A Small Stream
A Good Home-Run Swing
I don’t know why some memories remain open to me while others are cut off. It’s a mystery I’ll never understand. All I know is that some moments are engraved in my mind. I remember one such moment when I was four or five, and the small stream that brought it to me. This tiny stream flowed through Darragh, the equally tiny hamlet where we lived amid the gently rolling hills of western Pennsylvania. Those hillsides which weren’t covered in maples and oaks, ash and honey locust, had corn one year and grazing dairy cows the next as the farmers rotated their crops. Corn, you see, takes too much nitrogen from the soil. Alfalfa, a European grass with a pretty, dark pink flower that bees love, returns a lot of that nitrogen to the soil. But I knew none of that when I first came close to that stream one hot summer day in 1956.
I can’t say what name, if any, that small stream had, but I do know that it flowed beside the property of Mr. Antonio Cambruzzi, a first-generation Italian immigrant who owned a coalmine in Darragh, the entrance to which lay close to the stream. He also owned our apartment building, which sat on one of those gently sloping hills, about 300 yards away to the northwest and in sight of the mine entrance, but that’s the site of other stories. Though his coal mine was next to the stream, and the rock waste from the mine was piled high on adjacent land, somehow this stream escaped the orange death of sulfuric acid seeping into it from abandoned mines, a death that had killed many such streams in western Pennsylvania, even the mighty Kanawha River, though I knew none of that then.
I did know that this little stream without a name flowed slowly and sweetly through the fields next to the coal mine, skirting the edge of the man-made hill of mine waste. I remember coming upon it one day with a few other kids, though who they were, and where we were going has been lost to memory. What has never been lost to me, however, is the quiet of the place, the moment. While my companions went on ahead, passing the spot where I now stood, I had lagged behind, as is my habit. The heat of the summer afternoon must have pushed me there, into the shade of a stand of small trees. Under this small canopy, I found a deep pool in this otherwise shallow and narrow stream. Shaded by the trees on both sides, the water flowed serenely, a random floating leaf or bit of grass marking its stately passage. I remember my surprise at this oasis of cool life amid the otherwise dry, quiet fields, whose emptiness was broken only by the occasional sounds of crickets or arching jumps of small grasshoppers.
Here, though, life surged. A small bird sang softly in one of the tree branches, and as I crouched down, a frog plopped unseen into the water somewhere nearby, frightening a small school of tiny fish that hugged the shore. They shot out into the slow current, swimming and turning with the rapid, synchronous grace of a flock of birds in autumn, their movements rhythmically distorted as the concentric rings of the frog’s belly flop rolled across the surface. And as I strained to follow the tiny school of fish, their world suddenly came into view.
On the stream’s surface, water striders glided like tiny cross-country skiers, pulling and gliding, pulling and gliding, stopping here and there for reasons unknown. Below them, whirligig beetles paddled under the surface in slowly gyrating spirals down to the stream bottom, then floated back upwards, their oars motionless. Small, smoothly brown stones changed to water snails as I discovered their almost imperceptible glide across the stream bottom near the water’s edge. As I knelt beside the edge of this pool, dappled light shone through the trees, sending shafts of yellow brightness moving through the jade green of the pool’s depth. The stream had been transformed.
In that moment of peace, as I gazed into the water, my curiosity rose up. What’s there, down there where I can’t see? Leaning slowly forward on my haunches, I peered into the pool. As I strained to see and my nose came close to the surface, a shape took form from out of the depths. A pumpkinseed sunfish, his gill covers aflame in royal blue, aqua, and amber-orange, fanned his way toward me, slowly, almost regally. I nearly recoiled in shock. Not that he was huge, but he had such a presence, a self-awareness that was regarding me. It seemed he had swum up to look at me.
My eyes feasted on the brilliance of his colors. The amber-orange here and there shaded to gold, his gill covers each held a red-circled black spot, like a pirate’s earrings. His blue and aqua head shaded to moss green on his back, his flanks covered in gold specks, his belly a bright butter-yellow. Yet even more than this riot of color, my eyes fixed on his two milky-blue front fins as they slowly fanned the water, like a magician’s white-gloved hands as he makes the coin disappear from his palm.
I don’t know how long we remained gazing at each other, though it seemed a long time. I remember wanting to go to him, to be in his world, at least for a while. Then, as quietly as he came, he turned and glided back into the green depth of that pool. I was sorry to see him go.
I’m fifty-two now. In the years since that day I’ve learned many things. I now know that fish usually see us before we see them, but that they have short memories, a lethal fact that herons use to their patient advantage. I also know what may have made that water so lustrously emerald–possibly fertilizer run-off from any of the surrounding cornfields. Water flows such a long way, and it carries so many things, remembers so much of what has happened. And I know that each of our days is flooded with a million thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and that time washes much of it away somewhere. What I still don’t know is what this memory means, nor why I have kept it open.
I recall this memory now and again. From time to time, it suddenly surfaces, unbidden, unexpected. And it pleases me each time, much as it did when it was fresh and new. And something in me will not let it go.
Copyright © Mark McTague, 2004