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|Just north of Hargrove Road is a spot that we must admit is lovely,
where the river runs clear and cool and deep through a small clearing.
On a summer day, with iridescent dragonflies gleaming in the sun, it can
be an idyllic spot for a cooling swim. Unfortunately, the locals
know all about it, so the traveler is likely to have to share the idyll.
Boating on the Bolotomy
NEXT DAY DAWNED still and hot. May was gone, and Raskol had traces
of her lipstick on his mouth and cheeks.
I ate quickly. I had some Spam on one of the
biscuits that I had brought along. In a snit, Raskol crashed off
through the bushes; eleven minutes later, still in a snit, he crashed back
through the bushes, carrying a cardboard cup of coffee.
All our provisions were a mess. We threw the
wet things into the boat and pushed it out into the river. Here the
river was shallow and not much wider than the boat. Bushes grew right
to the banks on both sides, making the space above the water narrower than
the river itself. We pushed the boat into the middle of the river
and climbed in. The boat bottom crunched on the river bottom.
Raskol sighed. “We’ve got to jettison some of this
rubbish,” he said. He reached for the nearest bag and tossed it over
“Hey, wait!” I cried. “Don’t just toss things
out indiscriminately. We’re going to need some of this stuff.
We’ve got to go through each of the bags and sort out the essentials from
the inessential items. Then we’ve got to figure out a plan for rationing
our food and water so that we know how much we can do without.”
“All right,” he said. “Here’s the plan—we’ll
throw out all the food and trust to luck.”
I sighed. I began picking through the supplies
and packing the nonessentials into one of the bags. Raskol sat in
his end of the boat and watched. When I came to the machete, his
eyes lit up.
“Where’d you get this?” he asked, snatching it from
“It was in the cellar at home,” I said. “My
father bought it at the army-navy store. He uses it for clearing
“Now this is the sort of thing we’re likely to need,”
he said. He gave me a nod and a grin, and I could see that some of
his faith in me had returned. He stuck the sheath into his belt and
practiced flourishing the machete while I finished lightening the load.
When I had us down to the bare necessities, I loaded the boat again.
We pushed it out into the stream. We climbed in. The boat floated.
The water purled along the banks, dragonflies flew
alongside the boat, and water striders skittered out of our way.
We began pushing ourselves along, pushing with our paddles against the
river bottom, and at once we began to sweat.
“This is going to be a bitch of a day,” predicted
Raskol. He peeled off his shirt, soaked it in the water, wrung it
out, and put it back on. He did this with such verve, such style,
that I knew he’d learned it along the docks, and it looked to me like the
savviest bit of clammy know-how that I’d ever seen, so I did the same.
My wet shirt stuck to my back and chest and chafed my armpits while I worked
at pushing with my paddle, and as the cloth dried it became stiff and rough
and chafed worse and worse.
Raskol pushed along in grim silence. I was
sure that he was angry with me for having gotten him to agree to come along
on this trip, and that he was taking his anger out on the river.
His pushes were strong and regular, and he spoke only when he had to, to
warn me of a rock or a low-hanging branch.
The river began to narrow. We made our way
now through a tunnel of overarching bushes, and in the tunnel the heat
lay like fog, heavy and unmoving. The leaves overhead were pale,
translucent green, sunlight burning through them. The interstices
between the leaves flamed with pale, lemon fire. Sweat ran from me
continually now. It ran from my hair, down my back, down the sides
of my face, across my forehead, and into my eyes. Mosquitoes buzzed
around my head. They had bitten the upper curve of my ears so often
that I looked like a pixie. While Raskol kept pushing on, staunch
and rhythmical, I squirmed and twisted, slapping mosquitoes and wiping
the sweat from my eyes, and when I did get a push in, it was a clumsy and
ineffective effort, my paddle striking the side of the boat or catching
the river bottom too early in the stroke, so that I was actually working
The sun rose higher, the heat and light grew stronger.
I began to feel lightheaded and dizzy.
“Whew!” cried Raskol. “It’s too hot to keep
this up. Let’s take a break. We’ll pull the boat out over there.”
He headed for the bank. I was too hot and
tired and sick to answer him or to help push the boat ahead.
When the boat was out of the water, Raskol looked
me over with some concern. “Peter,” he said, “you don’t look right.
Lie down on the bank here and put your feet in the water. Rest for
a while. I’m going to look for a place to buy some lunch. You
rest and cool off for a while.”
I heard him walk off through the woods. After the
sound of his footsteps had passed away, woodsy sounds—birds and locusts
and the river—rushed in around me. The river water, flowing along
the banks, burbled. It was a soft and cool and soothing sound, as
pleasant as a chuckle. Every once in a while I’d catch another sound
from the river, at a higher pitch, more like a giggle than a chuckle.
While I lay there listening, the giggles seemed to increase in number and
to draw nearer to me. Curious to know what caused these sounds, I
thought of sitting up and opening my eyes, but I did not, partly because
the heat still pressed me to the ground like an enormous hand, and partly
because the thought struck me that it would be amusing first to make a
good guess about the origin of the sounds, and then open my eyes to see
whether my guess was correct. This I did. I decided that the
sound probably came from the random collisions of a number of small wooden
objects, such as twigs, spools, or billiard balls, that had entered the
river somewhere upstream and were washing past me now.
I sat up and opened my eyes. The giggling
sounds were coming from a dozen or so beautiful young girls who were bathing
in the river. Their clothes lay in piles on the opposite bank, but
they had made their way across the river, and they stood in the clear water
only a short distance from me. In my memory, they are all lovely,
but you know how it is in a situation like that—the surprise at seeing
them there when I opened my eyes, the sunlight playing over them through
the leaves, their wide eyes, my fatigue and dizziness, may have made some
of them a little lovelier then than they would ever be again. One
of them, however, has always been as beautiful as she seemed that day.
She was the only one that I recognized; she was the dark-haired girl about
my age, who had been lying on the deck of a lean blue sloop, stretching
her legs out, turning her face to the sun, dozing, dreaming, going nowhere,
on the day that Raskol and I decided to journey up the Bolotomy.
She—or perhaps it was another of the girls—reached
out toward me and took my hand. She pulled me, tugging me toward
the water. Soon they were all tugging at me and urging me to come
into the water with them, and I decided that I would. It would be
cool. It would refresh and relax me. It would probably be just
what I needed.