From Fourteen Hills, The San Francisco State University Review, Spring 2012.
I remember the 4th of July when I was 14, being at summer camp in the Ozarks far from home, my best friend and I standing on the bank of the lake. The way the air sat heavy upon our small frames, sweat collecting on our brows and running down into our eyes, trees and earth seeping into our pores. How the water reflected the shapes and curves of the hills like stillborn copies of themselves. The other faceless boys and we were among them like we were all one body, tender faced and boney and immaculate in the daylight.
I remember the turtle someone caught in the shallows and how large and sinister it looked, bigger than my chest. The way it hissed and bit at our shins, watching a counselor kill it with a staff and hang it from a sapling at the water’s edge. Cheering in harmony and how proud the counselor smiled, his teeth crystalline and flawless. The way the turtle’s neck stretched down from the rope like a serpent. Its bone torn and swinging from flesh alone. The length of firecrackers they wrapped around its shell, boys crowding around and girls turning away. Seeing the fuse spark then shorten. The turtle’s insides rained down over us, chords of intestine and liver. For America!, someone yelled. Everyone’s glee from its ruin. Not feeling brave and not feeling tough and not feeling strong. My best friend smiling at me but just for a moment, blood freckling our faces. A counselor picking up a shard of organ from the red dirt and smearing the dark blood over his bare chest. Men!, he yelled.
Running through the woods to the dock, the imperial pines reigning over our heads. Getting bamboo rods from the shed and casting our lines and watching our bait sink down into the velvet green water. The post card my best friend showed me that he had gotten from his mother, a picture of the confederate monument from our hometown printed on the front. It read that she had gotten married without him and someone new would be there when he returned, someone he had never met. I didn’t tell him that things would be ok or that I was sorry or asking him if there was anything I could do. Standing in silence amongst the swarm and hum of the other kids and watching my line sway in the breeze that came off the water.
Another boy I did not know caught a fish and put a bottle rocket in its mouth and set it back into the lake. Feeling the tug on our lines almost simultaneously, reeling in our fish as their muscled bodies broke over the water’s threshold. Holding them by their lower lip as they contorted their spines and placing our own bottle rockets down their open throats, setting them back. Watching them disappear into the darkness, the brief ghost of light coming from the bottom. The fish exploding in silence with the fragments of their bodies floating to the surface, most without jaws or underbellies. Everyone doing it. A symphony. Fish don’t have souls, someone said, we laughed. Me and my best friend staring into the murk and watching the tiny explosions flicker like a constellation of stars hidden under some sacred blackness. +++