THREE MILES SOUTH of Berne, Indiana a very conventional bridge fills the gap caused by the yellow arm of the Wabash River that curls between Adams County and Jay County. This bridge has been worn white from the friction of school bus wheels and the heat of the sun which, at noon, is perfectly poised between the two hedges of shaggy woodland that sprout up on either side. Below, in the honey-colored mud (which, in winter and spring, is transformed into honey-colored sludge) two islands – one on either side of the bridge – sprout from the river bed like the backs of two men floating face-first in the brown water. Both are lean, made from mud which is reshaped every season by the erosion and waxing of the river tides – brittle and towering in the August heat, sleek and shapeless in the March rains. Grey shrubs and hair-like grass dangle from its banks, and a half a dozen limp saplings huddle in the center of each shifting blob. Canoes – which rarely venture into the dank shallows of the river’s Adams County stretch – must carefully gauge the water when they pass the earthy masses, or risk becoming entangled in the greedy webwork of roots, tires, and branches that hover between the river bed and the opaque surface.
The westerly mound tended to be squat and thick, approximately the size of a tennis court, while the easterly protrusion – which followed the bend of the river and was crescent-shaped like a clipped thumbnail – was broad at the middle, tapering into horns, and was long enough to park fifteen large sedans end-to-end along its spiny meridian.
The bridge between them lay between my hometown and the middle-school that I attended. I was an intoxicated daydreamer during those years, and when the bus carried me between those shifting mud banks. To my young mind they were romantic: for a boy raised in the cornfields of east-central Indiana the prospect of an island of any kind evoked fantasies of pirates, treasure, forts, hideouts, campsites, and robbers. I imagined using them as a base of operations for summertime escapades – a place to camp, fish, and construct crude fortifications, never mind under whose jurisdiction or ownership the property fell. Not far from it, the Snow Cemetery – a resting place for local Civil War dead – rested sleepily: a hump of shaggy grass speckled with low, square rectangles washed white and nameless by time. It was curiosity to discover more about the history of these sunken graves and their bucolic surroundings that influenced me to sift through maps of the county and the river. I remember looking at old surveys of the river and being shocked to watch their steady development: in 1840 the river was broad and unblemished at that particular bend; a map from 1863 shows the crescent just peeking from the surface; in 1898 (a decade after the Civil War cemetery was planted near its banks) it is nearly entirely emerged; in 1942 the tennis court begins to show itself; in 1971 the transformation is complete. I was stunned at their apparent willfulness, sentience even. Ultimately I fetishized their romance found myself begrudging my unwillingness to either walk the three miles to explore them or ask my parents to drop me off – an option immediately excluded by the need for this adventure to be an exercise in independence and self-reliance, for that was what the two islands had come to represent to me.
Nolan and I were fifteen when we borrowed his cousin’s canoe to cross the large, serpentine lake that formed the nucleus of Berne’s semi-affluent neighborhoods. He later decided to join the Marines, and in retrospect it was natural that he found some affinity with the only substantial tract of grey water in the general vicinity. It was a manmade lake with beveled shores and symmetric outlines, dotted by two islands of its own – one football shaped, one baseball shaped – in separate wings of flat, safe water. The canoe Nolan borrowed – it ultimately became synonymous with our friendship as I in turn would then borrow it from him to scout Fryback Lake on weekday mornings in June and July – had a red, fiberglass hull edged in black plastic, with black plastic seats forward and astern. Propelled by two aluminum-shafted paddles with black fins and grips, it was a simple and stable craft, unthreatened by the subtle swells resurrected by distant speedboats and the gusts of wind that ruffled its surface during summer storms.
Where I was a romantic, Nolan was a genuine explorer, unburdened by imagination or expectation. His was merely to do and die, not to reason why, and his extroverted gumption quickly outpaced my thoughtful reflections in bringing my long-desired landfall to fruition.
We were eighteen and our final semester of high school had been underway for several months – it was early April – when we decided to promote the canoe, (which we self-importantly called Intrepid after my Dodge sedan) from lake maneuvers to river duties. The decision wasn’t entirely unrelated to our quickening separation: Nolan was due to enter basic training in the summer of 2006, and I had been accepted to Anderson University. While neither of us mentioned the obvious, it was clear that – excluding chance encounters when college breaks and furlough coincided – our friendship was to be heavily abbreviated in the coming months.
We were at a campfire in his backyard – the perennial social space for any rural town during months with tolerable weather – with two or three of our common friends. Intrepid was perched behind us on a cord of snow-rotted firewood. A person who has little to do with this story – I’ll call him Phil – was laying his hand on the pulpy mass and emptying his bladder into its midst. It is natural to suppose that Phil was in the process of converting lite beer from cold, pale fluid to warm, pale fluid, but this is not the case. A regular of our youth group, Phil was a determined teetotaler, and while he felt that it was his duty to act the ass (as a starring member of the varsity golf team), he did so entirely without the influence of liquor (what he imagined this would do for his reputation, I can’t possibly suppose). Most often, this manifested itself in conspicuous semi-nudity in homosocial circles – streaking, public urination, non sequitur moonings, and the whole gamut of Christ-approved self-debasement). Once the cluster of girls – a group which perennially flitted in and out of our social circle without ever dating any of us – had disappeared into the same car and left for a rival bonfire on the rival side of town, Phil saw fit to, as he termed it, “take care of [his] bidniss,” as he leaned into the woodpile. Intrepid hung over him like a divine grimace.
“Hey. What’re you doing this Saturday?”
I looked up at Nolan. I was lost in thoughts of graduating, of losing my friends, and of finding a career.
“I don’t know. I guess nothing, really. Why? What’re you thinking?”
His eyes were simultaneously excited and hesitant, afraid of my response, I deduced. Phil had decided to shed his pants entirely and climb onto the pile. I ignored the spectacle which was apparently becoming a cause célèbre with the bonfire’s three or four remaining attendants.
“I wanna take the canoe out on the river.”
He wasn’t paranoid to doubt a positive response; I was much likelier to risk cuts, bruises, wetness, hunger, and difficulty in my imagination, and I had turned down several dozen self-same suggestions (including being branded with a coat-hanger, detonating Works bombs, and playing football in the February snow) throughout our friendship. But the germ of an idea took root in my mind: I saw the weed-strangled mud banks whose independence had allured me since I can remember being driven over the bridge to school.
“We can park the truck in Linn Grove and take it the Loblolly Creek Fork to Geneva.”
The two islands squatted almost mathematically between the two points. My interest had been won. Nolan lacked his usual vigor, however. Something akin to nervousness flickered in his irises, and although it made me pause to wonder, I passed it by, contributing it to his approaching enlistment. I realized what the future posed for him, and I didn’t envy the prospect of leaving the freedom of my clean avenues and quiet parks for the nocturnal firefights and broiling oil fields of Iraq. While he believed in his cause, and while he was suited to a life lived under the guidance of authority, the encroaching loss of his private citizenship had been weighing heavily on his spirit, and – or so I imagined – a foray onto the river, entirely free of commands or instructions, might ease his anxieties. Without asking I understood, and I decided that the sortie would be beneficial to both of our psyches, as he approached enlistment and I enrollment.
We would take Intrepid to Linn Grove (a virtual hamlet of some two dozen houses encircling one of the river’s snake-like coils) in two days.
Phil’s entourage had crowded around the woodpile, encouraging his display, when one of them – a phenomenally obese person – bent over in a jerking motion, losing their footing, falling against the wood. Turning roughly on his ankle to account for the shockwave, Phil reached for an invisible ladder before being displaced onto the ground some six feet below. I decided that this was an appropriate time to leave. Before turning my back to a naked and bruised Phil being helped from the ground by his noticeably less-enthused associates, I noticed that Intrepid had been dislodged during Phil’s fall and decline: in the darkness I couldn’t easily distinguish its black interior from the background of the woodpile, but I remember walking away with the impression that it resembled a lipless, toothless mouth, its jaws drawn back in desperate hunger.
In the meantime our lives followed their natural tracks: we met for coffee and pancakes with our friends on Friday mornings; we ran the gamut of classes – each somewhat entrapped and dwarfed in the gravity of graduation; we had petty responsibilities at home. And when Saturday morning came, we changed into grungy shorts and tees, slipping on canvas shoes, and bringing whatever trinkets we thought fitting with us in nylon rucksacks.
Once I had changed and rubbed the sleep from my hair and eyes, I burdened by ruck with a thermos of coffee, hatchet, a coil of nylon rope, and a meal of jerked beef, crackers, and apple slices preserved with lemon juice. It was nine o’clock and the sky was bluish-white, low and hefty. The promised rain wasn’t due for another twenty hours, and I took the low ceiling in stride, announcing to myself that it was good, that I wouldn’t have to worry for sunburn.
Nolan was already outside when I drove up. He had shouldered Intrepid into the bed of his truck and was climbing into the cab with his provisions slung over his back in a drawstring bag. I pulled up alongside his house, a brown ranch ensconced in well-trimmed turf, and called out to him. He shouted my name and jumped up and down excitedly. This wasn’t the spirit with which I had hoped, as a ten year old boy, to gracefully make landfall on the court and crescent, but his enthusiasm was the fuel of our expedition, and I feigned the same degree of excitement, eager to leave the organized street plans of society for the Wabash’s unfenced boulevard.
The truck ride to Linn Grove was long and anxious; I wondered how high the river was, whether we would be challenged by possessive property owners, if Nolan would respect my desire to land on the islands, or if his pragmatic character would insist that we shuttle up and down the river without pause for needless sentiments. Our friendship was based on our dovetailed senses of humor: where Nolan was a loud exhibitionist given to public stunts, I was a sharp-tongued whit, capable of augmenting his feats with the color of my imagination. Without him, I was a solemn mind. Without me, he was a braggish mouth.
We eased the pickup down a worn trail that lead down the bank of a subtle ditch, running parallel with the river for a quarter-mile. Once we were out of sight of the highway, entirely enveloped by the grey fingers of ash trees and beeches. The river was bloated with the previous month’s snow and rain, making the prospect of canoeing simultaneously more practical and more deadly. The current was drawing black limbs past us at an uncommonly rapid pace, but both of our chests throbbed with the heat of exploration, and it is only in retrospect – after what I now know was to happen – that I recall the river’s temperament. During the summer months the Wabash was a sickly, fetid ditch, but in the spring months it was quick and cantankerous. The caramel-colored water, frothing at the banks and boiling in long bands when impeded by refuse or downed limbs, was known to sweep over its boundaries in the middle of the night, dragging objects, flora, and fauna into its eager mouth when the floods subsided, quenching its angry hunger.
It was with great care that I lowered myself into Intrepid while Nolan steadied the stern. We had lowered it into a shallow sheltered from the current by a pile of grey tires, but it still rocked convulsively. I laid my rucksack in the center, taking up the forward paddle while Nolan slipped into the aft, releasing his hold on the shore, and – with an easy push from his paddle – injecting us into the foamy rush.
The current pulled us forward, and our paddles did little more than guide our path. I had never been this close to the Wabash, and the thrilling connection to the mythic waterway which embossed my state like a soldier’s crossbelt, was existential. The water lapped hungrily at Intrepid’s prow, thumping the bottom viciously as each swell passed under us. Fryback Lake had been domestic and ingratiating, like a man-slave purchased from the company of a conquered people, but the Wabash was barbaric and free, and it tossed us out of the way when we became too burdensome or demanding.
We rode the milky surface for several miles, talking over the humming voices that surrounded us, in high voices, exchanging petty jokes and cheap insults while we surged over the river’s opaque atmosphere, crashing through spiny dams of ice-gutted branches and congealed bogs of black leaves and pine needles. We watched the white walls of Linn Grove pass us by, and the shape of the landscape changed subtly from distant brown fields to shaggy hills tangled with underbrush, crowned by the dun skeletons of ash trees.
It was three hours later when I recognized the irregular spacing of the trees and the glint of aluminum caught my attention. Through the nest of branches I could see the systematic, orderly architecture of the concrete bridge with its railing glinting in the cold white light of early April. It was there when I looked down and ahead: like a slumbering slug, profound in size and girth, the western horn of the crescent came into relief, black against the orange sludge.
“When do you wanna eat?”
“Like lunch. We could land on one of these islands and eat.”
“On our way back. Let’s make it to Geneva before we stop.”
I wasn’t surprised, but I was annoyed. As Intrepid coasted alongside the crescent I was able to scan its shoreline – for the first time at eye level. It was wild and ragged, cluttered with fallen trees, and swollen with pulpy clay hillocks. A cluster of twigs clutched at the back of my neck as we glided under some of the stranger looking trees. I brushed them off. I remember having that same, fanciful sensation: the islands looked like two slumbering slugs, fat and well-fed. A low-hanging branch became caught on our prow, somehow without my noticing. I pushed it off with my paddle.
We rushed past the faceless hulks, passing through coil after coil of fermenting water, pausing only at the fork where the Loblolly Creek eased southerly towards Geneva. The difference was palpable. The embankments were grassier, lower, sleepier, and we cruised softly if not complacently across this quiet branch before beaching in a yellow bed of grass to stretch and snack. Nolan was nursing a Jones Soda when I reintroduced the topic of the two islands.
“Are you still thinking of lunching on that island?”
I thought. The tennis court had seemed considerably compromised by the water —somehow slimy, even – barely more than a mud pie sprouting shags of grey grass.
“The longer one. Shaped like a moon.”
He seemed thoughtful, an uncommon state. His impulsivity had both benefitted and annoyed me, but the shift was so sudden that I was initially concerned before he responded.
“We’ll make a fire there and have lunch.”
“I brought lighter fluid and newspaper.”
I considered the potential laws we might violate, but laughed off my concerns. Wasn’t this what I had imagined? Beaching a watercraft on that scraggly islet, making camp on its surface, claiming it for my own like a weary discoverer raising his country’s colors over a wild and unclaimed territory? I agreed. We loaded back into Intrepid, paddling into the current, not noticing the purple streaks clotting the eastern sky.
The going was certainly rougher, even in the Loblolly, usually a passive tributary. We began to struggle once we rejoined the Wabash, dipping vigorously into the wash at sporadic intervals, avoiding the gnarled onslaught of driftwood and garbage. Overhead, after an hour in the water, we noticed the canopy of white, purple, and pale green leaflets shivering from some unseen disturbance. Shortly after, the u