I perched myself at the bow of the 16-foot utility boat peaking down into the clear, dark water running under the gunwales. The Indian summer rays beat on the back of my craned neck; it is cold again now, but last Saturday knee-boots and blue jeans were all I felt obligated to wear.
Something flickered, catching the light through two feet of water as it darted on the creek’s bottom.
Pulling my net back up through now cloudy water, my father took the lid off of the cooler by his seat at the outboard. I shook an obstinate jimmy from my net, but he refused to surrender his grip on the green nylon. I fractured the shell of his claw, and he dropped into the cooler, completing an even dozen.
The waning moon had provided us with an unusually high tide, and my father and I abandoned our duck blind and rig of decoys around 9 a.m. because of the heat. We spent that midday trolling through the saw grass marshes over routes that on normal tides were impassable. At the bottom of these serpentine creeks and narrow, arrow-straight canals, blue crabs scuttled with the current toward the river, vigorous in the momentary stay of winter’s inertia. That night, I felt a little guilty enjoying their tasty meat well into October.
Thoreau called the faint buzz of a mosquito one solitary morning “Homer’s requiem, an Iliad and Odyssey in the air.” But when he headed into nature, strife on his precious soil was almost 50 years in the past. That ancient song was just a friendly memory.
When I retreated from our world, for only a weekend, to the most remote place I know, it was to take a rest from a reality of war. Shortly after I arrived there at our hunting property late last Thursday night, we switched off the radio broadcast of President Bush’s press conference in favor of the sounds of geese bleating on the river.
But the din’s pleasant melody did not hold.
Sporadically through the nights that weekend, the low sputtering of MP-5 machine gun fire fractured the geese’s chorus. The still night forced upon us the sounds of Navy SEALs out of Dam Neck, Va., training on an uninhabited island the federal government owns at the mouth of our river on the Chesapeake Bay. I had been told they often spent nights there, more than 10 miles away, but had never heard them firsthand.
I felt, as I fell asleep, a strange urgency to know if these men had seen already the Afghan landscape. I wondered if any of their numbers had been killed.
And when I woke before dawn each morning to tromp out through the marsh, it was not without a little gloom. No ducks flew in the unseasonable heat, but I was satisfied to leave empty-handed.
As we roamed around the forgotten marshlands catching dinner under the power of an old 15-horsepower outboard motor, we almost snagged the propeller on a lost crab pot. This 3-foot by 3-foot cage had probably been deserted by a waterman and carried back up the creek by ice some winter. There it sat until we came across it, just barely hiding under the high tide.
Hoisting it into the boat, we found it was tethered to another one on about 20 feet of line. In one of the traps, we saw a footlong croaker groping for breath in the cage’s bowels. Its tailfin was frayed and its gills torn from a futile struggle against the chicken wire. The traps were otherwise filled with muck and crab shells; obviously they had been there a long time. Who knows how many other fish drowned and rotted in them since they went lost.
We freed the crippled fish and, as it swam away, its survival was no foregone conclusion.
We spent a long time back in those forlorn waterways, as long as the tide would permit. Finally racing home toward the river, caught with the bottom-creatures in the hard current of the waning tide, we had trouble staying a straight course. The gunwales brushed the bushy sides of the creeks until we made open water.
As we rushed up the river home toward dinner and another uneasy night of goose sounds and distant gunfire, an AWACS radar plane and a fuel tanker flew tethered together high overhead — part of NATO’s air patrol of the eastern seaboard.
Despite their conspicuous presence, I couldn’t escape the feeling that our fate is not a foregone conclusion either.