I wake up in the New Orleans darkness during the Great Quarantine of Spring, sheets cool against my shoulder. The pillow I’d put at my back, a security measure, is mashed into the mattress.
I am inscribed with the bounds of the sickened city, but I am also in a stream some 600 miles north and 30 years gone. Sunlight washes everything yellow and I am there, damp, looking up at my older sister. I see the straps of her swimsuit, feel the small pebbles crammed into the holes of my jellies. I am terrified but focused, processing some kind of vital survival skill linked with a river in the Ozarks.
Growing up, my sister and I went to the rivers and creeks often with my father. Saying he had a mischievous streak sells his antics a bit short. Outings with him could turn on a dime, going from simple errand to adventure to something we would never in a thousand years report back to Mother — like the Halloween that ended with us parked before a burned-out country church. My father’d killed the truck’s engine, telling us how the Satanists had been gathering at that very church for weeks, how the sacrifices had started with goats but now they needed something bigger to really quench their deviance. We girls didn’t dare breathe, searching the country darkness for signs of the devil-worshippers. At the perfect moment he popped the new “auto-lock” feature on the truck, hollering “What was that?!” I would ask the owls which was louder, his laughter or girl shrieks, but I think we already know.
“Tests of bravery” — that’s how I came to view these events — could also be simpler, seemingly offhand. Once my sister and I ventured far from home, into the undeveloped fields. We returned with reports of a long, deep trench. Our father began asking slow, deliberate questions. “How big was it?” and “Now, where did you say it was?” Finally, he took the lead. “It wasn’t about 6 feet deep, was it?”
My older sister, knowing measurements better than me, whispered, “How did you know?”
“Well…” he started, then unraveled the tale of the mystery murderer digging graves nearby.
“Who’s he murdering?” my sister quickly asked.
“Well that’s the thing . . . You didn’t look inside the trench, did you?”
“Yes!” I blurted out.
“I mean, really look into it,” he continued.
I nodded. My older sister remained mute.
“Because if you did — that’s how he chooses. Whoever looked deep into the trench is next.”
My older sister could not sell me out fast enough. “Stephie looked too!” became a punchline for the next decade.
But back to the night, and the stream. It had been a normal fishing trip, our father instructing us to bait the minnow trap with saltines. He told us to do the same with the larger bucket — whose lower half was more like a tin sieve — which was a bit unusual.
My sister and I played in the water. We probably caught tadpoles, maybe squabbled. When the water was glowing with late afternoon sunlight, our father hollered from the canoe that it was time to get the traps. We waded up to the canoe, but he stopped us short.
“Now girls, you know what leeches are, right?”
We rolled our eyes and cringed.
“But have you ever heard of lampreys?”
We listened in horror as he described the bigger, more evil, leech from Hell.
“It just so happens,” he continued, “that it’s lamprey spawning season.”
My sister and I nearly swamped the canoe in our desperate bid for safety. Our father paddled away, a livewire of cackles in his wake.
We reached the shoal panting, furiously checking to see that we were still whole children. We breathed. My terror plateaued. But like a mountain, it’d had a false summit. Our now-serious father guided us to the traps. The minnow trap was teeming with bright and shiny fishies. The bigger bucket, however, was swirling with half a dozen snake-like creatures.
“Now, these have to be transferred to the solid pail,” he instructed.
“We’re taking them home?!” my older sister moaned.
“Yep. I gotta show them to my class.”
(Our father, in addition to coaching, taught Earth Science at the high school. There, he was either called “Coach” or “Sarge.”)
“Now,” he continued. “The question is, which one of you is going to hold the big bucket, and which one of you is going to pour?”
The worst part of the dilemma was while there was no safe job, there was clearly a better job. The person pouring the lampreys out could perhaps jump away if any escaped, or flew through the air, or did God-knows-what with their evil magic. But the person holding the bucket had to both rely upon the steady hands of pourer and watch as the lampreys advanced closer and closer to her. This was the stuff of real, mortal danger.
As an adult, I can look up the facts. I can see that lampreys rarely feed upon humans. I can read that the northern brook lamprey was probably the kind that we caught. It’s one of six types of lampreys common to the northern Ozarks, four of which are non-parasitic. Naturally, I wonder if our father knew this, and if — as I imagine is true for the burned-out church and the trench — there was carefully-planned recognisance prior to this test of bravery.
But none of that would have crossed our minds. We were preoccupied with the terrible choice of who would take which task. Should the older, stronger one pour? Or should she take the place of bravery and hold the bucket?
This is the image I awoke with. My sister and I are standing beside the stream. We stare at each other, and know better than to cry. We have been called to do the impossible: to be brave in the face of terror, to have steady hands and help each other.
Bravery is a precious thing to cultivate. But it is not without cost. It requires a hardness inside us to grow, and that knife edge can cut the wrong person, or cut unintentionally. If you develop too many hard edges, you’ll be more hedgehog than human, one of those weird people who scares everyone at parties.
I don’t remember who actually held the bucket in the end. My memory goes blank. All I see is my sister’s eyes, and all I feel is the knives growing where the bones of my shoulders kiss my ribs. To this day, I’m certain we both know how any dire scenario between us would play out, though neither of us will ever admit it.
I do remember watching the lampreys suctioned to the tank in my father’s classroom a week later, rows of teeth descending down their throats. I remember wondering if my father was feeding them, and if so, what? Maybe our children will remember COVID-19 with similar feelings of revulsion — a long ago threat contained behind glass, a thing that made them hard. Maybe we’ll get lucky and they’ll emerge from this pandemic with a deep faith in humanity and our collective power for resolute action. I suppose it’s a mother’s prayer that her children do not have to become too brave. That they can know resilience while still being sociable during cocktails. That a benevolent Universe will give them long lives, with parties yet to attend.