by Catherine Elizabeth Puckett
Ten years have passed and I still return to a river that runs through my eyes, my mind, my blood. I live some 1,500 miles away from that river, that time. I look out my windows and the trees are covered with heavy branch-breaking October snow. There are mountains to the west, treeless plains to the east.
The river, called the Santa Fe, flows through north Florida, the largest tributary of the legendary Suwannee. It is a subtropical blackwater river whose waters are stained the color of tea, and whose banks are lined with dogwoods, magnolias, cypress, and live oaks draped with Spanish moss like shawls over old ladies’ shoulders.
The river has a history but doesn’t speak of it in a language we can understand. Some of its history is known, some is unspeakable, and some is unknowable—lost through time and the disappearance of cultures. Its waters were drunk by animals known only by their fantasy-like fossils. Paleo-Indians took shelter by its springs in the water-scarce Florida of the Ice Ages. Once on its banks stood Timucuan Indians—tall people with tattoos, skirts made of Spanish moss and bits of fur—the men with their hair in high topknots, the women with it long and unbound. They sacrificed their firstborn sons, and they had faith. Just before spring arrived, they skinned the largest stag they could find, leaving the horns and head on the skin. Then they stuffed the stag’s empty skin full of choice plants, and hung wreaths of the best fruit on the horns, neck, and over the stag’s body. Singing and playing flutes, trumpets, and gourd rattles, they carried the stag to the largest tree they could find and mounted it there, with its head and body facing the morning sun. As the sun rose, they bowed their heads and offered prayers, asking that the earth be fruitful, that they be given foods as choice as the ones they had offered. After the ceremony, they saluted the sun and left, leaving the stag in the tree until the next ceremony, the next year, the next stag.
The Santa Fe, however, does a strange thing. It disappears. Not a trickle remains aboveground. For three miles the river—and it is of no small size—follows an underground, unseen path. The sun no longer shines on its surface, long-legged birds no longer seek fish in its hidden backwaters, and the others—musky otters and secretive beavers, sparkling red-bellied water snakes, and pearly apple snails—no longer find shelter in its waters.
It is hard to believe a river can disappear so suddenly. In 1817, General Andrew Jackson went to Florida to quell the Seminole Indians. These Indians, who had moved into Florida after European disease and warfare exterminated the Timucuans and other original Florida tribes, lived with runaway black slaves in villages along the rivers of north Florida, where General Jackson and the U.S. government didn’t want them to be. Jackson sent a scout to map the lonesome rivers of Florida’s north, but the scout reported back that the Santa Fe River disappeared. “Impossible,” said Jackson. “A river can’t disappear.” But it does.
Not far from the place where the Santa Fe disappears, a group of Quakers sat near the river’s bank in silence before I interviewed them for a newspaper story. They were waiting patiently for the light. Behind them, the river still flowed aboveground, its surface glittering with iridescent sparks. The light within, the light without. After the silence, the Quakers answered my questions, trying to tell me what they were waiting for. George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, once said, “I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness and in that also I saw the infinite love of God; and I had great openings.” I wrote down their words and later wrote an article about Quakers. But I didn’t understand the light – and I didn’t understand the darkness.
Not far from the place where the Santa Fe disappears, I shared a bottle of wine with my sister Kim and John, her boyfriend from high school, whom my family called “brother” and “son.” We were all in our early twenties then, and we sat in the fork of a live oak tree and talked of what John called “ghosties” and I called “devils.” Childish words with sinister connotations. “Everyone has them,” I told John earnestly. “Don’t confront them all at once, they’ll overwhelm you.” John was seeing a psychiatrist, a ghost counselor.
Not far from the place where the Santa Fe disappears, that same year I camped on the river with an artist named Brian. Together we were trying to document a river, I with words, he with an artist’s palette. Together we were trying to document love. He drew me with his fingertips, shadowed my moods with his charcoal. I saw my body as he saw it, an artist in love with curves and lines and texture and light. We stayed awake through that cold night, alert for the loud splashes of Suwannee sturgeon, a provider of caviar—a prehistoric relict of these Florida rivers.
We dreamed of getting the Suwannee and its tributaries protected. We had heard from a friend that the place where the Suwannee and the Santa Fe rivers met might be the spawning ground for sturgeon returning to their birthplace to deposit their own eggs – a romantic trysting place for fishes even. “Meet me at the mouth,” oldtimers whispered to their lovers when they, too, were young.
We sat on the sandbar and watched darkness descend and lightness ascend as swarms of fireflies lit up the sky over the river, giving off precoded blinks that signaled the mating status and sex of each one. An owl called from across the river and Brian answered in an eerie approximation of a real owl voice. The owl called back and another one answered. Soon owls were calling from up and down the river, and we lay on the sand and listened to the concert. Oldtimers say an owl calling means illness—or death—will visit your family. And the Spanish moss-skirted Timucuans believed that when the owl sang, it was an omen of evil. But Brian already knew about death and evil; he was a Vietnam veteran with an unspeakable piece of his personal history. At night sometimes, I would startle him with a sudden move and he would jump awake.
Not far from the place where the Santa Fe disappears, several deaths occurred in my world in just eight months. During this time, I was drawn to the place where the river disappeared underground. I knew this had significance, but I had no faith; I could not discern it. The meaning was shadowy and wavering and sometimes not there at all. But I knew this: my river had had two names. Conquistador Hernando De Soto’s men, dying from accidents, exhaustion, and wounds inflicted by the arrows of Indians, were uneasy when they reached the river in 1538, and called it the River of Discord. The other name of the river, the name it bears now, is Santa Fe—Holy Faith.
Kim and I were born on the same day, a year apart. The same doctor delivered us at the Naval Base in San Diego – we were the fourth and fifth children of my parents’ six children, all of us born within seven years.
Though separated by a year, we thought of ourselves as twins. The fact that we weren’t “really” twins annoyed us endlessly until we found a rhyme in some children’s book somewhere that said such children are Dutch twins. I still don’t know what that means, but it didn’t matter then or now because there was a name we could attach to our bond, a name that was beyond sisters.
On our birthdays, during the years that we lived apart as adults, whichever one of us rose first would phone the other one, music blaring as loud as we could get away with (neighbors, lovers, children), the Beatle’s song, “You say it’s your birthday, it’s my birthday, too, yeah.” And we’d sing this to each other at the top of our lungs.
From the beginning, Kim and I were lost in the tribe of our large, chaotic family, clinging to each other on a raft of childhood, afloat and rudderless on the unpredictable ocean of family dynamics. We slept together every night, one of us crawling into the other’s bed as soon as the lights were out. One of us would rub the other’s back and usually tell a story. Or, on the story-less nights, we would write words on each other’s back, words and sentences that the other one had to guess at. Each word was followed by a wiping motion as one wipes away words on a blackboard. “You are a snot.” “I love you.” “You like David.” “I do not. Yuck. Grosssss.”
My father was the man who appeared and disappeared from our lives, out to sea for months at a time, sailing around the world while the turmoil escalated at home.
My father was one of ten children. Three siblings were dead by his twenty-fifth birthday. When he was eight, his gambling, fun-loving father died of a heart attack. Age 45. The same year his mother died of cancer. Age 45. “She was ready to meet her maker,” the obituary read. His eldest sister died at age 21 (after a botched abortion, the locals whispered). To keep the brood together, an 18-year-old sister went to court; she raised the children on the family farm. Despite this adversity, my father was valedictorian. He hitchhiked across the United States (and throughout his life picked up an endless procession of hitchhikers), worked on Cannery Row, and received what he considered his chance to be something other than a Kansas farmer—a scholarship to jet fighter school. He was first a pilot, then a nuclear physicist trained by the Navy, and then, at last, a teacher. But what he wanted most of all was a fishing camp—and there, he said, he would tell stories, use his skill as a fisherman to bring in the fish: big ones, little ones, all kinds of fish.
When I was very young, my father was part of the Kiss of Death Flight Squadron, an elite group that flew jet fighters from the decks of Navy aircraft carriers. His squadron coffee mug scared me with its insignia: a skull with red lips flying away. He called his favorite plane Ol’ Smoky and flew in its cockpit, the bombs hidden within. When he was home, we dressed in his fighter pilot’s uniform, complete with the helmet and orange flight suit. But often he was gone, traveling with Ol’ Smoky and the bombs, sending us exotic postcards and gifts from this port or that. Football-sized chocolate Easter eggs from Italy with fake pearl necklaces inside. Dolls from Greece, Spain, Cuba. China from China. A Japanese-embroidered nightgown for my mother—we thought she looked so glamorous then.
On the best days when he was home, he sometimes danced the Charleston with my graceful mother in the living room, he in his plaid shorts and knobby knees, she laughing in her nightgown.
But I remember him also as a man whose face reminded me of Lincoln’s—long and sad, eyes haunted and haunting. A man who was flown in from overseas with a bleeding ulcer. Whose mouth was whitened around the corners from the medication he drank like alcohol.
He had sorrows that are not mine to know, some not mine to share, others I grew to know about well. Too many times I looked at him and hurt. Sometimes I take out a picture I took of him in 1979. He is sitting in a Captain’s chair in our dining room, facing the sliding glass doors. His face is creased and worn, his head bent, his forehead resting on his hands. A cigarette burns unnoticed between his fingers. His sunken eyes are sad and rimmed with dark clouds. When I printed that picture I felt I had printed my father’s death—I could see his skull pressing forward eagerly, like a shadow underneath his skin. I told a friend I thought my father might be dying.
I am at home wrapped in a blanket on the couch, drinking hot chocolate and listening to music. I ran tonight at the Ichetucknee and Santa Fe rivers. No one else is around. Fall is the river’s most beautiful time. The breathtaking red of maples, the cypress rust, the orange of sweetgums, all overlooking the turquoise waters of the Ichetucknee and the clear brown of the Santa Fe. The air is cold. The radio forecaster predicts that Florida will have its first frost of the year tonight.
Yesterday was Thanksgiving. My father laughed at the tag football game we played. He asked me to come home a few days, enticing me with offers of popcorn and old movies. But I am busy with my own life. I put him off.
Then the phone rings. My mother, her voice panicked. “Come quickly, Cathy. Your father is dying.”
She is sobbing, I think, though I don’t know for sure. It may just be the words themselves. I rush from the house—never has the 40-mile trip seemed so long. The ambulance pulls away from my parent’s house just as I arrive. Its sirens are off, but I can see my mother and brother in the car behind the ambulance. Kim is on the sidewalk, and we stand in the darkness of a neighbor’s yard across the street. We cannot make ourselves go into our parents’ home yet. It is not the same, it will never be the same. We wait for the official notification, which comes from John, who is now more than halfway through medical school and already seeing patients.
John tells us that my mother had called him to the house and that he had done what he could, but it wasn’t enough. He and medics had helplessly performed the medical rites to call back a departing spirit. Just tell us. He nods yes, your father, the man I think of as my father, is dead. “I couldn’t save him,” he cries. “His heart,” he says helplessly. “I don’t know enough yet.” Kim screams and sinks to the ground, but I walk away from them—walk around and around the neighborhood I grew up in. I watch Venus, the planet my father called the star of love, shine in the bright winter sky. My father is dead.
The bombs, with decades-long triggers, had finally exploded in his body, in his blood. Leukemia (something he had kept hidden from his family) killing him slowly, a heart attack completing the job. Age 55. And my father, who had taught me about compassion, who had taught me about love, had failed to teach me about death.
John, Kim, and I find a measure of solace in taking charge. We sift through annuities, life insurance, and retirement benefits and discover that my mother has little money of her own. We walk through the oldest graveyard in town on a cool late November day and carefully decide where my father would want his ashes to be buried, his memory to be mourned. We cry as we sit with our backs resting against a towering loblolly pine in the cemetery. Then we pick up his belongings from the hospital. A half-pack of cigarettes, his green-striped pajamas that he carelessly pinned at his thin waist, his wedding ring.
In the funeral home, we listen to the black-haired man as he shows us one pretentious urn after another. We are amazed that the urns even have names. “Blessed One.” “Beloved.” We shake our heads no. Not this. Or this. “Anything plain?” we ask. He shows us a temporary urn, a simple one used by those who are going to scatter the ashes somewhere. We nod our heads yes.
We plan my father’s funeral. The Navy hymnal, the Old Rugged Cross. We are learning the details of death.
The day of the funeral is bright, cool, and clear. Kim, John, and I drive to the graveyard in John’s red 1964 Ford pickup truck that my father had liked so much. It feels odd without him in the front beside us, fishing poles loaded in back, behind the Bertha’s mussels sticker, heading out to Cedar Key. The kitchen witch my mother gave John swings from the truck’s rearview mirror. We smoke my father’s last cigarettes, laugh nervously in the truck—we have never been to a funeral before. I spy my ex-husband in the crowd. The high school where my father taught after retiring from the Navy has closed down and students, friends, colleagues of my father, have arrived from around the country. Our house was often filled with these people, all talking to the man they called friend and teacher. And one of the things I hear the minister say is this: “The second notion I want to ask you to be aware of is much more difficult to hear. Max Puckett’s death reminds us all that life is not fair. It is not now fair, has never been, nor will it ever be. Life can be good, sometimes great, but it is never fair.”
I find release in the woods. I sit on a little bench hidden behind some trees at Oleno State Park on the Santa Fe River. Everywhere I look I’m reminded of death. Unclothed, colorless trees. Gray mist rising from the river.
From here, I can see the river sink and disappear underground. Like the River Styx, I think. But this river re-emerges from the earth once again, rested perhaps by its voyage through the dark underworld.
I have been wandering around, staying busy, retreating from friends and family, teaching at the university, doing research, seeking what can be found only in myself. But I have no faith—I have only grief.
Sun filters through winter trees. I gaze through fragile cypress curtains at this place where the river disappears underground and think that it is rather like death. I would have imagined death as a vortex. And I would have imagined that a river this size would swirl violently on its way below the earth, like the last water going down a drain. But it doesn’t. It is simply here, then gone, quietly pirated away from its surface journey. They call this place the Sink. It is just a high-banked waterhole carpeted with tiny lime-green duckweed, and fringed by cypress and dogwoods with thick grape-like clusters of red berries. Gold morning sun shines on the palmettos, longleaf pines spin above me, and the Sink is frosted with tree leaves.
It is strange to walk the riverless path after the Sink, but I become used to it. The land becomes dry, longleaf pines and turkey oak sandylands where gopher tortoises, rattlesnakes, pine snakes, and other creatures live. Once I held my ear to the ground to see if I could hear the river flowing underneath me. But there was only silence, only the sounds of the world above ground.
My father had a plan. He was going to build a long ranch-style porch on our house. We, his six willing young assistants, handed him nails and levels and held heavy redwood beams until our faces were flushed. It was a long porch, redwood beams on the ceilings, long windows that spanned the tree sides not against the back of the house. But my father decided what the back porch really needed was a goldfish pond. He had noticed how his children were enchanted with the huge goldfish that swam in a large pond outside the local library.
We scouted the dump and found a large basement-style sink. Then we went to the creek and filled the back of the station wagon with boulders. We painted the tub aquamarine blue and sunk it in a corner of the porch. Then my father, with concrete, rocks, and pain, built a waterfall that streamed into the pond. The small mollies and goldfish quickly grew fat and long when released from the confines of their small aquarium into the pond. But one July Fourth, I climbed down from the porch roof where we were watching fireworks, and noticed the fish swimming erratically near the surface. My father hurried down. He scooped the fish out of the pond and put them in fresh water. They seemed about to die, so my father decided to try a fish’s version of artificial respiration. We clustered around a bucket, each with a fish in our hands, and he showed us where to gently press behind the gills. “Squeeze,” he said, and 12 hands squeezed. “Again,” he said, and we squeezed again and again. The fish lived.
This morning I woke early after a fitful sleep—time had shifted, stretching out like a plain’s endless horizon.
Three weeks have passed since my father’s death. I always feel the need to escape. Today, I leave my house before any traces of light show in the sky, and head for Peacock Slough, a series of springs on the Suwannee. I want to see what may be the largest Florida maple stand in the state. I had wanted to take pictures of the magnificent blood-red fall colors of these maples, but only a few still have their leaves. Their colors have gone since the time my father died and now.
It is very cold. My brown Volkswagen lacks heat, and the vents refuse to close. My fingers are stiff and I am glad I’ve brought a Thermos of coffee as I sit on a limestone rock, sipping the hot coffee. No one else is here. It is too early for cave divers and too cold for swimmers.
The name Peacock Slough must come from the ever-present colors; even in December, they are spectacular. The deep aqua blue of the clear water, the vivid green of the water lettuce against the blue, the orange-brown of the cedar trees. Scarlet cardinals linger in the leaves of the cypress and a pileated woodpecker ladders up and down an oak tree. Red-headed woodpeckers fly by, and the water periodically stirs in widening circles as fish surface. Once I found an arrowhead here. How did that person feel when he was here: had it been a hard year, the coldest of winters? Or was it spring, when life seems more possible?
Sandhill cranes fly overhead, offering their trembling call that echoes my loneliness. They are so graceful with their fluid flight, their long bodies extended, legs and necks outstretched, and their sad songs. A friend told me that I must allow myself to feel and accept pain. Through pain, he said, you learn what binds all people together. It’s a hard lesson.
When I leave, I pass a red-tailed hawk sitting at the edge of the dirt road. I can still see its unblinking eyes.
We were a fishing family. When I was 20, my father bought a second-hand inboard-outboard boat, the kind he had wanted all his life but had not been able to afford. He had, with great joy, taught both my ex-husband and John to fish; John quickly seemed as skilled a fisherman as my father.
Before my father died, we often took the boat to Cedar Key, a small fishing village on the Gulf of Mexico. We baited Kim’s hooks with fiddler crabs or shrimp; she couldn’t stand the crunch of the crab and the squirm of the shrimp as the hook went through their bodies. There, on the gulf, we caught redfish and sunburns; drank the occasional beer, and poured lukewarm saltwater over ourselves on the still, not days of summer when not a current broke the mirrored smoothness of the water, the seeming smoothness of our days. We picnicked on islands with names like Rattlesnake Key, Seahorse Key, Dead Man’s Island, watching for sharks and dolphins, laughing in excitement when I caught a fair-sized hammerhead shark. One day John hooked a stingray that seemed almost as long as the boat. Its wings were gray underneath the water, the color of death, its tiny eyes focused. We wondered if it felt pain. The boat moved as its strong butterfly wings flapped, trying to escape. John cut the line, and the ray swam away.
In the evening, we sometimes stopped at a local restaurant for dinner. Outside, the pelicans and gulls would swoop and snipe, and inside, the air conditioner blew cool on our sunburned skin. And my father would cross his long legs and light a cigarette, flicking its ashes in an oystershell ashtray, and say that when he retired, he wanted to open a fishing camp and write stories.
1971 in Florida and John and I are 16. We’re two of three white people in the black history class at our north Florida high school. John has blond curls that cascade over his shoulders. He wears aviator glasses, torn jeans, and makes below-average grades with his above-average mind. We are both terribly frustrated by the Vietnam War and upset because we’re not old enough to vote for McGovern. My sister Kim, one year younger, is infatuated with John.
During our senior year, John and I play chess together in the student government room. He’s student body president and I’m a member of his cabinet. Our student government term would be different, we vowed. We arrange a bikeathon to benefit Vietnamese orphans. We sponsor occasional career and issue days—debates flew about the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons, marijuana, freedom, freedom, freedom. And John and Kim begin dating. John takes a physics class from my father and begins fishing with us as well, a sure sign of acceptance in my family.
I meet John’s mother; she’s petite and elegant, with a complicated air that could be disdainful and polite at the same time. She drinks tea from an eggshell-thin teacup—the teacup even has a saucer. Our family uses saucers for cat food. She’s worried about John, the child born when she was well into her forties, the child whose physician father died when John was only a toddler. He seemed rebellious and he refused to consider her chosen path for him: a road that led to John the physician, the doctor like the father he had never known. Her other five children, all long grown, are well established: a research psychologist, a kidney specialist, an engineer, a teacher, and a graphic artist. John is different.
The chuck will’s widow is singing, a bird that promises spring. Night lies cool around me, waiting for dawn.
I am sitting at the river when dawn arrives. The green of new growth faintly tinges a few trees – sunlight penetrates the thin tissues of this new growth and showers in fine sunbeads to the earth. A few buds are even beginning to open upon some of the more impatient trees. In the last few days, water orchids have unraveled their delicate white petals to the spring sun. A gaudily bedecked wood duck glides through the orchid patch. Two brown skinks and an anolis lizard bask, like me, on the sun-warmed wood of the dock.
All morning I have watched two hawks fly over the river, their cries echoing the lust that spring seems to incite in most creatures. They mate, and a kingfisher clatters by, stopping to rest on a limb of a just-budding red maple. Then he is quickly on his way again, skimming over the water, ready to leave Florida because spring is coming, spring is coming.
At 19 I was married to a German chef I had met while working as a table girl filling the buffet trays at a restaurant. He didn’t speak English then, and I didn’t speak German, so we carried German-English dictionaries around. He was dark-eyed, tall, handsome, and to me, he was worldly.
Kim, John, and I built a huge, elaborate sandcastle at the beach while my husband watched in amusement. I have a picture of that sandcastle, with Kim and John, then with a short halo of gold hair, laughing beside it as the tide came in.
Two years later I was a senior in college, working at a pharmacy typing prescription labels. My husband hadn’t wanted me to go to college, didn’t want to see me study or go to other students’ houses to study. We lived in a trailer with his younger brother, then 15. Kim and John were living together, John majoring in zoology, Kim in psychology. Four days before Christmas, my husband disappeared for several days with another woman.
John and Kim took me away, to the ocean again. We walked on the beach and listened to the waves roll in, roll out, the sands shifting dizzily under the dark sky and our bare feet. For the first time in years, I tried on the old discarded coat of conventional Christianity to ease my pain, but I quickly knew it didn’t fit. It never had. That fatherly bearded God of my Southern youth, the creeds and the minister who spoke for all of us, telling us what we had to believe. I let it alone.
I regained my name on the day of the divorce. My ex-husband sent me a dozen red roses with a note that said he wished I hadn’t done this. He sent another dozen to his lover with a note for her (accidentally delivered to me) that said he was free at last.
Two years later, John’s mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Her frail body wasted, her skin became as sallow and eggshell-thin as the china of her teacups. She whispered to John again and again that her dream was that he would finish medical school as he had promised. Her grapevine fingers grasped him in supplication. John, who, after high school had worked as a carpenter and finally decided to become a high school math teacher like my father, reluctantly returned to medical school in Tampa, some two hours away. When his mother died, John inherited what my family called “a lot of money.”
My father, John’s friend, his confidante, kept telling him, “For God’s sake, John, only go to medical school if you want to. If you want to be a carpenter, be a carpenter. If you want to be a teacher, be a teacher. No one else can live your life.” But John said he was going to try, he had promised to try. My father knew, I think, that John felt he had no other choice. Before becoming a teacher, my father had been a maker of bombs, a guardian of bombs deep in the bowels of ships, a tester of nuclear bombs in the deserts of Nevada. He had seen no other choice; he had to do this for his family, for the world. In the end, though, after he had retired from the Navy, after he was no longer the nuclear physicist with a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist, the pilot hosed down after flying through nuclear clouds released from test bombs in the desert, after he had returned to school and become a teacher, his choice helped kill him.
It is a warm, early spring day. White and pink rain lilies are scattered among still-winter leaves on the ground, hanging from limestone cliffs over the turquoise spring pool far below. Green lily pads fringe the water like lace on an old-fashioned dress. A green tree frog sleeps on a palmetto leaf over the water, looking like an Egyptian sculpture. Cypress trees unfurl a few green leaves from their gnarled limbs. They scent the air and my hand as I break a leaf apart. Swimming, gliding, I part water and leave winter behind.
When I get home, I find out John has disappeared. He’s been gone two days. He didn’t show up for classes at medical school. His truck is gone. My father’s gun is gone.
I have been blinded by my own solitary way of grieving. I want to know where he is, let him take a number at my door. “I feel like a Tasmanian devil in a bird cage,” he wrote Kim in a note. He knew a way to stop the pain, he said.
John knew the details of death. He sat in a lawn chair outside his red pickup truck in woods near the medical school. It was to be his first day back. He may have sat there for two days while we searched for him. Was he trying to decide or trying to get the courage? Then he took my father’s rifle and shot himself, shot the pain clean away. He left us notes that I will never understand, notes that said he now knew about love and how it hurt, that our family, my father, had taught him what love was. He left his money to my mother and sister. “Blood money,” we couldn’t help thinking. Was he trying to take care of my mother? Two days later three roses arrive at my sister’s door. A note, in John’s handwriting, says, “Three roses for eight years. Love Always, John.”
He could not save my father, he could not save himself, we could not save him.
I do not remember much about John’s funeral. It seems I rode in the pickup truck, but probably not. I do know it was a nightmarish repeat of my father’s funeral. Same cemetery. Sunny day. Towering loblolly pine. Even the same black-haired man from the funeral home. I do remember that Kim placed her three roses on the grave. John had asked to be buried next to my father. His tombstone read, “It isn’t as easy as you think.”
We had failed. We taught him a few things about love, but not about faith, not about death. We were just learning ourselves. We thought we would recover.
I was eight, nine, ten. I could not say nuclear physicist without lisping, but that’s what my father was. A bomb designer. Each morning he left for work at the nuclear radiation lab he worked at in an old green 1950s car that five physicists had purchased for $8.00 each. The men jokingly referred to the car as “The Bomb.” Each physicist had a small identification badge pinned to his shirt and on the badge was a small dot. If this dot changed color, it meant that the physicist had been exposed to too much radiation.
Once a week my father took me to get allergy shots at the Oakland Naval Base in California. Some of the Vietnam War soldiers who had lost legs and arms or suffered from other injuries as well were taken there to “recuperate.” After the shots, my father and I waited on the long ramps outside the doctor’s office, ramps I never wondered about as a child, but which I later realized were built for the wounded. Soldiers wheeled by, saluting my father in his Commander’s uniform. He waved their salutes away and talked to them. They talked back. Some smiled. My father watched, grimly, as the ones who had no arms, no legs at all, were wheeled by on their stretchers.
At home, we played a game in our front yard with the neighborhood children, many of them military brats like ourselves. It was called Army dodge ball. If the ball hit you, say, in the arm, then your arm was blown off. If it hit you in the leg, your leg was blown off, and you had to dodge the ball with just one leg, just one arm. If both legs were blown off, you had to dodge the ball by rolling on the ground. You were dead if the ball hit you in the chest, the back, or the head. When the game was over, we got up off the ground and played something else. The gruesomeness of this game and why we were playing it never struck us. Death was abstract, it touched other people, not us. But Brian, ten years older than me, was dodging shots in Vietnam.
John has been buried a few days. Brian is going to show me the Suwannee River estuary, the place where the Santa Fe’s waters have joined those on their journey to the sea. I used to go fishing not far up the coast from here with my father, John, and Kim. But I do not know this estuary. Brian knows it well.
Evening approaches, and I am glad to be doing something that removes me from the turmoil of night. We sit in Brian’s small johnboat, and he shows me secret passages to the salt marsh; passages lined with grasses so high that our boat is Lilliputian. The sun sets and a full moon rises, accompanied by a concert of stars. In this breezy evening, the water is a distorting mirror. We glide, shining for orange alligator eyes in misty-treed corridors of water. We listen for the scuffle of wild fierce hogs on the islands, the descendants of De Soto’s placid pigs; these hogs are hunted now by spike-collared dogs as fierce as those De Soto pitted against “disobedient” Indian guides of 400 years ago. Brian’s hair glints the same color as the moon as we tramp through a little island black with leafy trees, whispering the names of the frogs we hear singing their incantations.
Brian eases my losses, makes the nights bearable again. He knows, I eventually realize, how death can fill the nights. Our silences do not have to carry words; the silences themselves are sometimes words that need tending, a knowledge Quakers have long possessed. But Brian grows tangled in my desires, my dreams. I’m not sure I am ready to be so vulnerable again.
We begin to spend most of our free time at the estuary. We explore wild estuarine islands that were frequented by Indians long ago. We touch their pottery lying on the beach, step over the shell mounds, the evidence of feasts and meals they had hundreds of years before, and pluck the coonti plant from which they made flour. We walk through abandoned island houses, sit on their porches, rummage through their rooms, search for the evidence of their lives. Who are these people? Where did they go?
Brian’s hand caresses my stomach. The late afternoon sun streams through the sheer curtains on my bedroom window. The fan hums and turns back and forth, back and forth, following his hand as it moves. The feelings that I have astound me, confuse me. My body is always reminding me that I am pregnant. The tiredness, the constantly tender and swelling breasts, the twinges and cramps in my uterus. Then there’s the protective feelings, the knowledge of life growing in me.
Brian quietly goes in for some tests at the Veteran’s Hospital. “What kind of tests?” I want to know.
“The Veteran’s Hospital is testing soldiers who were exposed to Agent Orange. Some soldiers are suing the government,” he says. “It seems I was right in the middle of the heaviest spraying zone,” he adds.
But the hospital will not tell him anything definitive. Agent Orange is not to be blamed for a host of problems afflicting Vietnam veterans and their offspring. They tell Brian something else. His sperm are erratic, he tells me, some misshapen. Is it because of Agent Orange, a weapon that struck its victims long after the Vietnam War was over? Just as the bombs had detonated in my father’s body decades later?
“What if the baby were deformed?” he asks me.
I do not have enough faith. I go to see about an abortion. I sit in a room with other young women, and we look at each other’s bellies from lowered lids, trying to see if our bond shows. They tell us they will vacuum out the contents, the products of conception. Deliberately unemotional words, too unemotional. I want to run away from it all, but my body makes inexorable demands. The breasts ache, the belly begins to bulge.
The nurse offers me a tranquilizer as I wait my turn. It does not help; depression wraps around me like a cloak. When I finally lie on the table, I stare up at a picture of the sun rising over the ocean. Waves of cramps contract in my uterus as it dilates.
Afterward I lie in Kim’s bed, and Brian sits by me, trying to offer comfort, but I am numb. I have gone in my mind like a crab in its hard shell. Comfort would hurt too much.
I hope that time will carry this grief away, but now it fills me until I think I can bear no more. I want to go to sleep and wake up months later somewhere in the sun, where springs flow coolly from the rocks, creating pools of blue, reflecting green shadows of trees.
August. Brian and I sit in his house in the woods, drinking scotch on the long glassed-in porch that reminds me of the one my father built so long ago. Green tree frogs catch moths on the long windows. A summer rain falls outside. Later, we slosh through the woods that Brian knows from childhood, through the opening in the trees to the ponds. Frogs sing, trying to attract mates. Spring peepers, little grass frogs, cricket frogs. Hearing them, walking so, I begin to cry, the rain serving as a watery veil. But Brian turns to me, and we look at each other, then bend into each other’s arms, both of us crying.
A few days later, Brian takes me to the city dog pound. The dog days of August, I think. I am enchanted first by this one, then by that. A beige puppy scampers around its cage, catching the tail of its sibling, then darting off again as the dog turns to snap at him. I point to the puppy. “That one,” I say.
We take the beige puppy home and give it some food, milk, and makeshift toys. He runs around in my small front yard, sniffing and snorting, until Brian says, “He sounds like he’s been in a bottle of snuff.” Hence, his new name: Snuffy.
We are determined to protect Snuffy from harm.
Fall is here again. Brian, Snuffy, and I visit the Suwannee River today. Cardinal flowers are covered with green sulfur butterflies, giving the small red-flowered plants the appearance of miniature Christmas trees. A small three-foot gator suns peacefully on a log with a large Suwannee cooter turtle.
And here, not far from the place where the Santa Fe disappears, blue springs burst forth from the deep earthiness of the woods near the river’s bank, allowing water to pour into pools of translucent blue, which then, in turn, merge with the waters of the Santa Fe, to journey again to the ocean. Forever being reborn, rising from the earth, going back again. Tiny looking glasses into other worlds.
The water from this circular spring pours out through a long run filled with snowflake-flowered river grass. Water lettuce, which covers the far end of the spring, floats in a circular dance to the music of the water’s currents. Blue herons and their smaller cousins, the green-backed herons, stride through the shallow water where the spring and the river meet, spearing frogs and other small creatures.
Brian takes the boat, as I swim out to the river via the spring run. I glide along on the swift currents, buoyant. When I dive underwater, it is as though I have disappeared behind blurry glass.
When I reach the river, I climb back in the boat, smiling at Brian, who is waiting patiently with Snuffy. Two women on the bank are packing up a day of fishing. Gar and mullet occasionally leap from the water and flop back into the river again, as though they, too, want to catch a glimpse of my world.
The night animals start creeping out from their beds. An alligator lies on shore, catching the last rays of the sun. Soon, he’ll ease into the water and hunt for food. Owls that call from across the river are loudly answered from the other side.
A rope swing hangs over a high thick tree branch on a sandbar. Brian and I look at each other. “Let’s do,” he says. I nod yes. And it is great fun; I have not laughed so in such a long time. It hurts a bit to feel this kind of laughter again. Snuffy bolts in every direction, trying to catch us, or avoid us, as we swing his way. And in this moment I remember: somewhere, a river is resurfacing.
A year ago it began with my father’s death. And then John and the promise of a child died too. Now I sit on a little bench hidden behind some trees. I can see the river sink from here and know it will rise again later. I have not seen the place where the river rises. It is enough to know that it does. Soon, the first fall kingfisher will flit quickly across the river.
Snuffy grows gray and limps with arthritis. I sit at my father’s desk, now my desk, and Brian’s picture looks back at me from a recent photograph he sent me. He is pulling in a sturgeon he netted in the river. He returns now and then to the river, floating his boat up and down in its waters, casting his nets.
I am married again and have children of my own. My face grows thinner, my nose a little beakier, my eyes a little more sunken. I grow more like my father in my features. Now I take my own children fishing. I teach them how to bait a hook, cast a line, catch a fish, for we are a fishing family.
I have found a spiritual home in returning to the Santa Fe. Some Sundays, I sit in a circle with friends, and I am bathed in the light, and I am sure, for a moment, that there cannot be an ending, that there is always just a returning, that somewhere there is a river forever running underground, and if I listen to the silence, I can finally hear it.
Catherine Elizabeth Puckett is a fiction and nonfiction writer. She has published fiction in Many Mountains Moving, and nonfiction essays in magazines, newspapers, and literary journals. “Beauty and the Beast,” her essay about women and eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, was published in the book Trash Animals: How We Live with Nature's Filthy, Feral, Invasive, and Unwanted Species. After spending most of her adult life as a “serial mover,” she finally returned to North Florida and lives not far from the Santa Fe River. She writes, “‘The Santa Fe’ came about because I wanted to tell my story of the long-term effects of war, and how one doesn’t have to be the one fighting in a war to be profoundly affected by it.”