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|The Bolotomy, like most rivers, is said to be haunted by all manner
of sprites and goblins and witches, some benign, some malevolent.
What is it that makes people who live beside rivers think that they see
things at night —disembodied faces floating above the water and the like?
Is it the purling of the water that drives them mad?
Boating on the Bolotomy
DECIDED to take the boat on its shakedown cruise at night, so that none
of the adults, seeing the boat, would see how small our boatbuilding talents
and aspirations were. I knew that Big Grandfather had already ordered
a lot of lumber for the schooner he was planning, and Guppa had bought
a second-hand welding rig and was furiously working to finish converting
the Studebaker into a vacation trailer so that he could start right in
on the Adventurer’s Bubble. Raskol’s father hadn’t done much of anything
yet, but there was a strong likelihood that he’d consider our boat not
suitable for a voyage of such metaphoric importance anyway.
There was another reason for trying the boat out
at night, a reason that neither of us admitted to the other, though I’m
certain that Raskol considered it as important a reason as I did.
Testing the boat in the daytime, with an anxious crowd of onlookers following
us in craft of several descriptions, watching us through binoculars, taking
notes, arguing about the box’s river-worthiness, calling out advice, standing
ready to fish us out of the water if anything untoward should occur, would
not have been an adventure, and the point of the trip was that it was to
be an adventure.
I slipped out of my grandparents’ house and found
my way to Raskol’s. We had chosen the perfect night. Fog lay
over the bay, so thick that it drifted past us in the breeze like rain
turned sideways. From the spot in the cattails near Raskol’s house
where we had hidden the boat, we couldn’t even see the river. We
carried the boat toward the sound of the water, and when Raskol cried “Shit!”
and I heard a splash and felt his end drop, I knew that we had launched
With the paddles that Cap’n Leech had carved, we
got the boat offshore a little way. In the night and fog we were
nearly invisible. Our taupe boat was indistinguishable from the water
and the fog, and Raskol and I were wearing watch caps and navy sweaters
that we had bought at the army-navy surplus store, so we disappeared too,
except for our faces.
“Where do we go from here?” I asked Raskol.
“I haven’t got any idea,” he said after a while.
“I’ve lost track of which way is downriver. Let’s just paddle for
a while. We’re pretty likely to run into one bank or the other.”
We paddled for a while, slowly and quietly.
“Where do you think we are now?” I asked Raskol
in a whisper. It seemed right to whisper in the fog.
“I have no idea,” he answered. Our voices
had a curiously hollow, echoing quality.
“Do you notice that strange echo?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he answered. “You know, this is going
to sound pretty unlikely to you, but I think that we—”
With a jarring thud the boat struck something hard,
and I fell overboard. I sank below the surface of the water into
darkness darker than the fog, and when I came up I couldn’t find Raskol,
or the boat, or anything.
“Raskol!” I called. My voice echoed
back, muffled and distorted, but loud.
“Peter!” he answered. To find each other,
we kept calling and paddling toward the sound, but the echoes misdirected
us, and what seemed like ten minutes passed before our flailing hands touched.
Then we set out to find the boat. We had just begun looking when
I heard what sounded exactly like a door opening very near me, just in
front of us.
“That sounded like a door,” I whispered.
A deep voice in front of us demanded, “Who’s there?”
A flashlight beam shone suddenly on Raskol, and
I caught a glimpse of him, or rather of his face, floating in the fog over
the water as if it were attached to nothing. Then there was a really
terrifying scream, the kind that people have in mind when they say “a blood-curdling
scream,” the kind that makes your blood turn to soft, mushy lumps, like
cottage cheese. Whoever had been holding the flashlight, the same
person who had screamed, dropped the light into the water and ran off,
still screaming. In the moment that the light had shone on us, I
had been able to see that we were inside a boathouse, probably one of the
ones across the river from where we had launched the boat. The flashlight
continued to shine from under the water, and it gave enough light for us
to find the boat, scramble into it, find our paddles, and get started back
across the river. For a while we could see the dim glow of the flashlight,
before the fog absorbed it.
“That’s a pretty good flashlight,” Raskol said after
a long while. “Waterproof. Do you think that they have that
kind at the army-navy store?”