I remember standing in a south wind staring at a cut bank of the Brazos River. The ground above was lush and green, with some beef cows nibbling on tufts of buffalograss as they occasionally looked across the river at the man staring up at them. The bank itself showed how thin the topsoil was; it was sandy, semi-arid land a half foot down from the surface. The bank continued down for another eight or nine feet, with striations of darker sand, some clay veins, a pebbly layer that indicated alluvial sediment during a period of inundation, and the beginning of an unknown history of dinosaurs, primordial horses, camels, pterodactyls, and all the rest of the Daliesque landscape of the deep past.
The Brazos has many minds, and its memory is long. It has been flowing through central Texas for millennia, grinding down the hips of mountain ranges and chewing up the softer earth to make canals and the occasional gorge. Not far from this bank is an old portage under a rusty railroad trestle and the highway, where the banks are precipitous and the sandy beaches below are stained with the poisons shed by the cotton fields above. The poor old river is indifferent to its modern situation; it has been ambling through these coastal plains on its way south to the Gulf forever.
You can find trilobites here, and the fragile shells of sharks’ teeth, and dozens of other fossils left over from vanished oceans, deserts, bison migrations, the wanderings of migratory tribes, ancient hunting camps, and the occasional attempts to settle in this inhospitable country. No Native Americans ever did for long. Their villages were to the east, on the Louisiana border with Texas, near Nacogdoches, an agricultural people called the Caddoes. To the south, in Galveston and as far west as Corpus Christi and beyond, were itinerant Karankawas, whom Cabeza de Vaca encountered after his shipwreck in Galveston Bay. He observed their strange behavior (they were naked much of the day) and how they rolled in the mud at dusk without being able to say quite why they did it, except to smile and invite him and his fellow survivors to do the same. At sundown, he wrote in Castaways, mosquitoes descended in black clouds and attacked every inch of available skin until he threw himself into the slough and covered himself in a sudden crockery-like shell that was as good as any mosquito net.
Out of food, starving for any sort of nutriment, de Vaca also observed how the Karankawas combed the surf for crabs, shrimp, and ate the meat raw. He followed suit, and began to think he might survive. But it was tough. The Karankawas were not a patient people; it was clear they had no scruples about eating human flesh if available. The remains of human bones on the beaches were ample testimony to that possibility. He was eager to bid adieu, but reluctant to head inland to even stranger misadventures. He met them all in time, and reached Mexico with a vast collection of native people behind him. He had healed a few sick people along his way and word spread that this strange bearded figure had the healing powers of a god. He didn’t lack for food, or any other mortal need. He was the first instance of a man surviving on the mercies of the New World, the fertility of a land seemingly without kindness, and wore skins, leather sandals, a man turned inside out by the wilderness. When he met up with Hernan Cortes at the end of his journey, Cortes was surrounded by slaves in chains and ropes, dressed in the full regalia of a conquistador, and scornful of how thoroughly de Vaca had betrayed his European civilization by going native. The two didn’t get along after that.
The story of these two men is a parable of Texas and the bloody contretemps between Europeans and native peoples ever since. But that isn’t what I am thinking about as I stare at the cut bank. I am thinking of the past and my own fragile life in this ever-shifting moment of the present. White clouds scut by under a dark blue sky – as if the ocean were hanging over us and clipper ships were racing to shore. The river was thick with mud and stunk with swamp odors. It was unpleasant to stand here -- faced with eternity while clutching my shirt and keeping an eye out for angry ranchers’ dogs.
I am in a strange mood after Googling a name I hadn’t thought of for fifty years –Cindy, whom I knew when I was fourteen and she was twelve. She wore pigtails and bib overalls, and talked as if she were born and raised in the woods. She wasn’t. Her father was military, her mother a regular housewife like mine. But she did things that struck me as raw and erotic – like the time she took the gum from her mouth and handed it to me wet and glistening and invited me to chew. I did, and tasted her spit in my mouth, which had the same taste as my own. And the warm, juicy gum still had a trace of sugar in it. It was like kissing her, though she was only twelve, and I wasn’t fully awake to the hot summer day, either. She and I held hands now and then as we walked among the trees up the side of Mt. Daniel, a patch of woods that once belonged to a farmer, Raymond Hall, who sold off some acres to a developer who built Brilyn Park, in Falls Church, Virginia, where we lived.
It was one of those friendships that would have become first love if we had stayed there another year or six months. We were on the edge of that discovery, and after chewing her gum, I began to change. She was still my best pal, my first choice for a hike or an adventure, but she was also turning gradually into a girl – tow-haired, slender, long arms, a candid, nearly beautiful smile under the loose gold hair she couldn’t capture in her pigtails. She seemed to be around a lot more after that, as if she too had become aware of me in a different way. We never kissed, or if I did kiss her, it was on the cheek in her front yard. It didn’t mean much to either of us. We were sharing a summer, enjoying the companionship her own frankness created. She didn’t flirt, or tease, or play games with me. She ambled along like Tom Sawyer, only a pretty Tom with the beginning of hips, and her long, agile legs straddling logs and leaping off them as well as any boy could do. Maybe it was the very ambiguity of our sexuality that made this relationship seem perfect. If I had known it would turn out to be a fossil like the scattered bones bleached here in the cut bank, I might have grabbed her, pleaded with her to fall in love, to make a scar on my heart so I would have some relic of the moment. But I didn’t. I let the summer fall through my hands like running water.
The end came one soft August evening when I was showing her my new pellet rifle. She was sitting on the sill of her bedroom window, unbraiding her pigtails. I shot a pellet into a tree and shook the barrel. “My last pellet,” I said. “Trust me,” I said, pointing the barrel at her face. “It’s empty.” “Then shoot it,” she said, smiling, composed, her hands in her lap, her eyes, blue and fading in the dusk, staring down at me. I raised the barrel a little higher and pulled the trigger, and a pellet shot out of the barrel and hit her in the eye. Well, half an inch below the eye. She let out a howl, and clutched her face, and in a moment, her father was behind her, saw me below, and leaped down the steps into the yard. I handed over my rifle and he broke it over his knee, and flung the pieces into the dark of the yard.
Cindy was okay, a welt under one eye, but her father told me not to come back, ever. I nodded, and backed away. Cindy was crying, maybe from recognition that this is how a summer ends. I don’t know. The dusk erased me from the yard, and my shadow crept along under the first street lights toward my house up the block. I had only had the rifle for a few days, after saving for weeks from cutting lawns and running a paper route. But I hated the rifle. I hated the sound of the pellet, the sudden shock of seeing her cover her eye as if I had blinded it. I was relieved when her dad threw the rifle away. I was banned from the castle for good and all. And when I looked back at her house, a stucco building with a porch light and a darkened living room, it was drifting down stream with the rest of the moonlit waters of the Brazos River, headed for the Gulf.