I never expected to be here. No one told me to move to New Orleans, or that I could find a job that allowed me to sit in the sun all day. The water, orange-dark and filmy, holds and carries our canoe through the twists and turns of Cane Bayou. I am living inside a 19th century novel, exploring and living a dream in color.
I am holding myself straight, tall, strong in the back of the canoe. My turns are perfect and unhurried. My palms hug the paddle, my arms strain against the current. Pushing and pulling. Every once in a while we speak, but mostly we quiet, feeling the swamp air hot and sticky against our skin. Water sprays and splashes against the boat. Laughter floats down the bayou behind us. We pass the trees, enter the salty flats leading to the wide expanse of the Pontchartrain. Every curve brings a new landscape. The sun beats upon already-tanned shoulders.
The last bend, leaving the stench of rotting alligator and decomposing swampgrass. White tips of the waves stretching across brown water. A warm wind blows. My stomach is growling for lunch. We urge our canoe into the shallow water of the lake, and in a clumsy maneuver, I am in the water. Lukewarm water sloshes against my thighs and licks the bottom of my t-shirt. We are all wearing t-shirts, bright orange spots in a sea of mud and murky water. The bottom is sandy, and I guide my boat, still carrying its peaceful passenger, up towards the high shore of grass. One determined shove and our craft is lifted by the grass and held captive. Safe.
“Let’s go,” I gesture at my crewmate, who shakes his head. I shrug my shoulders and lift my t-shirt over my head, folding the orange fabric carefully and rolling it into a plastic drybag. I wade into the water, the warm warm water of the Pontchartrain swallowing my legs, hips, belly, breasts, shoulders. Then I push off the sandy bottom and move my arms through the muddy bathwater, trailing weeds and sunshine out into the lake.
The children splash and dive, bellies pushing through the water as they try to shove each other under, gasping for the swampy air. Laughter rolls across the lake. We dig for clams with our toes, scumbling along the bottom until we find one, rough and round, before we plunge under and grasp it with our fingers. Matt May pops them open with his jackknife, and we dare each other to swallow the pale boogers of raw meat. Fresh from the Pontchartrain. Delicious. Gagging with horror and glee we fling the shells away.
We float, coaching one another to lean back, allow the water to hold you, embrace you, support you. Let it all go. We’re friends here, family, all children. The afternoon strips away the people we are on the outside and allows us to be filled with the joy of being alive. Being together.