A true story for Troy. He knows why.
It was an old row boat, weathered and peeling from the countless days it had spent beached under the unforgiving Florida sunshine. The boat had sat there all summer, teasing us. It sat on the bank next to the wooden dock down the dirt road near my father’s place and nobody moved it. Nobody even moved it out of the way. Not that there were many people left to move it anymore. We practically owned the beach in those days. North Florida was still pretty undeveloped, and on all sides of the neighborhood there were still woods and wetlands full of wild creatures. Sometimes, during the night, our dog would wake us up barking at the window and staring past the light in the yard towards the trees. We would stare with her into the darkness waiting to see what was coming. Usually it was nothing, but things were less tame then. You just never knew.
I don’t remember exactly when we decided to take the boat. It wasn’t an impulse decision, I know that. We had been talking about it, joking about it, for weeks. We were going to take it to the other side of the Santa Rosa Sound, maybe even out into the Gulf. We were going to take it down to the beach and land it right next to the slips full of huge yachts and impress the vacationing girls with our sea stories. We were going to fly a pirate flag and ransack fishing vessels. We had big plans for that small boat.
When most of the summer had passed and the boat hadn’t moved we knew that nobody would miss it. The plan was to set sail at dusk. We would tell my father that we were walking down to the dock, and then we would commandeer the boat and take to the seas toward whatever adventures lay ahead of us. It was I, my brother and my step-brother who were the masterminds behind the undertaking. I was the oldest, but it was my step-brother who was the heart of the operation. He wouldn’t let us back out, his eyes brightened as the promise of adventure whispered in his ear, and he set off to meet her at an ocean-side midnight rendezvous. We followed.
Unbelievably stealthy is what we were that night, as we casually left the house and made our way down to the dock. Imagining ourselves in the midst of some great heist, we moved quickly and stuck to the shadows on the road, outlaws on the lam.
If my father suspected anything was amiss as we made plans to leave he didn’t show it. He had always been a hard man to read. I think about him a lot. He was a soldier by trade, retired for some time by then. He would mix his Crystal Light peach tea drink with Stoli in a travel mug and lace up his boots for a walk with the dog. He wouldn’t say anything unnecessarily. He always walked like a man content with things as they were, which was the way he had made them. He strolled through life keeping no man’s time but his own. His eyes didn’t miss anything. He had made a living in an occupation that mandated attention to detail and it was a trait that he never lost. Even if he did know our plans, I don’t think now that he would have said anything.
The boat was exactly where we had last seen it, exactly where it had always been. It was now as much a part of the landscape as the dock itself. It sat in the sand at the edge of the high water line, like it was waiting for us.
There had been several shark attacks that year. It was one of those rare seasons in nature when the planet conspired to put man back in his place, to keep his ego in check. The beach crowds had thinned as the news broke and one more beach-goer found themselves becoming a victim. We had been in and out of the water all summer, so this was the furthest thing from our minds as we drug the little boat away from shore. Nobody ever worries about sharks before they get into the water.
The tide that comes inland from the Gulf was warm and it was eerily calm as we put to sea. We only found one paddle near the boat, so our hands became our primary means of movement through the shallow water. Our fingers plunged into the warm darkness, grabbing at the water and pulling it back over and over again.
The beam from our flashlight reflected on the water’s glass-like surface, showing small wisps of steam that danced into the cooling night air. When we would stop paddling, there was complete silence. Nothing moved, except for us. Our splashing and laughing was very loud surrounded by so much night.
We were past the end of the dock now. Even though nobody said it, the same thought was whispering in our minds. How far could we go? I mean, how far out could we actually get like this. Three kids paddling a rickety old wooden rowboat by hand. Eventually we’d drift into the real shipping lanes or we might end up capsized out there in the deep water. Our excited paddling was splashing the salty water all over ourselves, and that is probably why we didn’t notice how wet our shoes had become.
It was my brother who first realized we were sinking.
The boat was sitting significantly lower in the water than it had been when we left and it would only be a matter of time until it came even with the water’s surface. I could see it in my mind quite vividly then, the last second when the rim of the boat would be perfectly lined up with the surface of the water and then the awful rushing sound as a million little waterfalls formed there and the ocean would swallow us up.
We formed cups with our hands and began to scoop the water out of the bottom of our boat. Determined not to panic, we laughed and pretended not to think about what must be swimming in the dark water.
It quickly became obvious that our water removal efforts were in vain, and we began to frantically paddle back towards the dock. But was too late.
Our bravado had taken us out too far now and our need to push had stranded us too far from the dock. The boat was sinking too quickly. We would not be able to get it back in time. This boat was not coming back with us.
If the sharks had been the furthest thing from our minds earlier, it was all we could think about now. The stillness wasn’t so enchanting. The darkness wasn’t so exciting anymore. I could feel the hunters circling our distressed vessel, just waiting for us to be in reach.
“We’ll have to swim,” my step-brother said what we were all finally sure of. “We’ll have to swim fast.” The inky water between us and the safety of the dock stretched out before me. It might as well have been a million miles away.
The front of the boat was all but submerged now. It was sinking very fast. How could it have happened so fast? How could we have gone out so far so quickly? No stars. How could there not be a single star out tonight? These questions raced through my mind, but I knew that none of it really mattered. Only one question had to be answered now. How fast could I swim?
Into the warm blackness I descended. Completely submerged in the dark silence for what seemed like forever, until I broke free and came up tasting the salty water in that first breath. Right away I realized two things. First, that the water was actually quite shallow, I was standing on the bottom and it only rose to my stomach. Second, I had just lost my glasses.
My glasses had slipped off my face when I went under at first, and they were gone. I could see the splashes as the others swam away, making a beeline for the land. I heard the gurgling death-rattle of our small boat just behind me as it surrendered to the ocean’s pull and went down. I didn’t dare to move, if I did I might never find my glasses in this endless black water.
I went under, desperately feeling around. My hands grabbed the slimy sea grass and squished into the muddy bottom. I ran my fingers through the slick weeds, completely blind in the dark water. I felt my way around where I had been standing, trusting to luck that I would touch something metal.
Time stopped. There was nobody else around. I felt as if I were the only person left in this warm dark void that had become my world. I was running out of air, my lungs began to burn, but I dared not stand up for fear that I would step on my lost glasses. All the while the near irresistible urge to get out of the water as fast as possible screamed in my brain. Surely, any second now, I would feel the steel-like grip of razor sharp teeth in my side. Don’t most shark attacks happen in shallow water?
I sliced my hand on something sharp. I felt it happen slowly as I fumbled through the wavy seaweed, a rough sharp surface I touched and it tore my skin. It was probably an oyster shell. They were scattered in the mud around here. Now there was blood in the water.
My lungs throbbed in my chest, aching for air. I thrashed about frantically searching for those glasses, my eyes shut tight to keep out the stinging sea salt. My hands pressed down forcefully into the mud and slime, my fingers sucked deeper into the earth each time I grabbed. The weeds tickled my arms and hands, slithering through my fingers.
I found them.
My fingers brushed the smooth lens and I scooped my glasses up in a pile of mud and sand. I burst back up into the cool night air, gasping for each breath and each one becoming the best breath I had ever taken. I began to move towards the shore, I could hear the others calling for me as they splashed up onto the beach. I held my glasses tightly in one hand and swam for my life.
Sloshing through the water as it became shallower, I plunged one foot in front of the other and focused on the shore. Each step was an effort. The water pulled against me and weighed down my feet. I couldn’t lift my knees high enough to get any leverage. I almost fell. I did not fall. I didn’t stop moving until I was on the beach, when I collapsed with my fellow survivors.
We sat in the sand and looked out over the black ocean. The water was again still, as still as tinted glass. There wasn’t a sign that we had been there at all and nothing to indicate the final location of the boat that had been taken from us. I could picture it then, and I still can, sitting on the bottom sunken into the mud and the sludge, surrounded by tiny fish eager to investigate the new addition to their silent watery home.
We squished home, leaving wet footprints on the dirt road behind us. We walked home under the orange street lights and nobody spoke at first. There was nothing to say. We walked and enjoyed all the sounds of the night, which began to get louder the further inland we went. The creatures of the woods around us were cheering our return. They had enjoyed the show.
That was very many years ago now, but I still think about that night. I think about it all the time. Things have changed a lot since then. My step brother is dead. He would die in an accident while still a very young man, only a few years later. My brother and I don’t talk like we used to anymore. Later that summer we would be chased out of the state by the storms, a tradition that would carry on for several more summers, eventually leaving the area devastated. What happened to our boat? I think about it sometimes. Was it drug further out sea by a strong current? Was it destroyed in the storm? Did it wash up on beaches throughout the state in a million pieces?
Maybe it washed up in some Cajun’s yard in the next big storm, somewhere deep in the bayou, miles and miles away from where we lost it. Maybe he’s got kids. I like to think that maybe they fixed that old boat. Maybe they saved it. On the other hand, maybe it’s sitting right where we left it, half sunk in the mud just off the dock down the dirt road near my father’s place. Maybe I’ll swim out there someday and look around for it, through the wet slimy sea grass and sludge. Maybe I will.
Maybe not. Maybe not knowing is better.