Tuesday, February 2, 2010
The Boat and the Weeping Willow
The weeping willow is my favorite tree. I have good reason for that.
I put flame to candle just now. As I watched the wick burn, I saw it, four of us in a small boat gliding on a pond in late spring. The willow was just ahead, branches dripping into the water at one end.
We all needed refuge. T., J. and their little brother lived in a lovely new house that shuddered with the fighting and rage inside. And in my home, for years the alternating chill and warmth felt like menace because it was unpredictable.
The woods behind my house offered easy solace. But escape was not so simple at T.'s. We had to stay inside most of the time, for one reason or another. Still, the girls were allowed weekend guests sometimes.
T.'s beautiful mother was always glad to see us. Her father was courteous until my parents left, then his cold silences returned and he disappeared into his bedroom or den. He worked odd hours at the airport nearby, so when he left, we took off as fast as we could, out the side door, through the garage, out. Into freedom.
Somehow, I can smell water. So it didn't take long to sniff out the pond. They had no idea it was there. They had moved to a new house in a development built on cleared farmland and had not ventured far from home.
We found the pond one beautiful day in late spring.
I remember the light. It scattered diamonds on the water's surface as we jostled and pushed each other while running over the grassy hill that had concealed the pond from the road. It was even more beautiful than the two ponds in the woods behind my house. Because bushes, wildflowers and grasses surrounded nearly every inch of water. And a huge weeping willow dripped branches into the water on the far end.
I fell in love that day. With a setting. And it had only just begun.
I saw it first. Something was underneath the shadowy surface at the shallow end. A piece of wood, an old box, maybe. I felt it with my hands, then started pulling. I yelled for help. We pulled and pushed and I am sure began to scream when I realized what we had.
A boat! A boat!
It was small, a little rowboat that someone had used once to float on that pond. We dragged it to the banks. And to our astonishment, it seemed largely intact, with a hole at one end. Then we found an oar, I don't remember where. But it was intact too.
The next thing I remember is getting buckets. We must have gone back to the house, a sneak mission. Because we were bailing water out of the boat. And then I found a long branch suitable for steering. Then I launched, testing whether the craft was seaworthy.
It started sinking. But I was living an old dream long lodged in my young heart and I was not giving up. I had a boat!!!
So T., who was sweet and girly, my opposite and my best friend, was assigned to bail along with my little sister/loyal assistant. They were the easy ones. T.'s younger sister J. was wild and prone to sass just like me, so I'm sure she argued for the pole position. But I had found the boat, I reasoned, and therefore was in charge. I also was the oldest, by one month, and certainly the bossiest. So she rowed.
We were wet and muddy by then and should have been freezing cold. But we had fallen into the arms of a bliss that transcends physical discomfort, then shelters in the heart for a lifetime. So we held onto the boat sides and pushed into the water and jumped in -- launched!
I know we were loud and raucous as we figured out how to stay afloat on that pond. But we managed. Eventually, we were balancing the boat with our weight to keep the hole out of the water, or mostly, so the bailers could take a break.
At first, I took us around the shallow edges of the pond to make sure we could stay afloat. My sister and I swam like fish, thanks to Mother for introducing us early to the lively waters of rivers and creeks. Then finally to my father's method of taking us into the middle of Flint River and releasing us, standing just short of our flailing arms, forcing us to "stop fooling around and swim." And we did!
Once established, we found a rhythm. We moved around the edges, through the middle, around again and then through the willow branches. That was the part I liked best. I will never forget those moments.
We fell silent as we approached the weeping willow, moving from clear bright spring sunlight into a deep green curtain that I pushed aside first with the pole, then my hands and arms. Suddenly inside the veil, the air was cooler and so still and quiet that we did not speak. If someone whispered, another shushed. Something ancient and mysterious was at work within the shadows of that tree. We did not understand it, but we clearly fell under the spell.
It calmed us. We spent hours at that pond, quietly rowing, then sitting, drifting, letting the wind gently blow the small boat through the water. Four little girls, two rarely quiet, sat in silence, suspended in time and space until the twilight began to steal through the cracks in the trees bracing the sky.
But then T.'s mother found us. And we were banned from the pond.
We slipped back once or twice and the boat was gone. I'm sure T.'s father removed it. T.'s mother was upset with herself for letting us be gone for so long. She was terrified from then on, worried we would go back and drown in that pond. I protested that little sister/loyal assistant and I would never drown.
But her children never learned to swim like that. Or roam. Or discover what the world held for them. Held tightly, encapsulated in a prism of fury not of their own making, they each in their own way stand apart in some way even today.
Which is why, not that long ago, I made T. come with me one day when I was visiting home. Ignoring her questions, I walked her through my sister's field to the pond and made her climb into the little flat boat. And I pushed us into the water despite the mosquitoes and the little snakes she kept looking for warily. And I paddled us into the middle of the water.
And we laughed about the old pond and the sunken boat and the willow tree. At a distance, I could see my little sister/loyal assistant, now all grown up, watching me as she has done her entire life. And then T. and I sat in silence, letting the twilight flow over the huge oaks onto our skin and into our lungs like a sweet cool wind.
And just under the orange sun dipping low, I swore I could see it. The weeping willow tree. It's still there. It is always still there.