We headed north on Highway 19 toward the river. The trunk of the old Buick sat low to the road, weighed down by the tackle box, a cooler packed with cokes and ice, and the strain of towing the bass boat. I sat in the front seat between my parents with my back straight and my neck stretched up high so I could watch the road out the windshield. The view of scraggly wooded pines shifted to yellowed scrub brush and back to woods. Wind whipped through the open car windows and cooled the sweat from our skin.
Dad caught his canvas fishing hat from blowing off and tugged it down. His hat was old and frayed and needed to be replaced, but he wore it every time he went fishing and kept his best lures pinned on the brim. With one hand on the wheel, he flung his other arm across the back of the seat to play with a strand of Mom's hair. At his touch her dimples deepened, though her eyes remained hidden behind black sunglasses. She fanned herself with a rolled-up newspaper and said, "We could use some rain."
The morning light bounced off the hood of the car so that I had to shield my eyes. It was only nine o'clock and heat already rose off the blacktop in waves. The road sloped down from the middle into ditches so that in a rainstorm it wouldn't flood, but it hadn't rained for weeks and the ditches were lined with dry grass.
Dad said, "One day it got so hot that the tar melted and slid right off into the ditches," and we all laughed.
I imagined a crew of road workers scraping tar out of the ditch and shoveling it back onto the road and was glad my father was a carpenter, because I loved how he smelled of fresh sawdust when he came home from work.
"You're making that up, Dad," I said. The wind caught his hat again, and he tugged it hard. A fly buzzed against the windshield, and Mom swatted at it with a rolled-up copy of the Saturday paper. "Oh. Just fly out the window, for Pete's sake," she said.
A gray cloud, big as a mountain, filled the eastern horizon, and I worried that the drought might break before we got to the river. A cloud that big could split in two, make its own thunderstorm. I prayed that cloud would blow south or hold itself together for another hour, because it would only take one bolt of lightning across the sky for Mom to change her mind and issue the order, "Turn the car around."
An hour later, we turned onto the dusty service road that led to the river, passing around potholes and washed-out boulders. At the end, where the road widened into a turnout, the river came into view, a clean slice against the forest shadow. Dad backed the trailer down the ramp, unlatched the hitch, and slipped the boat into the Homosassa River, the crystal blue vein that sprang from Florida's limestone bedrock and ran west to the Gulf of Mexico.
I sat cross-legged on the bow, keeping an eye out for cypress roots and shallows as we motored upstream. Black-eyed fish darted into underwater crevices. A great blue heron flew upstream, lifting at the last moment right over our heads. Intermittent light filtered through the trees. Heavy clumps of moss hung from low-hanging branches, thick like old men's beards.
When we got to our favorite beach Dad tossed the anchor overboard and stripped down to his swimming trunks. "There's no finer thing in the world than a spring-fed river," he said, and jumped off the back of the boat.
I was right behind him, smacking the water with a cannonball. The seventy degree water, hitting every inch of my skin, took my breath away, but it was beautiful below the surface. An underwater spring flowed from between stacked slats of limestone. This is what we had come for. Water so rich in minerals my body ached just for the smell of it. I swallowed mouthfuls, dove deep into the current and felt its force. My love for the river swam through my blood. If only I could sprout gills, breathe water like air, soar with the twitch of a muscle, the push of a fin; a carp, a catfish, an eel.
I kicked against the water until I was chilled through to the bone, my lips turned blue, my teeth chattered. I climbed out of the water, wrapped a quilt around my body and found a place on the beach where the sun had warmed the sand. Light filtered through the overhead branches. An occasional breeze rippled across the water, rustled through the woods. The world was silent except for the random caw-caw of a crow. It might have been the Garden of Eden. We might have been the first family.
Gale Massey, a seventh-generation Floridian, lives in St. Petersburg.