In dry summers, the mud peninsula cracked beneath the heavy sun of that place deep enough he’d pitch his father’s canvas pup tent an hour before dusk lifted lightning bugs from the sword grass and conjured pendulous, shrilling clouds of mosquitoes on which the bats and bullfrogs feasted. Safe inside the sheer net hung from the tent pole, he’d lie naked on the unzipped sleeping bag as night deepened, the funk of slow water, swamp cabbage, and undifferentiated carrion in his nostrils. The arc lights along the highway fifty yards up the ridge crammed with sumac and scrub oak lent the canvas a diffuse illumination in which he contemplated the minute probings of individual mosquitoes, the lightning bugs’ yellow-green hovering, the rickety clumsiness of June bugs till the rumble and bang of traffic and the names and purposes of every other mechanical and human sound had drifted downstream, the creek’s wavery current burbling a few feet away, the stories he’d heard since he’d begun to listen and the ones he told himself—-helpless to silence them, hungry never to silence them—-tugging him under.
In wet years, the peninsula—-everyone called it The Island—-shone in the white sun, a muck hand whose fingers and flattened thumb grew or shrank sometimes by the minute during downpours nearly black as the insides of a furnace that opened to sun-fog drizzle then blackened for blind seconds again. Eight, nine, ten, even for a little while past the day they first called him a man, he’d squat in the muck as bright rain fell, the creek’s current flat and fast but for the rills here and there that signaled bullhead or pickerel or snapping turtle. Once, a water rat big as an aunt’s Welsh Corgi slipped from the river and raised its quivering nose to the breeze, then turned and slipped back in. Another morning, a pair of entwined king snakes writhed in a patch of ferns on The Mainland, the deep-green, rustling fronds marking these strange doings in the shade of the swamp maple next to the abandoned swing set. Always in wet years, immense bullfrogs squatted like storybook pashas eating and eating and eating. He imagined gigging and roasting them over a fire in the cabin he’d build as soon as he’d grown strong enough to trim and haul the deadfall cedar his father had shown him downstream when he first could walk and many times since, a jumble of fragrant logs that by this time should be cured through, no matter the recurrent wet.
All that time, they left him alone. In later years, he grew to comprehend the gift, and its price. Seen out a kitchen window or a screen door, called to from The Mainland, he seemed a permanent feature of The Island, a tousle-headed boy, head bobbing, arms swinging, talking and nodding his way from one end of the spit of mud to the other for an hour or two or days at a time for all anyone could sometimes tell.
You’d have been tempted to feel sorry for him and judge harshly the practices of his people, but you’d have been not just wrong, not just ridiculous, but extraneous, alien. The crayfish the boy scoops from a momentary puddle, the rotting bluegill two crows have pecked to bones, the watercress and moss clumped along the creek bank—-none of it needs anyone.
John Repp lives in Erie, Pennsylvania. A poet, fiction writer, essayist, and book critic, Repp’s latest book is The Soul of Rock & Roll: Poems Acoustic, Electric & Remixed, 1980-2020, published by Broadstone Books.
A Song for John