You Who Pull the Oars
You and your friend Absalom are keeping your ears open for stories. You’re open to anything, on this particular weekend, when you’re thousands of miles away from the north country where you grew up, the north country where the funeral of a friend is taking place without you.
You’ve got a notecard stuck in your back pocket, a card that contains a letter describing the kind of person your friend was, a check from you and some folding money from Absalom, gifts in honor of that friend and his wife that you decide should be given to someone neither of you have yet met but will, at some point today.
The two of you get in the car and drive the 22 miles into the nearest town, which is tiny, contained in the curves of the bay. On the way in –straight shot on a road surrounded with sand and pine barrens– you tell Absalom that your friend was a busy man, with places to go and things to do and people to see.
“But the thing is, you wouldn’t know it,” you say. “When you were with him, you felt as if he had all the time in the world for you.”
You decide to live, for at least this weekend, as if you have all the time in the world for whoever you find yourself with.
Absalom puts down his window and you do the same. You roll slowly up and down the back streets of the town until you find an old cemetery, where the gravestones are hundreds of years old, half-toppled marble, almost illegible. You and Absalom wander among the gravestones, which go back to the Civil War.
Across from the graveyard is a community garden: raised beds full of feathery-topped carrots and onions and sugar snap peas and spinach and chard. So green, so lush. You and Absalom wander among them. You resist the urge to steal some sugar snap peas.
“Look,” you say to Absalom. “If someone doesn’t pick these they’re going to get fibrous and nasty.”
You’d be doing the gardener a favor by stealing these snap peas. The only thing that keeps you from thievery is the lone gardener weeding his raised bed a few yards away.
Faint music reaches your ears. It’s the annual Black History Festival, held in a little park on this day of overhanging clouds and threatening rain. You and Absalom get back in the car and meander your way over.
“Welcome,” says someone standing at an entrance gate made out of orange plastic honeycomb fencing. “Welcome.”
“How you doin,” says someone else.
Unlike other years when you’ve come to this festival, you and Absalom are not the only white people here, which strikes you as a good thing. You talk about the times in your lives when you have been the only white people, not that there have been many of them. They’re memorable though, because you were so aware of it.
Absalom is hungry and so are you. Shrimp? Ribs? Homemade corn dogs? Fresh fudge? Shrimp and beans and coleslaw for you and a barbecue sandwich for Absalom. You sit on the bleachers eating, surrounded by members of the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, who are all wearing red t-shirts and nodding in response to a girl onstage with a microphone, urging the crowd to be unique, to know how beautiful and individual each one of you are.
You jeer at Absalom’s “sandwich,” which is a giant slab of ribs with a piece of Wonder Bread tossed on top. He jeers at the way you eat, which is one thing at a time, in order, the way God intended food to be eaten.
The girl with the microphone steps off stage and the Tallahassee High Steppers take her place, three of them, moving in a choreographed dance. Their white belts flash as they step and sway back and forth.
You and Absalom clamber off the bleachers and wander some more. It’s a tiny festival, relaxed and slow and full of smiling people chatting in little clumps. The notecard is still in your back pocket. You walk up to one of the red-shirted Mt. Zion congregants. He’s a tall, gentle-looking man. He smiles at you and you smile back.
“Are you the pastor of Mt. Zion?” you ask him.
“No ma’am,” he says. “But the pastor will be here soon. He’s setting up for our gospel choir. Y’all should stay around until we perform. One o’clock.”
You and Absalom are both fans of gospel music. You look at each other and communicate silently. Yes, one o’clock will work just fine.
“We’re small, but the pastor brings out the big in us,” the man says.
He shakes your hand, and then he shakes Absalom’s hand. You wish you were as gentle and generous as this man is.
At one o’clock you and Absalom climb back up onto the rickety bleacher and listen to the Mt. Zion gospel singers. There’s the pastor off to the side, playing the keyboard and calling out for a response and directing, all at the same time. The gentle tall man in the red shirt was right: they’re small, but they’re loud.
When they’re finished, you pull the sealed notecard out of your pocket and you and Absalom go in search of the pastor, who’s already folded up his keyboard and is lugging it back to the trunk of his car.
He turns and looks you up and down and says nothing, but nods. He’s a little wary.
“This is for you and your church,” you say, and hand him the notecard.
He still doesn’t quite know what to make of you, but you thank him for the gospel performance and then shake his hand.
Later, you and Absalom get in the car and drive out of town onto the unmarked sand roads that branch onto and off the river from which the town and the bay take their name. The headwaters of this river are in the Appalachian Mountains, far north of Atlanta, and it gathers itself as it flows south, becoming a wide, brown, slow-moving river that eventually empties into the bay. This bay and its estuarial waters produce 90% of the oysters eaten in Florida and 13% of the oysters eaten nationwide.
Absalom and you are in search of what are known in these parts as fish camps, places where people who want to disappear from the world can disappear into. You’re in the mood to disappear from the world for a little while, and Absalom, adventuresome soul that he is, is perfectly willing to go along with this.
“See, this is the kind of thing that he would do,” you tell him, speaking of your friend whose up north funeral it is today. “He was always calling up my dad and telling him things like, ‘I heard a rumor that the largest cat in the world lives three hours away, are you in?'”
Yes. Your dad was always in. Back they would come, laughing, full of stories to tell.
Absalom and you wander the back roads until you find your way to a fish camp where a man can take a shower for $1.50. (Women? Good question.)
Beyond the fish camp is a boat landing: dark clear water, old motorboats tied to the dock, chain-link boxes half-submerged in the water. You don’t know what those boxes are for, and you ask an older man with carefully-combed silver hair what they are.
“Those? You can put your fish in there if you catch too many to hold in your bucket but you want to keep on fishing,” he says.
You wonder what kind of fish can be caught here.
“Anything,” he says. “Catfish, mostly. Bass, too. All kinds of fish. Sometimes a bull shark if the tide is high and the river turns salty.”
He eyes you and Absalom.He knows by your accent alone that you’re not from around here.
“Where you folks from?”
You tell him. He nods. He tells you more about the river. He was born and raised here. Joined the army and spent a lot of years living all over the place, then retired and came back here. He has a camp up the river.
“You can only get there by boat,” he says. “There’s electricity, but that’s it.”
“No roads?” Absalom says.
He shakes his head. “I go up there for three-four weeks at a time,” he says.
You tell him that you would do the exact same thing, which is true. The older you get the more you want to disappear, for three-four weeks at a time. Longer even. Unplug. Retreat. Live in silence for a while.
Suddenly he gestures to his boat, an old green boat with a motor hanging off the end.
“Climb in,” he says to you and Absalom. “I’m going to take you upriver.”
You and Absalom climb in. You’re going upriver. One hand on the tiller, the other pointing here and there, the silver-haired man shows you the river. He tells you about cypress trees, ancient and permanent, how the stumps you see here and there were probably cut 100 years ago, but that cypress doesn’t rot. He points out cypress knees to you, roots pushing up above the loamy ground so that the tree gets enough air. Those other things, the ones that look like stalagmites? Those are new cypress growing up out of the roots of the old ones. And those other trees, they’re sweet gum. You should see this river about a month from now, he tells you; you won’t believe how beautiful it is right about then.
You and Absalom sit quietly and listen. Here and there along the wide brown river, on either side, are old houseboats tied to trees with long ropes. Camps hauled in by boat, one load at a time, and built right there on the banks of this ancient river. This is a place you could go to disappear.
When he brings you back to the dock he shakes your hands and tells you to give him a call next year; he’ll take you out and show you some more. You promise to do that.
As you and Absalom are leaving, another boat comes putting up to the dock. In it are three older men that, you swear, could be transplanted to the diner you grew up eating in. You can see yourself sitting in a booth with those three fishermen and your father, trading stories.
When Absalom stops to take a picture of the $1.50 shower you close your eyes for a second and send the image of those men to your dead friend. He would have loved this adventure. He would have climbed right into that boat and stayed out on the river all day.
On the way out of the fish camp you and Absalom spot another cemetery, up on a bluff, nearly invisible. You would have missed it entirely if you hadn’t raised your eyes at just the right moment. Out you go, to wander around.
Of all the headstones, maybe twenty, in this tiny cemetery, only one has a name on it. All the others are nameless, unengraved. Blank headstones to mark a life once lived, by someone who wanted anonymity.
You remember your dead friend standing with you on the country road where you grew up, spreading his arms out wide to encompass the valley that held both your houses.
“This is God’s country, isn’t it, Al?” he would say. “There’s no place more beautiful.”
Unlike the souls buried in this sandy patch of land, next to this dark river, it was never his wish to disappear. He wanted to be surrounded by those he loved.
But he would have walked this cemetery with you. He would have said a prayer for those buried within it.
* * *
You who pull the oars, who meet the dead,
who leave them at the other bank, and glide
across the reedy marsh, please take
my boy’s hand as he climbs into the dark hull.
Look. The sandals trip him, and you see,
he is afraid to step there barefoot.
ZONAS, 1st century B.C.E. (translated by Brooks Haxton)