It was a sweltering day. August hot. Carpenter bees hovered in the still air. Flags hung limp and field crickets chirped in the tall dry grass. The boy was farther from home than he should be, more than a mile away, tromping through an unmowed hayfield. A small black dog ran alongside him, tongue drooping in the heat, burrs caught in his fur.
On the banks of a quiet stream, turtles sunned themselves on partly submerged logs, instinctively tucking their heads inside their shells as the boy and dog splashed past them toward the marsh. He was a bare-chested boy, with summer-browned skin stretched tautly over jutting ribs and shoulder blades. A young boy, still small enough for his mother to wrap her arms around him and enjoy the feel of his delicate bones bunch together like a bundle of twigs.
Sunlight sparkled on the river beyond the wetland. A slow moving barge, weighted with scrap iron, left its wake slapping the slippery rocks along the shore, while the boy hurried in the sunny heat. He knew there was a dinghy on the other side of the marsh. It had washed in at high tide last week. He’d overheard his father talking.
“Stay out of the bog,” his father warned when his son asked about it.
When he reached the spot the boy pushed aside cattails and scanned the opposite shore. The boat was still there, silted in. A dirty yellow foul weather jacket twisted around an oarlock. He swatted at flies and squinted his eyes for better focus. There was a rope dangling from the bow of the faded red boat. He knelt and hugged his dog. “We’ll pull it free with that!” he exclaimed, pointing to the frayed bowline.
He took off his shoes and stepped into the watery mud. It bubbled and oozed between his toes as he started across. Halfway there he sank nearly to his knees, yelping with surprise when the cool mud rushed over his ankles and up his legs. On the reedy bank behind him, his little dog paced and whined.
A thin layer of water was spreading quickly across the marsh and when the boy looked down he saw a vivid reflection of himself and the cloudless blue sky. He lowered his hands to touch the image, crouching as though in a tide pool, then lost his balance and fell forward.
He laughed, at first, startled by the sensation. It was as though he were falling up, not down—flying through the sky with meadowlarks and sparrows. When he realized what was happening, and tried stopping the fall with outstretched arms, his hands didn’t hit bottom until he was stuck chin-deep in the dark mud.
At four o’clock in the afternoon the drone of cicadas filled the leaf-heavy trees in the boy’s yard. His mother peered into the fragrant shade of the back porch, expecting to find him there. When she didn’t, she opened the screen door and stepped out onto the lawn, raising a hand to shield her eyes from the sun’s glare. As she turned in quickening circles calling his name, fear closed in on her as steadily as the rising tide on her facedown boy.
Diane Lechleitner is a writer and artist who lives in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y. She is a graduate of the Pratt Institute. Her work has appeared in The North Atlantic Review, The Mast Head, Messing About In Boats, and The Pebble Lake Review.