The river is my earliest memory. The front porch of my fathers house looks down on it from a low knoll, and I have pictures, faded yellow, of my first days on that porch. I slept in my mothers arms as she rocked there, played in the dust while my father fished, and I know the feel of that river even now: the slow churn of red clay, the back eddies under cut banks, the secrets it whispered to the hard, pink granite of Rowan County. Everything that shaped me happened near that river. I lost my mother in sight of it, fell in love on its banks. I could smell it on the day my father drove me out. It was part of my soul, and I thought Id lost it forever.
But things can change, thats what I told myself. Mistakes can be undone, wrongs righted. Thats what brought me home.
Id been awake for thirty-six hours and driving for ten. Restless weeks, sleepless nights, and the decision stole into me like a thief. I never planned to go back to North CarolinaId buried itbut I blinked and found my hands on the wheel, Manhattan a sinking island to the north. I wore a week-old beard and three-day denim, felt stretched by an edginess that bordered on pain, but no one here would fail to recognize me. Thats what home was all about, for good or bad.
My foot came off the gas as I hit the river. The sun still hung below the trees, but I felt the rise of it, the hard, hot push of it. I stopped the car on the far side of the bridge, stepped out onto crushed gravel, and looked down at the Yadkin River. It started in the mountains and stretched through both Carolinas. Eight miles from where I stood, it touched the northern edge of Red Water Farm, land that had been in my family since 1789. Another mile and it slid past my fathers house.
Wed not spoken in five years, my father and me.
But that was not my fault.
I carried a beer down the bank and stood at the verge of the river. Trash and flat dirt stretched away beneath the crumbling bridge. Willows leaned out and I saw milk jugs tied to low limbs and floating on the current. Theyd have hooks near the mud, and one of them rode low in the water. I watched it for motion and cracked the beer. The jug sank lower and turned against the current. It moved upstream and put a V in the water behind it. The limb twitched and the jug stopped, white plastic stained red by the river.
I closed my eyes and thought of the people Id been forced to leave. After so many years, Id expect their faces to pale, their voices to thin out, but thats not how it was. Memory rose up, stark and fresh, and I could not deny it.
When I climbed up from beneath the bridge, I found a young boy on a dusty bike. He had one foot on the ground and a halting smile. He was maybe ten, in blown-out jeans and old canvas high-tops. A bucket hung from his shoulder by a knotted rope. Next to him, my big German car looked like a spaceship from another world.
Morning, I said.
Yes, sir. He nodded, but did not get off of the bike.
Jug fishing? I asked him, gesturing down the to the willows.
Got two yesterday, he said.
Three jugs down there.
He shook his head. One of them is my daddys. It wouldnt count.
Theres something pretty heavy on the middle one. His face lit up, and I knew that it was his jug, not his old mans. Need any help? I asked.
Id pulled some catfish out of the river when I was a boy, and based on the unmoving pull on that middle jug, I thought he might have a monster on his hands, a black-skinned, bottom-sucking beast that could easily go twenty pounds.
Excerpted from Down River by John Hart. Copyright © 2007 by John Hart. A Thomas Dunne Book for St. Martin's Minotaur. All rights reserved.
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