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Flight of Fantasy

Bay CrossingsJournal

The Fingerlings of Hope

By Bill Coolidge

The 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 Atlantic.

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 years.

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 shovel.

"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 long vacancy.

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 grass.

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.