes on her. In that twilit world I could imagine her throat, her narrow face thrust skyward, her eyes shut, her nostrils wide, taking in air; and I could visualize her parted lips. There is nothing more beautiful in the world than the voice of a woman in song, unaccompanied, and even today, three decades after I first heard Margie Howard’s voice on a late spring night, a woman singing, particularly when she is unaware of an audience, will make me weep.
As much as I liked Margie, I disliked her brother, a boy named Jimmy, who was exactly my age—we were even born on the same day in April. At first, I didn’t know what it was about him, but there was something in him I didn’t trust; a danger, I sensed, like certain dogs you encounter that you know immediately are mean. We had played baseball together and he’d come down to the creek on a few occasions with Eric and me, netting mud puppies and crayfish, keeping them all, even the smallest ones, dumping them, squirming, into a peanut butter jar filled with murky water. So, I didn’t like that about him, keeping all the animals, even the babies. But there was more to it than that. I had seen his temper once and it was aimed at my brother.
Jimmy’s face contorted and he let out a thin scream, childish in its rage and somehow girlish, his arm raised as if he intended to strike Eric, and I moved up in front of him.
“Calm down,” I said.
“He broke that bottle of Coke, dropped it on the rocks and it’s all I had left,” Jimmy said. “I should have known better than to share it with him, he’s such a …”
I considered punching him in the stomach, but instead clapped my palm over his mouth and whispered into his left ear, “Don’t say anything about my brother.” I later suggested it was time for him to leave, and that’s when I saw the true anger in his eyes, an unforgiving fire. I didn’t like him after that, not one bit, but I thought highly of his sister, and so I made allowances.
Jimmy followed us one day, creeping alongside us through the woods, shadowing us through the undergrowth of sassafras and small dogwood and redbud that grew along the banks of the spring-fed creek all the way to the swamp and the willow oak. We were already secure in the heart of the tree when we spotted his legs dropping through the roots.
“What the hell’s that?” my brother said, startled, and then we saw the pelvis, the stomach, the shoulders and the head emerge, as through a port hole—Jimmy Howard, all of him now, crouching in the heart of our tree. His eyes, like his sister’s, were blue, though his hair was brown, and his lips, unlike his sister’s, were thin and pale and always puckered, like an anus above his pointed chin.
He was an uninvited guest, but I, thinking of his sister, treated him cordially, and my brother followed suit.
After Jimmy left, with the understanding that he was to tell no one about our tree but was free to visit it on his own, Eric shot me a look of despair and mistrust.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Why were you so nice to him? He creeps me out.”
That’s when I lied to my own brother. “I think he’s just lonely,” I said. “He needs some friends.”
Eric bought it, but he didn’t like it, and the rest of that afternoon he said little, not even wanting to enhance the narrative of the stories we would tell, that I would commit to my notebook. Something had fallen away between us and I felt bad about it because I knew I was the cause of it: I’d betrayed him.
It wasn’t long after that before I knew I’d made a mistake about Jimmy Howard. One afternoon, following a full morning down on the creek, Eric and I retreated to the willow oak. We’d brought lemonade, homemade, in Mason jars, packed with ice cubes, rattling as we walked, and climbed down into the heart of our tree. My brother lit the candles as I started uncapping the lemonade.
In the faltering light I noticed things hanging from the interior wall of our sacred tree, things I couldn’t make out until my eyes adjusted to the light. They swayed, dangling from strands of twine, the sort of grisly things, I imagined, you might find in the shack of a headhunter or a shaman—the skin of a cat; a squirrel’s head; a desiccated robin, its wings removed; and the dried paw of a raccoon, almost like a small human hand, shrunken and black. I touched one of the tiny digits—hard, brittle—then reeled back, as if this bit of dead life had swiped out at me. Up in the center of the hollow trunk, directly above us, like a ceiling light fixture, was a beautiful medallion with elegant octagonal shapes. These designs were inscribed in yellow and deep brown but I couldn’t figure out what it was, so I pulled a lit candle from the wall, lifted it toward the medallion for closer inspection and when I realized what it was I dropped the candle, molten wax dripping onto my other hand, burning for just a second, then congealing to form a second skin. The medallion was actually a turtle, dead, with crosses of masking tape concealing holes that punctured its shell. A large nail had been driven through the center of the turtle and into the heartwood of the tree, crucified there, above us, looking down, like a single eye.
“Just like the one we found under that bush,” Eric said.
Eric and I removed the skins and carcasses of the animals from inside the tree, and then dug a hole in the bog, like a pair of small animals, using our hands like shovels, like claws, ripping at the dense black soil, flinging it behind us, through splayed legs. When the hole was of sufficient depth we laid in the remains of the animals, including the turtle, and buried them without ceremony as an act of purification.
“I told you there was something wrong with him,” Eric said of Jimmy.
I nodded. “You were right.”
Each year the Howard’s hosted a backyard barbeque for all their neighbors—hot dogs, hamburgers, steaks for the adults, corn on the cob, chips, watermelon. Our family went as a group and I was dreading the sight of Jimmy because I knew it was time for me to tell him that he was no longer welcome in our hollow tree.
Margie and the two Henckel girls were playing badminton. As I watched Margie, dressed in a white blouse and denim cutoffs, bounce the shuttlecock off the webbed cushion of her racket and lob it over to the Henckels, Jimmy inched up beside me. He had a bad odor to him, acrid like rotten latex. I watched his small mouth as he began to speak and thought of the dead animals we had found in our tree.
“You like my sister, don’t you?” said Jimmy.
He was eyeing her, and smiling. “She’s nice to look at,” he said. “Sometimes I’m sorry she’s my sister.”
I didn’t like to hear him talk this way, but when he pressed me I did tell him that I liked her. I told him how her voice, raised in song, brought me to my knees and he laughed, shaking his head. “You take the cake, Brian,” he said. “You take the cake and eat it, too.”
I tried to make small talk with him, asking about his summer so far, but truth is I didn’t even want to talk to him, so I just blurted out, “Look, you shouldn’t be coming around to the tree any more.”
“Why not?” he asked.
“I know what you did,” I said, referring to the turtle and the remains of the other animals.
Jimmy’s eyes widened and his jaw tightened. He shook his head, gritted his tiny teeth. “Well you better keep it to yourself,” he said in a low voice that was suddenly deep. “I mean it.”
His voice bore the weight of threat and to me it seemed an overreaction to what I had told him. “I won’t tell a soul,” I said. “Just don’t come by the tree anymore.” And I thought that was that.
As soon as Jimmy was ousted from the tree, I would often invite Margie to visit. All we did, usually, was talk. She told me how much she loved the first chill of autumn air, how her skin sought warmth, relished the slight cold; how she would anticipate the holidays slowly flipping into one another, the progression from Halloween to Christmas, inching the world closer to the depths of winter, the preparations and the decorations festooning her world as if it were suddenly an enchanted place. It was good to hear her talk this way and she sounded genuinely happy when she did, yet there was always a slight sadness in her voice, something unresolved that prevented her from truly enjoying and living in the moment. She tried though, and at times it was convincing. To see her smile and hear her laugh, those times when it was genuine, was like a bounty of autumn leaves, a thundering surf, clear water, love.
One afternoon, Margie and I, carrying our notebooks in the crook of our arms as if off to school, ventured up Four Mile Run and followed the course of the spring-fed creek back to the swamp and the willow oak. That day, though, instead of descending into the earth and the heart of the tree, we sat on its roots as if sitting on a porch or a stoop, in front of a house, just enjoying the warming sun. As I wrote in my notebook, Margie scrawled in hers, and as her hand moved across the page she was listening, intent, to everything going on around her, the lilt of birds, the rise and fall of cicada whirr, the rustle of leaves in the tree tops catching the faintest high wind, the ticking of a beetle in the corrugated bark of the willow oak. She’d tilt her head, blond hair falling off to one side, and cock her ear, aiming it at the sound she desired as if looking at something, staring at it with the shell of her ear, focusing on it with her aural pupil.
I laid my notebook down, stretched, and walked to the other side of the tree, then came up behind Margie and caught a glimpse of her notebook. Everywhere, on the page she was working on, there were lines and curves and waves, each stroke notated with accents and check marks, all in ink, neatly inscribed, line by line, but that was all, no words of any kind. When she lowered her pen Margie saw me looking at her notebook.
“What is it?” I asked.
“The notebook, you mean?”
“They’re my compositions,” she said. “I don’t read or write music, so I created my own way of showing sound.”
She told me she used every kind of sound in her compositions from the song of birds to the chirp of crickets, from the boom of thunder to the crackling of a wood fire. Each sound would become a note or string of notes and she would weave them together.
“Can you read it back and sing it?” I asked.
She considered the page she’d been working on. “Not this one,” she said, then flipped the pages back. “But this one is finished. I can do this one, but there aren’t any words, so I’ll have to hum it.”
Margie stood up, arms straight down by her side, face raised, eyes shut, and then her mouth, lined with full lips, opened, and music came forth the likes of which I had never heard. It was more than a hum; it was an intonation that started deep in her lungs and moved up along the passageway of her throat flowing through her mouth and out into the world. Within it there were the common sounds she had memorized and mimicked, then pieced together to form a quilt of music infused with the divine. When she was finished, the melody was stuck in my mind. I moved up to her, touched her hands, held her face, kissed her lips—the first time I had ever kissed a girl in my life. Her kiss back was reluctant at first, but then willing and penetrating, and I remember thinking, this is the way it should always be.
We began spending more time together in the hollow tree, gave it a kind of life it probably hadn’t known in many, many years and something miraculous began to occur with the tree and both Margie and I were awestruck by it. For as long as I had visited the tree, the leaves were small and sparsely scattered along the limbs; it was, after all, a sick tree, rotten from its core. But just one week after Margie and I began visiting the tree together, the leaves grew broad and healthy, and began thickening along every branch, even the smallest twigs. There was no scientific explanation for this rebirth that I could think of—the tree was still hollow, sitting in the middle of a bog. Yet there was an explosion of photosynthesis, and now when we looked overhead at noon, the sun was blotted out, and there was a filigreed parasol of deep green, like stained glass, like an Impressionist painting, as if the tree, like Merlin, were getting younger, day by day.
For hours on end we would simply hold one another, passing some magic between us, either in the heart of the tree or on its roots. These days lasted for eternal stretches and we absorbed everything around us and seemed to be getting stronger every moment we stayed together, and the tree grew healthier. And we noticed that the interior cavity of the tree, our secret fortress, was growing smaller, as if intent on forcing us out.
On a Saturday morning Eric and I decided to take Four Mile Run all the way to the Potomac. We hadn’t consulted maps, but reasoned that because of the creek’s name the distance to the river was probably four miles, when, in fact, as I learned much later, it was more like ten miles.
There was rage in me that morning, something Eric didn’t know anything about, and the rage came from a story Margie had told me two nights before, a story I couldn’t shake, one that drew me deeper into my rage every time I replayed it. Margie and I were in the tree together, late—I’d ducked out of the house, so had she—and we were cradling one another, rubbing our foreheads together, feeling the warmth of one another, knotted together, kissing, just with our lips, no tongues. My hand touched her bare lower back (her T-shirt had ridden up), tracing the rosary of her vertebrae, fingertips just barely touching the skin, strumming at her like a delicate stringed instrument. That’s when I felt something raised through the skin so I looked over her shoulder and in the dim yellow candlelight I could see welts, and bruises the color of eggplants. When I asked what had happened she shivered in my arms, though the air was warm and humid.
It took time to get her to release the story, like a splinter or a sliver of glass hard to draw forth from the skin, so hidden and deeply embedded. Finally, after some gentle coaxing and pressing, she released the story. Her brother and two of his friends took turns with her, something I didn’t really understand; though, I nodded along as if I did: I wasn’t going to chance interrupting her narrative. One kid was named Mason, this was his first name; the other was called Alspaugh, this was his last name. Mason and Alspaugh. And then this: When the boys left, Jimmy threw her to the floor and kicked her savagely around her backbone, threatening more harm if she ever told their parents about what he and his two friends had done. He kicked her ribs, her buttocks, her thighs, over and over again, so she curled into herself, swearing not to tell anyone else. Jimmy then kicked her one last time, right at the base of her skull, struck the bowl of bone protecting her precious occipital lobe, kicked her the way a coward would kick a dog to kill its spirit, which is when Margie passed out.
Throughout the story I hadn’t said a word but when she was finished I lashed out at her brother, threatened to kick his ass for him, and Margie began crying. I held her closer to me, felt like I might pass through her, and between her sobs, in a voice, muffled and wet, she said: “You can’t tell anyone ever that you know.” And I swore an oath to it.
That night, together in the heart of the tree, secure, safe from a world that could be so brutal, we watched the candles burn themselves to extinction, holding onto one another, until we stumbled into a deep and restorative sleep. We rose, stiff yet refreshed, and crawled up through the roots, stood in the center of the bog with our arms draped around one another. Mist rose from the ground, feathery as cotton, and parted in our wake as we walked together through it. The stars were still out, but dawn was coming fast, so we ran to our respective homes and made it into our beds without rousing our parents or anyone else.
The night before Eric and I left on our journey down Four Mile Run, the night after my evening in the tree with Margie Howard, we arranged all we would need for the expedition. We gathered our canteens and dip nets and buckets and a shoulder bag—an old paratrooper’s bag that had come from Sunny’s Surplus in Georgetown—which we filled with three cans of Vienna sausage and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. “Travel light, take no prisoners,” I told my brother. We stayed up late that night while the rest of the house slept, watched a really bad science fiction movie called “The Man From Planet X” after Johnny Carson went off. We watched the screen until the waving American flag came on and “The Star Spangled Banner” played in the background. Then the station signed off and there was nothing but a crackling static and the field of the television came alive with blue and white and black bees, as busy a thing as a living hive; snow is what my father called it.
Dawn was silver against the tulip poplar trees that rose like giant columns on the back end of our property, and before anybody else was up, my brother and I, both dressed in shorts and T-shirts, left the house, carrying our gear. We checked our things in the wavering silver light. I had forgotten my pocket knife, but Eric had his. I carried the shoulder bag and the long-handled dip net. My brother held the bucket and a smaller net. We filled our canteens from the garden hose on the side of the house and then, in the close, sweating air, made our way through a curtain of daylilies that grew on the bank. We climbed down the dew-slick clay bank, walking sideways on the slope to maintain our footing until we made it down to the rocks of the creek bed. We hunkered low as we passed the Riggs’ house, which was next door to us, and then we were in an area that was flanked by woods on one side and a Jehovah’s Witness church on the other.
Across from the church parking lot side of the creek, under a canopy of honeysuckle vines, there was a large slab of concrete, pitted, and pebbled with small stones, slick with algae, sunken, like a chest, in the creek bottom. It must have been a section of sidewalk the county had dumped in the creek years before. However it got there, it had become a landmark for us and a place that always proved good for finding crayfish and mud puppies.
I worked my fingers up under one edge of the concrete slab and slowly loosened it from the surrounding silt, rocking it back and forth like a loosening molar still in its socket. Eventually I got a good grip, flipped it up on its edge and with the concrete slab standing almost upright now, my brother joined me and with our small strengths combined, we were able to turn it completely over. Then we waited for the sediment to settle. When the water cleared we found several small crayfish, almost translucent, the kind you could scoop up with your hands without fear of being pinched. My brother pointed to a small trough near the outer edge of the depression, the footprint of the concrete slab. There in the muddy crater was the largest crayfish either of us had ever seen, almost like a small lobster, dark green and coated with a dusting of silt, four inches long.
I slipped the long handled net soundlessly into the water and laid it out flat on the bottom and then my brother, with the dip net, nudged the crayfish along. The crayfish retracted its tail and propelled itself backward right over the long handled net which I raised out of the water, triumphant, and flipped the catch into the bucket of water. We watched the crayfish in the bucket, captive, its antenna flicking wildly. Honeysuckle was so sweet on the air I could taste it as we rocked the slab of concrete back and forth until it fell back into place, into the depression, as if it were going back to sleep under a cool blanket of water. “That’s the biggest,” my brother said, staring into the bucket, truly in awe of the crayfish.
Even with this anomaly of a crustacean, now secure in our bucket, I felt no victory in capturing this animal. Margie Howard’s words kept coming back to me, playing over and over in my mind. “They took turns with me,” I heard. Try as I would I just couldn’t fathom what that meant. Had they all kissed her against her will? I couldn’t conceive what they had done to her, but the rest of it I understood—the kicking, the threats. I’d seen the bruises, felt Margie’s fear. I also understood the anger I felt toward Jimmy Howard and I had no idea what to do with it. For me it was a new emotion, raw and red. It seethed; it moiled, churning inside me and nowhere to go, no way out.
We lugged our gear further down the creek, and water sloshed over the rim of the bucket, and we both, at once, no words spoken, decided to release the crayfish because we knew it was going to be a very long day and the crayfish would not survive the ordeal. In a deep pocket of water at a bend in the creek, we poured the water out of the bucket and the crayfish, its tail and legs drawn in, spilled out and was gone in an explosion of silt that hung in the water like a plume of smoke. I felt a sense of relief as we laid our bucket and nets high up on the bank, where we would later reclaim them, and then moved downstream, no longer hunters now, but simply explorers.
This simple release of the crayfish was a major change in both of us. What we sought always were the giants, the rare ones, the ancient ones, the animals that had lived longest and grown largest, the smart ones that had escaped capture. In summers past we hunted the waters for the rare chub, a large minnow, silvery green, with scales like small coins. In retrospect, I now believe what we caught was a stray herring or shad, a straggler, that had worked its way much further up into the fresh-watershed than any of its anadromous kindred, trapped by midsummer in an alien world where it was a singularity, unable to return to the nurturing salinity of tidewater. At that time we believed this sole fish to be a chub and there was something almost mythical about it and its strange sounding name.
Each year, generally in late summer, we would find a chub and chase it upstream and downstream, trying frantically to shove it to shore as it crossed through shallow riffles, jamming our nets deep under a partially submerged log to get at it. Each summer it was just one chub, never more, that we would spot, and every summer, after much splashing and chasing, we would finally net the prized fish and watch it swim in the bucket, slashing the surface with its dorsal fin. We would watch its gills working, and then release it, fearing it would die before we returned it to the creek. To have left our nets and bucket behind as we began our journey down Four Mile Run was a first for us: if the chub appeared we would have no way of catching it, but that no longer seemed to matter.
Directly ahead of us was the facing stonework of the tunnel, a large concrete storm sewer drain, which crossed under Williamsburg Road. The facing wall was made of flat river stones, crudely mortared, containing flecks of mica that reflected the first true rays of morning sunlight, erupting in a blinding flash of pink gold. In the center of this brilliant flatness was a perfectly round black circle, like a giant pupil, the tunnel itself, watchful and beckoning.
Eric and I hunkered down and began a crab-like stride into the tunnel. I entered first, with the paratrooper’s bag slung over my shoulder, rapping my back as I scurried along, hands and feet splashing in the shallow water, keeping my eyes trained ahead of me into the dark, not paying attention to the clinging spider webs that netted my hair and face. Here you didn’t think of what spiders might be crawling on you or what was under your bare feet or palms—segmented worm or crayfish—here you just moved as quickly as you could to put the tunnel behind you.
My brother followed, and judging by the sound of his splashes, his going was anything but steady, and I could guess why. He was terrified of the dark, and in the tunnel there was a point halfway through when you couldn’t see the light in front of you, and when you looked behind there was no light there either. It was as if you were suspended in space, free-floating. That was the scariest part. Plus, there was this: my father had told us there were gases in the tunnel—odorless, colorless—that could kill you with a single inhalation. My brother and I would roll our eyes when my father started this lecture, but not so he could see us, and though we never heeded his warnings, we were still afraid of the gases and knew that as we made our way through the tunnel we could both be dead in an instant, without warning.
As the light at the end of the tunnel grew larger and larger for me, opening up like the lens of a camera, I heard my brother scream, and shout in his slight lisping voice, “Shit. Fuck. Brian, I cut myself.” Each word echoed, survived long after it had left his mouth.
I went back for him, imagining his fear in the center of the tunnel, alone and bleeding. I owed it to him. He was my brother, and when we were very young I rode a scooter down a sliding board, with him sitting at the base. When the scooter hit his narrow back, Eric flew a good five feet and later my mother said I could have killed him, though that was never my intention: we were just playing, experimenting with force and motion. My father took him to the hospital and had his head X-rayed, fearing a fracture, a concussion. For hours, while they were at the hospital, my mother, a big woman, imposing, possessed by a deep bitterness, yelled at me, shook her fist at me, told me what I had done was “unforgivable”, and she never let up, not for three hours, the whole time pelting me with words that would never go away. The car pulled into the drive around midnight and my brother climbed into his bed. I worried so hard that night, even after he returned, that I vowed I’d never do anything like that again. Since then I had become more protective of him. I reached out in the dark and found his elbow. “Let’s go,” I said in a whisper that echoed along the tubular walls of the tunnel.
Eric and I made it to the other end of the tunnel, back to the light, and sat on the bank there, our legs dangling in the water that gathered in a deep, clear pool. With the current of the creek, blood streamed off his left foot like the telltale of a sailboat. He lifted his foot out of the water and laid it on the moss that covered the bank. It was a deep cut from a broken bottle that could have been shattered by either one of us behind our house and washed down the creek into the middle of the tunnel where it lay in wait as insidious as a land mine. I pressed the flesh on his heel together and dark blood welled up, a drop fell to the moss—red on green, like Christmas.
“We better head back,” I said.
“No way,” said Eric. “It’s not that bad.” He tore the right sleeve off his T-shirt, cut it open with his pen knife and then wrapped it around his foot, knotting it in the fashion of a tourniquet. In a matter of minutes the pale yellow cotton fabric bore a perfectly circular spot of blood like a rising sun, the strange symmetry of capillary action at work. He ripped off the other sleeve, cut it and wrapped it around the one already secured to his foot. He rose and limped a bit. “The walking wounded,” he said. In almost no time he was walking fine and it seemed the bleeding had stopped.
We trudged down this section of the creek, familiar turf, and knew we were approaching Lee Highway and the short tunnel there. This part of the creek contained lime that turned all the sand and mud stark white. It came from a cement factory behind the 7-Eleven, and I urged my brother to walk on the high bank because the lime would burn the open wound on the sole of his foot.
On the other side of Lee Highway the creek was littered with Styrofoam cups, soda bottles, old tires, cinderblocks—the mess of civilization, for this section of the creek had become a sort of dumping ground. There was no life here, nor was there for a good distance downstream.
When we reached Wilson Boulevard we decided to cross the street rather than chance the tunnel under it. This sewer pipe was small and we’d have to crawl through it, and we’d never come this far down the creek, so it was an unknown place. On the other side of the street we climbed down the bank and rested against a downed tree on a beach made of porous silt that was like a sponge when we trod on it.
We shared a sandwich, then, each ate a can of Vienna sausage. The color was high in my brother’s cheeks and his breath came in slow pants. Beads of sweat formed a crown on his forehead. His neck and arms were sun burnt a rose pink.
“I want to go back,” he said. “This heat’s getting to me.” It was after noon and the sun just past its zenith.
I looked down at his feet and saw how the blood on the makeshift bandage had turned brown, how his legs, from the sun, were splotched pink and purple. He squinted his eyes, mopped his forehead with the tail of his T-shirt.
“Look, Eric,” I said. “We came today to make it all the way to the end. Let’s see it through. Let’s see what’s waiting for us down the creek.” It took about ten minutes of talking, cajoling, reasoning, pleading, and Eric finally agreed to continue our journey. We opened our canteens and drank deeply, a salute of sorts to our quest, then moved on.
Half-mile downstream we found a blackberry bush so heavy with ripe fruit that it bent down from the bank and many of the berries lapped at the water. The blackberries were perfect, hardly at all tart, sugar-sweet and the size of cherry tomatoes. When we plucked them, the skins burst and deep purple juice stained our fingers, giving us tattoos that wouldn’t wash away for days. We ate until we were full, and headed further down this part of the creek we had never seen before.
Rounding each bend now revealed new secrets. Just beyond a narrow iron train trestle, the water became deeper, thigh-deep, waist-deep, chest-deep, then neck-deep, and there was no shoreline, only mud, and the banks covered with a thick growth of briars and trumpet vines, the air pulsing a sweetness of mint and wild fennel, tempting our nostrils, making us sleepy, and the cicada hum enveloping us, a cushion of sound, trying to lull us into slumber.
As we slogged through another deep part of the creek, the water green, algae-rich, a chlorophyll soup, we spotted the spiked back of a snapping turtle that submerged at our approach. I kept the paratrooper’s bag high up on my chest, the strap wrapped twice around my neck, so it hung before me like the feed bag of a horse.
We had never seen or even imagined this section of the creek before, and it seemed we might have accidentally wandered into another creek altogether, maybe, even, into a slow-moving river of the coastal plain. Further downstream the creek formed a flooded oxbow, making it wide as a pond, and here the water was clear again, waist deep, the mud replaced by fine white sand, inviting to our toes, safe, a perfect swimming hole. I took the paratrooper’s bag off my neck and laid it on the shore, then joined my brother for a long swim deep in the late afternoon. Fresh out of the water, our bodies wet, drying rapidly under the baking sun, we finished off the last can of Vienna sausage, ate the other sandwich, drank down the lukewarm water from the canteen, and then sprawled on the sand beach, staring into the blue of sky.
On the opposite shore there was a marshy section where cattails grew. We crossed the creek, and, like lion cubs, made our way into the green spears of the cattails. Eric spotted a common water snake—spitting image of a water moccasin, minus the diamond head—and with laser fast reflexes, grabbed it, turning it instantly into a cane, his hand wrapped around the body, thumb pressing head over the fulcrum of a fisted index finger, its blood-pink mouth open, fangs thrust out, and then my brother released it.
As soon as I got through to the other side of the cattails, I found myself on a meticulously manicured lawn, unnaturally emerald. Strewn across it were croquet balls and mallets and wickets. At the head of this green was a hedge of boxwoods with a trellis in the middle, a sort of doorway, that opened to formal gardens behind a Tudor-style home. A boy darted through the trellis followed by two others. The boy in the lead looked familiar and as soon as he saw me, he stopped dead in his tracks. “That’s him,” he yelled, staring at me, his arm raised. “That’s the little motherfucker I was telling you about.”
All three boys came at me.
“Alspaugh, get behind him,” said the boy who looked familiar. It was Jimmy Howard. He held a wooden mallet, white with purple stripes, in his hand. He held it like a weapon.
Alspaugh and the other boy, whom I presumed to be Mason, ran circles around me, predators preparing for an attack, a swirling wolf pack. “Down, Mason,” said Jimmy Howard, and I should have realized what they were doing, but I was confused by their tactics. By then it was too late. Jimmy, who was in front of me, shoved my chest. Mason was on his hands and knees behind me, the height of a coffee table, and my legs buckled and I fell backwards. I lay next to a solitary bush covered with blossoms—white and puffy as popcorn—that injected the thick air with a dense, nauseating sweetness. Bees hummed everywhere, their brown-sugar bodies hovering above me as they darted at the white blossoms, stabbing them as if intent on destroying them.
“Croquet, anyone,” Jimmy Howard shouted. He swung the mallet, like a golf club, from high over his shoulder, and struck me directly in the stomach, hitting my navel, a bull’s eye, and a yellow bitter swill from deep inside rushed into my mouth. The next blow came to my thighs and then my wrists, with which I tried feebly to protect my groin. I could sense him stepping over me, and then he went to work on my back.
“That’s enough,” yelled Alspaugh. He had hair the color of cinnamon and brown eyes, blond eyelashes and freckles just on his eyelids. I could see everything, each detail, so clearly.
“Come on, man, back off,” the other boy said. “You could kill him.”
But Jimmy Howard just hammered away at me, as if he couldn’t stop. The other two boys ran off through the trellis so now it was just Jimmy, and I couldn’t move. My entire body throbbed and gradually a warmth spread through me, radiating slowly from my chest, moving outward, seeping everywhere, a tepid water tainted with iron, a sense of well-being, a solid calm, and a thought settled deep into my brain that in Jimmy there must certainly be something good I had not sensed before, a goodness hidden beneath layers of meanness that had accumulated over the years because of things done to him. Within me, something new was being born, and all my rage left me like spent bath water down a drain, making me buoyant, light as air.
It was then I saw Eric, standing on the grass, the cattails behind him like an army bearing pikes, his body more muscled than I ever remembered it being, and he held a field stone in his right hand as one might hold a baseball he was preparing to pitch. I watched as he took aim and then his arm drew back, level with his shoulder, and his torso pivoted on his hips, capturing all the energy of his core muscles, and he began to turn into the pitch and his fingers released their grip and the stone came hurtling through the bee-loud air, and just as Jimmy turned, it struck him soundly on the temple, and from where I lay I could hear the crack of bone.
Eric lunged forward, penknife in hand, blade drawn. As he came forward, leaping toward Jimmy, I grabbed his ankle, and said: “Enough.” He dropped to his knees.
“But that bastard could have killed you,” he said. He was breathing hard, possessed by his own rage. I stroked his hair, slick with sweat, and his eyes softened.
“Enough, Eric,” I said. “It’s over.”
We heard a lone bull frog in the distance, its bellow like a half full gasoline can being squeezed in then out, and I could see that the side of Jimmy Howard’s head was bleeding, though he was breathing normally, as if asleep. Next to him lay the croquet mallet and the stone my brother had thrown with such precision. Eric helped me to my feet. I had no problem walking and made my way over to Jimmy. I knelt on one leg, as in a genuflect, beside him, and touched his cheek, and his eyes opened. I brushed away two bees that had alighted on his neck.
“You okay?” I asked.
He moved his head.
I reached out and grabbed his hair, turning his face toward me so he could see my eyes. “If you ever lay a hand on Margie again,” I whispered into his exposed ear. “So help me, God, I’ll kill you. And I mean it.” Something different now had replaced the rage in me, but I didn’t surrender to sugar-sweet Jesus goodness. That would have been too easy. What I knew now was resolve, and it lifted away all the weight of my former anger, and tempered both my understanding and compassion.
My brother and I began running as fast as we could, away from the green lawn, through the backyard, and out onto the street in front of the Tudor-style house. I had no idea where we were, yet I had a sense of direction that urged me on in the manner of a salmon moving up a river to its native stream, almost blindly, responding to a hidden biology, surrendering itself to instinct.
“He was trying to kill you,” my brother said, running beside me, panting out his words, warm and steamy.
“I know, and he would have killed me if you hadn’t been there.”
I had no idea what we were doing or where we were going: I just led the way, barely able to keep a step ahead of my brother, who seemed to have gained new strength and agility.
When we finally made it to Walter Reed Drive my brother looked at me and shook his head. “You’re a mess,” he said. “What are we gonna tell the parents?”
“We’ll tell them I fell headfirst down a rock ledge. You just go along with whatever I say.”
In all the years since that day my brother and I never again mentioned what happened with Jimmy Howard on the broad green lawn off Four Mile Run. What’s more we never told anyone else about it; it was our secret and we kept it, for whatever reason, hidden, locked away in one of those secret closets of memory. Margie, I heard from a friend of hers’, ended up moving to Florida where she lived with her mother’s sister, a single woman, a salvage diver, and though I never heard from her again I often envisioned Margie swimming through turquoise waters, diving toward white sand, listening to the underwater sounds of air bubbles rising, thumping pulse, labored breathing, the hollow concussion of metal striking metal, and I wondered what she would do with all these new sounds, how she would reconstruct them into music.
The Howards themselves moved out of our neighborhood within a year of the incident on Four Mile Run, and Eric and I, crouching behind the bushes where we had once found the desecrated corpse of a box turtle, watched as three men hauled crates up the ramp of a Mayflower moving truck. We caught one last glimpse of Jimmy Howard. As we watched him climbing into the family station wagon, my brother and I looked at one another and then raised all our middle fingers in his direction. But we never spoke a word.
Not long after that episode, our courses began to diverge, imperceptibly at first, and then as if we had come to a fork in a mighty river, where, once we passed this critical juncture, we could never go back, could never paddle against the relentless current of our own destiny. In just two years I was in high school and we seemed rarely to see one another anymore, different groups of friends and the generation of eleven months separating us, not to mention changing passions.
My brother became increasingly interested in conservative politics, something I couldn’t begin to understand. He read thick books by men like William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater. One was called “Conscience of a Conservative”, and the title brought a smile to my lips. It seemed a strange pursuit to me, but I never told my brother so. I would just listen when he talked about these political ideas. I continued wandering on the weekends, drifting farther and farther afield and once I was able to drive I spent hours tooling along aimlessly, looking for something I had never seen. And almost every time I was on my own, driving, I did find something new—a hawk in flight being attacked by three crows; a man with waist-length black hair, head thrown back in laughter, standing in front of the gold dome of Riggs National Bank, laughing joyously for no apparent reason, for the entire world to see; two little boys rolling nickels, a whole roll of them, down a sewer intake at Seven Corners. These are the things that kept me going, enticing me to continue my explorations.
After high school, restlessness consumed me, leading me far and wide, from California to Montana, from Maine to the Low Country of South Carolina, where I eventually settled, a half-hour south of Charleston, just a step ahead of the development there. Here in this secluded swath of marine estuary and salt marsh I study the ecosystems of tidal flats, uninventive work, but comforting all the same. I seem to be learning something about these systems of life that might one day preserve them, allow them to survive human onslaught, and I learn by observing and understanding relationships. I still keep my notebooks, always have—seventy-two of them now, dating back thirty years—can peruse the one I wrote that spring and summer when my brother and I took up residence in the tree, and I came to know Margie Howard. Reading them, I can make those moments seem to come back to life, if only for an instant.
Eric stayed put in Arlington, studying law at George Mason, and after college, bought a large home in Northern Virginia amid the mushrooming development there, helped sell the area, made millions doing so, married, had three children, none of whom I know.
A year ago I took my only daughter, nine years old at the time, to Four Mile Run, and we walked along the creek bed. It was unsettling, the changes around the creek, new developments, houses that dwarfed my parents’ home, which still stood, more like a dollhouse now (but it had been so big when we were children!). Every so often, though, focusing just on the creek, it was as it had been when Eric and I were seeing it together, but there were no mud puppies or salamanders, no crayfish or minnows. The water was clear; yet, it was also dead.
I took my daughter to the freshwater source, to that tiny trickle of a creek that had so fascinated my brother and me. The creek was still small, and the gorge it made through the red clay, narrow and deep, and the water, cool and clear, as if nothing had changed, not a thing. As my brother and I had suspected, the process of erosion to create a canyon would take aeons, or perhaps a canyon would never be the fate of the tiny creek.
When my daughter and I reached the high ground, my stomach sank to the balls of my feet. The woods were gone, a cul-de-sac in their place, and our entire swamp was no more, even the ancient tree had been felled, the willow oak that had witnessed the arrival of Europeans to this continent, the tree my brother and I had inhabited while we waited for the change. Even though it was an old and unhealthy tree at the time Eric and I frequented its heart, it seemed tragic beyond understanding that it would have been slaughtered by developers, chipped into mulch, carted off to a landfill, even the crater, made by the absence of its roots, leveled. No remnants, no relics. But there were still the memories that I began imparting to my daughter, who soaked them up with her brain thus making them part of her own reality and extending the life of the hollow willow oak for at least another generation.
It struck me then how little Eric and I knew of the nature of man and the forces of geological change, how little we still know, though I can really only speak for myself. He may know much more about these matters than I do, but I haven’t seen him in almost ten years now, since the death of our father, who died much too young. At my father’s funeral, nearly a decade ago, we hugged like the brothers we are, and I didn’t want to let go, believing that we, through our embrace and shared grief, might make time slow its hands, even reverse its clockwise motion. For one unreasoning moment, as we clasped our arms around one another, I thought we might go back to those days before the bloodletting on Four Mile Run, before the change came, so quickly, so unexpectedly, so irreversibly, before we had both changed beyond recognition.