I was out on a stolen rowboat
in the middle of the night with April, my boss’s daughter—I
couldn’t have been
more than twelve years old—I stared deep into the Mississippi
River and saw the crown of a tree. It was not a reflection.
The tree may have been rooted in the lowest part of the riverbed
but it had grown so high that the leaves on its highest branches
stretched to within feet of the Louisiana night. As I steered
the boat around the dark shape, I could make out arthritic branches
and wide boughs, rotten wood and macerated leaves that luaued
gently in the tide. It was a live oak—just like the ones
that lined the driveway of our plantation. I couldn’t stare
for long, however, since the current, with a plaintive whisper,
pulled the boat downriver.
at April, but she hadn’t noticed a thing. She was lost in some childish
reverie that took the shape of the New Orleans skyline, its light dancing on
the quiet water. The wide brim of her milkmaid hat drooped over her face so
that all I could make out were her lips. They reflected the moon, on account
of her having smeared them with beeswax before coming out for the boat ride.
I hurried to grab the oars I noticed the crest of another tree
floating under us, and then another and another. We were floating
over an entire underwater forest. When the moonlight hit the
water at just the right angle, the leaves flickered phosphorescent.
I called out to April but she only laughed to herself. She even
refused to lift the brim of her stupid hat.
When I jumped
overboard my feet landed on a tangle of branches that gave way
beneath me. I took a deep breath and dove under. With my eyes
wide open I found my way through the tree’s canopy and clung to the trunk, pulling myself deeper.
The waterlogged branches offered no resistance, barely clinging to my shorts
as they broke around me. A school of catfish peered out from inside a rotten
bole and thousands of silver minnows skittered up and down the bark. When I
couldn’t hold my breath any longer I shot upwards and broke the surface
of the river with a gasp. I held a branch in my hand. It was about as long
as I was tall.
seen a forest in this water!” I shouted. “Live oaks, full grown.” I
pulled off my clothes and tossed them on board the rowboat. “Come
you found a piece of driftwood,” said April, still sitting in the boat. “Get
back in here.” She pulled out her little canister of beeswax and daubed
a finger-full over her mouth.
forest!” I shouted. “An underwater forest!”
right then that I would leave April and St. Rose behind and head
out for the city as soon as I could hustle enough cents to pay
for food along the way. I would keep on traveling until I found
someone I could take back to the river and show the trees.