The River

Ohio River near Golconda, Illinois 2008
Ohio River near Golconda, Illinois 2008

Tom Sawyer’s River full of history, commerce, and danger is my river too.  From a different time and place, the clay river mud pushes up through my naked toes and refuses to wash away without a good scrub.  Bright sun bakes water polished stones along the sandy bank while the lapping wake washes in the stink of rotting grass and fish and motor oil.  Impossibly enormous turkey buzzards circle the island sky in kettles of three and four and it crosses my mind that one might be able to carry away the tiny Chihuahua yapping up and down the shore. Summers floating along in a flat-bottomed boat blur together like a single memory, everything the same, but the nights stand out, singular.

The screen door drags along the lower track making a scratching sound as I step from the warm light of the kitchen into the shadows of the upper deck.  The river reflects only moonlight in a rippling puddle from the West.  I can hear the water gently strike the stony shore rhythmically again and again as cicadas whir in the hickory tree growing behind the cabin along the bluff.  I take a seat among them, the story telling has already begun.  He hands me a dripping can of beer from the ice chest beside his lawn chair without a pause in the tale.

The Mason jar of moonshine sits on the table beside the smoking citronella candle, blood-red pickled cherries float in the clear pink tinged fluid.  He reaches out with a hand that reveals a slight tremble and with swollen knobby knuckles opens the lid of the jar to pluck out a single “cherry bomb” with his fingers.  The slur of his words tells me this sample is one of many tonight.  He chews and swallows with a, “Mmmm,” and looks up through his unruly eyebrows with a smile.  Light from the candle glints in his eyes and reflects off the strands of silver in his beard.

“Boys, let me tell you this,” he calls out in a gravelly voice to the grandchildren sitting enthralled at his side, “there is nothing to fear in these here woods.” His face is serious and in the silence the boys stare back in rapt attention.  He chuckles deep in the back of his throat until it bubbles into a roar of laughter ending with a hacking cough from years of unfiltered cigarettes and inhaling smoke from a welder.

“Well, there was this one time though,” he starts when the coughing subsides.  “I’d been sittin’ in a deer stand all mornin’ and hadn’t seen a damn thing move all day…and on the way back to my truck I found a trail of blood and followed it to a big ol Burr Oak tree.  Up in that tree was the corpse of a pony, draped over a big thick limb and gutted from top to bottom just dripping blood all over the ground.  Boys, the idea of a mountain lion big enough to drag a damned pony up a tree about made me piss my pants right there.  But, you don’t have to worry about that none.  Now get yourselves to bed if you’re gonna check the trot-line with me in the mornin’.”

With that command, he lowers his beard to his chest and after a minute of silence begins to snore.

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