I rediscovered this stream-of-consciousness, wanting-to-be-a-poem essay that I wrote in 2016. It was in a file folder on my computer. Seems like a LONG time ago. But wow—the memories.
UPDATE 5/28/2021. Located the submission details in Submittable. My Wild Life was submitted in February 2016 to the Pacific Northwest Writers Assn’s Adult Short Topics, and in October 2016 to Quiet Lightning, a reading event that takes place in the Bay area. It was also part of my sample work in an application for the Voices of the Wilderness residency programs at national forests in Alaska. I submitted to the Voices program for four consecutive years.
LESSON LEARNED: My Wild Life was rejected by all of the above, but had I not written and re-edited it for each subsequent submission, I would not have this piece with the details of twenty-five years on a lake in Arkansas. Rejections are part of the process of writing.
My Wild Life
I’ve always been a country girl. Grew up on a hundred-acre farm in Massachusetts. Allowed to roam unfettered dawn till dusk. Barefoot soles. Tough.
Spring showers in the orchard. Summer sleeveless. Tanned brown as a hickory nut.
Brilliant maple leaves carpeted my autumns. Squirrels dashed along stone walls, grey as ghosts.
Waist-deep snow drifts. Frozen winter sledding.
Lots of times I wished I could walk to a corner candy store like the kids in town. I fantasized about juicy twists of red licorice and boxes that rattled with shiny Junior Mints.
Had to settle for nibbling wild strawberries while crawling on my belly through my fragile stick forts. Pastures, dotted with fresh cow patties.
My Wild Life. Tattooed on my heart with berry juice and ice-cold spring water.
Eventually I married a man who shared my interest in all things native and natural. Un-plastic.
When it came time to raise our sons, we found a cedar-shingled cottage on a cool, deep lake in Arkansas. It suited our idea of a life whose playlist was the yip-yip-yip of coyotes rising up to meet twinkling stars on a pitch-black sky. Hills all around us, Boston Mountains to the south, Ozarks to the north.
The first time we saw the cottage was from a party-barge on a hot summer day. Roger was trolling a line off the stern and I was steering.
As we came around a curve in the channel, I saw a boy—about the same age as ours—diving off a swimming rock. I looked closer and spied a cottage through the trees.
Hey Roger. Look. I wish we could own a place like that.
Those places don’t ever go up for sale. You know that. They stay in families for generations.
Six months later, it was January. I saw a “For Rent” notice in the newspaper. Why I was reading the “For Rent” notices, I’ll never know. Because were looking for a country place to buy.
I folded the paper over and showed Roger. “Cottage on lake. 2 bedrooms. Shop. Boat dock.”
I tapped the ad for emphasis.
Humor me, I said. Give them a call please. See if it’s for sale.
For sale? It’s not for sale. It’s for rent! Well…OK.
The cottage was indeed for sale, but it hadn’t been shown in a year.
We followed them down the road the next day and I couldn’t believe it. It was the cottage where the boy had jumped off the swimming rock!
We walked the land together, and it didn’t take long before we all became friends. The daffodils were in full bloom the day we moved in.
That was twenty-five years ago. Our boys have grown and we’ve moved on. We put the cottage up for sale, and it was waiting for a like-minded family to pick up where we left off.
In the meantime, I had no doubt that the deer would be enjoying the acorns that fall heavily in the shadow of our deck. The coons would surely be climbing up into the bunkhouse that has one wall open to overlook the cove. And the bald eagle? The one that used to sit in the dead pine to the left of the deck? He must be wondering where I’ve gone.
One day, a family contacted us about renting the cottage for a while, and we couldn’t have been happier. They had two children who were the same age as our sons were when we first went to the woods. They might even get a dog.
They had kinfolk nearby, so there would be no surprises about the rural nature of the county. They know it’s an hour’s drive— one way—to the nearest town with a row of big box stores and a grocery store with more than five aisles.
We were upfront about any idiosyncrasies. High water in the creek a couple times a year. No cell phone service.
But a multitude of wildflowers. Pennyroyal, coreopsis, chickweed, liatris and Indian paintbrush.
Kids, please no playing in the loft. It has no railing. Be careful of the limestone cliffs when they ice over after a cold rain in January.
Copperheads. Water moccasins. But they’re Southerners. They know about snakes. We didn’t—on the night that Christopher stepped down from the shop in the dark and stirred up a copperhead that had slithered out from under the porch to enjoy the night air. Bit him on the ankle.
They don’t give you anti-venom for snakebites down here. Costs too much to keep on hand at the hospital. Fifteen, twenty thousand for enough vials to treat the bite. Google it. Maybe more.
Wait it out. In-patient for the night while the swelling goes down. Come back in the morning. He’ll be fine. And he was.
Soon we got a call from the family. They had arrived at the lake on the day after a storm.
They met a farmer friend of ours up on the pavement to get the keys. The day was bright and sunny as they drove the rental truck down the slick clay on Washboard Hill.
The family traversed the same hillside where a black panther once jumped out in front of my vehicle at dusk. They drove along the road where herds of deer graze in the early morning as the mist is lifting off the lake in September when the water temperature is still warmer than the air. They slowed as they passed the cave whose opening is no more than a dark slit on the side of the road and they clung to the spot where the road drops off.
It’s that spot where the sycamores line a tiny creek that runs wet only in the spring and where we picked morels shortly after the mayflowers opened their umbrella-like greens.
Then, they arrived at the creek.
It had not yet crested from the previous night’s rain. The raging water was nearly two feet deep and pouring over the cliffs on the other side, a white-frosted waterfall. I know what they must have thought when they got out to figure if it was safe to cross. I’ve stood there. That creek roars so loudly that you have to shout at the top of your lungs to the person standing at your side. You look at each other, thumbs down, shake your heads, and get back in the truck.
It’s right at that same fork where I swore (a million times) that I was going to nail up two signs with arrows marking the truth of the intersection.
The signs would read “Bad” (to the right) and “Worse” (to the left). Something I once saw in a New Yorker cartoon. Many a truth is spoken in jest.
The family man called us that morning to say he didn’t want his kids to have to deal with that risk. The risk of high water in the creek. Once a year.
We expressed disappointment but told him we understood and we would mail back his security deposit.
After hanging up, I thought more about the twenty-five years we had experienced there. The events that were now blocked for the family man’s kids by “God-willing and the creek don’t rise.” See, it’s a real thing.
I remembered the hot August nights when I’d drive the pickup to the highest field—up near the power station—and unfold lounge chairs in the truck bed to watch the Perseid meteor showers, my son Zack at my side, each of us counting the stars streaming across the sky until we got too tired to stay awake.
Zack and Chris would paddle their canoe across the lake to catch the school bus and save us the ten-mile drive to the bus stop. Weather permitting.
One time, on my early morning walk, I came upon a mama otter and her three babies, obviously out on their morning walk. The mama otter squealed bloody murder at my intrusion, even though I skidded to a halt in surprise. She chased the two stronger ones along, carrying her littlest one clamped firmly in her mouth. Leaping over logs and under low-lying branches. Sheer otter paranoia. I couldn’t stop smiling.
I think about Arkansas now and then, those nights overlooking the lake when the only sound was the creak of the porch swing. Fireflies emerging just about the same time that the grey fox picked his way across the hillside, pausing to lift his head in our direction and then tucked tail into the woods.
A lantern on a johnboat would come slowly into focus, a fisherman crossing the channel, setting trotlines for catfish. Maybe noodling a catfish hole.
At dawn, with my mug of coffee, I’d observe the beaver making his way to his den after a night of felling cedars. Watched his body carving a path through the still water, a vee spreading in his wake.
I wish I could have told that family that it’s worth the one or two days a year when the creek runs too high to cross. I wish I had shared—that before you know it—the wilderness will accept you as you are and you’ll quickly become embedded in the hills and the hollers.