Editor’s Note: With summer not-so-far behind us, Jessica Franke Carr’s essay, “The Magician,” is a reminder of the bonds that can be forged anytime a family encounters nature together, regardless of how small the scale.
By Jessica Franke Carr
Henry always wears lime green Crocs, but he can get away with it because he’s only three years old. A grown man or woman would attract disapproving stares or outright censure if caught frolicking in such fluorescent hues. The shoes’ garishness is made even more offensive by the awkward clog-shape, the impossibly light space age plastic construction, and the polka dot ventilation holes.
But a child in Crocs is simply adorable.
On this hot summer evening, my husband Jeremy and I are attempting to tire out our dependent creatures – the boisterous toddler and our dopey retriever mutt – with our nightly trek to Standing Bear Lake in Omaha. Our little starter home is right across the street, so this 135-acre lake seems like just part of the neighborhood. We’ve come to watch the Magic Show, but Jeremy and I are too hot and tired to rush. Henry, however, runs. His green feet are a blur of motion ahead of us. He is impossibly fast for someone so small, although he is gigantic for his age and has been developing his leg strength since he first formed limb buds in utero. Remembering those painful kicks during pregnancy, I wince and brush my hand reflexively against my abdomen, which still bears the deflated scars of a home long since deserted.
Henry runs everywhere – now that he can run – not because he’s impatient, but just for the sheer joy of being able to make his body do this marvelous thing that is pumping legs and flurrying feet and, most amazingly, not tripping. Especially in those ridiculous shoes.
Our path takes us through a stretch of classic Nebraska prairie, a sea of grass already turned crisp and brown. It is a landscape aging too fast. If only plants could move like Henry… then they, too, could just run to the lake and drink until they recovered, until they became green and vibrant like those pinwheeling shoes moving farther and farther away from me.
I fear he will always run farther away from me. Someday he will slip out of my sight.
“Wait, Henry!” I call with a hitch in my voice. “Wait for Mama and Daddy!”
Surprisingly, he obliges, coming to a complete stop 30 yards ahead of us. By the time we catch up, he’s squatted down and is studying something on the paved path.
“Look Mama-Daddy!” he says excitedly. “A spider!” I have arachnophobia, but my desire – nay, compulsion – to encourage my child’s curiosity outweighs my fear. We join him in his squat, although the position is uncomfortable enough for me that I can’t help but marvel at Henry’s ease. He could stay in that pose forever, his diapered bottom resting on the foam-like heels of his shoes. I feel old and adrift, here in this giant’s body with my head always so far away from the ground.
The spider has a puffy black abdomen and short legs. For a moment, I am terrified that it’s a tick, which is possibly the only living creature I despise more than spiders. This, however, is just a spider, rapidly crawling from some Point A to an unspecified Point B. Movement nearby distracts me, and I notice the pavement is fluttering with these bulbous arachnids. Shuddering, I creak back to a standing position and suggest we get moving before the spiders latch onto my subconscious and I spend the night screaming in a bed swarming with imaginary dangers.
Henry grins devilishly and tickles my stomach. “Ack! There’s a spider on you!”
“I get no respect,” I sigh as I ruffle his sweaty mop of blonde hair. He takes this as a blessing and runs away again, flying at top speed through a breeze of his own creation, puffs of dust exploding from every kick of his green heels.
The levee on the east side of the lake creates a perfectly straight beach with boulders of limestone instead of sand. Other access points to the water ring the lake but they require wading through the grasses. I much prefer the levee, a barren wasteland of rock where I’m sure many creatures live but none have ever deigned to cross my path. Here I can finally turn my attention to the lake, which, on windless days like today, looks like a piece of fallen sky. The sun is sinking, with rays of pink and tangerine streaking across the azure dome overhead. I can almost make out the curvature of the earth on the flat, unblemished horizon.
We scramble down the boulders to the water’s edge; the lake is low, revealing rocks and logs painted olive with dried algae. Henry is excited to “throw rocks” and instantly starts scavenging for what Daddy calls “perfect” stones: palm-sized and flat on one side. This ritual is Jeremy’s way to introduce his heritage to Henry: an Oregon native, Jeremy hails from a land of towering forests and water so omnipresent, the air is saturated by it. He misses his emerald land — maybe that’s where Henry received his passion for green — and the numerous bodies of water that cover it.
He brings Henry over here almost every day to skip stones.
In contrast, I throw rocks.
I lack the necessary finesse to catapult a rock at the right angle (20° between the stone and water’s surface is reportedly optimal) with the proper spin and velocity. Or maybe I lack the patience to learn. Either way, the rocks I throw always land with a purposeful plunk in the water, as if sinking stones had been my plan all along.
Instead I try to be content with sitting and watching and relaxing, all things Jeremy would say I do terribly. But once Jeremy starts flinging stones, experiencing life just happens without any conscious effort. It’s not the skipping stones themselves that wrench me out of my tiresome reverie, although the denial of physics is mesmerizing. No, it’s watching Henry watch Daddy that truly amazes me. Jeremy may work all day climbing the corporate ladder, may read and actually understand articles about economic crises, and may be able to kill spiders of any size without fear, but those aren’t the skills that impress Henry.
When Daddy skips stones, he is a magician.
Henry serves as the faithful assistant, darting here and there to gather rocks and then watching each performance in awe. Some stones hop only once before splashing into the depths, but occasionally the factors align and a stone will walk on water, each brief touch sending off rings of ripples to finally differentiate the lake from the sky.
As a true master of showmanship, Henry always turns to me, the audience, and says, “Whoa, did you see THAT?”
I wonder if I have any skills that Henry finds equally magical. Creating him seems magical to me, but that’s another feat Henry likely won’t appreciate until his own children are born. My résumé includes other accomplishments: once upon a time, I was a research scientist; I bake a mean brownie; I can turn any topic into a list. But no parlor tricks that rival the mysticism of stones that fly.
After a while, even the best assistant reverts to a child and decides to wreak some havoc of his own. Henry puts on his scientist cap and experiments with rocks of different sizes, thrown from different heights and with different amounts of force, and mentally tallies the volume of the splash that results.
The lake finally swallows the orb of the sun and the temperature instantly plummets to something almost tolerable. However, the sunset is also our cue to go. As Henry scrambles up the boulders to the trail, those shoes of his finally admit they aren’t designed for rock climbing and he trips, scraping his knee on a jagged rock. His wail is louder than any splash.
Instantly I am at his side, with no memory of scaling the levee and no concern for the discomfort of my squatting position. His eyes, bright blue like Jeremy’s, well up and overflow their banks, forging clean rivers through the dirt on his cheeks.
“Mama, can you kiss it?” he sobs, pointing at the oozing wound.
What I want to do is get some soap and water and antibiotic ointment and a nice bandage, but we’re “roughing it” right now and I’ll have to use a temporary field dressing.
I dutifully kiss the wound, tasting the chalky limestone and metallic blood on my lips.
“Thank you, Mama, that feels much better,” he says, bravely swallowing his last sob as he hugs me around the neck. Then he smiles, with full lips shaped just like mine and dimples all his own, and runs away.
As I wipe my mouth, I realize that, for the moment, I am a magician, too. And no matter how far away his green Crocs take him from me in this life, I won’t be forgotten.