the short story project


Sidney Martin


     The sun hung high and still in a cloudless azure sky that July afternoon, the air was heavy with the heat and humidity of a typical Georgia summer.  It was so hot the birds had stopped chattering about and had settled into the shade of neighboring trees.  The only sound was that of cicadas scratching out their once-in-every-seventeen-year love song in the hopes of finding a mate and thus continuing the cycle of life.  I was sixteen that summer, still just a boy in some ways but about to begin my journey into manhood and on this particularly lazy day I was down by the lake lying on my landlady’s dock whose garage apartment I was renting that season.  Frankie was a lively, crazy old Southern woman in her late eighties with an Afro of stark white hair that was always kinked out like she had stuck a fork in an electrical outlet every morning before getting her day started.  She was funny with a quick wit about her and a sharp mind despite her age and a joy to be around with youthful blue eyes that twinkled like the sun on the water this sweltering afternoon.  I had started mowing her lawn and helping her with odd jobs last summer and was soon to fall in love with her candor, lust for life and the sweet iced tea that she would mix with Tang.  Over the years my mother would eventually become her caregiver during the last months and days of her life, but at this time it was the summer of 1984 and that particular day would become one of the fondest memories of my youth.  
     It was a season of firsts for me.  My first job at our town’s local Dairy Queen, followed by my first crush on a boy, a seventeen-year-old Adonis named John, my first car inherited from my mom and dad, a ’79 red Honda Civic, and I had my first taste of freedom renting the garage apartment as mentioned earlier from Frankie.  It was the beginning of my unquestionable realization and acceptance of my sexuality, also.  The first tentative steps in discovering who I was as a gay teenager growing up in a fundamentalist Pentecostal family in a small Southern town in the Piedmont valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  As I lay beneath a sky as big and vast as my dreams under the blaze of the unrelenting sun, how was I to know that this completely normal, average Tuesday would stay with me for the rest of my life?  
      Growing up in the isolated country I always had an affinity for nature and growing up on a lake only heightened this.  It was nothing for me to shed my clothes on a sizzling day like that day and run and play naked in the surrounding woods, climbing trees, catching lizards in a stream or cooling off in a mud flat at the lake’s edge.  I would pretend to be an untamed and uninhibited wildling wholly oblivious and uncaring as to what society would think of me if they truly knew who I was and what I was up to.   There was nothing sexual or perverse in these occasional romps through the woods, just a young teenager relishing in a freedom of body, mind, and spirit that couldn’t be found anywhere else in his typically judgmental, sanctimonious, and mockingly cruel world.  When I could no longer take the heat of that afternoon, I arose from the vinyl and metal dollar store folding lounge chair and threw myself into the serene stillness of the lake’s water.  Immediately and without hesitation, I slipped out of my trunks, catching them on my upturned right foot before they fell to the bottom giving my body time to be embraced by this aquatic realm I so dearly loved.  
    When I came up for air, I swam to the end of the dock and placed my wet shorts on the top rung of the wooden ladder, bobbing up and down as small bluegill swam about me, investigating this new intruder into their damp domain.  Making sure my trunks were secure and not prone to slipping into the lake and getting lost I slipped once again beneath the still waters, sinking deep into its clear depths.  At a certain point, I turned to face upwards and was captivated by the sun’s rays streaking through my underwater universe like light streaming through stained glass in a cathedral.  With a quick slap of my feet, I made my way to the surface, breaking through into a moment in time that held everything I ever needed.  
       Swimming casually, I made my way towards a nearby cove where the red Georgia clay rose lazily from the lakebed and disappeared into the leafy greenness of the woods beyond.   I made my way to a grouping of large rocks and nestled between them with the upper half of my body glistening in the sun while my lower half remained submerged in the warmth of the shallows.  Small minnows arrived from out of nowhere, and I was soon giggling to myself as I felt their tiny and curious nips along my submerged stomach and legs.  I lingered here for a while, playing with the fish as the sun warmed my body, but I eventually became bored with my new aquatic playmates and decided to explore the woods beyond.  Splashing water on my chest, shoulders, and face to keep me cooled a bit longer, I arose and stepped onto the small bank as little rivulets ran down my young, thin body leaving a trail of wet sand behind me as I quietly disappeared into the seclusion and privacy of the woods.    
       A crow’s call from a way’s off broke the silence, and the song from a solitary robin would fill my ears occasionally with its bright, sweet notes.  I studied everything.  The veins in the leaves backlit by the sun, the shades of green in the trees as light filtered through them, the small wildflowers with their sweet, delicate faces smiling up at me as if to say “Hello” and “Welcome.”  Various toadstools and mushrooms, velvet to my touch, the brownish grey bark of the pine, oak, and dogwood, rough and solid beneath my hands, all of it so very common and mundane but, yet, holding such wonder and beauty for me all at the same time.  I wandered and explored for an hour or so before finding a small clearing and laid myself down on a bed of cool moss under the far-reaching boughs of an old and mighty oak, the shade from its canopy allowing just the right amount of warmth to filter through and gently kiss my face and body.  As I lay there, my eyes closed listening to the buzz of bee’s and June bugs all around me, I felt myself fall into a superb comfort that was soon joined by an intoxication of the moment that began to churn in my gut giving rise to a passion found only at this moment.  My hands began to explore my warm body, discovering and rediscovering small and beautiful sensations that would send mini shocks coursing through my damp skin as beads of sweat began to glisten in the humidity.  Soon my right hand found the stiffness between my gangly legs, sending goosebumps up and down my glowing skin.  Quickly, all of my senses rose to a heightened level.  My ears were ringing with the small, metallic sounds of insects, my nose was filled with the earthy scents of moss and bark and leaves, my eyes glowed with a pinkish hue from behind their closed lids, and my breath eventually became heavy as my heart began to race within my rising and falling chest.  When I could no longer contain my joy, I arched my back, pushing my pelvis upwards and gave in to my carnal nature.  
     With a silent thud, my body fell back onto the moss and began to relax with sensual shakes and shudders draining from my muscles as the thumping of my heart slowed to its regular cadence.  I realized the woods had gone deathly quiet, an unnatural hush dominated my immediate surroundings as if giving me time to come back to my senses.  It was then that I heard the soft shuffling of dead leaves in the undergrowth.  At first, I thought it was nothing more than a squirrel foraging for nuts or berries, but as I listened carefully, I soon realized that the sound was continuous, as if something long and fleshy was sliding my way.  In an instant my emotions went from elation to fear and as I slowly turned my face towards the approaching sound an ebony head with glassy black eyes and a pink tongue that would flicker quickly about like a banner caught in the wind emerged from a pile of dry, brown leaves a few feet from where I lay.  I froze and watched as the black snake undulated from underneath the scrub, the sunlight bouncing off its ebony scales as it slowly crawled along the forest floor completely unaware or uninterested in me or my presence.  I knew snakes of this kind were not poisonous, but the shock and surprise of seeing one in my present state of vulnerability could not quell the inbred fear we all share when confronted with such a slithering, sneaky phantom of the woods.  
     I waited in hushed silence until the last bit of its tail had disappeared in another pile of brush.  Taking a deep breath, I quietly lifted myself from the coolness of my earthly bed, a shy smile on my face as the religious symbolism that had just materialized within this sanctuary of nature revealed itself to my mind.  Returning to the lake, I stepped from the coolness of the forested shade and back into the brightness and heat of the day, the sun still burning majestically in the heavens above me.  I had exited the woods several yards from where I had entered and made my way towards the water.  I stepped into a soft patch of red clay, it’s surprising chill sending pleasurable tingles running up my leg exciting me once again.  Tentatively, I stepped further into the soft earth before stopping knee deep in the moist, wet soil a few feet from the lake’s edge.  Smiling with delight as the thought of trying something new streaked through my mind, I slowly lowered myself into the mud, my bare butt coming to rest firmly on the solid ground beneath.  My laughter soared above me as I realized how odd I must look half submerged in this mud bath of red clay and then, in a flash of an idea, I began to cover the rest of my body in the mineral-rich wet muck, feeling it ooze down and around me.  I shut my eyes and covered my face thoroughly, running handfuls of the wet sludge through my hair until, finally, I looked like a lump of clay just beginning to be molded by a sculptor in preparation for another masterpiece.  
     I stayed this way for a moment or two feeling the clay start to harden on my body, enclosing me in a good old-fashioned country mud bath.  With slow, calculated movements, I began to stand up, little pieces of red muck dripping from my body.  I was the true personification of man being created out of the earth by our heavenly father, and when I had reached my full height, I stood quite still as if in prayer, allowing myself to feel the breath in my chest as it expanded and contracted within my dark cocoon.  I was coming alive in every way, physically, emotionally and spiritually that summer.  I was accepting myself as the beautiful creature that I was.  Created in the image of a god that loved and adored me and with this bold statement to the universe vibrating from within my soul, I wiped my eyes with the tips of my fingers allowing me to see the peaceful lake that lay before me reflecting the blue of the vast sky above like a magical mirror that could reveal your true self if you just dared to look.  As if in a trance, I freed myself from the clutches of Mother Earth and with slow, deliberate steps walked towards the water’s edge.  I stood there for a minute giving the sun and the summer heat more time to bake me further into this variation of Adam and, then, without hesitation, I dove into the lake, breaking it’s still surface like the shattering of glass.  My momentum carried me down into the cold, inky depths and with each passing second, I felt the clay and mud wash away from my body in small chunks leaving a reddish trail behind me floating and dissolving into nothingness.  I was breaking free of my outer shell, revealing myself to the world as a new creation, feeling my old self falling away to expose my new body and mind to the world around me.  I soon reached the sandy, rocky bottom and turning my attention upwards towards the liquid canopy above me, I launched myself like a rocket that has been loosened from its holdings.  The rush of water cleansing my body entirely and as I broke through the lake’s surface, I threw my head back in incredible adulation as if reborn, the sun shining on my face welcoming this new and beautiful creature into an amazing and perfect world.  
     I eventually made my way back to the dock, swimming and diving and floating as carefree and innocent as I was at that time.  Feeling quite satisfied with my afternoon adventures, I found my trunks safely resting where I had left them, warm and dry to my touch. And while quietly treading the water I slipped them up and over my tanned legs and small hips, grabbed the ladder and pulled myself onto the warm planks of the dock and began to towel myself off.  I was still just sixteen that afternoon, enjoying the awakening of my mind and body.  Still growing up in a small, Southern town with a family history steeped in holy Biblical scripture, working at a fast food restaurant that was exposing me to a more extensive variety of people and experiences, attending the only high school in the county while attempting to fit in and be normal.  However, I was different that day entirely and profoundly.  As I was taking my first formative steps towards loving and accepting myself in the same ways that I had always felt loved by nature, blissfully unaware of the incredible journey of my life that lay ahead, patiently waiting just beyond the horizon where earth, water, and sky met on this perfect Southern summer’s day.  

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