The Snake and the Fish

snake-fishFor much of the summer, I’ve been taking my kids out to Quarry Park and parking behind the main baseball field. Only a hundred feet away, a branch of the Rivanna River flows and there is a recently installed bridge that goes over it and that is so fortified with its rusty beams and thick wooden planks that an Abrams Tank could ride across it. Instead, I stand up there while 6yo B and 3yo G toss rocks through the slatted railing and watch them fall thirty feet and splash into water so shallow you can clearly see the brown bottom.

Quarry Park is named after an actual rock quarry that existed about a quarter-mile upriver but supposedly due to some drunken swimming accidents it was filled in 20 or 30 years ago. To do so, a concrete bridge was hastily poured that allowed the heavy vehicles to go across the water up to the quarry and when they finished filling it in they never tore the cement pass down. While that stretch of the river is normally only a foot or two deep the bridge acted as a sort of dam and the water that shoots through its two metal culverts dug a pool so that the water on the other side is around six feet deep right in the center. In the years since, it became a bathing spot for the homeless and an out-of-the-way swimming hole, and I even took a dip there once which is how I know about it.

One morning a few weeks ago, I decided to forgo the usual throwing session off the new bridge and take B to the old concrete bridge, leaving little G behind this time because he always wants me to carry him if we’re going to walk anywhere. I parked our old station wagon in the usual grassy spot but when I got out pointed B in the opposite direction. “We’re going this way,” I said. He turned and looked quizzically. An old gravel and dirt road led to a paint-flecked metal fence, the kind you see at farms to keep out cattle or vehicles. A narrow path went around the side where we found some wild berries and stopped and picked. “Alright, c’mon, let’s get going,” I barked. “That’s enough. We’re not out here to eat berries.”

He jumped up and we set off down the road. Crushed bits of brick lined the path and he kicked at them until we rounded a bend of trees and the path had turned into paved concrete. “Here’s the quarry,” I said as we walked on to the bridge and stopped in the middle. The sun was out but not overhead yet. The water was blueish green and right below us. B picked up a few rocks and threw them up and in. They made a small splash and we watched them sink until they were lost to the deep.

“C’mon, let’s go up here,” I said, and pointed up a hill on the other side of the bridge and another gravel path that was overgrown with trees and low-lying thicket. “I don’t wanna,” he said. He just wanted to stay at the bridge and throw rocks. I wanted to explore, though, and started to walk up the path. “I’m not going,” he said, so frustrated with me, and squatted down. “Alright, whatever, man,” I said, smiling, and kept walking up until I was obscured by the branches. He started to panic. “I’m coming. Wait,” B said, and ran after me. “Wait.”

15 or 20 minutes later we returned after humping along a bum path that looped back. The sun was beating down on us and we were both sweating. B decided to take his shoes off and dip his feet in the water. At one side of the bridge the concrete sloped down into shallow water and he walked down until his ankles were submerged. “Don’t go over there,” I said, pointing to his right. “That’s where snakes live.” B looked over to the side of the river and to a little cove where water stagnated. “You’re alright over here, though.”

We were cautious of snakes. Just a few weeks before, he’d been standing in a couple of feet of water in a different branch of the same river when a water snake swam right up to him. He’d screamed and jumped out and we’d left. Last fall, on a hike, he’d nearly stepped on a humongous corn snake and started shrieking while it coiled around a nearby rock. I ran over and grabbed him and we hustled out of there. We were both wary of another serpentine encounter when he slipped his shoes back on and joined me up on the concrete bridge again.

“Holy shit!” I said, the obscenity escaping my lips. “Look at that.” I put my hand on the back of his head and turned it in the direction of the left bank of the water. There in the shallow side a snake was writhing, twisting and turning over itself. “Whoa,” I said, excited. We both stared. The snake stopped to float for a second. In its mouth was a fish, probably a Bluegill or a Sunfish, white and lifeless.

The snake itself was brown with some kind of pattern on its back. Like a lot of boys his age, B is a reptile expert and said it wasn’t poisonous because its head was not diamond-shaped. I knew of his expertise but left room for the possibility anyway. Regardless, watching it struggle with the fish was horrific. The snake was having trouble carrying it and twisted spastically, almost as if it would wrap itself in knots, and at different points sunk down into the water, only to re-emerge, fish in mouth. It seemed determined to take its catch to the other side. “That’s incredible,” I kept saying. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”

There are a couple of large metal culvert pipes that run through the bridge so the water flows through and not over. When the snake neared their current it overpowered it and sent it rolling but still it held on to the fish. Hell bent, it kept swaying, cutting a wobbly “S” through the water as it finally began to get the hang of swimming with the fish.

B paced back and forth, disturbed and entranced. I would come over and grip him by the shoulders if he got to close to the edge. We kept watching until the snake reached some rocks on the other side of the river, crawled atop one and collapsed. I think it was exhausted. So were we and after another minute or so of watch, we left for home.

The amazing sight of the snake holding the fish clenched in its mouth stuck with us and for the next couple days I told everyone I came across. “It was like something out of an Old Testament prophecy,” I said to one friend. “Have you ever thought,” he responded, pausing for dramatic effect, “that the prophecy was not intended for you but B?” “Hmmm,” I replied, not sure what else to say. I don’t really care why snakes keep appearing before us, I thought. I just wish they’d stop.


Nearly Wordless Wednesday: from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle”

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An Informal Guide to Eating Wild Berries w/Your Kids

This time last summer, my boys and I were walking along a paved path at a local park when I noticed the dark berries that had fallen all over the path. I’d seen them a million times before–they look like blackberries–but grow on trees and I’d never thought to eat them, sticking to the notion that an unknown berry might be poisonous. I vaguely knew their name as Mulberries, though, and decided to try one. They were gently sweet, tasty enough, and lined this particular path. I quickly looked the berry up on my phone and, yes, they were in fact Mulberries and completely edible. I began to pick and feed them to B and G who greedily demanded more and more. I want to say that we spent a good half hour or more going up the path as the two ravaged the berries, my hands stained purple with their juice, a purple ring around both my kids’ mouths. Later that day, little G’s diaper was filled with their remains.

photo (8)Since then, I’ve taken greater notice of the berries that grow out in the wild. At some point later in the summer last year, we noticed another berry that grows all along a popular trail here in Charlottesville known as the Monticello Trail. All along the sunnier stretches a berry that looked just like a raspberry and grows on very similar bushes dared me to try one. It was not a raspberry but delicious, a bit tart, less sweet, but still tasty. As I considered whether to feed one of these to my eager kids a park official came by on a Gator. “Those are Wineberries,” he said, adding that they were safe to consume. We spent the rest of the day, it seems, scarfing these plump, juicy berries, amid their giant thorns. We eagerly talk about them now, waiting for their arrival sometime next month.

Then last week, I was walking with 6yo B down a sidewalk a couple blocks from the downtown mall when I noticed berries on the ground and looked up. Above us berries that looked just like blueberries hung off a tree. Blueberries don’t grow on trees, though, so I was puzzled as I plucked one and chewed. It actually tasted much like a blueberry but I refrained from giving any to B until a man in a pickup truck that pulled out of a nearby space shouted, “Those are Serviceberries.” I looked them up on my phone again and found that they are also called Juneberries, they grow from trees and have a subtle resemblance to blueberries and are used for pies and jams. Three more trees stood above the sidewalk and I plucked as B gobbled. We took G back later so he could have some, too.

Every time me and the boys stand under one of these trees or next to one of these bushes plucking the berries folks glance at us curiously, occasionally someone will stop and ask what we’re eating. Like I once was, they are hesitant to try something they’re unfamiliar with and that they normally can’t buy at a store. If you can verify their edible nature, though, not only are they good and healthy but it’s exciting to stumble across a new, organic food, and it’s fun to stand there as Native Americans or settlers must have, gorging on nature’s bountifulness.

King Ralph or: Sympathy for the Father

Saturday night and me and my little brother were arguing again. I was probably getting on him for chewing his nails, one of my all time pet peeves. It still is.  My wife and oldest son both chew their nails now and it keeps me pretty busy telling them to stop. They have nothing on my brother. He was a champion nail chewer. Not only would he routinely take them down to the nubs but he’d turn his hand sideways so he could get in there and finish the last little bits. “Stop it,” I’d yell and if that didn’t work and I was within arm’s reach I’d smack his hand out of his mouth. That would lead to all sorts of pushing and yelling.

If it wasn’t about fingernails then it might be about the way he snorted through his nose or the way he continually ran his index finger down his proboscis. Let’s face it, I was a little high-strung and he a little annoying. Either way, like I said, we were once again fighting, but this time we were in a hotel in Marion, Indiana. This was 1991 and we’d driven all the way from the middle of Virginia to pay homage to James Dean who went to high school in nearby Fairmount and where they operated a museum in his honor.

I don’t know why our dad was so obsessed with Dean. In his mid-40s, he was a little old for something like that, but as usual his preoccupations became ours so I’d taken to combing my hair into a tousled pompadour and acting the disgruntled juvenile which was not too much of a stretch considering I was both a juvenile and generally disgruntled. Anyway, back to the fighting: our father was a little high-strung himself and known for flying off the handle. He could snap at any point but to his credit had thus far not lost it on the trip even though my brother and I quarreled all the time.

That night however was destined for a blow-up. Having arrived at our room after a day of driving and fighting, we switched on the TV and to a favorite movie of our father’s, King Ralph. A riff on an everyday American who somehow becomes the king of England and thus offends the effete British with his crude ways, it was not that great of a flick but it starred the sizeable and affable John Goodman and had its moments I guess. Our father loved it and was settling down for a relaxing night of chuckling when my brother and I started tussling again. Suddenly our father yelled out, “Stop it, stop it, stop it,” exasperation in his voice, as we continued to grapple. “Stop it,” he screamed once more and we paused. “C’mon, I’m just trying to watch my King Ralph,” he whimpered, his voice reaching a falsetto, and then it cracked as he almost sobbed.

For a moment (really no more than a second or two) I thought about standing up and walking over and slapping him across the face. What if I had? As he got over the immediate shock and the sting on his cheek, I would have run out the door and down the hall as I heard him yell for me, then through the lobby and out into the dark street. Which way was Fairmount? A sign would have pointed me to the West and I would have had to run the 20 or so miles to the refuge of Dean’s ghost. Surely, he’d understand what I was going through. 

Of course, I never hit my father, but I didn’t really need to–we’d already broken him, and this satisfaction and perhaps the chance that he might resort to physically attacking us stopped us dead in our tracks. I don’t think I’d ever seen my father cry before and not since but his eyes were wet as we dropped to dead silence and just stared at him and then each other. 

I haven’t talked about this episode with my brother in years–we kind of wore out the joke and our dad kind of wore us out–but I think of it sometimes when my kids break me. They fight a lot, usually over each other’s toys, and I lose it when one of them starts screaming and crying. Of course, I don’t help the situation by yelling for them to stop but I do it anyway. One time, I even whipped my cellphone across the room and at the wall which wasn’t too smart. I could have broken my phone and I put a nice dent in the plaster.

I’ve felt myself almost descend into tears as well. It’s truly exasperating when your children are fighting over something so insignificant and they do it as if it’s a ritual which maybe it is for brothers. I’ve seen the older one who is five look at me with an expression that says he is merely waiting for me to calm down before it will all start again. It gives me the impression that they both view me as an overreacting fool which is how we saw my father I guess.

That night, we eventually let our poor whimpering dad have his King Ralph, but I know for a fact that my brother and I fought the next day and the day after most likely. No amount of crying or yelling on the part of our father would have stopped that, nor will it ever. Brothers will fight and only realize how wrong it is when they have their own kids and then almost cry themselves.

Nearly Wordless Wednesday: from Richard Yates’ “Revolutionary Road”

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Mud Cake (a really short story)

Untitled 27I laid down in the mud. It was cool and gritty and I could already feel it seeping through my pants and shirt, each growing soggy. Then I let my head fall back. A quiet sploosh followed as the wet and grime slid through the neck of my sweatshirt. The cold was a shock but then came relief as it cooled the back of my head and entered my ear holes. No more noise, just muffled shouts and finally silence as everyone around me stopped.

Or at least I assumed they’d stopped because I’d lost track of the outside world, all the yelling and arguing, the traffic, the endless search for a parking space, all of it gone, as I let the brown muck sooth the tightness in my neck. Letting my arms down into the wet on either side, I grabbed handfuls and ran it through my hair and applied it to my cheeks and forehead, the grit scraping across my skin.

I closed my eyes, and could hear nothing but the sound of my breathing and meditated on the vibration inside my skull. Exhaling out of my nostrils, I sunk deeper into the mire. I was slipping down into the earth until a voice, as if it was slithering through a cardboard tube broke through my frail cocoon.

Opening my eyes, I saw my wife leaning over me, she was saying something I couldn’t quite get so I pushed myself up with my elbows as water trickled out of my ears. “… you doing?” she asked, looking at me with incredulous frustration. I sat all the way up. Cars were still scrambling for that elusive slot, regardless of our spot in the corner median.

My children stared at me–more amused than alarmed–until my youngest smiled and said, “What are you doing, daddy?” Before I could answer–what would I have said?–his older brother punched him in the arm. Continuing to search my face for some sort of explanation, my wife finally sighed and went to separate the howling kids. “Stop it,” she tried not to yell.

I ran my fingers through my hair. The mud had caked up. I think it was time to leave.

Nearly Wordless Wednesday: from Raymond Carver’s “Feathers”