An ode to the days on Oceola

Forest

My favorite place resided between South Elm Street and East 5th street. It was in a secluded part of my hometown, so isolated from the honks and industrial fast-food smells of the inner city that you could almost imagine life before urbanization started throwing glass beer bottles into the river.

In the mind of a child, it was a forest that could go on forever, stretching out over the low flatlands of North Carolina and into the untouched vastness of the Rocky Mountains, as far as Boone or even Tapoco. One could muse over this thought for days, one’s mind filled with a trail that crosses creeks and rivers, over bedrock and exposed sandy clay. This trail goes on until it’s met by the coast; the saltier water of the bank meets the fresher water of the inland. Both of which are unaware that they are given the name “brackish”. Both of which are unaware that 3 billion years ago, they were the same water, the same salt, the same bay.

I fell in love with my long-held mental domicile in the summer, which is when (I personally believe) anyone should fall in love. It was June, and the confines of a classroom were too far away to tell little girls that it is inappropriate to take off their shirts on the hot days of summer. The only ones that requested you to put your shoes on were the gumballs and pine needles that covered the paths like a quilted blanket, but even they could be overruled by a six-year-old who despised socks and longed-for adventure.

The only thing worse than the gumballs were the snapping turtles, so I avoided their domain in the murkier parts of the creek. All the rest was mine. From the tree bark to the sweet chirping of the chickadee. It was mine to enjoy; a separate Garden of Eden reserved only for the south.

In the early summer, life emerged in droves: first with the sour, rudely scented Dogwood flowers. Then with the honeysuckle, to make you forget such a terrible thing as the Dogwood ever existed. Honeysuckle, you could swear, was a gift from God. While you could find the fresh aroma of the skinny cream petals the most enticing factor, any local can tell you that the real gift is the sweet liquid that is sucked out. The only sensation that can compare are the minnows that nibble at toes in the creek. Their tiny bodies fighting the current harder than any other mortal could.

From afar, these fish blend in with the shadows made by the hovering Princess and Red Maple trees. A canopy of interwoven leaves overhead hide the direct sun from reaching the little minnows. But if you were to look close, really, really close, the small dancing squiggles underwater take the form of fish. To see them, you could wait for hours, the only pastime in the process would be collecting small black shark teeth and glowing amber belemnites by sifting through the top layer of pebbles. These artifacts are proof of the remains of an ancient underwater civilization.

 If the day was nice and luck was on your side, you may even find a megalodon tooth. Then, without sudden realization, you will find minnows nibbling at the dead skin on the bottom of your feet. The tickling bites are a subtle reminder that the fish underfoot, at one point in history, had teeth the size of the average man’s palm.

The minnows’ meals were not, of course, restricted to only the toes of small children; they also eat the shellings of boiled peanuts at noon in July. Despite their effort, they can never steal the precious meat of the peanut. The tingly aftertaste and the mushy-warm inside of such a delicacy are reserved for the one who brought it. What is not salvaged by the fish is washed away along with the light of day that trickles down from the trees and into the water. The peanuts and trees leave only a stream of browns, yellows, and greens along with the scent of Cajun spice.

The occurrence of crashing crabapples came in the late spring along with the purple flowers of Kudzu vines. The budding blooms of April and May make their debut at the end of the school year, just in time for the enjoyment of young students’ scrimmage games.

The melodic tunes of the vibrant blue bird are kept in time by the persistent buzzing of honey bees. Each is on a journey to find breakfast; the bird searches for small insects such as baby crickets in the underbrush, the bee digs into the rich nectar of clover flowers which span over grassy breaks in the wood. The clover is soft. The small smooth leaves are just tall enough to act as fluffy bedding for young lovers. To feel the cool leaves under-toe proves the cold petrichor rains of late winter were indeed worthwhile.

These rains were frigid, for they made their transition to snowflakes too late. Rather than the carefully spiraled design of micro-iced crystals, they were blobs of liquid slush. The water drips down from barren trees sparingly onto the foreheads of February walkers. The water seeps into your core until all you know and breathe and think is cold.

The only month of winter that is not unbearably wet is January. It’s the only month that snows. To children, this calls for one thing and one thing only. It’s an excuse to sit outside with their mouths wide open. The light snowflakes drift to their mouths like prima ballerinas, silent sugar plum fairies dance onto a bright pink stage only to be disintegrated by the warm platform. Their performance is rewarded by the smiles and giggles of young children.

As day turned to night, the world turned white. The waxy magnolia leaves put on their mamushkas for the day to keep the children under their branches warm. There’s something familiar about snow-covered bark. The earthy cologne of low-lying Southern Magnolia trees is always a pleasant surprise to runny-raw noses.

With every step, the hard surface of barely frozen snow breaks like the crunching of potato chips. A loud pop, followed by the crackling of hidden leaves signals nature that not all life has been sealed away by mother nature’s loving permafrost. Pine tags stick to boots. Their sharp ends poke tender places with every endless roll and dive into the ground. They can even find their way into mouths. The potent pine perfume covers the body thicker than the layers of dirt and leaf fragments after a day of rough-housing.

This icy oasis is short-lived. By the third day of the same snow, our frozen world has turned into a mushy mess. The once hard Sassafras leaves have gone soggy, they long for the days of fall when their healthy bodies were golden red instead of a withering brown.

I, too long for the warm glow of late Autumn to rest my head in the fallen plumage of the Ash tree. I miss the whirligigs, the way they spun down from the Acer trees, and the way they gracefully landed in the curly, ever flowing Auburn hair of my mother.

If I try hard enough, I can still feel the wet fur of my dog. I can see his ivory coat and floppy ears bouncing as he splashes in the cold water of November. I can hear the quick chirps of the Song Sparrow, who perches in the Great Hemlock Trees, and the repetitive tweet of the Brown Thrasher, who stands proudly in the tall pines. I can hear the hoot of the Screech Owl; her low call vibrates her whole diaphragm. I can remember the Cardinal; her dipping notes were one of the first that I managed to mimic.

Autumn was the time for birds at my favorite place, their unorganized symphony brought by flocks of sparrows fill my memory.

When I close my eyes, I’m at my favorite place. It’s pure and green, but one street over one can find vandalized apartment buildings that have been targeted for open investigations. The romanticized version of the creek is in all actuality polluted by wrappers and baby diapers. The air closer towards the street reeks of cigarette smoke and vomit. If you look in the public trashcans, you may even find used condoms.

The clientele of my favorite place consists of low-income families, male and female hookers, and drug dealers who sell mostly marijuana and heroin. In fifty years, my favorite place may be suffocated by the rapid growth of downtown.

But to me, this place was eternal and untainted by the crumbling world around it. It was untouched by the cruel and malicious people of the world. In my mind, my favorite place is both ancient and young, each part of it equally respected. Great woe fills me in pursuit of  days as simple as on Oceola street.

 

By Tori Harding

 

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