Excerpt from the prologue of The Man with Holes in His Cheeks: A Memoir by Constance Eakins

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.

I glanced 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.

As 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.

“I’ve 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 on in!”

“So 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.

“A forest!” I shouted. “An underwater forest!”

I determined 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.