When I was a child, my family used to live next to a river affectionately referred to as the Little Bogu Falaya. For most of the year, the river ran gold over white sand, with perch and minnow pooling together in its deeper shallows. Old pine and younger magnolia lined the little strips of beach on our property, which the river remodeled every year after the flood season.
I used to swim in that river with my siblings about nine months out of the year. Swimming season began when the first sprouts of green pushed through the sap and ended when my lips started looking like they were modeling Gothic lipsticks. So many days of my youth were spent building little canals on the beach to catch minnow with hotdog bits, throwing horse flies at the perch and burrowing underwater tunnels like river otters beneath fallen trees. There was even the chance occasion of sounding the alarm of “Snake!” before making like squirrels to the shore, as lithe, black water moccasins swam past. (No, these terrifying creatures didn’t really scare me as a child; as an adult, though, I can not believe we were allowed to swim unsupervised!) My sister and I used to ominously tell our younger brother, “Don’t go to the deep end. The snakes live there.” I think we were all just terrified of the shadows in the roots of the fallen trees. But, that’s another story.
One of the biggest events of the swim season was when our older brother would go swimming with us. He was big and strong, and therefore our protector, and with him around, we could dare to explore places further downstream, beyond the length of our property. He used to guide us to where the river lost its signature golden color for a time, where the floor turned from sand to mud, and when we were brave, we would dog-paddle across the murky expanse–when we weren’t, his shoulders were always there to sit on.
It was a big adventure. We made up stories along the way about mud crocodiles and escaped boa constrictors from the zoo. And our brother would guide us right on through the terrifying, until we reached the awesome: Clay Mountain.
It wasn’t really a mountain–just a hill, really. But years of erosion and flood deposits had left the whole of it barren of flora. All that remained of the hill was vast quantities of natural clay. Gooey, slimy, soft and stinky clay. It smelled like the summer air: muggy and pungent. It didn’t deter us. There was one reason and one reason alone why a trip across the dark water was worth it.
We would claw our way to the top of that hill, the clay squirting air bubbles between our toes in a way that made all of us scream “Not me!” before we began the great task of the day. Our fingers clawed out trenches back to the river’s edge. We worked as a team. One of us smoothing the slide out, the others making stairs for easy access. It was always gone again by the time we would return the next year, but we didn’t mind.
We spent as long as our brother could stand the horseflies sliding down that hill, and would always go home covered in mud, sand in our bathing suit crotches and with all sorts of bug bites. But it was always worth it. We were more than happy to do it again.
After a few years, our elder brother stopped going to Clay Mountain with us. I was old enough, by then, to lead the expedition, and one year, when we found a little blue boat washed ashore on our property, we decided to use it to cross the dark. There was a little hole in the hull, and so we were always bailing water with our sand castle molds, but we made it to the mountain regardless.
It seemed smaller, and dirtier. The magic that had possessed us when we had our brother with us was gone. At that time, it just looked like a stinky bank of filth that we definitely wouldn’t want to touch. And just like that, we abandoned Clay Mountain, traversed the dark to get home, and a piece of childhood receded into memory.
I think about those times often, my bush baby days on that property. The house we lived in is no longer there. The neighborhood has changed too, but the river is still there. The bridge my father helped build is still there. I wonder if Clay Mountain is still there. I wonder if it still inspires excitement in other kids who chance upon it.