It’s okay, Andy said, it’s just sleeping. Sometimes they sleep like that.
I thought I knew better, but Andy was twelve and I was ten and I wanted to believe him. It was easy to believe in anything then.
I looked into the brown and unstained rabbit box, windowed with screen and on stilts to the level of my nose, at the uneaten carrot I had placed the previous day and the white form of the rabbit on its side, body stretched and legs extended in front and back. Motionless.
It’s just sleeping, I repeated to my dad later that evening.
No, I’m afraid not, buddy, he said and because he was my dad I knew he was right.
Soon after, I was sitting alone on the bench-seat, passenger side, of Dad’s ‘69 Chevy pickup. The truck was crayon blue–the original paint–and Dad had always meant to restore it but never had, and so the paint had weathered and bubbled, earthy rust breaking through and staining the body like melanoma.
In my lap I held a cardboard box, weighted with the rabbit’s body. The flaps of the boxtop had been folded and layered on one another so as to stay closed, but I could see the hoary fur under shadow. I placed my nose to the top–just the impulse a ten-year-old has to know, I suppose–and inhaled my first scent of death. Its sweet, musky spoil startled me and I lifted my head.
I heard the clang of a shovel being tossed into the truck bed and then the whine of the door opening. Dad slid into the seat, turned the ignition, put the truck in gear and we drove up the driveway. We’d gone less than a mile when Dad took a left onto old Jess Nations Rd.–ancient, narrow and unpaved.
Dad drove–not long–until he found an open pad of ground just off the road, surrounded by pines and rhododendrons. He pulled the truck to a stop, took the box from my lap, and got out. I watched as he dug into the earth, red and brown, and then tipped the box, spilling the rabbit into the grave. I stayed in the truck.
I once found a box packed tightly with a thick stack of Playboy Magazines under my Grandfather’s bed–Papa, we call him, and it was actually a guest bed surrounded by other boxes full of National Geographic. This would have been in the early 90s, maybe late 80s, before there was an internet and before I knew what sexy was.
When I was young I often spent the night with my Papa and his wife, Martha, who was like a grandmother to us but never allowed us to call her grandmother or any variation thereof. Their house was small, but I still liked to explore. The guestroom had never been used as such, only as a hoarder’s library, and I loved to run my fingers over the spines of the stacked National Geographics, noting their dates and looking at the pictures–imagining the places and people; they seemed so strange to me at the time.
During one of these sleepovers and after tiring of the National Geographics, I lay on the brown shag carpet of the guestroom, belly down, to look under the bed. It’s comforter, a faded but soft blue, hung low and I had to lift it to see. I saw the box and pulled it out. Again I checked the dates and noticed that the issues were older than me. I flipped through. I don’t remember the images–funny, I suppose–only the surprise. I knew I was supposed to like what I was seeing, and maybe I did. Yeah, I probably did.
I got caught. There were too many magazines, and I had been out of sight for too long. It was Papa who had walked in on me, my legs crossed, as though I were a child at storytime, an open playboy in my lap. My Papa never disciplined me, and so it was difficult for him to strike the right tone. He explained that he understood that I wanted to look at the “pretty girls” but that those magazines were “only for grownups.”
I never looked for his magazines again, but I still wonder if he has them, if that box is still under that bed holding vintage volumes.
I know every turn in the Nantahala river. I know every rapid and every rock that breaks the surface and many that sit below. Some of them have names. Rapids: Alarm Clock, Patton’s Run, Tumble Dry, Hellard’s, Delebar’s Rapid, Quarry Rapid, Root Canal, Whirlpool, Little S.O.B., Surfer’s Rapid, Tunnel of Love, The Bump, Nantahala Falls, also known as Little Wesser, and of course there are others. Rocks: Jaws, Raft Trap, Mickey Mouse, Pyramid Rock, Rookie Rock, Ledges, Turtle Rock, Swimmer’s Rock, Pinball, Rock Garden, Canoe Rock, Sneaky Pete, Billboard, Tabletop, Celebration Rock, and of course there are others.
I know lots of stories–many true, some lies, and some I’m just not sure about. I can tell the story of William Bartram, a Botanist and one of the first white men to explore the Smoky Mountains, and how he had what turned out to be a friendly encounter with a group of Cherokee in the vicinity of Patton’s Run (true). I point out a square tunnel that cuts through the bank in which the Cherokee used to offer human sacrifice in hopes of successful fishing–the “Cherokee Prayer Tunnel” (lie, and I always tell them it’s a lie before the trip is over). I tell the story of Delebar’s rock, how Old Man Delebar wrecked his canoe into that rock four times, and so it was named in his honor (true, maybe?). When children are in the boat, I tell the Cherokee myth of the first black bears, and when a kid asks if it’s true, as they sometimes do, I say probably not but that people believe in lots of things and so maybe. There are other stories, of course, and I tell them, too. The irony and plain silliness of a very white man with a red beard reciting Cherokee myths aren’t lost on me.
I can identify and point out the wild rhododendrons, wild azaleas, mountain laurel, tiger lillies, and mimosa trees. Throughout the summer, I watch the many elderberry bushes, how their clusters of creamy blossoms change into green berries and then ripen into heavy bunches of crimson, beebee sized berries. I show them to my rafters and talk about how people will use them for jams and wine. I’ll point out the few, sad, cadaverous hemlocks and talk about how the wooly adelgid is taking them from us. I wish I could recognize and identify more of the flora, which is so varied and rich, but I tell them what I know.
There’s not much in the way of wildlife. With the road on one side of the river and the railroad tracks on the other, in addition to all the boat traffic, any wildlife worth seeing stays hidden. I once saw a deer standing in the river. I also once saw an adolescent black bear crossing the road on my way to the put-in. But I haven’t seen much during a trip, nothing to point out to my rafters other than the ducks that like to hang out around the campgrounds. But not long ago the most lovely hawk flew low over the river, from behind, and over our heads. It perched at the peak of a branchless, dead tree and puffed its chest, which was white and speckled the same soft brown as the feathers of its wings and back.
The folks in the raft behind me saw it first and I heard their awe–it really was an impressive bird. I pointed the hawk out to my crew of passengers, arm outstretched in the direction of its perch, and to the raft behind me I must have looked like I knew something.
Ben! I heard.
I turned, noticing as I sometimes do how the bright blue rubber of our rafts stands in such contrast to the earthy golden browns and greens of the Nantahala Gorge.
What is that? they asked.
My spirit animal, I said with a snarky grin.
They laughed and so did I.
Turning back to my crew, I told them about the riverbend ahead.