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hyacinth_drift - 22 Hyacinth drift that seemed to me more...

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Unformatted text preview: 22. Hyacinth drift that seemed to me more than one could bear alone. I loved the Creek, I loved the grove, I loved the shabby farmhouse. Suddenly they were nothing. The difficulties were greater than the compensations. I talked morosely with my friend Dessie. I do not think she understood my torment, for she is simple and direct and completely adjusted to all living. She knew only that a friend was in trouble. She said, “We’ll take one of those river trips we’ve talked about. We’ll take that eighteen-foot boat of yours with a couple of outboard motors and put in at the head of the St. John’s River. We’ll go down the river for several hundred miles.” * 342 ONCE I lost touch with the Creek. I had. had hardships Hyacinth Drift ' I agreed, for the Creek was torture. ~ Men protested. “Two women alone? The river runs through some of the wildest country in Florida. You’ll be lost in the false channels. No one ever goes as far as the head of the river.” Then, pas- sionately, betraying. themselves, “It will be splendid. What if you do get lost? Don’t let any one talk you out of it.” The river was a blue smear through the marsh. The marsh was tawny. It sprawled to the four points of the compass; flat; interminable; meaningless. » I thought, “This is fantastic. I am about to deliver myself over to a nightmare.” . But life was a nightmare. The river was at least of my' own choosing. ’ The St. John’s River flows from south to north and empties into the Atlantic near the Florida-Georgia line. Its great mouth is salt and tidal, and ocean-going vessels steam into it as far as Jacksonville. It rises in a chain of small lakes near the Florida east coast, south of Melbourne. The lakes are linked together by stretches of marsh through which, in times of high water, the indecisive course of the young river is discernible. Two years of drought had shrunken the stream and dried the marshes. The southernmost sources were overgrown with marsh grass. Water hyacinths had filled the channels. The navigable head of the St. John’s proved to be near Fort Christmas, where the highway crosses miles of wet prairie and cypess swamp be— tween Orlando and Indian River City. There is a long high fill across the marsh, with a bridge over the slight blue twisting that is the river. We drove car and trailer down an embankment and unloaded the small boat in the backwaters. The bank was of black muck, smelling of decay. It sucked at our feet as we loaded our supplies. We took our places in the boat and drifted slowly into mid- channel. ' 343 g ' C mm C reek Water hyacinths began to pass us, moving with a faint anxiety in their lifted leaves. The river was no more than a path» through high grass. We swung under the .bridge' and the boy at the wheel of our car lifted his hand in partingand shot away. Something alive and potent gripped the flat bottom of the boat. The hyacinths moved more rapidly. The river widened to a few yards and rounded a bend, suddenly decisive. Dess started the outboard. motor. I hunched myself together amid- ships and spread the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey river chart on my knees and clicked open my compass. I noticed disconsolately, “Lights, Beacons, Buoys and Dangers Corrected for Information Received to Date of Issue.” There would be neither lights, beacons nor buoys for at least a hundred miles. Bridge and highway disappeared, and there was 1104011ng any world but this incredible marsh, this unbelievable amount of sky. over the river. For sociability, we turned in by the low dock. The fisherman and his wife squatted on their haunches and gave us vague directions. We pointed to Bear Island on our chart. . He said, “You won’t,never see Bear Island. Where they gOt a channel marked on your map it’s plumb full 0’ hyacinths. Down the river a ways you’ll see a big ol’ sugar-berry tree stickin’ up in the marsh. That’s your mark. You keep to the left. The next mark you’ll get is a good ways down the river. You go left by a pertickler tall piece 0’ grass. The woman said, “You just got to keep tryin’ for the main channel. You’ll get so you can tell.” The man said, “I ain’t never been as far as you-all aim to go. From what I hear, if you oncet get through'Puzzle Lake, you got right clare river.” , The woman said, “You’ll some kind of enjoy yourselves. The river life’s the finest kind of life. You couldn’t get you no better life than the river.” 344 Half a mile beyond the bridge a fisherman’s shack leaned- 4 »,_._,.“*"\_b»,g,5..- hut. .“A. ‘ wiur-wuu-n‘n-fimlauw u»va wens. .... 1W5 “an “due..- ueim..w-,m«:q.w y‘i‘aram’n-wmhwt4w . H yacht/1 Drift " We pushed away from the. dock. ' ‘ '- The man said, “I’d be mighty well obliged if you’d send me a postcard when you get where you’re goin’. That-a-way ‘I won’t have to. keep on worryin’ about you.” ' Dess cranked the motor and they waved after us. Dess began to whistle, shrilly and tunelessly. She is an astonishing young woman. She was born and raised in rural Florida and guns and campfires and fishing—rods and creeks are corpuscular in her blood. She lives a sophisticate’s life among worldly people. At the slightest excuse she steps out of civilization, naked‘and relieved, as I should step out of a soiled chemise. She is ten‘ years-my junior, but she calls me, with much tenderness, pity- ing my incapabilities, “Young un.’_’ ’ “Young un,” she called, “it’s mighty fine to be travelling.” I was prepared for marsh. It was startling to discover that there was-in sight literally nothing else. Far to the west, almost out of sight to the east, in a dark line like cloud banks was the distant swamp that edged this fluid prairie. We may have taken the wrong channel for a mile or so, for we never. saw the sugar-berry tree; nothing but river grass, brittle and gold, inter—- spersed, where the ground was- highest, with butter—yellow flowers like tansy. 'By standing up in the boat I could see the rest of the universe. And the universe was yellow marsh, with" a pitiless blue infinity over it, and we Were lost at the bot- tom. v At five o’clock in the afternoon the river dissolved without warning into a two—mile spread of flat confusion. A mile of open water lay ahead of us, neither lake nor river nor. slough. We advanced into the center. When he looked over our shoul-' ders, the marsh had closed in over the channel by which we had come. We were in a labyrinth. The stretch of open water was merely the fluid heart of a maze. Channels extended out of it in a hundred directions—some shallow, obviously no out- lets; others as broad as the stream we hadleft behind us, and tempting. We tried four. Each widened in a deceptive sweep. 345 / 1‘ Cross Creek A circling of the shore—line showed there was no channel. Each time we returned to the one spot we could again identify—a point of marsh thrust into the water like a swimming moc- casin. Dess said, “That map and compass don’t amount to much.” That was my fault. I was totally unable to follow the chart. I found later, too late for comfort, that my stupidity was not entirely to blame, for, after the long drought, half the channels charted no longer existed. The sun had become a prodigious red disc dropping into a distant slough. Blue herons flew over us to their night’s quarters. Somewhere the river must continue neatly out of this desolation. We came back once more to the point of land. It was a foot or two out of water’and a few square yards of the black muck were comparatively dry. We beached the rowboat and made camp. There was no dry wood. We carried a bag of fat pine splinters but it occurred to me desperately that I would save them..I laid out a cold supper while Dess set up our two camp cots side by side on the open ground. As the sun slid under the marsh to the west, he full moon surged out of it to the east. The marsh was silver and the water was steel, with ridges of rippled ebony where ducks swam in the twilight. Mosquitoes sifted against us like a drift of needles. We were exhausted. We propped our mosquito bar over the cots on crossed oars, for there was no bush, no tree, from which to hang it. ' We did not undress, but climbed under the blankets. Three people had had a hand in loading our cots and the wooden end— pieces were missing. The canvas lay limp instead of taut, and our feet hung over one end and our heads over the other, so that we were disposed like corpses on inadequate stretchers. The crossed oars slid slowly to the muck, the mosquito bar fluttered down and mosquitoes ,were about us in a swarm. Dess reached under her cot for her light. rifle, propped it be tween us, and balanced the mosquito bar accurately on the end of its barrel. 346 m1“ .“e§.fi;.¢< .t—ru, “and”. _. W. , was...» ’ ‘25”: wry:- .9. an". - “sh; A; ~,‘.»9Ij«4§ x. W ;-, .3 14 .v 4.: :1 an,» m «14%! p wax \ a r “flaw... 1.A_..iv——"*V-II;H-_1qny\’t.:‘—9A Hyacinth Drift “You can get more good out of a .22 rifle than any other kind of gun,” she informed me earnestly. I lay on my back in a torment of weariness, but there was no rest. I had never lain in so naked a place, bared so flatly to the sky. The moon swung high over us and there was no sleep- ing for the brightness. Toward morning dewdrops collected over the netting as though the moonlight had crystallized. I' fell asleep under a diamond curtain and wakened with warm full sunlight on my face. Cranes and herons were wading the shore near me and Dess was in the rowboat a few hundred yards away, casting for bass. Marsh and water glittered iridescent in the sun. The tropical March air was fresh and wind-washed. I was suddenly excited. I made campfire with fatwood splinters and cooked bacon and toast and coffee. Their fragrance eddied across the water and I saw Dess lift her nose and put down her rod and reel. She too was excited. “Young un,” she called, “where’s the channel?” . I pointed to the northeast and she nodded vehemently. It had come to both of us like a revelation that the water hyacinths were drifting faintly faster in that direction. From that instant we were never very long lost. Forever after, where the river sprawled in confusion, we might shut off the motor and study the floating hyacinths until we caught, in one direction, a swifter pulsing, as though we put our hands close and closer to the river’s heart. It was very simple. Like all simple facts, it was necessary to discover it for oneself. We had, in a moment, the feel of the river; a wisdom for its vagaries. When the current took us away that morning, we gave ourselves over to it. There was a tremendous exhilara4 tion, an abandoning of fear. The new channel was the correct one, as we knew it should be. The river integrated itself again. The flat golden banks closed in on both sides of us, securing a snug safety. The strangeness of flowing water was gone, for it was all there was of living. 347 / j '. Cross Creek. In midmorning,fsolid land made its way here and there to- ward us, and then in time withdrew. For a mile we had a low rolling hill for company, with traces of ancient habitation at its peak: a few yards of rotting fence, at crepe myrtle, an orange tree. We passed a lone fisherman hauling his seine. His legs were planted cranelike in the- water. His long arms looped up folds of the gray net with the rhythm of a man swinging a sickle. We told him our origin and our destination. Because we were now a part of the river he offered us a' fish. His catch was meager and we refused it. We passed cattle, wild on the marsh. They loomed startlingly above us, their splotched black and brown and red and white luminous against the’ blue sky, like cattle in Bonheur pictures hung high above the eye—level. The river dissolved into shallow pools and was interspersed with small islands, palm—crowded and lonely. It was good to see trees, lifting the eyes from so many miles of flatness. The pools gathered themselves together and there was under us again a river, confined between obvious banks. Sometimes the low— lying land was dry for a great distance, specked with soap- berry bushes, and the wild cattle cropped a short grass that grew there. . We had Puzzle Lake and then Lake Harney, we knew, some— where ahead of us. We came out from a canal-like stretch of river into a body of open water. Dess and I stiffened. She shut off the motor. Far away across the marsh there was a long white rolling as though all the sheep in the world were being driven through prehistoric dust clouds. The mad thought came to me that we had embarked on the wrong river and had suddenly reached the ocean, that the vast billowing in the distance was surf. But something about the thing was familiar. That .distant line was a fill, a forty—foot sand embankment across the marsh between the St. John’s River and the east coast town of Mimms, and I 348 <,<>-.~.‘,.,r.h-.gv 1Wh~saw¢maemia>w~3 “its: a»: a ”. Fig.2. gym, v-irwd'rf. Eva “ Hyacinth ' Drift had driven its one-rut grade two weeks before-The marsh had been even more desolate from the height of that untravelled, unfinished roadway. The fill ended, I remembered, in a forty; foot drop to a decrepit ferry' that crossed the river. The billow- ing we now saw was loose white sand moving along the em- bankment ahead of a high wind. I ranmy finger along the chart. There was no ferry mapped for the far side of Puzzle Lake. A ferry was indicated, however, on the far side of Lake Harney. I said, “Dess, we’ve come through Puzzle Lake and didn’t know it. We’ve reached Lake Harney.” She did not question my surety. She spun the motor. “All right, young un. Which way across?” I I compared chart and compass. I pointed. She headed the boat as I directed. I split nautical points to keep our position exactly.'I took her across water so shoal we had to pole through it; under overhanging banks and through dense stiff sedge, when often a plainly better channel swung a few feet away in another direction. The extreme low water, I called, had evi—, dently dried Lake Harney to this confused alternating of open lake and maze. Dess whistled dubiously but asked no questions. We struck deep water at last and were at the ferry I had indeed remembered. The old ferryman peered from his hut and came down to meet us, shading his eyes. He seemed to find us very strange indeed. Where had we come from? “We put in yesterday at Fort Christmas,” I answered him, . “and I’m glad to say we’ve just finished navigating Lake Harney.” He stared in earnest. “Lady,” he said, “you haven’t even reached Lake Harney. You’ve just come through Puzzle Lake. The ferry here simply was not charted, and the episode proves anything one may wish it to prove. I felt contentedly that it proved a harmony with the river so complete that not 349 ‘2 1’ j Cross Creek even the mistaking of whole lakes could lose us. Others of more childish faith were sure it proved the goodness of God in looking after imbeciles. I know only that we were congratu— lated by fishermen the entire length of the river on navigating Puzzle Lake successfully. “I brought our boat through Puzzle Lake,” I told them with simple dignity, “by the sternest use of chart and compass.” And it was only in Dess’ more evil moments that she added, “——in the firm belief that she was crossing Lake Harney.” Lake Harney itself was four miles long, unmistakably broad and open. We crossed it in late afternoon with the westerly sun on our left cheeks and a pleasant March wind ruflling the blue water. Passing out of the lake we bought roe ishad, fresh and glistening from the seine. The current quickened. The hyacinths plunged forward. The character of the river' changed the in- stant the lake was left behind. It was deep and swift, the color of fine clear coffee that is poured with the sun against it. It was mature. All its young torture was forgotten, and its wanderings in the tawny marsh. The banks had changed. They were high. Tall palms crowded great live oaks and small trees grew humbly in their shadows. Toward sunset we swung under the western bank at one of those spots a traveller recognizes in- stinctively as, for the moment, home. If I could have, to hold forever, one brief place and time of beauty, I think I might choose the night on that high lonely bank above the St. John’s River. We found there a deserted cabin, gray and smooth as only cypress Weathers. There was no door for its doorway, no panes or shutters for its windows, but the roof was whole, with lichens thick across the shingles. Dess built me a fire of red cedar. She sat on the sagging steps and whittled endpieces for our cots, and I broiled shad and shad roe over fragrant coals, and French-fried potatoes, and found 'I had the ingredients for Tartar sauce. Dess nailed a board between low rafters in the cabin from 35° 3°? .3; “away " Maw. was-w 21,—: pg; Hyacinth Drift which to hang the mosquito bar over our cots, and said, “Young un, Christopher Columbus had nothing on us. He had a whole Ocean to fool around in, and a what—do-you-call-it: —a continent, to come out on. Turn that boy loose in the St. John’s marsh, and he’d have been lost as a hound puppy." We had hot baths out of a bucket that night, and sat on the cabin steps in pajamas while the fire died down. Suddenly the soft night turned sliver. The moon was rising. We lay on our cots a long time wakeful because of beauty. The moon shone through the doorway and windows and the light was patterned with the shadows of Spanish moss waving from the live oaks. There was a deserted grove somewhere behind the cabin, and the incredible sweetness of orange bloom drifted across us. A mocking-bird sang from a palm tree at sunrise. We found by daylight that the cabin sat among guava trees higher than the roof. The yard was pink and white with periwinkles. Dess shot a wild duck on the wing with the .22 and I roasted it in the Dutch oven for breakfast. We lay all morning on the bank in the strong sunlight, watching the mullet jumping in the river. At noon we went reluctantly to the water’s edge to load the boat and move on. The boat was half filled with water and was resting with an air of permanence on the river bottom. My first thought was of pure delight that it was no longer necessary to leave this place. But Dess was already stepping out of her sailor trousers. I too removed superfluous clothing. We bailed the boat and found tw0 streams of water gushing in steadily under bow and stern seats. We managed to drag the boat on shore and turn it upside down. We found that the caulking had worked loose out of two seams. Dess donated a shirt, and for two hours with pocket knives we stuffed strips of cloth into treacherous cracks. When we put the boat in the river again, the caulking held. I begged to stay another night, but Dess was restless. We pushed on for the few hours left of daylight. The shore line 35I J" ' _ Cross Creek - narrowed to thin strips of sand with tall twisted-.palmsvalong them.. The clear brown river was glassy-in the windless evening. .The palms were mirrored along both banks, so that when .white ibises flew-over-in a rosy sunset, the river might have been the Nile. We camped that night in comparative comfort under an up- turned tree root. The spot wasnot tempting from the water, but once we were snugged down, it proved cavelike and cozy. A moccasin slithered from under my feet at the edge of camp and went harmlessly about his business. Dess cut down a young palmetto and we had swamp cabbage for dinner. I cooked it with a piece of white bacon and baked corn sticks in the Dutch oven to go with it. ' " In the morning we watched the, hyacinth drift closely to be sure of taking the cut to Prairie Landing instead of wander- ing into Lake Iessup. A highway crossed the river here and folk waved down to us. In the cut a woman was running a catfish line. She was gaunt and sun-tanned, ragged and dirty. She pulled in the line, hand over hand, with- a quick, desperate accuracy. She lifted a shaggy head when we called “Howdy” and said “He...
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