I am a skinny and awkward boy entrusted to my great auntie for the summer of my fourteenth year. I am out of place among the antiques in her river house, built just after the Great War, its wraparound porch leans on stilts over a rocky slope to a boulder sponged by ages of dark river currents and summer children.
The children live in a small town that’s nestled in the river valley about a mile away. They gather at the boulder, a galactic rock among ice age leavings, the quirky way old auntie describes it. She smells of rose water and witch hazel. She feeds me cantaloupe most mornings for breakfast although I prefer corn muffins and jelly, or bacon and fried flat eggs. Auntie insists that I introduce myself to the children. “They’ll be friendly if you’ll introduce yourself. Tell them you’re visiting your auntie for the summer. Tell them you’re from the big city,” she instructs. “They know I own the rock,” she says, pointing over the splintered wood railing.
There’s an island across the channel from the river house, a witness to the tide of summer children. The island is covered in tall grass with giant oak and sycamore trees rising from the shoestring of land. “The big kids can swim there and back,” a boy tells me. He squints his eyes from the shimmering skin of the river and points to the island. He looks up at me with a face covered in freckles. He’s sunburnt on his rawboned shoulders and chest. “Who are you?” he asks me.
“I’m Joey, visiting the old lady who owns the rock, Joey from the big city,” I say, remembering auntie’s instructions.
“Watch this!” the boy shouts, taking a running leap off the rock and into the river, just missing a girl wearing a pink swim cap. He emerges from the water leaving a plume of dark silt.
“Show off!” the girl with the pink swim cap shouts, wiping water from her eyes. The boy sticks his tongue out at the girl as he holds his shivering body. “The old lady’s a witch. Better watch out, she’ll put you in a bag and throw you in the river. I’m Ronnie, that’s my sister,” he says pointing to the pink-capped girl in the water.
“I’m not worried,” I say to Ronnie. “She doesn’t have a bag that’s big enough for me. She has smaller bags, about your size.” I smile and give Ronnie a wink. He pushes his long, wavy red hair from his forehead and does a twirly jump into the river. Between splashes and chatter from the children, I hear a raspy Swanee River scratched off a brittle 78 record. Auntie had rolled her Victrola onto the back porch and was staring out over of the river. I follow her gaze toward the southern tip of the island. A great blue heron rises above its canopy, casting a shadow over the glistening water.
The town is taking a break from the busy spring fishing season. In another couple of months, fall hunting will begin, and the population will double. Outside the dry goods store a cigar store Indian shields his eyes from the sun. The boy from the river is leaving the store. “Not you again!” he says.
“Hey, you’re Ronnie. Looks like the witch turned this guy into a statue,” I say.
“The witch drowns people in the river,” he says matter-of-factly, rolling his eyes. The girl with Ronnie grabs his hand. “No such thing as witches, but there are rude little boys,” she scolds. “You’re the boy visiting Mrs. Carthenton at the river house, right?” she asks me.
“I’m visiting my auntie for the summer,” I inform her, forgetting for a moment my auntie’s last name.
“I’m Heather, Ronnie’s sister,” she tells me.
“You must be Ronnie’s older sister, not the girl in the pink swim cap,” I say, blushing. She returns the blush. The skin on her freckled cheeks is peeling.
“Mrs. Carthenton was my grandmother’s sixth-grade teacher. She’s got to be the oldest person in town,” Heather tells me. “Does she still chase the kids away from the rock?” she asks Ronnie.
“Pick up your goddamn litter!” Ronnie shouts. Heather pulls at his arm. “That’s what she says,” Ronnie explains.
“Sorry about that,” Heather tells me. “It was nice to meet you. Maybe I’ll see you at the rock,” Heather says, smiling shyly. She takes Ronnie’s hand and walks away. He looks up at his sister and makes kissing sounds.
The next morning I get my lungs full of cool air, close my eyes and smell the river and damp earth, the mountain laurel and hemlock and wood smoke from the cabin down the river. The steel mills around where I live in the city have been coughing up smoke and fire long before I was born, but my dad says it won’t last. China’s been dumping steel, he says. Dad’s been laid off from the mill and must dive fifty miles one way for his new job. Some days he doesn’t come home cause the driving makes him fall asleep. Days when he does make it home it’s late and I’m in bed and he leaves early and I’m still in bed. Mom and dad fight when he’s home on the weekends and not stretched out on the couch snoring.
“Go play with your son,” mom says.
“Christ! Leave me alone,” dad snaps.
The children start arriving at the rock just after lunch — two, three, or more at a time. The younger ones hold hands with older sisters who carry beach towels, blankets, and picnic lunches. Auntie assumes her usual position on the back porch, sitting on the Adirondack chair, a pitcher of iced tea on the picnic table. She’s half paying attention to the chatter and splashes while reading her book of large print condensed stories. I’m sweeping pine needles off the side porch, having completed the back area over the rocky slope. When I’ve finished sweeping, I join auntie.
“They return every day,” she says, staring out across the river. “Even when it’s calm,” she almost whispers.
“The children?” I ask.
“The damn needles. They clog the gutters.” Auntie points upward and reaches for her iced tea on the wicker table. I lean over the railing to get a better view of the swimmers at the rock. Heather and her brother Ronnie had just arrived and were spreading out their picnic blanket.
“I think I’ll go for a swim,” I say to auntie.
“Why don’t you take her out on the river?” she asks. “You can use the johnboat. The keys for the padlock are on the mantel.”
“Take who out on the river?” I ask.
“That little boy’s sister. Heather? She’s about your age. Pretty thing, don’t you think?”
I grab two life jackets and the padlock key. The aluminum johnboat is about a hundred yards downstream from the rock, chained like an old dog. The boat is upside down with the chain running under the seats and around a maple tree. I remove the padlock and pull the chain through the aluminum seats, the hull muffles the rattling links. The boat slides over the sandy bank with a hiss and I row awkwardly toward the rock. As I approach the swimmers, they briefly look in my direction and quickly return to their splashing and jumping off the rock.
Heather and I are on the river for a half-hour without speaking. The silence was broken only by the sound of oars dipping into the tense surface of dark water. “I’ll bet you don’t even know how to kiss,” Heather says. She leans into me, her hands clutching the aluminum seat as if she were about to fall off the spinning earth. I kiss her.
“Not that way, stupid. Open your mouth. Our tongues are supposed to touch. Haven’t you ever had a girlfriend?” Heather asks, turning her head away from me. The soft July breeze lifts several strands of her hair and holds them motionless in the sunlight. She looks down into the river, smiling at her reflection. My face burns red.
“I’ll teach you how to kiss if you want me to, Joey. My father says I shouldn’t kiss boys. Not until I’m older. He tells me he loves me more than anyone else. I don’t think he would mind if we just kissed. I promised father I wouldn’t let anyone ever touch me. He says he loves me more than anyone else can ever love me.”
I hear the whisper of a lyric from Swanee River and look toward the weather-beaten antique of the river house. Mom and dad are standing on the wraparound porch waving. They’ll make promises to each other and to me — promises they can never keep.
William R. Stoddart is a Pushcart nominated poet and fiction writer who lives in Southwestern Pennsylvania. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Quarterly, North Dakota Quarterly, Solstice Literary Magazine, Adirondack Review and Ruminate Magazine.