I look back on that night and wonder why I was so scared. Was it the noises—or the fact I was alone, surrounded by water, with nothing overhead but the glittering stars and the Cheshire moon?
That day began just like any other Thursday. At school I almost fell asleep in math class, and by the time I got home, I was ready to go outside. Unfortunately, my mom made me finish my homework first.
I had just finished my homework when I heard the announcer on the radio say, "It's five-thirty and the temperature is sixty-three degrees."
"Yes!" I cried. Grabbing a jacket and telling my mom goodbye, I got on my bike and rode to Jim's house. He usually finishes his chores and piano practice by five-thirty.
Jim lives near the Cypress River. I found him behind his house, working on the model boat he planned to enter in the county's annual model boat contest.
"How is the boat coming?"
"Fine," Jim replied as he tangled his finger in a ball of string.
"Do you want to go to the river—that is if you aren't too wrapped up?"
He rolled his eyes. "Sure. I'll leave a note for my mom."
I raced him the two blocks to the river. Jim won, but he was out of breath. This section of the river has immense oaks, cypress and willow trees growing beside it. Sometimes when the wind blows hard it sounds as if they are whispering among themselves.
The pier creaked under our feet as we walked out to the edge and sat down. The breeze off the river felt good against my skin.
I was watching an egret flying against the pink skyline, scanning for fish before dark, when I heard Jim mutter, "I wonder what that is." He was staring at the reeds to the right of the pier.
"That green thing in the reeds."
Jim went over to investigate. With a stick he knocked away the brown reeds to reveal an old wooden fishing boat about three feet wide and twelve feet long. Its once white color had faded to gray. The paint was peeling on the sides like sunburned skin. A frayed yellow rope tied to the bow led up to a cypress root.
"Hey, look at this relic," he said. "Think it belongs to Captain Volge?"
"Do you think it belonged to the Captain?" Captain Volge was a one-eyed fisherman rumored to have been a pirate. One morning he went out on the river to check his nets and that night his boat washed ashore empty. His body was never found.
I must have looked a little scared, because Jim looked up at me and laughed. "If it is and we mess with it, he's liable to come looking for you." Jim pulled the boat into the water. "Sure is rickety."
I decided to prove to Jim that I wasn't scared. I got in and sat down on one of the three slats that served as seats.
"Still seaworthy," I declared.
"Tell it to the captain."
"I ain't scared of no ghost!" I stood up and began swinging an imaginary sword in the air.
"You'd be heading for the hills leaving a cloud of dust behind you if you saw the captain," Jim taunted.
"Oh is that so?" Trying to execute a particularly daring sword thrust, I lost my footing and fell back into the boat. The shifting weight pushed the boat on out into the river. I sat up and grabbed the rope at the bow, hoping to pull myself in, but when I pulled on it there was no tension on the end.
Jim was frowning at the boat, as if he was trying to think of a plan. I could see him, receding away from me.
"Turn it around," he called. "Try to paddle it back to shore."
I frantically searched around the boat for an oar, but all I saw was a frayed rope. "There's nothing to paddle with!"
"Jump in and swim!"
I started to slip over the side—and then I remembered hearing about a swimmer who had been bitten on the foot by a sand shark down at Spivey's Point, only a mile or so away. Shark sightings weren't that uncommon in this section of the river, which was only a few miles from the Albemarle Sound.
"What if there's a shark?"
Jim shouted something back but I couldn't hear what it was. The boat was moving fast now in the current, and in the fading light I couldn't make out the expression on his face. He ran along the bank, trying to keep me in sight, but after a while, I couldn't see him anymore at all. The boat moved away from the bank, into the center of the wide river, and headed south toward the sound.
It was dark, and the eerie cry of a screech owl sent a chill down my spine. I saw the ghost of Captain Volge, his blade shining in the light of the moon. At such times, my imagination can be my enemy, transforming driftwood carved by years of water into a ghost, and a jumping fish, scales shining in the moonlight, into a sword blade. Knowing it was my imagination didn't help.
I huddled up in my windbreaker, shivering in the wind that chilled my bones. I looked out at the river, shining like onyx in the moonlight, and wondered what was lurking beneath its depths. A shark? I couldn't let myself get carried off to the sound. I'd read about boats overturning there and people drowning. I tried to pray, but the only thing I could think of was "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep." I felt OK until I got to the part about "if I should die before I wake." Somehow that didn't seem very comforting.
I lay back in the boat, resting my head on one of the slats, and tried to relax. Jim will tell my parents and they'll have the Coast Guard out looking for me, I thought. I'll be all right. Lulled by the gentle rocking of the boat, I drifted off to sleep. I dreamed that my parents were on a road trip singing "One Hundred Bottles of Pop on the Wall," without my tenor voice.
The boat lurched in the current and I woke up, seeing a flash of white overhead—a snow-colored owl swooping down toward me. I got in the position you are supposed to get into during a tornado and covered my head with my hands. My muscles tensed as I waited for the talons to dig into my back. But the owl splashed into the water near the boat, and rose up clutching a fish in its talons, then flew up into the starry sky I envied the owl. It could go wherever it wanted, and I was trapped in a ghost's boat on the river—swept along in a current that was carrying me off to an unwanted destination.
I wondered what my parents were doing and what Jim had told them. I could picture them sitting around the dining room table, staring at the empty place setting where I usually sat. I could kick myself for trying to show off. Why did I have to get in the boat? Why did I have to be so foolish?
I was distracted from my reverie by something bumping the boat. My heart leaped, and I remembered the story about the shark-bitten swimmer. I peered over the side, expecting to see a dorsal fin, but all I saw was a shadowy shape with a head sticking up. It was a big old snapping turtle, the size of a washtub.
"Go away," I said. And I lay back down in the boat.
The dim outline of a plan began to take shape in my tired mind. I sat up and saw that the turtle was still there, swimming in the same direction as the current.
I looked back at the rope, then at the turtle. I made a lasso and went to the bow of the boat again. I missed with my first toss. The boat tipped as I leaned forward, plunging my face into the chilly river. I came out sputtering and dried my face off with my sleeve.
I had to get the turtle before he got away.
"Please God, let my aim be true," I prayed. The lasso seemed to move in slow motion. It hung in the air above the turtle's head before it dropped neatly around his neck.
I got it! I got the turtle!
"Now go to the shore," I said.
But the turtle swam steadily alongside the boat.
I had to figure out a way to distract him, get him to pull me to shore. Leaning out as far as I safely could over the side of the boat, I began swatting at him with my windbreaker. "Go on, Adagio," I said. In musical terms, adagio means "very slow."
Slowly, Adagio turned north, pulling me away from the center of the river, toward shore.
Adagio lived up to his name. The sun was coming up before we neared the shore. The golden treetops appeared to be on fire.
I almost jumped for joy but the boat would have tipped. When the water was knee high, I jumped out and slipped the lasso off Adagio's leathery neck, being careful to maintain a safe distance from his ferocious-looking jaws.
"Thanks for the help, Adagio," I said. He stared at me a moment, his flat black eyes full of ancient mysteries, then he slowly turned around and headed back out to the sunlit river.
I dragged the boat up onto the bank and tied the frayed rope around a cypress root. Then I walked up through the woods, toward the road. My body ached and my head hurt.
I was behind Hugo's Texaco Station. The current had taken me about five or six miles down river from Jim's house. Hugo's station had peeling gray paint and the fluorescent lights over the gas tanks were flickering. I sat down on the curb and felt a sudden attack of dizziness, as if I were about to fall off the edge of the world. I shut my eyes, took several deep breaths, and thanked God for sending me an angel in the form of a snapping turtle.
When my head cleared I stood up and walked into Hugo's. I asked the man behind the counter if I could use the phone and he nodded at a black phone on the counter. I picked it up and with trembling fingers I dialed the number to my house.
My mother answered on the first ring. "Hello," she said, her voice cracking.
"William! Where in the world are you?"
"Hugo's Texaco, I . . ."
"What in the world are you doing there? Where have you been? We've been worried sick!"
"It's a long story, Mom. I'm fine. Can you pick me up? I'm really tired, and hungry"
"We'll be there as soon as we can."
A few minutes later, my daddy pulled up in his car with my mom and Jim. They all ran up and hugged me, even Jim.
I told them everything that had happened on the way home.
"Oh, honey, you must have been terrified out there, all alone on the river," my mother said.
I thought about how I hadn't been completely alone on the river. There had been fish, a snow-colored owl, and a turtle I'd never forget as long as I lived.