On this lowcountry coast of South Carolina grow youngsters in a land made perfect for little boys and later for bigger boys, who have grown into men with boats. They still long to play in the plough mud of the marsh and fish in the ocean and inlets. This is a place of paradise for whiling away hours at being a boy.
The palmetto trees with their thick bodies and splintered spray tops, erupt from fountains of green, each blade casting its own slender shadow. The ancient oaks yield low hanging limbs, a mere step-up for a perfect tree climb. These trees pose just the right challenge – within reach, yet sturdy, their branches exactly wide enough for a reclining, seven year-old bony body to balance upon. The moss, dangling overhead is irregular and oddly shaped. Each cluster is distinctive from the other, if only by one wiry, molded curl. This is a superb spot to practice whistling through a missing tooth.
Over on the beach the graceful sea oats wave a friendly welcome, their feathers of gold firmly and fiercely planted in the dunes, despite a seemingly fragile demeanor. Strong and devoted to their job of protecting the dune on which they stand, the sea oats are bent on victory over erosion as they lord lord over the shoreline saving it from the sands of time.
A pair of six-inch footprints beckons my imagination just ahead in the late afternoon sun. I feel my smile take shape. I want to see the little biscuit-brown body that plays on those two feet. There he is. He is tow-headed and slender, yet broad-shouldered before his time. His shoulder blades swell at the top of his back; they are small wings that appear as if they could take flight at any moment. Rough patches of grey and black sand gather in splotches scattered on his back, behind his knee and in the creases around his elbows and – to his mother’s chagrin – for some time to come, under his nails.
Take this young man’s hands in your own and you’ll see bleached pink and white crevices of skin, miniature mountains and valleys evolving into fingertips wrinkled with too much – yet never enough – time in the water. Each raisin-like paw has scooped treasures from that special spot where the wave has broken – then retreated – and again, just before another wave eases itself slowly on to the beach.
His nose is strawberry red with bleached out splotches that shine where crackled skin has peeled away leaving fresh parchment at risk. The blue ocean swims in his eyes. His fine lashes are wet with saltwater. A tiny bead or two of saltwater perch now at the end of a perfect lash. His yellow swim trunks droop with the weight of the sand they have sucked in; they are threatening to sag below his knees, almost to the Band-Aid now curling in on itself at the corners.
He assesses his kingdom at the waters’ edge. He must move quickly! The shaping of a turret takes mudding at just the right moment. He is in a race to fill the moat himself without the uncontrollable help of the tide. He knows that any moment now the surf will fill his moat, and not so gently as he might fill it himself. The tide moves closer to his empire. He protects his castle with an angry cry: “No!” he screams, daring this ocean not to pry away his toil.
But a far mightier enemy bound toward his kingdom is approaching. In a land where history claims that brothers fought one another for control of the soil, he stands guard now at his drawbridge, his wiry arms crossed at his chest, locked in steadfast purpose. “No!” he shrieks again. His appeal is heard as a dare hurtling through the air instead of the desperate he intended. He’ll say most anything, except “please” to protect his castle from his ultimate enemy: his big brother. The bigger boy approaches now, casting his shadow on the shore, having left his more formidable footprints in the sand.
The young boys eyes are swimming with puddles of saltwater from within. Hot tears of rage stream down his face. Contorted by fury, they form a clear, pitiful path of futility. His fists clench and begin to fly. He punches the air, searching for resistance – any landing spot to inflict revenge.
“Don’t touch it! I hate you! I hate you! I hate you, ” he screams.
The waves lap quietly behind him. He cannot believe they don’t care about his castle and that they won’t help him protect it.
His brother laughs. He dances round him. He is prolonging the agony. Finally, he devastates the medieval realm, his cruel footprints crushing the castle and his little brother’s kingdom.
The years have passed and the boys have grown to men. Their lean bodies are filled out with muscle made of lowcountry boy stuff – years of riding their surfboards, hunting deer and quail, and casting their rods and nets into the sea. These brothers take better care now with one another’s kingdoms. They respect them; they admire them and they also share their toys. They fish. And hunt. And crab, and cook together. Their own young boys taunt and tease one another.
The saltwater still runs through their veins. The rush of the tide rings in their ears and the siren song and smells of the marsh keep their senses alive. They have an instinctive understanding of who they are and what they love. The lowcountry keeps them close to the earth and intent on its pleasures.