Children played in the river. Taking turns jumping from the end of the pier, one-by-one, they swam out into the tidal river, bringing up proof of their bravery in the form of handfuls of chocolate pudding mud, or an oyster shell from the shifting sand bar, or the rare prize of an empty blue crab shell.
I stay far from the river. Oh, I can swim. Like a fish, as they say, but I’ve not been near the water for nearly twenty years. I wish the children would stay away from the river, but I have stopped attempting to dissuade them from swimming here. There is a perfectly good municipal swimming pool just a few miles away from the river with the choice of lap swimming, or warm water swimming for small children and elderly people. Still, all of the children seem to prefer the brackish water of “the Dragon,” as the locals like to call this area of marshy inlets and wide breaks.
It was twenty years ago that the Dragon last woke…
Summers were sweet when the days were measured by the time between the school’s end and the school’s beginning. The last days of summer vacation were particularly sweet because they bore an air of necessity – to squeeze in the last bit of carefree fun before the start of school and a hint of excitement – for the beginning of a new school year – although Tommy Lee and I would never admit to it.
This summer had been so sweet because it was also the first time Tommy Lee and I kissed. I think we both knew we would never be boyfriend and girlfriend, but there was the unspoken promise of a guaranteed date to the prom, so there was less anxiety than usual.
We spent that summer diving from the end of the pier, bringing up mussel shells and black mud gloves until it took two baths to remove the smell.
It was also the summer we had uncovered our greatest underwater treasure of them all. The tide was dead low, which, as the name implies, means the lowest of low tides you were likely to see. A sandbar had cropped up in the middle of the river, and we were determined to get there. It required a good amount of ingenuity. The water was too shallow to swim, and the mud was too soupy and deep for walking, so Tommy Lee came up with the brilliant idea to pull out two sets of water skis. The rubber capped toe and heel holders were ratcheted onto our feet and laughing and challenging one another; we turned water skiing into a cross-country sport.
The Dragon, at this particular point in the tidal estuary, was about a tenth of a mile wide. We would be traversing almost half-way across the river on our wooden planks. Tommy Lee had a knack for spinning a story, so when an arc of minnows jumped from the shallows, he began one of his stories. This one was about the Dragon that was the river’s namesake.
Tommy Lee described a sea creature that resembled an eel, but with a line of needle-sharp fangs and webbed arms that it used to propel itself just under the mud. What else could harass minnows in the shallows?
The behavior of the minnows was more pronounced than usual. I never concerned myself with what might be swimming in the deep water at high-tide and certainly not the shallows at low tide. It was in the channel that Tommy Lee and I had witnessed with our own eyes a pod of four dolphins. Their hunting behavior had driven the little fish to leap out of the water, just as the minnows were doing, in a sweeping arc above the water before falling back to their fate. But Tommy Lee’s story was so real, so visceral, that it made my skin crawl. It was the sort of story that made you look over your shoulder and imagine the Dragon that Tommy Lee painted.
My overactive imagination saw the undulating slimy fin of the Dragon break the surface of the mud and the shallow water.
I was gripped with fear, the sort that makes you laugh and squeal at the same time, but the next time I glanced over my shoulder, I was certain I saw one knobbly elbow of the webbed creature break the water’s surface. The V-shape of rippled water was heading toward me, and Tommy Lee was well ahead.
I let my adrenaline take-over. My skis schlop-schlop-schlopped through the mud and shallow water. For a second, I felt like I was walking on top of the water, my feet in the wooden skis were moving so fast. I kept moving my feet in the direction of the sand bar. Tommy Lee was already there. He was unstrapping his skis and laughing, pointing past my shoulder.
“It’s almost got you! Better hurry!”
Contrary to the smile on his sun-kissed face, I felt an inkling of truth in his goading. I moved my legs until my thighs burned. The swarm of minnows passed me, leaping and arcing out of the water. Just a few strides away, the sand bar stuck out of the water, gray from white sand mixed with black marsh mud. My right ski hit the hard sand of the bar. Then the left. I jumped out of the skis, leaving them lodged in the soft, wet sand. I rolled across the bar, coating my backside with sand that I would come to regret in a very real and painful return trek back across the shallows.
Tommy Lee nearly split a seam laughing.
“You shoulda seen your face. You really thought the Dragon had you.”
I looked back out across the shallow water. It looked farther to shore than it had looked from the shore to the sandbar. I reached down, scooped up a handful of mucky gray sand, and flung it at Tommy Lee. He spun out of the way and laughed harder.
I was too winded to laugh.
“Woah. Check this out.” He kicked something that was sticking out of the sandbar.
I could clearly see from where I was sitting that it was something metal. It wasn’t the corroded, barnacle-encrusted, rusty kind of metal detritus one was likely to find in the Dragon – old bits of boat hardware, remnants of chicken-wire crab pots, the odd pitted aluminum can. This was shiny enough to gleam gold in the setting sun.
Tommy Lee pulled, then got down on his hands and knees and dug at the thing. While I crawled over, he dug at the thing until he could grab it at the top and shift it back-and-forth like the stick shift in an old car. Something held it firm in the mud, but his little bit of success in making the thing wiggly gave him the motivation to dig further.
“That’s an awful lot of work for what’s gonna turn out to be an old boat rudder.”
“Nah. It’s gold.”
I touched it when he stopped working on the thing and started digging again. “Brass maybe,” although one would expect a brass piece to have turned green, then black with tarnish.
This held a true gold color.
Tommy Lee was committed. He dug and pulled and shifted the rod until with a squelching “flurrrpt” the thing popped out of the sand bar.
He fell back on his backside, and I could only stare in wonder. It was exactly what it looked like from above, not a rusty, tarnished bit of boat debris, but an ornate rod of solid gold, and heavier than either one of us would have imagined when freed from the sand bar. On the end that was buried in the sand was mounted a jewel-encrusted egg, also of gold filigree. It was a scepter, plain and simple, although there was nothing plain nor simple about the ornamented totem.
Along the shores of the Dragon, the native people had called this place home for more than 12,000 years. We both wondered if it could have come from some of those ancient people of the Dragon, but how could it be. Native artifacts were known for their adherence to the materials that were at hand – turtle and mussel shells, hemp twine, pearl, and mother-of-pearl beads and ornaments.
This was gold, laden with red, blue, and green stones set in a filigree knob.
We went on a school trip to the Fine Arts Museum the year before, but even there, they did not have anything this fine behind thick glass and laser alarms.
Tommy Lee swished it in the salty water of the Dragon to clean off the mucky sand bits that clung to it.
“What should we do, Tommy Lee?”
He looked up at me, and in that instant, I saw someone different. He was no longer the ruddy-cheeked boy, middle of the pack sporty jock who attended the local public high-school.
His eyes shone with a crystal blue I had never noticed before. His hair whipped up in the wind like someone had turned on a fan at an Abercrombie photo shoot. The sun that was setting behind him glinted a sunbeamed crown over his eclipse. And I caught my breath. Could it have been just a week ago that I had kissed this boy-man? This king of the Dragon?
I blinked. The wind died down, and the sun sank, and Tommy Lee was Tommy Lee again. I snort laughed, which would have been horrible if I had done it in front of the boy-man who had stood there on the sand bar just a few seconds ago.
Tommy Lee grinned, and I was comforted by his boyishness.
“We call the press, is what we do. We found a dad-gum king’s torch!”
“Ahm, I believe it’s called a scepter.”
“Yeah. What you said.”
But for all of Tommy Lee’s excitement, I was every bit as anxious. We still had to make a return trek to shore.
“I think we should leave it, Tommy Lee. It’s not ours.”
“Are you crazy?! Look at this thing. It’s not anybody’s.”
“Well, I’m gonna start back. The sun is already setting. It’ll be nearly dark by the time we get back to shore.”
On the side of the river from which we had come, the security light beside the house was beginning to flicker. It was on the east side of the house, so furthest away from any sunlight, but I had not been exaggerating. It would be nearly dark by the time we got back. The long walkway divided the backyard from the back door of the 1960s brick ranch house to the wooden pier that jutted out into the shallow water. If we just made it to the pier, we could climb up the wooden ladder at the end to attain what felt like safety.
I shoved my toes into the rubber cups on my water skis, my heel squashing the back cup, so I had to struggle and smash my index finger in trying to work it up over my heel. I pulled up the button in the back and slammed my fist into my heel, ratcheting the skis onto my feet so they wouldn’t be pulled off in the mud.
“Come on, Tommy Lee. We need to leave,” and I started without him.
He seemed to be taking his sweet time getting his water skis ratcheted on his feet. Neither of us had considered the difference made by the weight of a solid gold scepter in traversing the river. Whereas I was able to skim the surface more easily, my skis only barely touching the muddy bottom before I shuffled my ski forward, Tommy Lee struggled behind me. The weight of the gold and his general solidity made the trek more difficult for him. He moved a foot forward, then before he could move his second leg forward, the first one became mired in the mud, just deep enough to ensure that he was plodding more than shuffling. He had to lift each foot. The weight of the mired ski and the weight of his treasure made each step a slog.
He laughed. “Geez. I never imagined this little bit of extra weight would make it this much more difficult.” I could hear in his voice that he was labored. I was half the distance back across the river when I noticed his voice sounded far away.
I glanced over my shoulder, and that’s when I saw it.
The day Tommy Lee and I had seen the pod of dolphins from the relative safety of our kayaks, the sight of their fins was foreshadowed by the triangular disturbance in the water of small fish trying to escape whatever was chasing them. An arc of tiny fish jumped from the water. That was immediately followed by an arc of larger fish, leaping away from whatever was chasing them.
This time, I saw the leap of minnows, followed by the leap of a school of larger fish, then the splash as a three foot gar leapt from the water in an attempt to escape whatever it was that was making the even larger triangular disturbance in the water behind it.
That’s when I saw it – a dorsal fin rose up out of the shallows, a wake of mud following it like a royal train.
But this was no dolphin fin. This wasn’t even a shark fin, so easily mistaken for a dolphin. The fin that crested the mud and water was fleshy, the color of the chocolate gray marsh mud. It had a solid sharp spine at the front, maybe two other spines in the middle, and all of it wrapped in webbed flesh that shone dark but reflected the glisten of the setting sun.
“Tommy Lee! Get back to the sandbar!”
But Tommy Lee either did not hear me or did not heed me. He kept plodding onward toward the shore.
I struck out faster than I thought my legs were capable of moving, until my skis were practically gliding on top of the water. With a final dive, I lunged toward the wooden ladder at the end of the pier. I had to kick off the skis to make the ascent. Throwing my body across the planking, I turned, extending my hand to Tommy Lee.
But Tommy Lee wasn’t behind me. Tommy Lee wasn’t on the sand bar, which was fast disappearing in the rising tide and the setting sun.
“Tommy Lee!” I screamed, calling him until my voice rasped and my father and the neighbors came out of their houses and one-by-one ran down to the river’s edge.
Tommy Lee was never found. It’s been twenty years, and in that time, my replay of the events has only led everyone to believe that I was either delusional with fear, or I made up this fantastic story to cover up my own culpability in his disappearance.
Was it fool hearty to strike out across the shallows on water skis? We had waded out before, sinking up to our thighs in the chocolate pudding mud. That was fool hearty, but everyone who lives on the river knows, if you find yourself sinking too deep, you just go out flat on your belly and pull yourself along like a mudskipper. There was no real risk in what we were doing that night. I’ve never been afraid of the river, or the pudding-like mud that is home to so many fiddler crabs and tiny zooplankton. To this day, I’m not afraid of the water, or the tides. But now, I know what lives in that primordial ooze at the bottom of the river… and how Dragon Run got its name.