Joseph and Kim don’t remember as much as I do about the creek in Mississippi. Joseph was between the ages of three and five, and Kim was busy with softball most of the time. I don’t remember Kim coming all the time, but I remember the first time we went to that watering hole as a family.
Mississippi was always hot, and the sun didn’t always shine. Somedays the sun never came out and the white sky of clouds blanketed the gulf and the flat land and tall pines. It was a summer day, and the pools on base were packed. My mother couldn’t stand swimming with all those loud people and kids. So my father kept driving on Pass road, and crossed over the bridge to the main land. We left our little peninsula surrounded by the Gulf on the south, and Mullet Lake to the north, a series of inlets only accessible by boat.
We were off the busy interstate in minutes and onto a rural road without stoplights or gas stations. We were in the thick of the South, tall skinny pine trees reached to touch the sky, kudzu flourished on the edges of the forests, and black birds floated in the sky above us. There was an on and off buzz of insect noise and I always wondered what kind of bug made such a long sound that sparked anxiety in my body. The sound made me nervous, where did it come from and what did it mean? What was that bug trying to say or do?
The station wagon’s AC was not the best and my father said it sucked up all the gas, so we rode with the windows down and let the humidity take us. My mother used a hankie to pat her armpits and in between her breasts, reaching down past the collar of her shirt. All of our bangs were wet and brown on our foreheads. Joseph grew fussy with his red tank top sticking to his belly, and pulled it off. I helped him and wished I had not worn my bathing suit. I knew I would need it, but I wished to be topless and free of fabric the same as my brother. Kim looked out the window and held her arm out. With her hand cupped and her arm loose, she mimicked the motion of a snake on water against the wind. I copied her, but I didn’t have the grace of motion. So I just hung my arm out the window, and reached down to the pavement. In my mind the sparkly asphalt was speckled with jewels and diamonds that I couldn’t reach. If I could only get them, we would be rich and have a pool in our own yard in a house in which we could paint our bedroom walls whatever color we wanted.
The drive wasn’t short; long enough to listen to an entire side of a Reba cassette, even with playing Fancy two or three times. We drove north to De Soto National Forest, where we had hiked along a path single file looking, exploring, for water, a private oasis in the forest. The forests in Massachusetts and South Carolina didn’t have the abundance of running water like the woods in Mississippi did. Any dip in the land or run off ditch that filled with water, rain or stream, could warrant a wade. Most of the state was considered below sea level, and I learned in school it was a delta. On a previous excursion to the Park, we had come upon a clearing in the woods, chopped bare stumps unfolded to an embankment with two cars parked beside it. As we reached the cars, we noticed a worn foot path that led down to a small sandy beach shoreline, and a bend of the creek, our entrance to the caramel colored water. The water moved slowly, a calm pace compared to the nonstop waves of the gulf with its boat and water ski traffic. Across from the beach, on the other side of the creek was another embankment with exposed roots that led up to more forest and a crooked tree that leaned out over the water. Someone had tied a rope swing to its branches, and since the afternoon we discovered this sweet swimming spot, Kim had done nothing but remind of us of the swing and how she couldn’t wait to fly from it.
I had little interest in the swing due to a history of stitches and being easily bruised and hurt. Kim was the tough one. The soft ball player, the street hockey skater, two hand touch tackler. I brushed doll hair and changed outfits based on whatever trip or date Barbie and Teresea were going on. I brought my dolls to swim in shallow thin creeks that fractured the forest floor of Hiller Park. I would try to get the crawdad’s to pinch their plastic feet. But I was excited to return to the spot in a swimsuit. The day we found it we only went in up to the hem on our shorts. “You don’t want to walk all the way back to the car in wet denim,” my mother cautioned. I remember how the wet hem held the coolness of the creek on my thighs, and I wished I were soaked.
My father parked the station wagon, and once out the car, the stale air engulfed us. We didn’t have any wind to temporarily relieve us as we did when the car was moving, nor any shade thanks to the loggers clearing parts of the forest to make camp grounds and parking lots, so Mom hurried and popped the hatch to the back of the station wagon. “Here, here. Let’s get down there,” she said and handed us each a towel to carry before she swung the strap of the beach bag over her shoulder, and began her dash to the water. She frolicked in front of us, we joined in behind her, skipping and swinging our arms. I felt like we were the kids in Mary Poppins, following the jovial nanny down a path past penguins. My father even had a galloping stride.
No one yelled at the other to slow down or be careful or to wait for your brother. Instead giggles filled the path and warned everyone in the park that the Kruis’ were there. As soon as my feet hit the sand, I shimmeed out of my cut offs, and flung away my tank top. The near by water acted as a swamp cooler, and the sand dried out the air, humidity was low here. We left our sandals and water shoes on, and almost in unison dove into the shallow entrance of the creek, into the tannic water. Joseph was four now and could doggy paddle quiet well, but he still liked to hold onto our shoulders, my mother and I’s. Magnolia trees and wild azaleas shaded us from either side. And Kim kept her head down and powered across the creek. She maneuvered and clung to the roots to climb over theembankment and to the tree. With in no time, and with only my mother’s cry to be careful, Kim was air borne on the rope, then legs and arms out, a starfish stretch above the deep swimming hole. She shrieked as her back hit the water, and gurgled and spit the creek out of her mouth when she surfaced. “Juli! You have to do it,” she yelled.
While Kim began climbing the root wall again, I tried to float on my back the way my mother was. Her toes, and palms, and face floated in and out on the surface of the creek. We had swum out to the middle, maybe a few yards from either side of the white sand banks. In the middle I couldn’t touch the bottom, but Mom and Dad could so I felt safe out there with out any boogie board to float on when my legs grew tired from treading water. I could hang on to one of them, my hands gripping their slick and freckled shoulders. My mother’s were round and soft, while Dad’s were angular and boney. Mom’s were better to grip. But I had to be weary not to scratch her.
A wind blew over us that afternoon, and the trees from the other side shook and the shadows from their leaves reflected on the flat water. I could only keep my face out of the water as I tried to float and steady my back, and point my toes to the sky. The sun peaked through clouds and leaves, and the inconsistent light danced on our bobbing heads in the creek. I loved how the leaves blurred with the sun, a soundless wind chime in the clouds. We all had the same wet brown hair, tanned skin, and smiles. I thought, this is it. We just need to swim here more in the sweet tea colored water. We needed to be in the cooling, calming, secluded creek. We needed only our heads above water, and here, they were.
Other days it felt like we were drowning in the heat of my parents’ anger. I don’t know what exactly they were mad about, but they were.
Juliana Marie Kruis holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Emerson College. Her poetry and nonfiction appear in The Chaffey Review, Ink Dragons, and Big Muddy: Journal of the Mississippi River Valley. She resides and teaches college composition, literature, and creative writing in South Carolina.