BAYOU BENOIT, La. – There is stillness in the swamp at sundown, a decrescendo nature directs so that nightfall will follow. It was there.
And so was I.
My friend Greg always has four or five boats in his yard, and usually one or two in the water. So when I roared up to his house near sunset last week, I felt good about my chances.
“Can we scatter the ashes now?” I asked in a powerful hurry.
He had made the offer to help with this before, but it hadn’t seemed quite the time. Now it did. And without explanation or needless chatter, he hitched a boat to the back of my old red truck, and we drove off to the levee and the nearest landing. Fishermen were done for the day, standing on the edge of the swamp swapping lies. We ignored them, and they us. We slid the old workboat into the water like a lady eases into a size-six velvet slipper.
Greg knew where we were going. I’m not sure I could find the exact spot again, but that doesn’t matter. I won’t look for it. The primitive and surreal map of the swamp is a floating, changing thing, like water hyacinths that meander the Atchafalaya in green pools. The sun was dropping fast, and it burned through the trees on the horizon like fire on a forest floor.
“There is still plenty of light after sunset,” Greg had said by way of reassurance.
There were a lot of ashes. You should expect that, I guess, but I had not. The plastic container that held Don’s remains was heavy, and I’d kept it in a low cabinet next to the Jack Black for more than seven months. Odd thing was, I’d worry when I was away that the house might burn down with Don’s ashes inside. Never mind that a second cremation wouldn’t really have mattered. It mattered to me.
We saw a few birds, but not as many as you might expect. The water was high for fall, so none was wading. A few owls were hollering back and forth, and a nutria complained. Mostly it was quiet, and it is that quiet I’ll always remember, the same stillness we’d enjoy whenever I’d help Don arrange his decoys for the next day’s hunt. The burning light was beautiful, and the duty light. I stuck my right hand into the gravelly ashes and pulled it out and flung, then again, and again, for 10 or 12 times, until the water’s surface was dusty and my clothes and hair and face were, too. It was good, being covered with what remained of my best friend.
It wouldn’t have done to keep Don in an urn on a shelf. He would have laughed at that. The things I do now I do for myself, because I’m the one left to care. But I try hard not to do things that would have made him laugh. I try to keep it simple, as he would have wanted.
You cannot love without losing, and it’s a hard but valuable lesson. I seem to learn it again every day. I don’t always get it right. But this was right.
Duck-hunting season begins this week, and Don is in the swamp.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a syndicated columnist. She lives in the Iuka vicinity. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson