Sprawled on his stomach in dappled afternoon sunlight, the boy watched the mysteries of pond life unfold below its glassy surface. Crawdad antennae poked from under the edge of moss covered rocks. Tadpoles did their little wiggle at the other side of the pool. Their wiggling made him snicker. They look like those gyrating teens on TV.
He recalled a few late nights when he'd snuck into the living room to watch TV with the sound off so his stepmother wouldn't hear. His favorite programs featured animals, jungles and mountains. Watching without sound isn't so bad. Even with my fingers in my ears I can guess what teachers are saying.
A crawdad shot across the bottom, then returned to its rock and disappeared under the mossy edge. But no more watching late night TV for me, he thought, remembering his stepmother's beating when she caught him asleep on the floor.
Sticking his hand into the pool, he tried to move the rock so he could see how big the crawdad was. A number of crawdads pulled back, then in a series of hard-to-follow moves, shot across to the other side and hid in the back of a larger crack. Black pollywogs stopped wiggling, chubby bodies rocking from side to side with the gentle movement of incoming water. A water bug skated the mirror-like pond, long legs supporting tiny body, feet leaving small indentations on the tenuous surface.
He smiled, pictured himself standing in the middle of his mattress and looking down, how sheets stretched away from each foot, how the mattress, like water for the bug, supported his weight. He picked up a leaf and set it on the water. It did the same thing, spinning slowly with the current but not breaking the surface. He watched the contact of air and water, and thought about life in each. Tadpoles can't live above water. Things that breathe air can't live below.
He knew that for sure after he'd held a frog under water for a long time. When it finally stopped kicking he let go and it floated down stream. He watched — felt uneasy. To make amends, he got up and followed the stream, found the dead frog and brought it back to the pond. Using his dad's broken-blade scout knife, he dug a small rectangular hole, placed the frog in the bottom and filled in the grave. Then he made a small cross out of twigs and stuck it at the end of the nearly unnoticeable mound of earth.
"Now I lay me down to sleep." He held his palms together like TV preachers. "Go to heaven, frog."
In the fall, leaves covered the path and lane, colors like some painter had gone mad, purples, reds, oranges and gold, leaves of every color. Kicking them was so much fun his legs sometimes ached at night and he had trouble falling asleep. In winter, snow covered the ground. Dark naked trees disappeared in white swirling mists. The stream never completely froze but the pond did. In spite of the cold that made him numb, he walked to the pond in mid-winter, a walk he made alone, a spot he was unwilling to share. Using the broken scout knife, he dug a hole through the ice and dropped left-over chicken bones through for the crawdads. The hole always froze over by the time he returned the next day.
His mother died that first winter. He couldn't go to the pond every day. There were chores around the house, and reading assignments from school, but he still made time to go at least twice a week.
In the spring, when green things sprouted, and trees woke up, he spent more time at the pond. But after his father remarried, things changed.
He went to the pond almost every day that spring, sat and thought about his mother. I wish she was still here. I wish she wasn't gone. I should have shown her the pond. She loved nature.
It was August now, almost the end of summer. He didn't want summer to end. He liked the smell of the pond and the wildlife surrounding it, the bees, the slender mayflies with tiny blue ring around skinny bodies; even the mosquitoes. They only lived in still parts of the pond, did their tumbling act from somewhere below to hang at the silver surface like tiny fishhooks, then tumbled back down when he tried to catch them.
He looked up to watch birds dart close to the surface, attempting to catch bugs. Their efforts weren't always successful. An occasional squirrel ran whenever he approached, ran no matter how quietly he walked. They can smell me, he thought. They said so on TV.
He watched the furry critters sitting high in the branches, noses wrinkling, heads tilted to catch threatening sounds. He wrinkled his nose and sniffed the air, filling his lungs to the point he got dizzy. Twinkling flashes of light didn't go away for a minute or more. He did catch the smell of the egg farm, but even that was lost when he took another breath.
He thought about the stream and where it came from. One afternoon he'd followed it alone into the high wooded hills back of school. It came out of a crack in a long green mossy bank at the back of the steep canyon wall, a clear oozing of water that soon formed a stream, bubbled over rounded stones and half-rotted logs. Trees were so thick in the canyon it took him an hour to climb up, and another one to climb down. The trip earned another yardstick spanking and left him wishing his father had been home.
"What happened, son?" His father once questioned the welts and bruises.
"I guess I hurt myself climbing over a fence."
He never told on her because she promised worse than a whipping if he did. She never spanked him when his father was home.
The sun had moved further west. He signed and leaned back. At least I don't have to worry about getting home late Saturdays. She's shopping all afternoon. Back against a large rock, he looked at the frog's grave and thought about God. I don't believe God is some white-haired old man, but I can't picture Him. Nothing explains why people are the way they are, or why God would make people in His image. I wonder why my stepmother is always so angry, why she uses any excuse to spank me. I don't like the things she says to my father. When I think about the evil queen in Snow-white and the Seven Dwarfs I always picture my stepmother's face.
He got up and walked around to the other side and began tossing stones into the creek where it narrowed between two high banks below the pond. He picked heavier stones after the creek swept smaller ones away, and kept throwing stones until water began to back up. He added smaller stones. The growing dam caught twigs and leaves. The water level rose.
An hour later the pond was a foot deeper. The tadpoles don't seem to mind. Maybe they like having new territory. The crawdads were fighting over something in the deepest end when he sat down and took off his shoes.
Wow, that's cold! He stood knee-deep until the coldness went away, watched leaves and flotsam swirling around his white legs where the stream and pond joined. Minnows darted out to taste his skin, then retreated into shadows along the bank before facing upstream to hold their places in the running current.
He must have been standing still, because a squirrel was rummaging around in the leaves and dirt near the frog's grave. When the squirrel showed too much interest, the boy threw the small stone he'd been holding. The squirrel was fast back up the tree, scolding and making clicking sounds and flicking its bushy tail.
Bending over, making a cup with both hands, the boy lifted water to lips and drank; did it twice, then let water run between his fingers back into the stream. It sure tastes better than water from the tap.
On a rock at the edge of the pond, he sat, put his shoes and socks back on after letting his feet dry in a warm patch of sunlight. A path of ants to the right of where he sat got his attention. He watched the troops passing in opposite directions, stopping to touch antennae before going on their way. I wonder what kind of messages they share when they touch like that, if each one has special chores, how each of them knows what to do?
The year before his mother died, his father built a glass ant farm. He and his dad sat for hours in the kitchen and watched ants do things with dirt ants do between two pieces of glass. Ants are smart, but just how smart I'm not sure. I'm not about to wish I'm an ant.
The ant path was so close to the water, that on impulse, he took a stick and grooved a new inch-wide channel in the soft dirt. Water ran in. Ants stopped at each side of the channel, milled about and appeared confused. Ants that had been caught in the water were soon on higher land, touching heads with other ants. Within minutes, ants had gathered around a piece of willow wood. Some twenty or more ants dragged the stick to the channel. Moments later, they had a bridge over troubled waters.
He smiled. Maybe they are smarter than people.
When the soft warm patch of sunlight moved into the bushes, he picked up a stick and headed home. He poked and prodded leaves as he followed his secret path back to the dirt lane that lead to the paved road.
The walk to or from home took forty-five minutes. Of all his hikes he liked this one best. Trees were so huge and grasses so tall, he often pretended he was on an African safari, stick in hand to ward-off possible attack of wild animals or unfriendly natives. It's better than sitting in a classroom with a bunch of other kids.
Using the willow stick, he swung at a bottle-cap. It went sailing. The object fell so far away that he could barely make out where it landed. He found it and gave it another golf-club whack, bottle-cap spinning away like a flying saucer.
When he got to the paved street and turned left for home, he had to wait for a line of cars to pass before he crossed. A neighbor girl waved at him from her bike. He looked down at the sidewalk; pretended he hadn't seen her. Fat clouds overhead became darker. Raindrops made spots on pavement the size of pennies. Mother liked the rain — especially summer thunderstorms. She said lightning was like fireworks on the 4th of July.
He heard thunder off toward the school and stood for a few minutes waiting for a flash of light, ready to count seconds so he could tell how far away he was from the storm. It's so beautiful — the trees and the clouds, and the way the air smells; the pond and secrets it keeps from the rest of the world. He filled with a sweet sadness as tears filled his eyes. Mother would understand. She loved the things I love.
He stood close to a tree, pretended to examine its bark until he was sure he wouldn't cry.
There was a flash of light again and he counted to three before the thunder clap shook him in a long rolling wave, made him look up into falling drops of rain. He ran and laughed and made a point of stepping hard into puddles each time he came to one just to see how far he could make water splash.
When he got home he was soaked. Shoes and socks dropped at the back door, he went to his room and changed into dry clothes, took wet clothes down to the basement and left them in the dirty-clothes hamper. Then he sat in the front bay window and watched the rain, watched water spray away from the wheels of passing cars. In spite of early darkness, shafts of bright sunlight stabbed through rain-drenched leaves on the tree-lined street. He pressed his nose to the cool window.
A short time later his stepmother drove up and parked in the driveway. He watched from the living room window. She sat a few minutes before she saw him. Then she got out of the family car.
Boy — she's not in a good mood. He watched the way she walked.
"God damn it!" she yelled, slamming the front door behind her. "Wouldn't you know it? Just as soon as I get a chance to go shopping it rains!" She stood, scowling. "Don't just sit there, you good-for-nothing little bastard. Go get my things out of the car. There are too many bags for me to carry. Goddamn it! I just hate this ugly Goddamn rain!"
Hoping to avoid conflict, he hurried to the car, struggled to hold its door open and get one of the bags. As he turned, the paper bag caught and tore on the door handle, spilling its contents onto rain-soaked ground. Eyes wide, he froze, heart lodged in his throat. I'm in trouble now. He bent quickly to pick up fallen packages.
She was behind him in an instant, his abandoned walking stick in her hand. The first burning blow struck him across the buns. He straightened, hands out to ward off the next whack.
"No-please-don't — ."
She aimed lower. The stick bit into his left leg halfway between knee and hip. When he tried to dodge the next blow, she struck out and landed a stinging shot to his lower back. Abandoning the still open door he'd used as a shield, he bolted and ran around the car.
"God damn you, you smart-ass little son of a bitch. Get your ass back here and pick up this mess!" she screamed, and struck the ground with the stick. "You're going to regret this, you little bastard! Get over here fast or I'll make you wish you were dead — ."
He retreated backward, one foot behind the other, buns, leg and back on fire. She circumnavigated the car, stick raised, other hand on the front fender, dark eyes narrowed, riveted on his.
The flash was so bright it nearly blinded him, lifted him off his feet and threw him like a rag toy. The instant thunder-clap was deafening, the loudest thing he'd ever heard, left him so stunned he wasn't sure where he was when he tried to sit up later. Like a damn had broken, rain came down in sheets. Once again he was soaked to the skin. Then he remembered.
He got up on hands and knees, and then stood, ears ringing. Even the sound of rain didn't get through the noise in his head. There was a smell in the air like 4th of July barbecues. He made a wide circle around the front of the car. She was on the ground next to the front wheel, steam rising from tangled hair and blackened coat. She wasn't moving. He started to go closer, and then decided not to. He went into the house and up to his room. For the second time that day, he undressed, dried his hair, put on a dry shirt, coveralls and socks. At the bottom of the stairs he picked up the phone and called 911. When the operator answered, he wasn't sure what to say but told her where he lived.
"The lightning hit her," he said, unable to see her from where he stood, but sure that she was still where he'd last seen her.
Five minutes later the police and paramedics arrived. He watched from the window as rain-coated men stood around the car while two knelt next to her. One of the policemen came up to the house, knocked on the door, and then saw him in the window.
"Are you okay?"
He nodded, but waited inside. After a man in a black raincoat had taken pictures, he left in his car. Men in white raincoats covered her with some kind of orange sheet and put her in the back of the ambulance. His father arrived a few minutes later. The police followed him to the front door. The boy heard them talking in whispers before most of the officers left, but one policeman came inside with his father.
"What happened, son?" the gray-haired policeman asked. "Were you out there? Did you see what happened?"
The boy looked at his father before answering, at the deeply-set eyes, eyes like a deer he'd seen near the pond that first winter.
"She said bad things — ." His voice was so soft the policeman stepped closer to hear. "She said she hated the Goddamn rain, then everything got real white and it knocked me down."
"Are you all right, son?" the policeman asked, concern in his voice. "Let's have a look — ."
When his father unbuttoned the overalls, they fell to the boy's ankles. The policeman stared at the ugly welt across the side of his thigh, at the long dark red welt across his white buns. When his father lifted the back of the shirt, there was a long silence.
The policeman spoke to his father. "This isn't from lightning. Do you know how this happened?"
"I don't know." Tears pooled in his father's heavy-hearted eyes. "I was at work — ."
The boy took his father's hand. "She told me not to tell you. She said I'd regret it."
"I'll have to make a full report," the policeman said. "I'll have to do this now if you're up to it — ."
"I understand," the boy's father said, helping with shirt and overalls, covering something too difficult for a father to consider.
"It's okay, Father." The boy held his father's arm. "Maybe God had better plans for her — she didn't like the things He made. She wasn't happy here."
The policeman coughed and covered his mouth with one hand. "I'm sorry. this has to be tough, but I have to do this —."
"This is my mistake." The boy's father held the boy in his arms. "His mother died last winter. I shouldn't have been in such a hurry to try to replace her."
The boy hugged his father and didn't let go until the policeman asked the next question.
"Son — are you going to be all right here? You feel safe here at home?"
Heart now as light as the leaf floating on the pond, the boy smiled softly and nodded. "As long as my Father is here." He hugged his father again. "This is our home — I'm not afraid of thunder and lightning. It's beautiful. Everything here is so beautiful."
* * *