when the sun kissed the river

My little brother was a wanderer. And I am a walker. There’s a difference, you know. Bean’s goal was to explore as much ground as he could, miles over what mattered. And mine was to get to the bridge to see stars explode.

Bean never met a finish line when walking in the woods, but one time in early spring, he got to the end. The little bridge over the Oak Creek river was a tantalizing destination I told him about where from overhead, he could spot turtles digging in the sandy beds, ducks parting the water with no wake, and if he was lucky, a doe sipping from the shallow spots.

 Setting out for our walks, he’d pick up speed while I watched him from behind, crisscrossing from dried clumps of dirt, hopping over a cauldron of mud and decaying leaves, his foot sinking before pulling it from the indented earth to find solid ground. He scaled this trek often, by the looks of layers of dried mud, twigs and acorn bits covering his shoe, like how plaster of paris sticks to his fingers in Mrs. Weatherly’s art class. Bean chased the horizon in front of him with a good clip to his gait where his enthusiasm for the outdoors was a window to his soul of the earth.

Come spring, Ma couldn’t wait to get out her gardening toolbox from its winter parking spot in the shed. She’d pluck her gloves, once pink, now covered in grey, from the box and knee pad from her armpit, and start planting her favorite red geraniums in clay pots then line them up so evenly on the floor of the front porch that if you took a ruler to their spacing, you’d see the same measurement every time. As soon as Ma pulled that box, Bean would announce, as he did every year, “It must be time now, huh, Ret?” I always was “Ret” to him. Margaret was just too much of a mouthful of syllables and using only one seemed to get to the point. And finally, when I’d tell him, “It is, Bean. Shall we go out and welcome earth’s rebirth?” I thought every seam on Bean’s clothing would bust from excitement. After being cooped up in hibernation, he was ready to greet another new life cycle of growing things.

Living a half mile from the Oak Creek river, Bean and I set out in exploration of it from early spring to fall’s first frost. The slap of the screen door sounded like a starting gun, as if we were anticipating a race of some kind. Pop. We were off. “Don’t you come back without each other,” Mother would yell before we hit the last step of the porch stairs. And then one day Bean started walking ahead of me. I guess he outgrew the guiding ways of his big sister. At first, I was glad to be alone, but I missed seeing the forest through his eyes; I’d come to depend on his interpretation of the world, as if I’d grown too old and the familiar too trite.

            After our walks, we’d return home to our whitewashed framed house, where it’s been stuck in rural Oak Creek and in the family for three generations. At least that’s what Father told us since we were old enough to understand our origins, as he called it, and the value of a good story. “Sit close and listen hard,” he’d say, as if this night’s story was going to be better than last night’s. Sometimes it was, but Bean and I thought every night made for a good story.

Father looked large as he rocked in a chair by the fireplace in cold months, or outside on the porch if it was warm enough, while we sat small on the floor in front of him. With both feet encased in old leather but with new soles, flat to wooden floorboards, he’d rock, his heels falling into a rhythm, before he would commence telling. I’m not sure if he waited to get started until his rocking was underway or until he felt there was sufficient silence to ask, “So, what makes for a good story?” Bean would say, “One where I want to know what happens next.” I told Father, “One that makes you think.”

Where we live, the only sight of pavement is a two-lane that runs parallel to the river. Both will get you into town, and luckily, neither has flooded in spring rains. But the “back forty,” as Father jokingly calls it, does flood because it lacks “proper drainage.” So after a good rain, I’d challenge Bean to look out from the front porch, and to count the number of footprints from the first step to the driveway. You could count them by seeing each step pooled with water. You could also tell the ones that were Father’s by the large size and deep indent marked “Wolverine” in the mud. Mother had a narrow foot and so did I, so sometimes it was difficult to tell whose foot was whose. Chip’s paws were mingled in, but his pads didn’t hold enough water, so they didn’t count. Father usually won as he was the busiest one of all, going back and forth from the driveway to the front door. Early one Sunday morning, a clanking of rocks woke me. I peeked between the curtains to see Father constructing a sidewalk from the driveway to the front porch steps with flagstone pieces left over from the backyard barbeque pit. The walk was long and windy, like the curves of our shoes indented in mud. Father usually took inspiration from what he saw, and I believe he saw those footprint patterns in the driveway just like we did. I’m glad we can inspire Father just like he inspires us.

             Father never liked hearing gossip. After he would come home from work, sometimes I’d overhear him telling Mother about some of his regulars. “Every time Shoots comes into the store, he’s got a story about someone.” Mr. Shoots, our closest neighbor and only farmer within five miles of us, would come into Father’s store and pick up chicken feed, coup construction materials and fertilizer. By the time he was done ordering, Father said he had learned more than he cared to about Bob “Shotgun” Stevens from Mr. Shoots, as every time Mr. Stevens would hear something cracking the silence of the blackest of night, he’d grab his shotgun, pull open his front door as hard as he could, stand his ground, and aim down that barrel straight ahead. The door ricocheted off the wall and hit him in the backside so hard it startled him to shoot his gun. Mr. Stevens had a short fuse just like his gun, shooting willy-nilly like that. He had no particular aim, so once when his gun went off, the pellet went clear through the chicken coup and landed stuck in the wall. “He was lucky he didn’t kill all his chickens with one shot, though there were a lot of feathers left floating in the breeze,” Father told us.

Father didn’t work on Sundays so after church, he’d take us into town for some “family time,” he called it. It was a short ride from Cavalry Baptist to Central Street, where we could get just about anything we wanted. Ice cream? Patty’s Soda Shop had it all, from root beer floats to banana splits. Mervin’s mercantile had just about every piece of clothing in denim and camo you’d ever want. And who needed the Sears catalogue when you could get things right away at Mervin’s? Mervin’s was where the men gathered on a Saturday morning to “tell each other what they needed,” Father said. Mr. Bruce was always eyeing a new fishing pole and his fishing buddy Mr. Cal gave him every reason he could think of to get a new one. And he’d repeat the same reasons every Saturday as if they were new ones and the best ones yet. Father rarely stepped into that store as he didn’t want to get stopped by the “know-it-alls” who’d corner him and tell him what he needed. If Father was in a particularly good mood, which seemed to be on a Saturday morning, the morning after I’d hear a lot of commotion going on in Mother and Father’s room quickly replaced with some giggling, he’d take us out to the Oak Tree Inn for the best buttermilk pancakes and thick smoked bacon. I figured Father felt bad about making noise so he wanted to make it up to Mother by taking us out. Mother says she could only be happy if her kids were happy.

            Bean was always eager for spring to start as it meant that summer was right around the corner. With Bean’s active imagination, Mrs. Wilmert couldn’t seat him near a window in her classroom because daydreaming would flood his body and like a ghost in the flesh, he’d see himself floating out into the schoolyard, over the fence, and down the road to the river. I learned this as I overheard Mother raising her voice at him about fighting the urges and to focus on what Mrs. Wilmert had to say.

But Father was no Mrs. Wilmert as he’d teach us a thing or two “never to be found in a book,” he said. This got Bean’s and my attention, as we considered learning something not in a book to be like knowing something no one else did. “It’s about the senses,” he’d say. “Listen hard and you’ll recognize the howls of the coyotes. Stretch your eyes far and you’ll spot a deer nibblin’ from the blackberry bushes.” Then he’d bend over to see us close in the face. “Breathe deep and long to smell the rains coming soon. Hug an oak and feel it connecting to you. Spot mushrooms poking from the bottoms of old trunks.” This is when he starts gesturing with his hands, waving them back and forth, and then with a turn of his wrist, points up to the sky with his finger. “Study cloud formations and herons’ flight patterns, find east by the direction of the sun and what time of day it is by how high it is in the sky. This is home.”

            When Bean was a toddler and I was ten, Mother corralled us to the picnic tables in the backyard under the black oak tree, where we ate our bologna and cheese sandwiches while listening to Mother’s lessons about trees. “We come together under this oak to remind ourselves of how connected we all are. Your Grandpa Fred planted this tree almost . . .”  Mother always paused here to recalculate the years, looking into the sky as if doing the math in the clouds. “. . . eighty years now. And it’s still going strong, just like the Mulvaneys have been doing for generations.” Bean and I would sit up taller. “We respect this black oak,” she’d say, giving its thick, craggy trunk a pat or two, “as it was thought the top branches extend so far into heaven they reached God, and the roots dive deep into an underworld below. We hold our faith in this old tree as it will always provide.” I could tell by Bean’s wrinkled brow that he didn’t quite get how a tree could provide, but he took Father’s word for it. “You may not understand this now, but when you’re older and gone from Oak Creek, when you think of home, you’ll remember this black oak.” I couldn’t imagine never having home. The wind chimes hanging from a rusted hook by the front door had never quieted. As long as black oak provided and wind chimes sang, I’d be at home.

One day in March we scratched a springtime itch and headed out to the forest after lunch on an unusually warm day, thinking how close we were to budding season but how far we had yet to go on the calendar. Adding to the already worn path from house to the river, the trail still looked like some stand-in for breadcrumbs that showed our way back home. Naked trees surrounded us in black brush strokes against a blue sky. Tree stumps and broken limbs interrupted the defrosting water’s urgency to travel again. I heard the tweets of robins and the songs of the cardinals before I could spot them. The sun felt like an extra sweater, one I happily didn’t need anymore. After a winter of not more than a few inches of snowfall, I feared that there wasn’t enough water to push through a defrost and to awaken mother’s roots. But somehow it all works out, and I trust that she wouldn’t let anything bad happen to Bean or me.

“If you get to the little bridge at just the right time, you’ll see the sun make the river sparkle as if it’s exploding diamonds,” I told Bean.

Bean raced ahead. I stopped at my favorite place on a tree stump lying on its side, in a valley just off a bed of river rock. “I’ll find it,” he yelled, pushing ahead while pulling a knit cap over a mop of cinnamon hair. “Maybe they are diamonds, Ret.” It took Bean only ten minutes to get to the little bridge and I was behind him by almost fifteen. Bean followed the river’s curves, counting the number of tree stumps upended that diverted water flow to the riverbed sides. That’s what Bean did. He counted. If he wasn’t counting footprints in the mud on the driveway after a rain, then he was counting rocks and shoots of willows and cottonwoods busting through the softening ground.

I broke the peace of the forest and the quiet of the moments with scribbles in my notebook of the trees talking their stories, carrying their energy underground to encourage new growth. And how I could smell freshness born from compacted leaf beds and feel a chill on my ankles from the rising cold of the floor. Though I was alone, I never felt lonely. I thought of what Mother told us over many luncheon picnics, how everything is connected.

Soon, the sky was a kaleidoscope of ribbons of pink and gold, dazzling the early twilight as the sun traveled earth. I noticed a change in the wind’s direction, carrying the noise of old pickups hauling heavy loads and backfiring from the road that leads into town. A sudden boom of a noise jolted me and was even loud enough to drown out my hollering for Bean that it was time to get home. I closed my notebook and took off. “Beeeean,” I called long and loud. Usually, if I listened closely, I knew where he was at from the snapping of branches and the cracking of defrosting ice. But the only sound I heard was the river’s trickling that had broken through thin ice.

            The daylight was quickly shutting off her lights, foreshadowing nights into blue black. I hollered louder. “We’ll be late for supper and our good story.” But Bean never answered.

Then I heard the snapping of branches.

            “Bean? Is that you?” A figure much larger than Bean was stopped in front of me. His dark bulk standing still, unlike any animal that would have run away.

            “Who’s there?” a familiar husky voice barked.

            “Mr. Stevens? What are you . . . it’s me, Margaret Mulvaney.”

            “Well, I think I got us something here . . . a live one working its way along the river and probably to my chickens.”

            “Got something?” I asked.

            “It’s around here . . . somewhere . . .” Mr. Stevens said, taking a few steps back to search more ground.

“Shush.” I heard moaning getting louder and then quieter.

            “Bean?” I yelled. My heart raced, and I took off, following the sound’s volume. And then I spotted him. Bean was lying on his back, his leg mangled and bloodied.

             “Bean, I’m here,” I told him, exploring every inch of him with my hands as if my simple touch was strong enough to heal.

“Mr. Stevens, what did you do?” I screamed.

Right then and there I prayed while tears flowed. I prayed to the Black Oak at home, and to the river nearby.

“I was hurrying to get to the bridge to catch the diamonds, Ret. I wanted to see the explosion on the river,” Bean said, grabbing my arm. “I wanted to watch God sending us diamonds from the sun.” Bean’s voice was weak.

 “Gimme your belt . . . now,” I yelled to Mr. Stevens. I pulled a final yank from his waist and wound the belt around Bean’s leg, like a tourniquet. “It’ll be all okay, Bean. I’m going home to get help.”

            Mr. Stevens stood paralyzed, mumbling, “I didn’t mean it, Margaret . . . I thought it was those coyotes getting just too close again.” He still was holding onto that shotgun.

Mother nature seemed to have parted a way for me as my legs ran like never before, hopping over tree stumps and downed limbs while breaking the thin ice coated leaf piles. My heart raced in tandem with the time.

            I blasted open the front door and nearly ran into Father who was pacing the front room wondering where Bean and I were. I was speechless in fear, splattered with mud with nothing but the whites of my eyes to identify that it was me. “Where have you . . . where’s your brother?” Father yelled, grabbing onto my shoulders. “I told you to never leave . . . ,” Mother said, running down the stairs so quickly she nearly took a tumble. We all stared at my bloodied, shaking hands.

 The cuckoo stuck its head out of the little door in the clock to cuckoo twelve times, breaking that night that seemed to have stood still.

“Bean’s been shot.” I said, now crying full force. “At the river bend . . . Mr. Stevens . . .”

Father tore out the door so fast, he was like Mr. Cal’s bloodhound on the loose.   

Fear struck Mother; she hit the floor. I knelt beside her, my arms around her trembling shoulders. We warmed the braided rug for what seemed like forever. The cuckoo clock struck only once when Father broke through the door cradling Bean who lay sprawled limp over Father’s open arms. Father stood stiff and stared dazed ahead. Bean’s eyes fluttered; his face was white as a bedsheet.

“Get him in the truck. Now,” Mother demanded, coming out of her stupor on the floor, jolting Father to action and Bean to open his eyes. “I’ll call the hospital and tell them you’re coming,” she said.  

            “It’s a good story tonight, Ret, isn’t it?” Bean whispered to me as I helped to put him in the truck. “I found out what happens next in the story . . . I saw the diamonds. They were really sparkly, Ret.” I covered him snuggly in the wool blanket.

            Bean died the next morning when Billy crowed at first light.

I couldn’t go to the river for at least a year. I couldn’t go to the river because it betrayed the trust I had in it and in mother earth. Instead, I opened my notebook to find comfort among my words blurred from mangled and muddied pages from that frightful night. I was reminded of the natural spirits of a spring awakening, the memories of magic in summer’s growth, the falling of autumn into slumber carrying healing with every breath, reconnecting to the sky above and to Oak Creek river at my feet, and to trees I had good talks with.

I believe it was God who led Bean to the river with the allure of promise, of happiness. Bean stepped into a halo of bright sun reflecting off the river and back to him in explosions of diamonds. He understood what Mother had been telling us when sitting under the black oak and used his senses just like how Father said. He saw the web of connections from the heavens to the earth in diamonds.

Bean was a walker that day with a destination in mind.

It’s what mattered to Bean. He was at home.

NANCY CHADWICK grew up in a north suburb of Chicago. After receiving a Journalism degree at Marquette University, she got her first job at Leo Burnett advertising agency in Chicago. After ten years there, she couldn’t get to where she wanted to be in the ad agency business, so she reinvented herself and turned to the banking industry. Then, after another ten years, she realized she wasn’t a banker. She quit and started to write, finding inspiration from her years in Chicago and San Francisco. Her essays have appeared in The Magic of Memoir, Inspiration for the Writing Journey, Illinois Emerging Writers, the memoirnetwork.com, and the Chicago Writers Association Write City and Brevity blogs. She is also a contributor to shewrites.com. Her first book, Under the Birch Tree, a memoir of discovering connections and finding home was recently published by She Writes Press.