In amongst these reeds I had built my first playhouse, I had paddled an old rowboat, I had hidden from science fair projects and school plays, and then I had left. There was no particular reason to leave, but there was no particular reason to stay, and when you're a kid you get that itchy feeling that maybe there's something worth knowing about that's just behind the curtain of kudzu and moss. Back in those days it was okay to hitch, no one thought twice of a kid and a guitar ambling along beside the road, because every other car was full of kids doing exactly the same thing.
I would say that those were the adventurous years of my youth, full of threatening situations and dubious encounters; but, not really. That all came later. No, during those years no amount of dirty cheeks and greasy hair could hide the Sunday school that was wide and clear on my face, and so mostly I got picked up by a lot of Buicks being driven by grandmothers. I had no idea how many grandmothers there were on the road, going between places, but a kid hell bent on seeing real life doesn't want to see the view from a Buick, so I settled down on the coast with everyone else, and we didn't have much to eat and paid our rent in piles of small change. If you've read one memoir of a misspent youth, you've read them all, so I'll spare you the details. Things worked out and then they didn't work out and then it was middle age and your brain starts playing tricks with your memory.
Like I couldn't remember if I had had a motorboat or a rowboat, of if I had colonized an island or some unvisited corner of our back lot, and did we really ever see alligators in church or was that a big brother myth, and the spirit lights that lined up in the branches of the swamp oaks -- were they still there? What made them glow so brightly when the moon dashed behind the veil of the clouds? At night I began to dream of my childhood, but my dreams were not of the childhood I remembered, and I wondered: were my dreams true, or was my memory true, or had the vision of youth been clouded by fantasy and fairy tales?
There were lots of reasons not to go back, especially on account of not having written to anyone in all those years, but there were lots of reasons to get out of the corner I had boxed myself into, and the reeds were as good a place to go into as anywhere. Maybe they wouldn't welcome me with a hog-roasting, but I didn't think they'd run me out of town. It's funny, when you go back to someplace, the things that don't really matter. I didn't take the bus. I didn't take the train. I didn't fly. I didn't hitch. The world changes and I changed, too, and the roads are no longer full of rosy-cheeked adventurers hopping across the country. I drove, not a car of any notable appearance, nothing with a personality attached to it like a Volvo station wagon or a Land Rover or a BMW. Nothing that would qualify as a jalopy. My car didn't say I'd made it, but it didn't say I despaired of ever belonging to polite society.
I drove; the roads were open and wide and free, the skies were clear, and I refused to become maudlin or sentimental. That's harder than you realize, thirty hours in a car and most of the stations playing Johnny Cash, headed back to where the past happened. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to get nostalgic and start to remembering a fuzzy version of how things had been, but that doesn't do anybody any good. There was suddenly a moment when the kudzu came back, and I rolled down the windows, and smelled, smelled as hard as I could, but everywhere these days smells the same. There was the scent of diesel and the scent of french fries and the scent of asphalt in the sun, and so I rolled the windows back up and there was Johnny Cash urging sentimentality all over again.
What I remembered were small bungalows in untidy disarray, a Methodist church, a school built in the best post-War styles of institutions; I remembered the grocery store and the post office and the spot where newspapers were delivered on Saturday afternoons, Sunday early edition. How did they already know what the Sunday news was going to be, to deliver it on Saturday? Anything could happen, I'd always thought, and those papers would all be wrong, they would have printed the wrong future. No one could explain this to me, as a child, or maybe I never asked, or I only asked the wrong people.
The town had grown, boomed with refinery money, and all spread out where there used to be houses up on stilts were funny little suburban subdivisions, full of the faux Tudor mansions in every development everywhere. I got lost trying to find my old house, caught in an endless strip of King Arthur cul-de-sacs and Guinevere Lanes looping around fountains. They had tried to turn the spongey ground into lawns, but it seemed ephemeral, imported. When I extracted myself from Lancelot Avenue and passed the show house for Merry Men Estates, there was the live oak I remembered, the cluster of bungalows gathered together against the onslaught of development. It didn't look like a place where fairy lanterns would be lit in the trees after dark, or like a place where the reeds grew so thick entire islands were hidden from view. It looked like the future home of an outlet mall or an interior design showroom, more merchandise for the growth of houses.
There were people in the houses, though, they weren't bulldozed or abandoned, and suddenly I realized I had no idea what to say to them. If my family had died or moved on, well, that was that. And if my family was still there, well, was that better or worse? I had no idea. Johnny Cash had been singing and I had refused to get all soppy and now I needed a script, or a plausible excuse, or something. There was a place near the road just dry enough and wide enough to leave my car, so I parked and walked and tried to think and tried not to think. The road ended near the brackish water, and dotting the horizon were oil wells, and everywhere the smell of refineries. I guess that's the smell of money these days.
There had always been an old boat that only leaked a little bit tucked up anywhere a road ran out, and so I searched around and found one, a rowboat peeling blue with a canoe paddle underneath. It floated well enough, and the water flowed around the reeds and under the moss; under the distant canopy of the rigs everything else was empty. I kept listening for the frogs, the swamp children, the shrimping boats, and the first creature I saw was that crane.
I had been told that long ago we were all hatched from the eggs of cranes, that we lived near the water to stay with our family. In the stare of the crane was wrapped not only the righteousness of the gods but also the expectations of the family, the unblinking stare of my crane-like grandmother as she had me recite Bible verses and weave crosses out of palm leaves before Easter. As the crane flew away, I could see the remains of an old wooden post, and I paddled towards it, certain it was not the old dock, but not so certain as to be willing to pass by. There was the croaking of frogs and the whirring of insects as night descended, and, as I held on to the old post, the fairy lights in the trees began to glow with life.
They were warm, the warm yellow of candles, about the size of baseballs, and they floated above head level, distributed among the trees. As a child I thought they led to a magical fantastic place somewhere else, some other world, and night after night I would follow the fairy lights, certain they would reveal their secrets. They always led me back to where I had started, at dawn, next to my boat; there was no secret gate to a special place. But, still, that sense of maybe, maybe, beckoned. No one was making a pot roast for my dinner, no school master expected to quiz me over state capitols in the morning, and there was nothing else except a Holiday Inn Express with oil workers prices waiting for me. I docked, found the dry land amidst the reeds, and looked up. The fairy lights glowed as evenly as any street light in any city, and I stepped under the trees, not quite sentimental and not quite full of belief in old tales, but wondering, if this time, something would be different.