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Early in the last decade of the century, the earth began to die in earnest, though few of us noticed, and as in all times of unperceived cataclysm, the very air shuddered with myths, legends, and wondrous occurrences. Goat Creek lit up for the first time, for instance, on the very day that I came to Pemberton. Tom Dabney told me that, only much later. I might have thought that he spoke allegorically, since by then I knew that he saw signs and omens everywhere. Tom saw portent in the fact that he woke up in the morning.
But then, only days later, Scratch Purvis told me the same thing.
"Lit right up like there was light bulbs way down in it, blue ones," he said in his ruined wheeze. "I could see it shinin' all the way down to where it runs into, the Big Silver. I knowed then that something considerable was comin', and sho nuff, that very afternoon, there you was."
So I believed it then, this story of the shining, smoking creek. Scratch, who did have a kind of blinded and searching Sight, nevertheless did not speak of that which he was not certain. If he, too, said that Goat Creek had lit up, then light up, by God, it did. The hows and whys of it were entirely irrelevant.
Goat Creek: an unlovely and earthbound name for that beautiful and haunted finger of dark Georgia water. Still as a breath-scummed black mirror in the late summer; dreaming in the steel-blue autumn like a somnolent reptile; ice-rimmed and shut down and secret under the bled-out skies of winter; drifted with the stilled snowfall of dogwood and honeysuckle in the long, magical spring, Goat Creek loops and laces its way some twenty-odd miles from itssource, a hidden spring somewhere in the trackless river swamp that covers much of Baines County in southwest Georgia, to the place where it gives up its life to the Big Silver River.
In some places along its course, Goat Creek runs shal low and sunstruck through deep grasses and reeds, through open fields and clearings in the vast woods around the Big Silver. Its life there is clear and open, the province of busy waterfowl and industrious raccoons and bees and turtles and snakes and, I have been told, an occasional small, undistinguished alligator. I have never seen a gator, though I have seen the deadly roiling of the black water as one took a baby wild pig, and heard the terrible snortings, and the thin screams of the piglet, and I saw the black water redden with the piglet's blood. So I know that the gators are there.
Deer by the hundreds come to drink at the muddy verges of these shallows. It is possible to see the mishmash left by their delicate cloven hooves almost any morning. Wild pigs chuff there, too, feral and stupid. And in season, the trees around the open fields bloom with the ugly flora of wooden and metal stands, refuge of camouflaged hunters with rifles and compound bows and an astonishing array of devices to lure, by smell and sound, the slender white-tailed deer of the Big Silver.
But mostly Goat Creek runs in secret, in an eternal semitwilight of black-green trees and hanging moss and undergrowth so dense that it is like blood or darkness, a separate element. Its life here is a secret life in all ways, as secret as the place where it begins. I have never seen the spring that is its birthplace, but I have come to know much of its secret darkness and many of its sunny interstices, and I have slept and eaten and loved in one of those, and I have never forgotten, since the first day I saw it, that Goat Creek is a finger that points to Pemberton.
I came to Pemberton chasing banality like a hound a rabbit and found instead a lush, slow beauty so insistent and particular that it frightened me. After my initial visit to Tish, to scout the lay of the land and attend the interviews Charlie had arranged for me, I think I would have backed out of the whole thing because of the unease that beauty caused me, except that by that time Tish had found a place for Hilary and me to live, and had even paid the deposit on it.
"You have to come now," she said in her rich neigh. "I've told everybody you would, and you'll make me out a liar, and in Pemberton that's worse than letting your roots show. The ones in your hair, I mean. It's perfectly okay if the others do. In fact, they'd better, or nobody will ask you to their party."
"I don't have any of either kind," I said.
"Nonsense," she said. "There's not a thing wrong with your roots. After all, you're a Calhoun. That name around here is like Cabot in Boston."
"You know perfectly well I'm not a Calhoun. Christopher is a Calhoun. I'm an Andropoulis. You got any Cabotopoulises around here?"
"Don't be stupid, Andy," she said evenly, in her best Student Government voice. "It's the right thing to do, for you and Hilary both. You've got to get that child settled down before school starts. And you've got to settle, too."
It wasn't so much the argument as the weight of her presence, her sheer, easy authority, that decided me. Tish was neither a fool nor a bully, and she had been a loving friend for over twenty years. Her enveloping presence had always had an enervating, soporific effect on me, and I was tired with fifteen years' worth of corrosive fatigue...