Death Among Trees
C. L. Hodge
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The trek William plunged through the South Georgia swamp could have welcomed imminent death. He need rest. William Cain needed water. The trees were not going by fast enough; his legs became rigid and numb. He held his Nikon tightly against the right of his twenty-nine-year-old abdomen. It pushed inward toward the pale flesh and delicate bone almost creating an imprint. His pulsating brain thirsted for blood as the journey had drained it from him. His bloodshot eyes made it difficult to see the most familiar of surroundings. Blindness felt inevitable.
He was on assignment in the Okefenokee Swamp. His company sent him there to photograph wildlife for an upcoming brochure. William had a choice in the matter of whether he wanted to go or to stay in Chicago, but being the highest level employee for Burgundy and Lace Publishing, his ego became inflated and he gladly boarded the plane.
William violently gulped down half of his canteen.
In the distance, a close distance, William saw what could be a large rock. A boulder. Maybe this was his chance to rest. Or to faint.
His hungry heart raced when he saw that his assumptions had become fact. The large granite protrusion looked as though it could have been laid to rest somewhere deep within the Amazon River Basin. He collapsed onto it eager to revive himself.
His body had found a sliver of paradise. It would give him the time he needed to finish his expedition.
After only ten minutes had passed, resuscitation awoke him. Beautiful scenery danced before his eyes and he gazed upon a most picturesque site. The scenery before him was indeed pristine. What had been Hell minutes earlier had become an oasis on the edge of its damning eternity.
The Pines and Cyprus flawlessly formed a semi-circular embankment surrounding a small cascade in the fresh-water pond. William imagined it to be a beaver dam, only half complete. The trickles of water ran over it graciously, imitating a miniature Iguazu or Niagara. The way the sun’s rays penetrated the small droplets of water on the leaves made the dugout sparkle in color, like jewels: Rubies behind emeralds in between sapphire gems. William could hear faint doorbells ringing as each bead blinked in and out, each one inviting him closer.
Professional photographers develop a nagging search for this sort of thing, unconsciously snapping mental shots that coincide with their inner creative desires.
William reached for his Nikon to prepare to capture this wonder. His gut reaction whispered that this would become the crucial photo of the whole shoot; it would possibly take the brochure’s cover.
He fondled the camera and got his grip around the aluminum casing. He pulled himself from the miracle-boulder that had empowered him to take the shot. The thorns and limbs would be no match for him. William swore to himself that he was going to be the victor. He was going to conquer the battle no matter what he had to endure.
With his destination reached, his wait was over. Trees and brush had cleared and the scene materialized in front of him, still flashing. Chiming. Without hesitation he cropped the site into the aperture and allowed his index finger to pounce onto the button. He continued in a series of four rounds: Three with the camera vertical, three with it horizontal, then he continued to snap in diagonal frames in both ways. He knew he could always crop them later. He adjusted the lighting settings and began to click in abstract.
After exhaling the camera from his unwavering eye, he allowed the red and black strap to hang from his shoulder.
Delighted after his accomplishment, hope once again filled his lungs. He would be the talk of the firm with the title of Senior Editor finally within reach.
That thought quickly evaded him when William felt the oddest sensation of not ever wanting to leave his newfound haven. He was at home there. Absolute peace. A peculiar notion entertained him that he may have lived in this spot on Earth before in one of his numerous past lives. He very well could have been the beaver that constructed this slice of amazing bewilderment, however many years ago it may have been.
His grin reversed itself when a painful memory of his family in Chicago roared into view.
William and Carolyn had been divorced for six years, and it being more of an arranged marriage than a traditional spectacle, the wedding should never have occurred.
Carolyn had come from an affluent family in the Dominican Republic. She desperately required to flee the years of domestic abuse inflicted onto her from the uncle who had caused her budding dreams of becoming a fashion designer to morph into tarnish. Both of Carolyn’s parents were killed in a growing political scuffle when she was ten, then she was sent off to live with her uncle and grandmother. Uncle Lionel lent her to kingpins for sex and for other monetary favors when she was twelve and her career as the family slave ended just a year before William was introduced.
He had gone to Santo Domingo on a grant that Summer and had spied Carolyn inside a café alone at a corner table. He approached her with the insignificant amount of Spanish he could muster. Her dark oak locks surrounded her avocado eyes and gently fleeced her satin-pink lips. Her skin was the palest porcelain among all the Dominicans in the place and she was stunning. He had never before been invited for conversation with just a smile, until Carolyn. –
Within the heat slushing around him, William swiftly scoffed at that memory. Carolyn’s welcoming smile turned to grimace.
He and Carolyn had dated only a month when her grandmother cried to William for intervention on Carolyn’s behalf. She pleaded for William to marry her. To take her back and to make her into a U.S. Citizen. He denied the colossal offer of Dominican Peso she offered and agreed to marry her for love. William had learned of the tempestuous horrors she endured for so long and it further promoted his perception of her beauty.
After arriving in Chicago, William began to discover his wife in intimate manners beyond the sexual: He discovered Carolyn’s tainted personality. She would argue about anything: All things imagined from no things factual. The flaws weeded to surface from roots firmly planted in her festering erotic tomb. He was, after all, the first man who showed love to her in that particular manner. The other men she had since childhood were viruses. They were bacterial colonies extinguishing her innocent cells. William had been her first aim for an antidote.
They both discovered the cure had come too late.
Two years had passed after the wedding and Carolyn learned she was expecting Rocco. William was ecstatic to become a father, yet Carolyn’s ever diminishing emotional attachment to him finally terminated itself. She held onto her Catholic instruction and carried the child to full term. A year after Rocco was born, Carolyn fled to Manhattan. She would not divorce. That too was anti-Catholic. Her pending citizenship also calculated in that decision. They would keep up the façade until she was officially united to the Republic. Until then, Carolyn would have little to do with William or with her radiant son.
William’s mother and father provided help for him and for their grandson while his career took time to make something of itself. Carolyn would send support from her trust fund as well. It was the least she could do. Knowing Carolyn, it was the most she could do. She showed her love the best way she knew how: By being absent. With citizenship accomplished, a divorce was finally granted. All communication as well as financial support – ended.
Rocco was well favored by all with whom he associated and at eight years-old was the happiest boy in Chicago. He was an artist. He wrote short stories and poetry. Public speaking never frightened him. He articulated every word he spoke on talent days at school. Some kids danced; others sang. Most refused to participate. Rocco would record himself before a show reading a poem he had written and would let it play while he was onstage painting a scene that would mirror the narrative. He had seen it done somewhere before and had decided that was what he was going to do with his life. Art flowed throughout the channels of his body and William was blessed to be able to embolden him. Yet, Rocco’s beauty was all Carolyn’s. While he watched his son paint, William could see her angelic waltz as Rocco’s figure flowed with a verse’s plotting rhythm.
The pain of his separation turned itself into comfort as William thought about his boy. He wished he could share with his son the magnificence that shone upon him in the sultry forest of Southeastern Georgia. The photos simply would never be enough.
William bolted from his daze. As he thought about moving Rocco to this perfect place of serenity, barring the heat, his inner senses became conflicted. If he relocated, he would make less money. He had just recently secured his debts and was closer than ever to reimbursing them. Would it be feasible to construct such a radical move? Ideas of going freelance instantaneously invalidated that hassling thought.
He could stay with Burgundy and Lace and add jobs submitting to various magazines. His contract with the firm did not prohibit that. He could combine monetary forces and raise Rocco away from the clogged forest of asphalt and glass. But what about education?
How were the schools? William would need to investigate the locals. What were the comparisons between Chicago Public School academia and the complexities of rural intelligence? What were the positives and which were the negatives, and in what direction did they mostly number? Had this corner of the South progressed enough to escort his half-breed son through life?
He had heard the motel manager use the term upon arrival. The worker had told him his room number and that he would be staying next-door to a half-breed family. And that they could be loud at times. To not call the police but to call the front desk. Someone would take care of the noise. In due-time.
It was alien to William. The term immediately conjured images of segregation days and of public lynchings, but he shrugged it off knowing that the South had long ago retired from that business. Still, racism was alive and well all over America, yet only in passive verbal forms. It was a coming-of-age obstacle every U.S. Citizen endured, but on one in which everyone was required to form an opinion. Progress in the matter still had not fully matured. It was still the principle of sticks-and-stones and such.
For it to be such a derogatory and subtle form of hate, William could not help but notice many of those half-breeds as he walked around the town’s Main Street. They seemed to outnumber the local populace.
They traveled in herds: Crammed into ancient busses and leaned out of old Ford pickups. When he stepped into the Piggly-Wiggly, they were all paying in cash: One Hundred Dollar bills.
“I’m sorry, sir. I need to get a manager for just a minute.” Her name was Doris and she spoke to him without eye contact as she wiped down the counter with spray-bleach after the half-breeds in front of him had exited. “These dang illegals. Always making me having to make change in this register.”
Doris lifted the phone from between crumpled coupons and tattered spiral-bound notebooks. “Thomas! I need another change-order!” The receiver slammed onto its pale-green base with yellowing number pads which were half-eroded after thirty-years of use. She looked directly at him this time. “It’ll be a minute. They always payin’ in hundreds.” She leaned in to prove her point. “They ain’t got bank accounts because they get paid under the table.” Doris shot a wink.
“I don’t have cash. I am paying with a card?” He said it more to reassure himself that Doris could take plastic. William flipped the Amex from his wallet.
“That’s good. That works.” Her head bobbled like his father’s hula girl on the RV’s dashboard. “I can go ahead and do you now, then. That’s good. Uh huh.”
Not long ago in American History some Caucasian girl would have had the same disagreements about Doris. But back then Blacks were not illegals. Not like the half-breeds. Some were, maybe. Just like the half-breeds. William knew it had nothing to do with ethnicity. It had everything to do with skin. Blacks were the minority in the Old South. Once they had fought and won their rights to be equal among the ones warring them to stay hidden in servanthood, a new skin shade became their bullseye. William heard about how, because of the close proximity of Mexico and Cuba, that there was an overwhelming migration of the illegals. An invasion. Their chief aim was only to destroy America.
Some were indeed in the country illegally. Most were not. The majority of the influx who shared in the Capitalist vision had adhered to the law and acquired full inclusion by taking the correct steps. But, half-breeds. Why the name? William shrugged it off as coming from people who spoke only because they knew nothing better.
But Rocco was a true half-breed, and he was nature’s outpouring of a Divine Grace. His life would thrive anywhere his mind would treasure itself. He had a Sacramental esteem about him. Heaven touched Earth when Rocco shared in his Creator’s imagination with others. His precise birth had been predestined.
Santo Domingo wasn’t necessarily on the bulk of the tongues of the world on a consistent basis, but William had been there. It fell into his lap. Just a celestial blip in Earth’s finite timing. Rocco was its offspring.
William backtracked toward his boulder to assemble recent considerations. He envisioned Rocco’s easel, its legs quietly sinking into the mud, and watched his son coat a canvas with all the elegance that enveloped him. He reveled in his creation. Rocco hummed along to bits of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody as he expressed his love for Mother Earth.
No, there was no such thing. The quarrel was not about skin color, for the explanation of a half-breed was a fusion of the spiritual and human element coexisting in seamless agreement.
William’s general consensus was that everyone got along in the town he was thinking of calling home. The things he had heard others say about all the others who were not part of all the others was part of the normal human need to gossip. Chicago had it too, but there were millions of Chicagoans. A high-rise apartment alone, in theory, housed a small town. The Wheeler’s in 208-B thought that the Iranian family above them in 308-B were building bombs. What if one of them decided to flush one they thought was a dud, down the toilet? And they just knew that the smallest Muslim boy was hiding cans of uranium under his bed and its contents were seeping through the floors and the Wheeler’s were going to die just from the vapors.
Living amid a small settlement beheld all varieties of rewards. In this town there were no violent crimes. A traffic jam only occurred while waiting to get to a parking space at the High School team’s Friday night football showdowns in the Fall. The swamp and its trees and wildlife were accessible just by going out the backdoor. The resident farms and gardens supplied ample choices at the local market. The fruits and vegetables were not sufferers on a train for hundreds of miles before they were crated off by trucks for another hundred miles before finally living out their destinies as human sustenance. They would arrive if only they were among the parcel of the goods that made the trip without giving up and caving in on themselves.
As an artist William knew directly that slices of solitude were vital for uninhibited expression. Relocation meant artistic survival for them both. He would gift him the experience and would discover that Rocco would flourish among the trees as they whispered their fragrant encouragement through their squall.
Bathing in the sun, William breathed in God’s creation and smiled to himself, “and it was good.”
William had done what the park rangers had told him not to do upon entering the swamp. He was to stay on the trails on which the directors had long deemed safe for travel, and William had not strayed from them for most of his journey. He had gotten all he needed for the brochure but he envisioned a cover that would entice vacationers to join an excursion to this part of the world. That rare and successful capture now lay embedded in digital asylum inside the Nikon.
He climbed over the chicken-wire fence back onto the wooden bridge that would place him onto the trail after a wayward nail snagged the cuff on his Levi’s. A patrolling park attendant nodded, glancing half an eye toward him. If he knew what William had been up to, he did not indicate disapproval by denouncing his actions. William nodded back in nervous reciprocation. His shoes were caked with clay and mud; his shirt reeked of pond scum. If questioned, his story would be that his camera fell into the mud and as he performed CPR, the swamp decided to vomit its guts onto him.
The sun still fired off its flares and the heat still baked the gravel on which his rented Camry was cooking. It was six P.M. After his melodramatic city-dweller display of fear and exhaustion inside the forest, William required a bath. There would be a shower first; then he would boil water and soak in it. He felt his skin itch as some flesh-eating amoeba took up residence. The parasite was digging around somewhere. He just knew it.
On the way back to the motel, Rocco appeared on his Huffy, giggling from the sidewalk, peering into the Camry’s tinted windows. He taunted his father and dared him to a race. William revved the engine while idling at the town’s only stop light. He gave Rocco a head-start, his neon-green backpack bounced below his long curls: Splashes of blond and brown hair. He sped along the sidewalk with no hands while slobbering down a banana Popsicle.
When they had gotten inside the house after continuing their race on foot, they wrestled each other for the remote control to the stereo. Rocco dominated that skirmish as well. He put on some Johnny Mercer and tap-danced his way over to his poetry corner. William snapped photos of his son slumping into the couch as Rocco disappeared in visions only he could see. These saintly images would be added to the collection in the mammoth book Rocco would one day pen as his memoirs.
William’s eyes watered from yearning for those prophecies of his son to blossom into certainty. He smiled in a deep breath when he parked the Toyota at the door to his room.
“And it was good.”
On the final evening before his return to Chicago, William found himself packing. He had only brought one carry-on piece with him so gathering his belongings was swift. Only his electric razor and toothbrush had been left out for in-the-morning. Checkout was at eleven, more than adequate time to allow William to dream, then he would fling his bag into the rental and make haste toward the Jacksonville Airport.
Rocco was not one to have lengthy phone chats, but William spent a record ten minutes that night talking to his son about how he couldn’t wait to show him the photos as he hoped to sell his time there as a memory they would both share for a lifetime. Rocco had been excited and shared intense interest in visiting the area with his father one day as he held onto every word.
There was a knock on William’s motel door. Catarina Flores and her husband Eduardo invited him next door to their room for a gathering honoring their daughter’s quinceañera. They had told him it was a “después de la fiesta.” An after party. The Flores’ had rented out the only suite in the local Holiday Inn for the birthday, then gathered the remaining attendees back to their room for the night.
The celebrated girl was Carolyn. The namesake of the woman he could never seem to be allowed to forget no matter how often he pleaded to God quench it. The fifteen year-old Carolyn in the room with William, along with her loving family, radiated elegance. Her sinuous white dress hugged her adolescent curves accurately showing William that it was tailored just for her. She posed on the shag tears on the floor as though they were her very own red carpet. The doting paparazzi was her family who flashed light after bright light her way revealing in her eyes the illumination of both contentment and boredom with the whole affair.
William learned that Carolyn was the only child left to Catarina and Eduardo after their son was killed in a farming incident two years before. Sharing his father’s name, little Eduardo had fallen in nearby trees while running around watching his family spend the day harvesting corn. He had been missing overnight; the next day he was found sprawled in the earth where he died. The coroner’s report determined that his swollen, blackened leg to be the result of a rattle snake bite.
Carolyn showed William a photo of the stone marking Eduardo’s current resting place. “Eduardo Flores, Jr. Home with Angels. b. 1995 – d. 2004.” She explained to William that was all they could afford at the time to have etched in the marble veneer. There was an original plan to have an “At” in front of “Home” and a “the” before “Angels.” In the center of the arch inlaid a photo of the boy. He stood over home plate steadying an aluminum baseball bat. The navy-blue plastic helmet now served as a halo over his cherubic face.
Steven Bawer arrived to the party to take a break from his front desk duties and decided to throw back a couple of Coronas alongside the half-breeds. William noticed him eyeing the room to make sure no damage had occurred during their stay. He danced along to reggaeton blaring from various speakers as he pretended to know a miniscule degree of Spanish.
Rocco was in Illinois spread out on top of his multi-colored checkerboard sheets and his Picassoesque comforter. Earlier in the day his grandmother had given him a Joni Mitchell album to add to his eclectic vinyl collection. The record turned and softly crackled while exhaling a maple syrup-like aroma. The velvet alto massaged his earlobes and Rocco gave birth to new poetry. It was about a smaller-than-usual beaver who decided to abandon the dam he had been working on after hearing about a remarkable new land on which he could finally build a palace that would suit him and his family. The beaver’s family were not of his species. They were ducks. His parents were not there after he was born. All alone, he searched. Never being able to reunite with them, he was joyfully adopted by Mallards.
Rocco’s bronze cheeks lifted toward his eyes as he anticipated William’s return.
Joni swooned him into a trance, and while there, he helped gather limbs and rocks as he mixed grout with his new friend, the beaver.
Eduardo and Catarina sat on the bleachers with William in between them. Carolyn could not make the ceremony as she was attending her own graduation at Tennessee Valley Technical College a week later. William and Rocco would ride along with the Flores’ to join in their family’s success on the nine-hour SUV trip to the Volunteer State.
Doris blew William a kiss from the twenty-yard line. She no longer made change from hundred dollar bills at the Piggly Wiggly, for William had taught her how to take pictures. When William worked himself into the job as Editor in Chief at the local newspaper, he decided to hire his apprentice. He would also be marrying her in September, a week before Rocco would be moving into a mobile home with Alicia Albright.
William held the commencement program in his hands in reluctance as he read the numerous accolades his son had accomplished leading up to this day. Among them was that Rocco had been president of the Future Farmers of America during his senior year. His fellow comrades held him in high esteem as he rose to the rank of Cadet Colonel in the ROTC. He held top honors in his Automobile Mechanic class and worked part time at R&R Engine Works after Stephen Bawer left the motel when he inherited his father’s garage business.
Alicia withdrew from tenth grade when the pediatrician explained to her how she had gotten pregnant while on birth control pills. After graduation, Rocco would prepare to spend most of his time at the garage to support his courthouse bride and incoming daughter. The trailer they would move into had been Alicia’s stepfather’s. He and Rocco had already spent a lump of time together getting it ready for the September housewarming when his baby girl was to be expected. Rocco altered the structure so the interior walls could hold his head collection of deer he had procured from the hobby at which he proved to be an expert marksman. The only thing left to craft was a conversion of a shed that would be added onto the mobile home as a nursery.
After the blue caps had been thrown toward the stars and the gowns had been cast aside, Rocco walked over to his father. “Hey, dad.” His glazed eyes and swaying posture told William what his son had been up to before the ceremony. “I, um, hey. Don’t wait up tonight, okay. It’s gonna be a late one.”
“I planned for it, buddy. It’s pizza and Di Nero night down at the abode.” William feigned interest.
“Cool. Uh, tell Doris I said thanks for tonight.”
“Thanks?” William shuffled in curiosity then glanced at the shine of the cap on the flask inside Rocco’s overnight bag.
“Yeah. I can’t wait to see her photos.” Rocco tapped his father’s shoulder then turned to join the other farmers of the future in the camouflaged Dodge Ram.
William paced inside Rocco’s bedroom after the somber drive home. It was the first time he had been inside those four walls in over a month. Packed boxes were stacked along a wall with words marked on them. Their contents had been designated for their future habitations. Inside the one Rocco had written off as dumpster contained all of his son’s manuscripts, the last of which had been written two years before he decided to trade his pens for guns when he was twelve. Rocco had pawned his record player not too long after that to help fund his first deer for the taxidermist. After hearing about what Rocco had done, William bought it back from the shop and kept it for himself, hoping that Rocco would one day regret his decision, and he would be able to give it back to his son in surprise. Inside the box marked dad entombed Rocco’s collection of Wagner and Rachmaninoff albums and Joni Mitchell, holding a cigarette, glowered at William from the top of the heap.
William sunk into Rocco’s bed with his head surrounded by flattened and exhausted pillows. Joni helped him hold back his tears as “Both Sides Now” skipped underneath the dust caked needle while he closed his eyes and drifted toward the miracle-boulder just yards from the beaver dam.
Rocco colored on his canvas until the easel dissolved into the depths of the swamp below it.
“And it was good.”
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William Cain. A young photographer with extreme promise in the advertising industry has taken an assignment deep in the swamps of Southeast Georgia. While dreaming of how he will one day become partner in his firm of Burgundy and Lace Publishing, William wants nothing but to keep his eight year-old son Rocco and the boy's well-being at the pinnacle of any success that may come William's way; even to the point of leaving everything he has ever known behind, just to ensure that Rocco will grow without the obstacles that William faced while living into his own potential. Suffering from the extreme heat, a severe disdain for his ex-wife and longing for the right answers to materialize concerning Rocco, William Cain hopes he will make the right decision. The child's life depends on it.