He loved Bible School. Some friendly neighborhood people always drove him to Good Shepherd where he would get Kool-Aid and cookies for memorizing bits of the Bible. What he memorized embarrassed his teachers, but the verses, after all, were indeed from the holy book. There could be no denying that.
"…I sleep, but my heart waketh: it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh, saying, Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night….." The teachers looked away from his eyes and handed him Hydrox and blue juice.
He hated school. An "at-risk" child the school counselors classified him, if not more for his spouting of Bible verses randomly in the classroom or on the playground than for the knowledge that his parents were cruds. He wasn't right. There was an unsettling quality in his calmness, a silence that, as he sat at his school desk, seemed to suck in the ticking of the classroom clock and the stares of his fellow students inward for a simultaneous crucifixion at the center of a black hole. He fell behind in classwork and was then relegated to a desk in the councelor's office to study, self-paced, his math and English assignments, his only contact with a fellow student being Milton Cooper, who waited for him in a tunnel of camellia after school.
From there they would walk an abandoned railbed, through the mulberry jungle, back to their part of town, the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak.
In an abandoned hobo camp, half way down the old railbed, was Milton and Paul's zoo. Two salvaged rabbit cages held two young raccoons they had rescued when the creatures were babies. The kits were scooped up from their road-kill mother, harbored in Milton's basement in a crate for a time (until the rabbit cages were procured from the back yard of a property that had been on the market for three years solid with no buyers). Milton and Paul toted the cages, one at a time, on an old Radio Flyer to the hobo camp and set up the refuge there. They fed dog chow to and watered the young racoons daily, handling them, letting them crawl shoulder to shoulder between them as they sat on the grassless ground. They would throw horse chestnuts into fires they would build and then listen for the cracks and pops. They would often stay in the hobo camp past dark, and then walk home, the path sometimes illuminated by moon, and sometimes by only what one could recall having seen in daylight: small dips in the path, patches of unequal footing. The small lights of town filtered through the brush and trees.
Friday night in the hobo camp, the wind was starting to pick up, and a flap of canvas at the top of Paul's teepee rattled annoyingly. He could smell the beginning of rain, and a flash of soundless lightning illuminated the sides of the teepee like a lantern. He sat on his cot with his red guitar, no amp, strumming a mosquito-like melody, so lost it was in the wind that was building and buffeting the canvas.
There was a vast frontier of summer stretching before him and, he decided, he was going to make an exit.
"You just gonna go?" Milton asked, but there wasn't any disbelief in his voice. He knew Paul's stepfather. "Tough love," the old man called it. But he just liked to kick Paul's ass.
"Uh-huh," Paul said.
This was a feeling more than a specific plan. Some mornings, without any breakfast, he'd pull on his dirty jeans and strike out for the island in the river. Turtle Claw Island. This he would reach not by any boat but by cat walking the railroad trestle to the island and then dropping down a series of tricky service rungs that ran up one rusty old girder. It was a dizzying maneuver—it was a good 60 foot drop if you slipped—but Paul was well practiced in this mission, and the fear he initially experienced in his first encounter with the bridge was now at a minimum. This time he would live on the island. Two nights, maybe three. He had supplies there, hidden.
Saturday morning came. He made his way to the bridge and plucked downward on the iron rungs, plucked through the lush canopy of trees to the island floor.
First I'll go to the shelf to see if the mailbag is still there, Paul thought to himself. The shelf was an outcropping of stone, a semi-cave, near the eastern shore of Turtle Claw, where he stored gear and occasionally built a fire and roasted fish he caught.
The path he took was slight and was visible only to his eye and sometimes even he lost it and he had to rely on landmarks—a patch of curious bald stones that rose from the soil like skulls—and markings he himself had left or made: broken branches or strips of cloth tied to flaps of bark or low-hanging branches. He found the shelf after about an eight minute walk through the thickets. The cold ashes of his last fire were still enclosed by a circle of stones. No one but he had been there—not in the past seven weeks and maybe not even in the past fifty years. The canvas mail sack was where he left it, high and dry in a niche beneath the limestone shelf which was as wide as the roof of a garage. This is such a find, he thought, such a treasure of natural shelter. He had never spent a whole night on the island yet, but he had worked his nerve up for it and this was going to be it tonight, just him alone with whatever sounds there would be in the blackened theater before his fire, and the glint of the river through the trees and the glint of the stars.
He slackened the cord which held the mailbag shut and he rummaged through the supplies he had been collecting over the past several trips to the island–a few items at a time lest he arouse the suspicions of his stepfather–six cans of tuna, a loaf of white bread, six cans of grape soda, a package of fig cookies, a can opener, a hunting knife, a box of blue tip matches, lighter fluid, a copy of Playboy, a transistor radio, extra batteries, fishing line, hooks and bobbers, a flashlight, a sack of cherry bombs. He had thought of everything he'd need until he thought of the sun going down and that moment he would want to stretch out and sleep. He had neglected to bring any bedding. He hung his head in his hands. No, he thought, he wasn't going to go back, he was going to make do with whatever he could find on the island. He'd make a bed if he had to. He had read in a book somewhere, some time, of a fellow who made a mattress out of pine boughs. This too, I will try, he thought and he looked at the trees growing nearby; none was pine.
There was still a good afternoon of daylight left, and time to explore Turtle Claw, walk every edge, see what he could find to add to his larder or to sleep upon. He decided to walk lazily the island's margin (there really was no proper beach, but a muddy drop off into the river, except for the north point from which formed a nasty snarl of debris).
In the debris he noted a large cardboard box which he would claim later and flatten into a sleeping mat. It would do just fine. He planned on a fire at bedtime and letting it die gradually as he slept. He had a hooded sweatshirt for the cool early morning hours and he figured he would be using it. A supply of extra wood and dry brush to relight the fire for breakfast would be needed as well. He noted this all in his mind as he watched the river flash through the tangle of branches as he walked.
He heard the hum of a motor up stream and he ducked and squinted to see. Visitors were the last thing he wanted. As the boat approached, he climbed up a tree that leaned over the water and he stretched himself out on a large branch and panted there like a leopard.
The boat puttered under him and then slipped out of sight. Paul slid out of the tree and started to gather his things for the evening. He ate. Then darkness came and he slept.
Morning. The canoe had probably drifted away from some hapless day-trippers who now found themselves stranded (at least temporarily) on another island farther up river. The boy, Paul, stared at the aluminum craft from where he lay on his piece of cardboard. The canoe tipped and glinted in the current, and it was snagged on a huge dead branch. Paul pushed himself up to a cross-legged position and then he stood and rubbed his eyes. He was not dreaming. He stepped down to the riverbank and grasped the cold crossbar of the canoe and pulled it further on shore. He looked at it, touching it, running his fingers across the registration numbers on the bow. He pushed the tip of the bow with his fingers. There was a scraping noise. It was singing to him.
He packed up his belongings, the cans of tuna and other food supplies he had remaining, the emergency supplies and what little clothing into the canvas mail bag. He kicked what was left of the previous night's fire out with dirt, and then he urinated upon the ashes. He heaved the bag into the middle of the canoe, picked up the paddle that was on the floor of the stern and lifted and pushed the canoe into the river, soaking his bluejeans in the water and then rolling into his seat in the back. He dipped the paddle into the water, twisting it into a turn away from shore, and headed for the main channel.
Though he didn't have a watch, he sensed it was still early. It was a sunny day, but cool still with patches of mist here and there on the water. The sun was up about thirty degrees in the east, and he was heading south, paddling, he knew, as far as his strength and supplies would take him. To Kelso's. And there he would get out, and then he would see what would happen next.
His stomach started to tell him he had left without eating, and so he drifted for a while and had a meal. As he chewed he saw another island, smaller than Turtle Claw, which divided the river into almost two equal channels. On the banks of the left channel was a small town, probably about 800 people total. A church on a piny hill played organ hymns from a loudspeaker attached to the steeple. A few cars drove up to the church, and Paul could see the crispness of the Sunday clothes the people wore, even from such a distance. A woman in red and white moved as if her hips pained her. She moved around the pickup truck they had arrived in and then slipped her arm through her man's black sleeves. They walked up the short flight of steps and into the church. Paul had heard that hymn before on television. He will lift you up on eagle's wings.
Down the right channel Paul could see a barge coming, though it was clearly a mile off yet. He wondered what the pilot would do when he noticed his canoe in the water. Would he wave? Would he blast on his horn? Would he yell?
In the corner of his right eye, Paul detected some movement. When he turned to look he saw that it was a blue heron and it seemed to be following him down the river. It would fly to a spot on the riverbank, gliding like a swift blue cloud, wait a while, and when the canoe seemed to be free of its company, in the heron would fly, float gracefully, silently, parallel with Paul's voyage, following, watching each stroke of the paddle, it seemed. Paul paddled and watched for the heron.
"Are you hungry?" Paul shouted at the bird. He threw some bread crusts into the water, but the bird did nothing with them, made no movement toward them. Still it would follow like an angel or a ghost.
Before long, Paul noticed the barge was not far, and so he paddled to maneuver into its wake to keep from capsizing. The barge was huge, nearly three football fields long, Paul guessed. The engine and the pilot house were well at the back of the barge. Paul could barely make out the shape of the pilot at first at all, but as the barge slowly pulled parallel the skipper hit the horn, waved and yelled something that Paul could not make out. And then the barge was behind him, and before him was the widening river. The sun was beginning to climb.
Monotony. Paddling all day on the river. The sun had burned his shoulders red and it was now preparing to set.
He had remembered the towns, the landmarks from long ago. He knew what pucker of land, what inlet would take him to Kelso's hovel. He found the spot. He was nearly spent. He dragged the canoe up the mud and lay on the lip of the river for another hour before he moved. Slowly, he stood and made his way to Kelso's door. Kelso took him in for a while, let him sleep, rummaged through his belongings. That evening he drove Paul to Sylvia's and fed him.
"They like the sandy soil," she said, pointing to a hill where the squashes grew as big around and as long as baseball bats.
"You can bake bread with them. You can mash them with bran and tofu and make burgers. Fry 'em up nice and crisp and dash on some ketchup. Mighty good."
"Hell, I just like 'em batter-fried," Kelso said.
"That's what we're havin'. And clams."
As she set plastic plates on the picnic table, Sylvia's arms clattered with the sound of metal bangles, about twenty of them, some silver, some brass, on each arm. She wore bib overalls with a diaphanous t-shirt underneath. Her hair was long, down to her ass, and though she had gray in her hair, her face was smooth and pretty and she had a nice smile.
"Where did you find the silent one?" Sylvia winked at Paul.
"Literally plucked him out of the river."
"You don't say?" she winked at Paul again. "Silent and handsome. That's the way I like 'em."
Sylvia stepped up onto the deck and then into her trailer to work in the kitchen. Paul could hear the batter-dipped morsels hit the hot oil and crackle.
Kelso winked at Paul. "Mighty fine woman in there."
"Worth far above rubies."
"Bit of a poet in you, ain't there?"
He had given no thought about how he would survive on his own, but knew where Kelso's was on the river, barring landmarks hadn't changed since he was little and had spent some summer weeks there. He knew Kelso's was good for a short while. So he tried, guided by the heron, and found it and was safe.
Kelso snapped open a beer and drank it thirstily, his eyes darting to the right as if transfixed on a sound. The fried clams and zucchini were brought out and also a big blue mixing bowl full of bloody-looking cocktail sauce.
Sylvia sat down opposite to Paul and brushed her hair back behind her ears in one motion, the bangles pistoning down her arms in a clatter as she moved.
"….I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse: I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk: eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved…." Paul thought as he looked at Sylvia and at the wind's hush through the trees…
"…I sleep, but my heart waketh: it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh, saying, Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night….." The leaves seemed to flash and batter themselves with starlight. He felt drowsy in the fact of the universe–things happening just and right–guarded by a law protected by a celestial order: lawyers, policemen and judges you could not see but just over your shoulder on the periphery in a semi-dream state in late summer.
A Sheriff's cruiser pulled into the drive; a deputy got out, and Paul also recognized the silhouette of his stepfather emerging from the rear passenger's door of the cruiser.
Kelso pulled the beer down from his lips and licked. "I'm sorry Paul. I had to."
"…The watchmen that went about the city found me, they smote me, they wounded me; the keepers of the walls took away my veil from me. I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if ye find my beloved, that ye tell him, that I am sick of love. …"