By Anne Ney
The Gullah say driftwoods have eyes.
I hear this on the TV from the kitchen sink where I am rinsing vomit from the emesis basin. David hears it from the couch where he shivers, nauseous and pale beneath an afghan, recovering from his latest round of chemo. We are alone, as we often are, mother and child in this island of a house at the end of the dirt road.
The television offers us another view of the world; today, Gullah-Gullah Island tells us driftwoods have eyes.
The show’s co-hosts, Ron and Natalie, banter in a Low Country cadence characteristic of their African-American community, rooted on the islands between Savannah and Charleston. These sea islands, like those where the Gullah originate, were settled by Ron and Natalie’s ancestors, enslaved West Africans brought to the Carolinas to coax indigo, cotton, and rice from the sea island marsh.
As they chat I try to imagine the anguish those Africans felt: proud freemen who were abducted, beaten, and chained into ships for the long middle passage. In the Americas they were often torn from those whom they loved.
But the Gullah had a saving grace. The Gullah, knowledgeable in sea marsh ecology, could make the island soil sing. And so their culture remained intact: isolated by waters, woven in a common tongue, and told in stories carried from the other side of the sea. Stories that were passed down like faith: one says driftwoods have eyes.
I dry the basin and my hands. My gaze drifts out the sink window onto the overgrown, February-sodden land. Our front yard, such as it is, ends at the wire fence this side of red-dirt road. Across the road, the swamp grows thick with scrub-oak and cypress. Loblolly and longleaf pines tower around the house.
Inside the wire fence is a Southern bayberry I pruned into a tree for David to climb, before his balance deteriorated and the brain tumor was discovered. I turn from the wintry gloom, round the kitchen corner, and study David listening to the Gullah story. Every day I worry that he will die. Every day I assure him that he is fine.
He is absorbed. His mouth purses in that serious way he has. His hands twitch as Ron turns the driftwood over for inspection. I think of all the times David and I have beach-combed, utterly ignorant of driftwood eyes. I wonder what those eyes see. What they have seen.
On the screen, Natalie’s box-braided hair peeks from her bright headscarf. Her brown eyes and skin glow against the canary-yellow cloth. Ron’s smile is as wide as the sea.
The driftwood’s bark has long since abandoned the heartwood, soaked clean by river and tide to expose its essence. Ron brushes powdery sand from the branch, bleached naked by sun and salt. He considers the driftwood’s beginnings. Maybe it came from Saint Helena, fallen from a live oak hammock where the long branches stretch toward the horizon.
Maybe it was wrested from a Low Country riverbank overhung with sweetgum, palmetto, pawpaw, and bay. It might have been lighting-struck or twisted off in a summer hurricane sweeping up the coast. Maybe it drifted from Africa.
Wherever it came from, it is a testament to its history. Its shape suggests its species, habit, and the conditions of its growth. Its scars and ragged ends hint at its demise. I think of Kahlil Gibran’s words, “For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.”
Ron challenges Natalie to find the driftwood’s eyes. She exaggerates a frown and says she cannot see an eye in this wood he has plucked from Gullah-Gullah Beach. He chuckles warmly and enjoins her to look for the eye!
David tilts his head and scrunches his brow. His blue eyes bore into the screen.
In a moment Natalie exclaims, “I see it here! I see de eye!”
She points to a depression in the wood. David grins like a jack-o-lantern; his adult incisors erupt unevenly through his gums. His head is symmetrical and smooth. He sits up and says, “Mom! That driftwood has an eye!” The afghan slips to the floor as he leans and points. “See?”
A shiver runs down my back; the sun-bleached wood looks too much like a bone. I think about dead pirates buried along this coast where Blackbeard roamed. Do the dead also have eyes?
I cross the room and sit next to David on the sagging blue couch. I enfold his thin body in my arms and tuck his warm, bald, head under my chin. Natalie produces another piece of driftwood and hands it to Ron. He turns it this way and that; scrutinizes it from all angles. He says the eyes can be difficult to see. They may hide in plain sight but they are there: on bleached oaken arms, skinned cypress knees, amputated mangrove toeholds.
David fingers his cheek and studies the staticky picture. Natalie demonstrates the strategy of looking askance to find the eyes. Ron says she should look from a different angle, or soften her gaze to make them appear. But never give up. All driftwoods have eyes. David shouts, “I see it! I see the eye!”
Natalie finds it, too. Then Afro-pop music begins and Binyah-Binyah Polliwog, the Island’s human-sized peeper-frog, Ron, and Natalie dance and sing the closing song. I grab the remote and turn down the volume. David gives me an earnest, eager look. “Mom. Driftwoods have eyes,” he says. I kiss his bald head, run my fingers lightly down his cheek, and listen as he retells the story.
I wonder if the eyes exist in living trees: within the bayberry, swamp oaks, and pines that both isolate and contain us. Are they watching us now? Have they seen us splashing in the river as they slide quietly by on their way to the coast? Or do they only mind us after coming to rest long after riding the longshore currents that nudge the sea islands north, grain by sandy grain.
David finishes his story then says gravely, “Mom, we have to go to the beach.”
But it is February. The morning rain has given way to winter’s orange-tinted evening sky. In any case his blood counts are too low for us to venture into the world of germs. I say we’ll put it on The List in my cheerful matter-of-fact voice. “That way we’ll definitely know we’re going to go. But it’s dark now and Dad’s on his way home and what will he eat for dinner if we’re at the beach?”
David agrees to put it on the list then returns to the Gullah-Gullah sign-off. He never questions how or where I track these things to be accomplished. In fact, The List exists only in my heart as a running tally of possibilities. It is a hedge against forgetting, should he die, the shape that his hopes and dream once assumed.
Gullah-Gullah dissolves into the Nick Jr. afternoon lineup. I return to the kitchen to start dinner. Beyond the window, sunset rays pierce the scrub-oak branches across the road and silhouette David’s deserted bayberry tree. I think of Robert Frost’s Swinger of Birches with its boy who is
too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
I try to picture David climbing farther up his modest tree than he has ever gone, up to where the branches are thin and flexible, up to where his tree can bear no more weight. Would the tree set him down again?
Or would his weight break the branch, send him tumbling into the earth, and cast the severed wooden limb into the swamp to be carried to the Ash Branch, into the Ogeechee, and out to sea. I calculate the river’s slow winding across the coastal plain, and the speed of the ocean current that flows around the sea islands before rejoining the Gulf Stream to circle the globe.
The limb would lose its leaves first. Smaller twigs would catch on river snags and snap from the main branch. The bark, now an extraneous skin, would slacken before floating away. Once the branch reached the ocean it would age into a whitened bone. It might drift for months, even years, before coming home to Savannah. It would surely have eyes by then.
The surf would entrain it and carry it toward the land, up the beach face, and into the wrack line where a boy might find it as he searches for a castle parapet, or a pirate sword, or an anchor to hold his kite string while he jumps waves. I imagine the driftwood’s expectant eyes, twinkling as the boy approaches its weathered knob of a body.
Would time and tide have erased the memory of its difficult middle passage, between the time it lived and the time it came to rest on that sea island beach? Would it remember how the boy had swung out too far and snapped it from a tree beside a wire fence across the road from a swamp?
At bedtime David wants a story. I choose Caveman Dave, a gift from my mother who likes the book because the protagonist has her grandson’s name, blue eyes, and blonde hair that I promise will grow back when the chemo’s done. I read to him in my growly cave-mom voice. “Caveman Dave lives in a cave. He’s not afraid. He’s very brave!”
David scowls and declares that he is not brave. Maybe he believes that cancer follows bravery instead of the other way around. That if he denies the first, the other will disappear on its own. Blue Bunny nestles under his arm. The lump beneath his Ninja Turtle jammie top betrays the permanent IV line, neatly coiled, bandaged and double-taped to his skin just above his heart.
“You have courage.” I remind him that courage means you face something even if — especially if — you know how badly it’s going to hurt.
Satisfied with this explanation, he leans back on his pillow and laces his fingers behind his head, a characteristic pose that belies his tender age. I think of the long scar, from the crown of his skull to his neck, raggedly crosshatched where sutures held the incision together until it healed. He gazes at the ceiling while Caveman Dave tussles with dinosaurs.
When the story is finished, David asks for his Guatemalan worry people, another gift from his grandmother. I find their house, a pill-bottle-size basket, and shake them into his small hands. Each one is no taller than my thumbnail. One by one he brings them to his lips and whispers his worries into their minuscule ears. We tuck them under his pillow where they will carry out their midnight task of whisking his cares away.
Night after night the worry people perform their magic. This, I think, is the power of story.
We snuggle until he is warm and drowsy. I kiss him goodnight and say that as soon as his counts are up we’ll go to the beach.
The drive to Tybee Island is a long hour through black-stalked cotton fields, acres of greening soy, and Savannah’s historic squares. From there we parallel the river for miles, crossing sinuous back channels and wide salt marshes that glint in the vernal sun. Water in these parts is restless. It empties the land, recycles the tides, and slowly transforms islands.
The beach is windy and cold. Surf jostles the shore where only ten months ago David played Tonka trucks, lazed in wide, warm tide pools, and built Batman sand castles. Today, white sea foam tumbles up the beach. I tell David it looks like snow, an item on The List. We stomp a few fluffy balls as they rush toward the dunes. He quickly loses energy.
But he has a mission and will not leave empty-handed. He picks up then discards unnecessary things: sea glass, broken shells, sun-bleached sand dollars, and ghost crab molts. When he finds what he is looking for he grins, turns, and catches my eye.
I will still have it twenty-five years later although the day David collects the driftwood I cannot know that. I cannot know that he will, in fact, die. I cannot know that one day the driftwood will sit in my office with other ghosts that my swinger of birches will leave behind. I cannot know that eyes will silently watch from the battered wood he now holds in his hands.
I had turned my attention away and was studying the horizon: for coming weather, or a sign that he was going to be okay, or affirmation that what is true — tumors, chemo, the way death hovers all around — is less important than how we frame our circumstances.
David brought me the driftwood and said I should turn it around, look at it sideways, soften my gaze, and let the eyes appear. At first I could not see them. He did immediately, of course, as though to emphasize they belonged to him. I remember how pleased he was in that moment of recognizance.
He exclaimed with great imperative, “Look Mom! Look at the eyes!”
I miss him still.
I miss telling him stories: that courage outshines bravado. That love transcends impossible odds. Stories to manage frightening days and worry people to banish those same fears at night. But his driftwood remains.
In life it became bent as though weighted at the thin, leafy end. It is cracked and pocked and freckled with bone-white barnacles. Its eyes sit higher than either its snout or long tail, which support the head from both ends. The snout is scarred where twigs were torn away. The tail was broken clean from the tree it once graced. Before he died, David pirate-patched one of its eyes with a purple plastic ring-pop scavenged from the wrack. Later, I tucked blue jay feathers behind its eyes, to give it ears. It has a roguish, carefree look.
The driftwood hovers on the shelf, just over my shoulder, in company with the stories that belong to us all. Stories to bear hearts over rivers and sounds. Stories to cross the most daunting of seas. Stories like faith; one is that driftwoods have eyes.
Anne Visser Ney is a U.S. Coast Guard veteran and writer whose work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Creative Nonfiction, Ruminate, and The Crab Orchard Review. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Whiting Award. She has taught high and college science and currently teaches writing through Milspeak Foundation and Keep Saint Pete Lit. She holds an MS and BS in Biology from Georgia Southern University and an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.