At least eight hours of driving ahead of him, but Lee wasn’t in any hurry. He took a sharp left and pulled off to the side of the dirt road. Just stretch my legs for a few minutes. Then I’ll go. I have to. There’s no getting out of it.
The sun beat at his back. It felt good to be alone. It seemed someone was always around, evaluating him, trying to sum him up in three adjectives or less – anxious, boring, nice. The road was only half a mile long if that. When Lee reached the end, he glimpsed a dark ribbon of water snaking its way through some dense brush. After inching his way down a steep incline through a thicket of vining shrubs and stickers, Lee stood on the sandy riverbank.
The river reminded him of the one that ran through his parent’s property. Narrow, yet full of boulders so that the water twisted and coiled like a dark silky braid. His father, a preacher, had baptized him there when he was twelve, his hands gentle as they cupped Lee’s head and dipped him in the river. Lee’s whole body had been a tightly wound coil of tension, but he was glad at least his mother was there, watching. She hadn’t been watching when his father had shoved him too far up onto the pony’s back and sent Lee falling into the barbed wire fence on the other side. Nor had she seen all the other “accidents.”
Now, his father was being recognized for twenty-five years of preaching at the Calvary Independent Bible Church, and the family had to come together so that congregants could sit and whisper, “Those Murrays. What a nice family.”
Downstream, glossy-leafed white birches arched over the river. When Lee glanced upstream, a clump of white foam came bobbing toward him. As it grew closer, he realized it was an animal. A white goose. It swept by within arm’s reach, propelled by the current.
“Cripes!” he muttered. Twenty-four years old and Lee still had trouble swearing thanks to his evangelical upbringing. God was Cod, shit was chit, shitless was shirtless, and damn was dam, as in water over the. He actually pictured funneled water spilling when saying the word.
Lee watched the goose paddle over to a beech tree that had collapsed at the river’s edge, its copper leaves bobbing in the water like goldfish. The goose climbed onto the log and began preening itself, its orange bill disappearing under layers of down then plopped into the water and began swimming in circles, the constant motion creating a band of silver.
The water within the band looked different, calm and pure, a blue-black. It beckoned to Lee. But looking at water was one thing; submerging himself in it made him feel exposed, out of control.
The goose continued to swim in circles as if to say, here, you’ll be safe in this spot right here.
The sun was lowering in the sky. Lee stripped off his shirt and pants. He kneeled on the sand with his back facing the river. He plunged into the water, a caught fish being set free. The shock of cold pricked every pore of his body. His head went under, but Lee kept his eyes open and noticed the underbelly of the goose, how soft it looked, like a cloud.
When Lee emerged the goose paddled by, honking. He’d heard geese could be mean, could kill a person if they had the mind to, slashing with their serrated bill, but he wasn’t afraid. He splashed at the goose. In response, the animal lifted up on its back feet, and flapped its wings. They went back and forth like that for a while, splashing and flapping until a bubbling up from a deep well he thought had long dried up, burst, and a geyser of laughter spilled until he was choking.
“I don’t know what the hell I’m doing anymore,” he shouted, arms opened wide. Growing up a preacher’s son he’d learned to lie too well, learned to pretend to be something he wasn’t. “Scared shitless to tell you the truth,” he said quietly to the goose, who suddenly tipped its body up vertically, half submerged, then popped back up with a mussel shell in its bill. It cracked the shell, swallowing the slippery morsel within.
Lee stood in the river feeling the current tug at his legs and began reciting aloud all the swear words he’d never said, except one. He’d save the big one for when darkness fell and he sat listening to noises that always sound ominous in the dark. He would scold himself with the word and tell himself that the noises were others just like him, running, out of hunger or fear or desire.