The Fingerlings of Hope
By Bill Coolidge
sun is engulfed by the sweaty green water oaks. The motion is from
west to east, east to west. Liquids mingle forthright, steady but
not willful. Each carrying a unique destiny; one purifying and
cleansing, washing along the riverbank, gathering then holding. And
on great rain days, clenching. The other, like a sluice gate, mixes
in and out, in and out. Adding the taste of salt, the fresh water
sinks and saltwater rises. creating what is known as brackish water.
I'm standing on a dock, jutting
out into the Tar River. Her name will be changed less than 20 miles
downstream to the Pamlico River, and many miles east she becomes the
Pamlico Sound. A vast shallow body of saltwater where the bays of
North Carolina intermingle with the Atlantic Ocean. At this edge is
where the ambiguity of this confluence, fresh and salt, is finally
resolved. But where I stand there is this gentle union, fresh water
upstream pouring east, meeting the tidal current coming west from
The water is tranquil today, small
fish and minnows swimming around the piers. The memory, the rampage
of two years ago when the Tar leapt her banks, chugged uphill, and
seeped for two weeks into basements then into the first floors of
houses. Where there were no banks to leap, she gathered momentum and
carried away little villages. The rains fell in love with the river.
Hurricane Floyd headed north, heavy clouds climbing upward two
thousand feet, poured out at sea level. The fresh and brackish water
collided, intermingled. Humans, like bees in a hive dislodged,
wandered onto high ground, dazed, forlorn, lost. Cows, horses, pigs,
cats, and dogs floated away, a jetsam of death covered the land.
The minnows are like skipping
stones, right near shore jumping and splashing, carefree.
Stabilized, for now. Two years ago, the crabs and other crustaceans
who dwelt on the bottom, swirled by tidal currents, were overcome by
the fresh water. Nature starts small, moves up the food chain. The
minnows cavort today. Drum crabs and bay scallops are safe. This
slow moving, low-lying eastern North Carolina river can be deadly
though, don't be deceived.
The goddess of destruction
snatches words at lips' edge. Eyebrows furrow, thoughts sink back
into the book of memory, of loss. When I ask the citizens where they
were when the floods came, the youngsters get excited and speak
rapidly about friends' losses, the electricity out, school delayed.
The older ones eyes' make a half-circle upward and then turn away
from my vision. A vacating time when no god was present.
Is this a fear of a return? A free
fall into a void, churning, spinning, where gravity is reversed and
all that flows out turns around, dammed up and won't go out to sea.
There are houses up the street from where I stand that are still
boarded up, plywood for windows, foundations and crawl spaces washed
clean. It's winter, two years since the flood. Weeds are making this
an urban wilderness. No families will return. The city will bulldoze
the apartment complex down the street next week.
Do you not wonder what space these
flooding memories inhabit? When thoughts return to a living room, a
bedroom, or a kitchen, will there be a still, quieted absence?
I have hope in weeds. Yesterday I
walked the hard packed clay roads along this river, noticing the
slatted screen door, singularly hinged on a faded yellow clapboard
house. Feral cats crept along the cinderblock foundation. Life
returning to the wild.
I once purchased an abandoned
farm. Ten years after repair and restoration she looked good. I let
some outbuildings collapse, jacked up the old barn, put in
electricity and dug a well for the farmhouse, mowed the lawn, put in
a pasture for the goats, bounded the honeysuckle. The old farm had a
millhouse, long fallen in. The millrace had river birch growing in
her. The mill pond dried up. Nobody had lived there for over 30
After those ten years of hard
work, on a hot summer day, a long line of cars and pick-up trucks
slowly gravitated down my driveway, not stirring up the dirt.
Careful like. An older guy, Texan hat on, cowboy boots, dark blue
pants, white shirt with a string tie, got out, his hand swiftly
passing across his forehead, stepped forward while I leaned on a
"I'm Chester Brooks,"
his left hand spreading backward and pointing. "We're having a
family reunion across the river and we heard you had fixed up the
old family place. My parents lived and died here back in the 1950s.
We came back to see what has been made of it. We heard someone had
moved in, but oh my." His eyelids tinged red, he took out a red
handkerchief and caressed his forehead, delicately touching his
eyes. Just briefly.
Thirty years ago there had been
two fires. One took down the old mill. The second consumed the
kitchen, separated from the farmhouse. Only the chimneys were left.
It must have been the second fire that took Mr. Brooks' parents off
this piece of land, creating the
Along the Tar River, the weeds returned first,
greening the pale clay. The nailed plywood on windows turned to
gray. Morning glories climbed the faded yellow house as if springing
from a deep sleep with a smart summer rise. Her front yard had no
What is it the weeds are announcing? The storm is
over? Forgotten? Not hardly. No, just a simple message probably. The
earth first harbors and tucks in, waits, then secretes in little
spasms, the fingerlings of hope. Not a return to what once was, for
all that has been washed away. It is a sense of becoming I have this
day. First come the weeds, then the wildflowers, the honeysuckle,
the morning glory, the blackberry, and the pine. Like painting a
canvas, nature gradually fills in the details.
Someday, someone will pass by and see this piece
of wilderness on the banks of the Tar and have a vision, saying
"I like that pale yellow house, even the screen door is
half-opened, maybe waiting, waiting for me." The confluence of
water, weed, soil, and destiny begins again.