You’re eight years old, and your grandfather died this morning. You’re pissed off at God, and your sadness steals your breath. You run from the house toward the creek after you hear the news. You lie on your stomach feeling the weathered boards of the dock beneath you and watch fiddler crabs scurry in the pluff mud until your tears subside, and the skittish fiddlers emerge from their holes and resume their crabby activities. The fiddlers with the large claws used to scare you, but now you know how to grab them by that one big claw so they won’t pinch you. Your older sister taught you how to do that and also that the ones with the single large claws are the boy fiddlers. You lie there until Church Creek rises and fills the crab holes. You watch, thinking about your grandfather and God, and wonder if you can now talk to Granddaddy by praying, the way you talk to God. You decide you can, and so you close your eyes and think all the thoughts you want your grandfather to know. You tell him about the fiddlers.
You’re 13. You’re at your best friend’s house, and you’ve spent the day on the Kiawah River pulling each other on the kneeboard behind the johnboat. If you’d been at your house you’d have been on Church Creek or the Bohicket River doing the same thing. You putter a little farther down the river than you ever have before, and you discover a small island with a narrow strip of sandy beach. You and your friend pull the boat up and toss the anchor onto the sand. You spread your towels and drink Cokes from the little cooler you’ve brought and talk about high school boys, your junior varsity basketball team, where you’ll go to college, and how you’ll decorate your dorm room when you’re roommates. The tide goes out, but by the time you notice, the boat is high and dry. Shoving the boat down to the water takes the two of you over an hour. That evening your muscles ache and you’re brown as a berry, but you sleep like only a 13-year-old can sleep and vow to tell no one about your secret island. You plan to return there many more times, but the summer races by, and you never go there again. You can’t imagine that you and your best friend will go to different colleges where you each room with people neither of you knew when you were 13. Nor can you know then that on your road trips to the Lowcountry from Clemson University you’ll always lower the car window when you near the Ashley River, regardless of the weather, to inhale the briny scent of home.
You’re 17, and you have a boyfriend, and he loves the river as much as you do. It’s late June, and the dolphinfish are biting. You know when you speak to tourists from Ohio or Kentucky at the restaurant on Big Bay Creek at Edisto Beach where you wait tables that you must say “mahimahi” when referring to a dolphinfish, or else the tourists will freak out and think they’re eating Flipper. You, your boyfriend, and his father leave the Intracoastal Waterway before sunrise and make your way offshore to where the Gulfstream flows, and you rig the ballyhoo and feel something you suspect is akin to the exuberance a mullet feels when he jumps in the ebbing tide. You could almost cry at the beauty of the brilliant sky and the mystery of flying fish that somehow go the length of a football field before submerging, and a sea so slick it’s like blue oil. When you hook a 30-pound dolphin and witness that beautiful green-blue-yellow creature explode through the water 40 yards from the boat, you cannot believe such a powerful gorgeous thing is on your line, and you reel-reel-reel until your forearm might burst, but you know if you don’t get him to the boat all by yourself, the catch doesn’t count as your catch. That night your mama fries the pink fillets and serves them with creamy grits and Wadmalaw Island tomatoes, and you suspect you’ll marry that boy who took you fishing.
You’re 25, and you arrive home from a weekend in Spartanburg wearing a diamond and ruby ring on your left ring finger. You’re engaged to a boy from the Upstate. Daddy tells people that you’re marrying a Yankee since your intended hails from north of Orangeburg County. You’re excited and nervous, but mostly you’re just extraordinarily happy. A know-it-all neighbor from down the road says to your father within earshot of you, “That marriage ain’t gonna last. That gal can’t handle living away from the salt marsh.” You want to punch him, but later, at the day’s gloaming, you sit alone on the dock dangling your feet in the cool green-brown water, watching a periwinkle snail work its way up a stalk of spartina as the tide slowly floods and blue herons head to the far trees to roost, and, though you love your Spartanburg boy more than just about anything, you secretly fear that the loudmouth from down the road is on to something.
You’re 36, and you just had your third child at Spartanburg Regional Hospital, and you name him William after your maternal grandfather, who, like eight generations before him, lived on the sea islands of South Carolina and knitted his own cast nets. Your other two children are girls, two and a half and six, and you are adamant that (1) you will always send Christmas card photos of your children, and (2) the photos must be taken in the South Carolina Lowcountry. When you tell your babies bedtime stories, the tales do not come from books but from your memories of days spent as a feral child hauling shrimp and mullet in the cast net and of catching blue crabs with your brothers using chicken necks for bait and selling the crabs three bucks a dozen. You tell of bogging in creek mud and getting oyster cuts on your bare feet and exploring islands in johnboats. Your stories are such that on the rare occasion when you pull a book from the shelf for a bedtime story, the children shriek in protest. “No! No,” they say. “Tell us about when you were a girl! Tell us about the Lowcountry!”
You are 43, and your parents say they need to figure out their wills. You want to say, “Don’t talk like that! You’re not going anywhere!” But you know such planning is prudent. You have three siblings who all live in the Lowcountry, but you and that Spartanburg boy, despite warnings from dubious neighbors of your youth, are going on your 20th year of wedded bliss, and still, somehow, reside in the Upcountry, and you are happy there. Your parents in all their wisdom send their four adult children into a room with a list of their assets and say, before shutting the door behind them, “Y’all figure it out, and let us know what you decide. We’re going fishing.”
When the figuring is done, your siblings have decided you should have Mama and Daddy’s house when the time comes.
You don’t want the time to come. Ever.
But you know that your happiest place on earth is there beside the river, that that place is your sacred place, the place where you are most connected to nature, your ancestors, and God, there among live oaks, salt breeze, exuberant mullet, and the primordial smells of the river. You know that just being there heals hurts of all kinds.
You are 44, and you’ve published a few stories and once even a novel. You’re asked to write an essay about your favorite place in South Carolina. You nod. Yes. You can do that. Yours is a place that flows in your soul like lifeblood, its ebbing and flooding the rhythm of your being. In your mind’s eye you see Lowcountry rivers as sharp as a million shards of glass in sunshine, and you know exactly what you’ll write.
State of the Heart
This essay was excerpted with permission from State of the Heart: South Carolina Writers on the Places They Love, Volume 2, edited by Aïda Rogers (University of South Carolina Press ©2015 University of South Carolina). In this compilation of 38 essays, accomplished writers, including Josephine Humphreys, Harlan Greene, and Mary Alice Monroe, transport readers across the state. The book is available for purchase from local bookstores, such as Blue Bicycle Books and Barnes and Noble; online retailers; and directly from USC Press (www.sc.edu/uscpress/books/2015/7597.html or 800-768-2500).
Michel Smoak Stone was born in Charleston, raised on John’s Island, and currently splits her time between Spartanburg and Edisto Island. Her second novel, Border Child, is due out early next year from Nan A. Talese/Doubleday.