I have decided to go swimming. It is a dangerous area, I am told, there is a chain gang 3 miles from Red Pond, but the quiet beauty of the fir trees that hug the red path winding through the piney woods overwhelms me. Perhaps it is my Cherokee bloodline that makes me want to reach out and take back the Earth, reclaim it from the white man.
If I am in danger, I have unwittingly included my 5-month-old daughter, Jenny. She is in the new stroller Mother has sent me, the one with the spinning front wheels that will not roll over the deep ruts in the red clay path. I had been told by Mr. and Mrs. House that there were some indigent people living in the woods. They are the aged couple who own the obsolete gas station/grocery store/post office, a mile down the highway from my house. It is the only store in Eastover, S.C., a tiny village of gray shacks and sleeping dogs.
My husband is stationed at Shaw Air Force base; he is three days at the base and two days home. I am living in a tiny house, one of two that faces State Route 601 to Columbia, and I am very homesick for my family in Ohio. I swallow the aching lump that forces tears to my eyes, turning the woods into a scenery of translucent beauty.
I see a cabin in the distance and wave at the woman on the front porch sitting in a rocking chair with a pan of green beans in her lap. She waves and smiles a friendly toothless grin. In the yard under a scrub tree two large dogs stand watching me as I pass by, their ears pointed to attention. The next second they are running across the yard, their hurtful barking blending with the old woman's musical whistle and shout. My heart pounds in my ears as they skid to a stop at the end of the driveway, throwing red dust around them like a halo in the sun. She stands on the porch and waves at me, the pan of beans held under her arm.
I wonder at the wisdom of my decision to swim, but the thought of the lonely house spurs me on. The sun is getting higher overhead, and Jenny pulls at the lace bonnet I have tied under her chin. She cries, and the sound of her crying scares a family of red-winged blackbirds from the trees. I stop and fish her bottle of juice out of the diaper bag, release the back on the stroller and let her lie down. The trees have formed a canopy over the path, and sunlight filters through the Spanish moss, blowing in the warm breeze like gray lace. I can smell smoke in the air, the aroma of collard greens, white bacon and fried onions. I wonder if it is from the hog I gave to the family living half a mile behind me in a weathered house on the edge of the woods.
My husband had been given a butchered hog by a man at the base. The hog, I soon discovered, had been stolen, and I refused to eat it, even though we were nearly starving. I know of karma, and I was inclined to worry over the rebound on such a deed.
I remembered seeing several young children and an ancient man sitting on the porch in the house behind our rented bungalow. The old man must have thought I was demented to give away a whole butchered hog. He thanked me many times over during the year I stayed at Red Pond. Once, he sent the children over with a sack of flower seeds that I planted in my back yard. The flowers blossomed in brilliant colors and grew large as cup saucers, filling the tiny yard and the field behind the house.
It is stifling in the woods even with the shade from the trees, and I am finally ready to go back and forget about the whole idea of taking an afternoon swim, when the pond suddenly comes into view. It is shimmering like a red jewel in the hot sun, its banks fringed with tall cypress trees, their branches hung heavy with Spanish moss trailing into the pond. I lay Jenny on a blanket and step into the warm red water, feeling the mud ooze between my toes. I stay close to the shore, keeping a watch on the baby, but I am tempted to dive a little deeper for a moment of cool bliss.
After I swim, floating on my back to peer under the tall trees, I stretch out on the blanket beside Jenny. We both sleep soundly, and when I finally wake, long shadows have spread across the pond and there is a chill in the air. I quickly gather our blanket and pull my long cotton skirt over the wet bathing suit. It is then I notice that my skin is red. Clay red! I gingerly finger a long strand of hair and find that it, too, has turned color. I look like the Amazon natives that use clay on their face and hair to turn it crimson.
The sun casts gold and purple rays through the trees. and I am hopelessly lost as I stand in the middle of the dirt road with the woods hugging close on either side. I have made a wrong turn on the long path from the pond and what had seemed lovely to me in the afternoon sunlight was now looking quite different in the gathering dusk. I realize how foolish I have been.
I gather Jenny into my arms, ready to make a run for it when I hear something big coming around the bend, its hooves pounding into the ground. I laugh and cry at the same time. It is the old man I gave the karmic hog to; he sits on top of a dilapidated wagon full of kids and watermelons. I am so glad to see him I can't speak. The children help me load the stroller on top of the watermelons, and we head out of the woods onto Highway 601, waiting at the stop sign for the trucks to pass. The old man is bent over the reins of the mule, the children dangle their feet from the side, and I am sitting on the mound of green striped watermelons, a clay red Amazon woman and her child.
Jo Harris Shaw is a freelance writer who lives in Palm Harbor.