Essays on Childhood now publish on their own website! Read the latest here: Moving the Soul | by Brent Aikman. Motorcycles, dreams, freedom, and more . . . thank you, Brent, for sharing this fantastic essay.
Congratulations to Esse Diem friend and partner Jennifer Blake Waggener for her essay’s acceptance into Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer’s & Other Dementias: 101 Stories of Caregiving, Coping, and Compassion.
Jennifer’s essay, “Fade to Black,” first appeared on her own private blog in 2006. She generously shared it with Esse Diem in 2012 for the Essays on Memory and Loss effort to support the Alzheimer’s Association’s advocacy efforts.
The book may be pre-ordered now, and is available April 22, 2014. All royalties benefit the Alzheimer’s Association.
We are so very proud of you, Jennifer!
Today I am pleased to introduce the new Essays on Childhood site format. It’s more writer-reader friendly than our original site, with lots of white space and the extra links greyed out or hidden. It is a much better format and visual experience, and showcases our writers’ work well.
In addition to the new site design, we will be slowly moving all of the full essay texts over to this site from Esse Diem. In the past, this site has served as a preview and link for the complete essays that were posted here; soon you will be able to read all of the work on one site, in one place, unmixed with the ramblings of a personal blog.
Our first writer to appear via the new approach to Essays on Childhood is the wonderful Susan Byrum Rountree. She is the author of Nags Headers, a regional history set on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and In Mother Words, an essay collection. She blogs at writemuch.blogspot.com from her home in Raleigh. This is her second publication by Essays on Childhood. Her first essay, Pick a Little Talk a Little, appeared May 1, 2012.
Her essay, The Roost, turns over and over a great mystery from her childhood — the invasion of her hometown by millions of birds. The flocks of birds penetrated her subconscious mind, and years later began to swirl and form the shape of another plague on the community, one whose impact would far outlast the degradation the birds left behind.
Susan and I worked back and forth on drafts of this essay for several months. She knew what she wanted to write about, but she also knew that the connections she needed to make would be difficult and even painful. I wrote her this line in an e-mail this morning:
“When something powerful is right there, it can be very difficult to keep pushing to let it all the way out. It’s just scary to do, and you did it.”
I hope you will read Susan’s essay, and share with me the respect and appreciation that comes when you can feel how hard someone worked to tell the truth, not just the factual truth, but the known heart of a situation and a story.
Anne Clinard Barnhill
Anne Clinard Barnhill grew up in West Virginia and graduated from Alderson-Broaddus College in Philippi. Her debut novel, At the Mercy of the Queen, was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2012. Her second novel, Queen Elizabeth’s Daughter, is forthcoming in 2014. She is working on a third and as-yet-untitled novel, set in West Virginia.
She is also author of At Home in the Land of Oz: Autism, My Sister and Me, a memoir about growing up in West Virginia in a time before anyone had heard the word ’autism.’ What You Long For is a short story collection published in 2009 that also contains stories set in the mountains. Books are available from Amazon, www.jkp.com, www.mainstreetrag.com or, if you’d like a signed copy, from the author directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her first chapbook of poetry, Coal, Baby, is available from Finishing Line Press.
Anne’s essay is inspired by her early experiences camping in West Virginia. Editor’s note: Anne allowed me to title this essay. My choice reflects my favorite element of this piece, the patient but firm and final voice of a loving father.
Staying | by Anne Clinard Barnhill
When I was seven years old, my father took the family camping for the first time. We had no equipment that I can recall. There’s a snapshot of my mother, my sister and me all looking groggy as we stretch from sleep in the back of a 1960 station wagon. The wagon had been Dad’s idea. Since the back seat folded down, he figured my mother and he could sleep back there, I could sleep at their feet and my two-year-old sister, Becky, could sprawl out on the front seat.
His plan didn’t work quite the way he’d hoped. It took about two minutes for my little sister to crawl back with the rest of us; then, I wormed my way between my parents soon after. No wonder my mother looks exhausted in the photo — her black hair is all messy and my sister looks like a wild child. I’m not exactly the picture of perfection either.
In spite of that inauspicious start, however, our whole family fell in love with camping. Over time we acquired a camp stove, a lantern, sleeping bags and one of those tents that attached to the back of the open station wagon. That covered area became the ‘bathroom’ for my sister who was in the process of potty training. It was also my ‘dressing room’, providing more space than the crowded tent.
We bought camping dishes and silverware, pots and pans, a coffee pot (the kind you had to brew over an open fire) and many other outdoor accessories. My dad built an enormous black box with drawers and shelves in which to store said items. This behemoth, which could have housed my sister and me, rode on top of the station wagon. My father, standing at 5 feet 6 inches, somehow heaved the black monstrosity onto the car and secured it in its place. He must have been incredibly strong to be able to lift that box. We never had any problems with it moving or falling off. The black box stayed with us, useful as ever, for at least a decade. It retired to ‘Pop’s Place’, a camp my dad bought at the Middle Fork River where he later put a trailer. The black box took its place on the deck, holding all the supplies needed for a picnic.
I often felt sorry for my dad, the lone male among us three girls. He had to do the hard work mostly by himself. Such things as setting up the tent, hoisting the black box, starting and tending the campfire — these were his chores. He also had to put up with our feminine desires about where to set up camp. Since we usually camped in West Virginia state parks or national forests, there were campgrounds set up with bath houses, playgrounds, picnic tables and sometimes, even a pool. My mother invariably wanted to locate nearest the bathroom. I, on the other hand, wanted a woodsy view with atmosphere; my sister always desired a place close to the pool. Around and around the campground we’d drive, looking at each available spot, sometimes lamenting that someone else had beaten us to the absolute best area. Poor Dad would circle and circle until finally, we came up with a place to please everyone.
When we’d graduated from tent to trailer, this search for the perfect spot finally drove my dad to lose his patience. Dad had planned the trip of a lifetime — two weeks at the Outer Banks in North Carolina, then up to DC where we would see all our nation’s capital had to offer. After that, we’d head to New York City for a couple of days. The pinnacle of the trip would be onward to Montreal, Canada, to the World’s Fair where we would spend a whole week. He’d planned this six-week trip with great precision and care.
Somewhere in Canada, we found a rustic campground. As was our custom, we drove all around to find our little niche. We finally located a good site but there was one small problem. Dad had to back the trailer between two large trees to arrive at the designated trailer position. He did so with extreme caution. Once things were settled, Mother and I got out of the car and roamed around. We decided we didn’t like this spot. We told Dad we’d have to move. He mentioned that it had been hard to get in, but we were convinced this would not be a good space. So, he very reluctantly and carefully pulled back out and around the camp we went again. We tried another area but didn’t like it as well as the first. Dad took the wheel yet again and we returned to our original lot. Those two trees were still there and Dad gingerly maneuvered the trailer back into place. Mother and I were still not satisfied. We complained and begged and were convinced there was a better location. After much pleading from the three of us, Dad once again agreed to drive between those trees in search of the perfect lodging. He twisted in his seat to look back, put the car in reverse and gently stepped on the gas.
A terrible crunching sound. Dad hopped out of the driver’s seat and ran to the trailer. The doorknob was on the ground. He didn’t say a word, but backed the trailer into its original space. He began to repair the door as the other three of us got out of the car.
“We are staying right here,” he said in a low voice.
And we did.
In the Dream
It’s starting to get dark, and we have to get my grandparents’ belongings from the house. They are gone. No sense of their presence remains. The house is a hollow shell for the objects left. A moving truck is parked out front right down to the brick porch. Several cars are under the spread of the live oak in the yard. My son has gone down by the lake. He’s just out of sight but I know he’s playing on the mossy bank near the spot where the wooden boat rested. I’m standing on the front porch, talking with the movers about how to get the furniture out. Inside the house is full; the front door is small beside towers of beds and tables, books, photographs, a piano. There are two men. They are looking over my shoulder at the curve of the lake beside the house, confused, but not alarmed. One man looks at me and says, “but what are we supposed to do about the alligators, ma’am?’
Turning around to the lake, I see dark forms massing. Not to the bank yet, but getting closer. How many? Close to the bank is thick with them. Eyes and scutes are visible above the water. Beyond the bank are V-shaped trails of ripples in the water where others swim, mostly submerged, and beyond the ripples are bubbles where yet more lurk below the water. Waves upon waves. The sight horrifies me to my bones but is somehow familiar, a fierce and unpredictable storm of a kind I’ve seen before. My answer is matter-of-fact. “We’ll have to hurry. We’ll have to get things out before they get to the yard.” In that moment I am conscious of my son.
I move through the house to the sliding glass door. I can see him outside playing at the bank. He is five, maybe six years old, all blonde curls and soft small hands. He is bending the cattails down, pulling open the brown velvet pods and blowing the fluff across the water. He does not see the alligators swimming across the lake, the alligators approaching the bank, the alligators heaving their bulk from the water. I see them, feel their mass. I don’t scream, don’t yell to him, don’t make a sound. If he makes a sound, they will have him. I yank the sliding door open and run, run like I ran to catch up with my grandfather, legs churning. I make it to the holly tree outside the back door, then to the towering camellias, looking for the grass to turn to moss under my feet, then I’ll be almost there when there’s the moss by the bank, and the moss crushes under my feet, and I have him. I pull him to my chest and run, pressing his face into my shoulder so he can’t see them, his damp curls on my neck, his feet dangling past my knees. My arms ache with his weight and I run. The reptiles are black and slick from the water of the lake and gathering like clouds. My path to the door narrows to infinity until suddenly my foot hits the first step and we are inside and banging the glass door closed behind us. There is no breathless relief at our escape, no emotional release after the grip of fear. We are safe; that is all. I set my son down and he looks up at me, nearly expressionless, all large eyes in a pale face. I wrap his hand up in mine. He knows that I have done what had to be done, all one can do when the alligators come, and now it’s time to go.
When we turn around the room is neatly arranged, each book and photograph where it belongs. The house is dark as we walk to the front door. I place my hand on the brass-colored knob, worn from decades of touch by many hands. It is loose in my grasp and I turn it, hear it click and pull the door open. It is night, and the thick LowCountry darkness has settled, obscuring any view beyond the threshold. Outside is a wave of sound of the frogs and cicadas, blackness and the thick humid air wrapping around my face. Staring hard into the dark I try to pick out the outline of a seething black mass, a shape darker than the darkness that will force us back into the house. Nothing reveals itself to me in the dark. We are drawn to leave the house by a force like a magnet. The car is in the yard under the live oak. If we go, we can make it. My child’s hand in mine, I push the screened door open with my palm and we step over the threshold, pushing into the night wave of heat and sound, unseeing.
Shit. The hair on the back of my neck stands up and my mouth goes dry. “Breathe, breathe,” I tell myself, “back up slow, no sound.” Eyes locked on the black marbles of the alligator’s eyes visible above the water, I move one foot, then the other. The alligator moves no closer but holds his ground, floating just beneath the surface. Thick and numbed, my fingers let my fishing rod slip down and catch in the mud and I stumble. Catching my weight my foot hits the mud bank behind me with a resounding slap. Movement blurs in the water; instinctively I startle and turn towards the sound. An anhinga rises in improbable flight from under the surface of the water. Slick feathers slip free of the water, breaking the surface tension, pulling air beneath wet wings, making an ungainly flapping commotion. In seconds the bird lifts into the air, transformed from a sleek swimming machine into a sodden parody of flight. Listing on heavy wings it flies above the marsh grass and crashes to roost in a tree. For seconds my gaze has strayed from the alligator. When I look back he is gone, vanished as if he were never there.
My heart is still pounding when I hear the whir of a golf cart coming up the path above the bank and my son shouting. “Hey Mom! Mom! What are you doing down there?” My son and his best friend are tooling around the island. He stops the cart and kicks back behind the wheel. Propping one foot on the dash he looks at me from under his baseball cap with amused condescention, a look that should be patented by 16 y.o. boys. “You catching anything?” he says skeptically. I start picking my way up the bank.
“I’m catching flying fish,” I retort, using our expression for casting a line into a tree.
“Ha!” he laughs, “way to go.” Huffing up the bank I’m closer and see his eyes light up with amusement at my muddy self. He flashes his charming I-want-something smile. “Hurry up! Me and Cam want to go to the marsh dock and see the alligators. Can we? Come with.”
Grabbing my empty bucket and rod I step to the back seat of the cart. “Ok, honey, let’s go,” He steps on the pedal and the cart lurches off, “but remember, we have to stay in the cart, and be respectful of their space.” He responds with a huge eye roll. “I know, Mom, I know. They’re more scared of us than we are of them.”
“Let’s go see the alligator!” my grandfather called to me, and I came running. He was already choosing a hat from the hundred crammed on a rack by the sliding glass door. He slid the door open and in a second he’d be gone and I’d better hurry up and put some shoes on and get there fast. When I caught up with him, breathless from churning my stubby legs, he was halfway down the long slope of the yard, headed for the water. The yard was a peninsula, surrounded by the brackish, green-brown water of Clearview Lake. The lake is a man-made inland body of water, far larger than a pond but navigable across its full length in about 20 minutes at the speed of a trolling motor. Ringed by live oaks, pine and brush, the lake was and is today a haven for a multitude of creatures that fly, slither, crawl and swim. King of them all was The Alligator, a big old male who lived down at the end of the lake out of sight of the house, near the dam.
We were headed for a small flat-bottomed wooden boat pulled up onto the mossy bank of the lake. In its glory days the boat was painted dark green, but the paint had chipped and flaked from the hull, exposing wood weathering and in spots as mossy as the bank. A little wider than a canoe, it had two benches, one with a live well, and a squared-off stern to accommodate a small trolling motor. I scrambled across the bow onto the second bench and held still while my grandfather slid the boat into the flat green water and stepped over the side. As we began to float sideways, parallel to the bank, I moved forward, grabbed the long oar from the bottom of the boat and pushed us off. He moved to the stern, cranked the little motor and pointed the bow up the lake towards the dam. He’d brought his rod with the spinning reel and some heels of bread, so I figured he’d let me drive for a bit while he tried for a bass and we’d feed the mallards. But first we’d see The Alligator.
Around a bend in the lake, past a small cove and next to the dam is where we’d look. As we rounded the bend, he cut the motor. I handed him the oar and peered at the bank as he paddled. “We’ve got to be quiet now, let’s see if we can see the old alligator,” he instructed. I gripped the gunwale of the boat and leaned slightly towards the bank, my heart beating a little faster with excitement. Four times out of five, we’d see nothing, but that fifth time . . . “there he is!! you see him?” I whispered as loudly as I could. My grandfather always let me spot him first. The gator looked like a huge gray log lying up on the bank, sunning himself as we glided past. I’d ask to get closer, and we’d turn and paddle by again. The massive presence on the bank fascinated me, and I’d lean close as I dared without tipping the boat. “Not too close now, we don’t want to bother him – you know, he’s more scared of you than you are of him.” I wasn’t scared of him at all. I knew my grandfather respected The Alligator. If the old beast seemed to regard us, it’d be a “we’d better turn around now.” The motor would crank back up, and we’d be gone.
It would be dusk by the time we had finished harassing the wildlife and slid the boat back up on the bank. I’d run to the house, slide the back door open and shout for my grandmother. “We saw The Alligator! We saw The Alligator!” She always acted surprised. “You did?!” When my grandfather followed me through the back door, he’d get a look and her voice would rise sharply in interrogation: “did you let that child get close to that alligator?” “Aww, heavens no, Margaret,” he’d say, and give me a conspiratorial look.
Years later, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources decided The Alligator had outgrown his home at Clearview Lake. Rumor was that the Tucker’s dog went missing and half a dog was found. The DNR enlisted my grandfather to help find the gator and haul him out to the swamp. The mission was accomplished with a tranquilizer gun, yards of rope and duct tape. In the photograph taken before he was loaded onto a truck and carted away, The Alligator is stretched out full length on the bank in the back yard, longer than the wooden boat. His mouth is duct taped closed, and ropes tied behind his front legs extending from his grey body immobilize his massive tail. My grandfather stands balanced on The Alligator’s back.
The Bone Man
Some thirty years after The Alligator, I met the Bone Man. The Bone Man is a classically trained artist, a painter, photographer, and writer. His clapboard house stands under the crooked branches of live oaks on a plantation on the Ashepoo river. He is artist-in-residence there, taking care of the place and tending to the horses. His art in traditional forms includes meticulously drawn portraits, haunting photographic portraits and landscapes, and paintings of striking realism suspended in surrealist dreamscapes. The Bone Man lives inside his art. The house is an installation, every surface covered in artwork, photographs, collected pieces. A New Orleans funeral parasol hangs from the ceiling; walls are all paintings, bones and feathers. Each object is immaculate and carefully placed, each angle and sight line its own new and startling composition. Everything he sees is a picture.
The snakeskin of the five-foot rattler on the wall is easy to spot, but less so are the delicate bones. The Bone Man’s less traditional medium is the skeleton. Part engineer, part sculptor, he is expert in cleaning, preserving, and articulating animal bones. It is a dirty, smelly, time-consuming and tedious process. And why? These aren’t dinosaur bones or hunter’s trophies. Still, on a table near his door he has the bones of a rattlesnake killed on the property The triangular white head floats above an arc of winglike ribs diminishing down a seemingly infinite chain of vertebrae that spirals into a coil and emerges, a tail crowned with dry rattles. The perfect architecture of a magnificent animal remains in a few ounces of bleached bone.
Three alligator skulls rest on a table by the window. The Bone Man picks up the largest and places it in my hands. The head itself is easily two feet long and a foot wide, intact with long jaws, heavy eye sockets and ridged poll. The bone looks porous, like it should be light, but it’s heavier than a bowling ball and awkward. For a second I struggle with it, afraid I’ll drop it. “Turn it over,” he says, “this way,” and tilts the base of the skull upwards. In the center of the back of the skull is a small cavity. “Put your thumb in there.” He brushes a finger over the cavity. “Go on, try it.” I shudder to do it. My thumb just fits, barely past the first knuckle. “That’s his brain cavity,” the Bone Man says. “This guy was twelve feet long and weighed more than a thousand pounds and his brain was smaller than your thumb.”
The Bone Man has articulated many alligators, including one for a local nature center. He also accompanies the hunters who take them. The skull in my hands, its companions, and the buckets of bony scutes on the back porch came from alligators killed on the plantation. Landowners are permitted to control alligator populations on their property and each year are issued a certain number of “tags,” or permits to kill. The Bone Man has been on many alligator hunts, but the one that produced the skull I’m holding he remembers. “That guy was was bigger than the boat. They shot it and it refused to die. They had ropes around it and it was trying to roll. I stay out of the way, but they called me over to help them get it up out of the water – they had four guys and it wasn’t going anywhere. I know more about alligator anatomy than anybody, and I was telling them where to shoot it to kill it quickly, right at a place where the skull joins the spine. They shot it with a rifle right there and it still didn’t die. After a couple of hours we finally got it tied. It was still alive when we loaded it up on the truck. It was still alive when we cleaned it. We didn’t kill that alligator – we tortured it to death. I wasn’t going to let him die for nothing.” He articulated the beautiful bones.
(Tomorrow: Margaret concludes “The Alligator.” Don’t miss it!)
Editor’s note: A skilled writer knows how set a scene, how to craft mood through tone and story pacing; my friend Margaret Ward McClain is such a writer. If you follow this blog, you will remember her gorgeous and heart-breaking essay The Simons House from 2011.
This week the Essays on Childhood project features her chill-bump-inducing remembrance of encounters, real and imagined, with alligators. Margaret returns to South Carolina and takes us into a place where danger is always just under the surface.
To get your mind right, read her short introductory reflection today and her full essay in installations throughout the week.
The American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis), sometimes referred to colloquially as a gator, is a reptile endemic to the Southeastern United States. It is one of the two living species of alligator, in the genus Alligator, within the family Alligatoridae.
The American alligator inhabits freshwater wetlands, such as marshes and cypress swamps, from Texas to North Carolina.
Dewees Island, South Carolina.
From my fishing spot on higher ground I snagged my line in the brush below. I made my way around a rice trunk and down a bank to free a fishing lure. It was a good one, hung up in the brush and no amount of cursing and yanking would pull it loose. Pluff mud sucked at my ankles as I tried to avoid a swim in the brackish creek. Stretching on tiptoe from the edge of the bank to the wax myrtle branch that snared the lure, I gave a few teetering yanks and pulled it free. Now, absently reeling in the line and grouching about the thick black mud on my shoes, I turn to head back up the bank. Just at the edge of vision I register twin knobs above the water and a thick, creviced plate between.
Not a stick.
In the flat brackish water at the edge of the impoundment, only the eyes are showing. Not a ripple gives him away. The surface of the water is a still mirror, reflecting marsh grass at the edge of a muddy bank and a flat grey sky. Here I stand, unmoving, instantly alert, hyper-aware. I feel the pulse in my neck as my heart beats faster. He hovers some 20 feet from the bank, about 180 feet too close for both of us. Only his eyes are visible. Safe in stealth and near-complete concealment, he has been watching me. Both now exposed and face-to-face we regard each other: he driven by primitive instinct to know if I am food; me frozen between rapt fascination and primal fear.
I was not raised to fear alligators. This is remarkable, considering the facts. Adult male alligators average about 11 feet long and can weigh 800 pounds, although some whoppers of 1,000 – 2,000 pounds have been reported. They are ingeniously designed predators. Alligators’ heavy, low bodies are armored with thick, ridged skin layered over bony scutes protruding like spikes. Venomous moccasins and rattlesnakes have trouble penetrating the hide with a bite. Swimming alligators are startlingly fast, propelled by an enormous tail that serves as defense on land. Champion sprinters, on land they can run nearly 30 miles an hour for short distances. Five claws on each front foot and four in back enable them to climb. They can scale short fences. Claws, tail, armor and speed are useful accessories for the alligator.
The bite is the apex of their predation. An alligator’s elongated snout is filled with teeth in a thick, bony skull with a hinged jaw angled so precisely that its bite exerts more force than ever measured in a land animal. Mobile garbage cans, they eat anything that registers as the right size, usually crabs, fish, birds, and smaller mammals too close to the water. Dogs and deer are fair game. Generally, they do not regard humans as prey. Generally may not apply to small children, swimmers, and anglers in the wrong place. Generally isn’t enough for me, my children, dogs, or extremities. My attitude towards alligators has changed. Respect and awe of their feral, prehistoric beauty has not diminished, but in time childhood excitement gave way to uneasiness and discomfort, grown up now into hair-standing-on-the-back-of-your-neck fear.