The River

The house stood by the river. So did the boys. Peter, Cedric, Josh and Aaron had all been told repeatedly by their respective moms to not go near the sleeping giantess. Aaron was the oldest and should have known better, except he was the one who dared them to come. He was 9 – Peter, my brother, was the youngest at 5, with Cedric and Josh vying for second spot.

 

The boys wore heavy clothes. The morning air was fresh and crisp still, though Easter neared. You could hear the creaking and sighing of the river trying to shed its coat. The breakup was imminent. The townspeople were concerned, and children warned to stay away from the fretful ice. But the boys had heard the mermaid’s song and they were under her spell.

 

Peter had joined the trio, though they kept telling him to go home, that this was not the place for a little boy. Wanting to prove himself, he was walking on the ice. He called to the others to come see – he had found a spot of open water. It was roiling, a deep current preventing the ice from laying dormant and waiting patiently to thaw. Peter was throwing twigs in the hole, watching them flee like horsemen. He loved nothing better than to play cowboys and Indians, horsing around the house. He told Cedric to hand him a big rock, that seemed frozen to the ground on the bank near the hole. The mist made the bank slippery and the rock would be hard to dislodge. Cedric ignored him. Peter persisted, wanting to throw the rock in. The others complained they would get splashed, that it was a dumb idea. His temper flared but they paid him no attention.

 

Still, the boys played on the ice. The river held them all in her gaze, the hole a hungry mouth, the foam her rabid teeth. She roared and spluttered and cajoled and hissed. The boys were cautious, and stayed on the edge, yet were drawn again and again to the living, breathing river. “There’s a big crack, here!” shouted Cedric. Aaron told the boys it was getting boring and they should go. Peter said they should try ice fishing. All eyes turned to him. He had found a branch and had tied together his boot laces to it. He had found a discarded red ribbon that he wanted to use as a lure. He had lain his red mitts on the ice so he could tie the laces together. His fingers were numb and he was fumbling with the knot. Aaron stepped in and tied the whole thing securely.

 

They heard the town clock chime eleven. The sun was shining weakly, out of a sorry sky. They cast no shadow on the ice; all around was gray, dirty white on the river. Their coats stood out starkly against the monochrome background. “The lure will float. We need a sinker,” said Aaron finally. The boys got busy. They would bring home fish for lunch! They ran back to the bank to look for something small and heavy. They were hot under the heavy coats, but focused on the task at hand. They found and discarded rubbish: an old shoe, a piece of plank, and rocks of various sizes. They settled on a beer cap that they glued on with a piece of gum. Peter kept repeating, “What a grand idea. I thought of it.” till the boys got annoyed. He was right though, and it wouldn’t do to send him home.

 

It was a busy Saturday on the main road and someone had seen the boys playing by the river. Aaron’s father came and scolded the boy holding the makeshift fishing rod. He dismantled the whole thing, re-laced Peter’s boots. He walked everybody back to the main street and sent the boys home where they were grounded. In the afternoon, several men were seen erecting a fence along the bank, among them Aaron’s father and the priest.

 

The sky had cleared and the men had downed their coats and cassock. It was proving to be a beautiful sunny afternoon. They were working in their shirtsleeves, with a sense of urgency, casting anxious glances where puddles had formed. They watched as the crack grew larger and the ice finally started sinking, the red mitts disappearing from view, gobbled greedily by the river. It was a poor offering. They hoped she would be satisfied and not call the children again.

Thor

My friend was big and strong. I hung out with him every day. They were jealous because none was brave enough, strong enough or smart enough to scale him. His trunk was too large to embrace, his branches too high to put them in reach of a single leap. They tried giving each other piggybacks but then the boy who succeeded found himself too high and at a loss to get down by himself. It was hopeless.

They resorted to mockery, a form of admiration I was well acquainted with. They called me Tarzan and made whooping noises. I paid them no mind, busy as I was exploring my friend’s nooks and crannies, high and higher. My Jane watched from afar. She got a rough idea where the holds were, the invisible bumps and depressions a secret passageway on the way up. I watched her the day she doggedly made her way to the lowest limb. We were built the same, a slight frame and a strong will. She rested on the first branch, one hand clutching a smaller branch, the other hovering, for balance. Her gaze stopped on the tree behind which I was hiding, her delighted smile an invitation to join her.

I climbed quickly – she made room for me on the branch. “I was afraid you would find me too bold.” She spoke as though we were in a salon. “Mylady,” I fumbled, “I am pleased you would deign enter my humble abode.” She lit up. She lit up! “Dear Sir, your abode houses hundreds of servants, food for the masses, and has a spectacular view. Few have reached such heights.” “Madam,” I bowed, “won’t you come to the penthouse?” She giggled. We cautiously climbed higher. I led the way so she could see where to place her hands and feet. She bravely sustained a few scratches as we forced our way down paths unfamiliar to her. When we stopped again, I delicately plucked twigs from her hair. She did not recoil at my touch, nor shriek when she saw insects. She actually followed an ant to the colony and stayed there awhile to observe the back and forth. I wanted to show her more.

We climbed still higher, the wind leading the branches and leaves in a slow dance. We were part of the music, inside the symphony. The bark, in turn rough and smooth, a score for the blind. She was humming unselfconsciously, standing on a branch, her arm wrapped around the trunk, her fingers tapping lightly. She too was grinning.

The descent was perilous. She was tired and unused to coming down blind. I was guiding her as best I could, creating a resting place for her feet with my hands. She asked to stop. She enquired, “What’s his name?” I did not hesitate. “Thor. Thor the Protector.” She nodded gravely.

We separated once our feet touched the ground. “Time for supper.” Her eyes into mine. Tomorrow, I pleaded silently. Tomorrow, her eyes replied.

Sunny Days

-Ready or not, here I come.

A heavy silence filled the air. Every tree had eyes, every blade of grass. He was walking lightly, snickering softly. I was hidden in plain sight, lying flat against a low wall, holding my breath. He was not looking at the ground. We typically hid behind cars, or trees. This was a gutsy hiding place. Kids started swarming the tree, running from their hiding places. I kept a low profile. I couldn’t stay too long because the others knew where I was “hiding” and could not be trusted to hold their tongue. My brother was excellent, because once a kid had vacated his hiding place, he would move into it. It had already been used up, and nobody would think of looking for him there. I did not have his patience. I leapt up and ran to the tree. Safe! I also told everybody where I was hiding because I thought it was so clever. Never mind that I could only use it once. If I had known Latin, I would have shouted, “Carpe Diem!”. As it was, I did cartwheels while we waited for the game to end one way or another. Our attention span was not the greatest but there was so much to do outside, on those cool summer days, near the end of the school year when we basically washed our desks, cleaned out the class, and hung around until we were officially off duty.

Those were the best days. We longed for summer vacation all year. The best days were just before they started, when the anticipation was at its highest, before disappointment set in because our friends left here or there with their families. Me and my best friend actually wrote down schedules: play this, go swimming, play that. We wanted to cram all the good things we had longed for. The schedule was another way to taste our freedom in advance. We followed it the day we did the schedule, and adapted it on the second day, forgot about it on the third and never looked back after that. We put up plays in the backyard, heckled the baseball teams that played in the park nearby, hung out with our friends listening to music streaming out of apartment windows. We lived and died on our bikes, the faithful companion of all our adventures.

Strawberry bushes lined the train tracks, and we filled our bathing caps to capacity. We were tanned within days. We were out in the sun, in the fields, in the trees, in the water, picking berries, picking fights, falling in love and falling down. I remember thinking “Don’t forget this. Those are the best days you will have,” already sad at the prospect of moving on, unable to taste them to their fullest, feeling the bitter aftertaste of those days as they were still unfolding. I would chide myself for doing so but could not silence the narrator’s voice, “Pay attention”.