The other prospective members of our neighborhood band had agreed with Rusty. Crossing the Root Bridge would indeed be proof of someone's courage and sense of adventure. Any club whose membership was composed entirely of Root Bridgers would be the envy of all neighborhood clubs--now and forever after--they imagined. We all knew of the Root Bridge. It had been a prominent part of the scenery in our forest playground for years, a place that held mystery and intrigue, as well as obvious danger. No one had ever crossed the Root Bridge before. I was amazed that my brother had ever considered it possible. We might only see such a feat played out on a movie screen by Hercules or Sinbad or Robin Hood. None of us could cross it, I had believed. Certainly, no one would ever try. And yet, I, who had so often before been a leader among the group of neighborhood kids, an opinion swayer, had nothing to say on the issue. I dared not risk the embarrassment of dissenting, and likewise I would not be a party to my own destruction by consenting.
The group had decided that the following Saturday morning would be our initiation day, a day that would be forever remembered in the annals of our club's history as the day of the first Root Bridge initiations. That morning we all gathered there at the edge of Mr. Blevins' hay field. Countless times our group had made the journey to the other side of that field--racing across the frozen ground in winter or announcing our approach to any lounging snakes with a swish of our hiking sticks in summer--and then stepped through the row of pines lining the far side, entering our woods. They were ours because we had no idea whose they really were and because we had made them ours through our exploration of them and our naming of each interesting geographical feature within--like the Root Bridge. Rusty and I had made the trip without the others several times in the past, backpacks bulging with sandwiches of Underwood's chicken spread and deviled ham, canteens filled with Kool-Aid or Hi-C, and tools pirated from Mother's kitchen drawers or the shed out behind the house. Cuddles, our English and Pit mix, always came along for the trip. And she was there that particular Saturday morning, as were the others. Big Lynn--the oldest, biggest, and toughest of our group--went first though the briar bushes, cutting a swath for the rest of us to follow through. She had the most enormous back-side, tucked and up-turned as though some great foot had kicked it and jacked it up to stay. Her wormy, sickly little sister Anne came too, as did their brothers Mitchell and Michael. (Although I was only a child, I could see that these whiney little urchins were destined to be hated and despised even as grownups.) Rounding out the group were Todd, the quiet preacher's kid, and Kevin, who didn't have a father and whose mother always looked tired, each hoping like the rest in our caravan to become a member of the new neighborhood club.
Unlike previous trips into our woods, that morning there was little talk and less cutting-up. Each seemed to wear an expression that indicated a sense of anticipation. I'm sure that my face bore the trappings of anxiety. We wrestled our way though the brambles; some crawled under and others climbed over the barbed-wire fence marking the boundary of the Blevins' land, and finally tripped, slid, and stumbled our way down the pine straw blanketed slope leading to the creek--in near silence. We met the creek at a spot where it widened and the water ran slowly, an area that froze with a thick layer of ice most winters. No one paused to skip stones across the pool or to try and toss Mitchell or Michael into the water. Nothing diverted the group from the matter at hand that morning. Rusty took the lead and headed the group north along the edge of the creek, once again positioning himself.
as the master of my fate. In no time we were there. The group gathered at the lip of a huge eight-foot expanse in the creek. Through the years the rains and snows had excavated a gaping section which went some nine feet down to a pool of murky creek water below. The water couldn't have been too deep because we could make out the sharp juts of slate that lay at the pit's bottom. Alongside the big opening in the creek stood two trees: a huge pine on the east bank and an ancient oak with a massive, knotted system of roots spreading out just above the ground in all directions on the west side where we stood. One root, one of the largest, some two feet in diameter nearest the tree, snaked its way out of the embankment, crossed the creek in mid-air, some seven feet from the surface of the water below and entered the other bank near the base of the massive pine. This was the Root Bridge, the stuff of our adolescent legends. Though I recognize now that the root had lain there for years before erosion washed the soil away beneath it, creating the interesting configuration of root and cliff and creek, our young imaginations could easily envision that malevolent root weaving its way out of one creek bank and burrowing itself into the opposite side with evil purpose and design.
Rusty, in his self-appointed role as the chairman of this gathering, called for the crossing to get underway. His would be the first attempt. The group moved in to watch as my little brother approached the edge of the big hole. We all watched in strange reverence. An observer would be struck by the solemnity of the scene, reminiscent of some ancient Druid ceremony, some centuries old rite of passage, even though today's participants wore Wranglers and baseball caps, not tunics and hoods.
With the skill of a Wallenda, my brother inched his way around the trunk of the big oak, down onto the root, and began his journey across. His Stan Smiths gripped tightly to the slick bark of the root, allowing him to step in only moments safely up next to the great pine on the other side of the creek. Oh, how I wished he had failed. Not that I wanted him injured; I merely wanted this lunacy to end. I knew that there was simply, unequivocally no.
possible way for me to traverse the course of that wicked root. Anne made her crossing using the "granny method"--sitting, scooting her way across. But she made it! So did Mitch and Mike and the rest, leaving only me and Big Lynn who stepped forward with the same confidence Rusty had shown. Like him, she crossed one foot at a time, and each time she shifted her enormous weight the root bridge would sag and strain. Suddenly, I found new hope. If only she would break the root! I noticed clumps of soil and rocks break loose from the bank where the root entered the ground near the pine tree. She might dislodge it, break it free from the creek bank, and force us to find a more reasonable initiation. But, of course, I had no such luck. My hope was shattered by the cheers of her siblings as she bounded up and onto the opposite bank.
There they all stood, all on the other side, all in the club. And there I stood, alone on the west bank, feeling the stare of each pair of eyes across the water, not yet one of them, with no real desire to be one of them but with no desire to live in shame. I looked away, down at the root bridge, further down to the water and the jagged rocks waiting below, then back up into the faces of my companions including my little brother. He did not leer with contempt for my apparent cowardice but rather gave me one of those one-end-up smiles that seemed to encourage me to give it a try, that asked me to make the effort.
I began to back away ever so slowly from the edge of the creek, sneaking, it seemed, further away from the Root Bridge and my companions standing on the other side. If I attempted to tight-rope across, I would surely slip and fall. I could not granny across either. Further and further back I stepped, now feeling the ground slant upwards beneath me as I began to back up the sloping ridge that lead in the direction of Mr. Blevins' hay field and away from the creek. The kids on the far bank began to shout out to me; they wanted to know where I was going, why I would not give it a try as they had. Above the din I caught Rusty's voice--"Don't be scared." I stopped moving. He was right; I was scared. I was scared and angry that I had been put in this position. Looking down, I realized that I now stood some thirty or forty feet up the slope away from the creek. Below lay the Root Bridge and my Rubicon.
Without any real understanding of what force seemed to be pulling me back toward the creekside, I began to give in to the angle of the sloping ground and let gravity bring be back. In seconds I seemed to be barreling forward, imagining that each heavy footfall thundered in the distance and vibrated the ground as I moved. Some strange power rose from within me as I approached the creek. The faces on the opposite side drew closer and closer as I moved faster and faster, feeling as though I were swooping down from the sky like some giant lumbering water fowl struggling for lift. At the lip of that great hole I leapt out with my eyes clinched shut and sent myself sailing over the creek, aimed at the other side.
Then--after one brief, fantastic moment--it seemed that whole of the universe came to a sudden, muffled halt, leaving me suspended out in a nothingness without light or sound. My eyes flew open to find me hanging with my fingers dug into the bark of that great pine on the east bank like some clinging bobcat, the creek bank cutting me at the waist. I peered down over my shoulder at clumps of dirt and tiny bits of rock raining into the water below. My feet began an involuntarily scramble, clawing their way up the embankment and with great effort flopping me out of the hole, onto the ground beside the tree. Grit filled my mouth and my shoes. I wiped at a small cut beginning to bleed above my left eye. Beneath my shirt, now thickly smeared with the deep, dark brown of north Alabama gumbo soil, my belly began to smart from a wide scrape made by the rocks and roots and pine bark, and my lungs went to work searching for the air that had been knocked from them. Suddenly, all that had happened seemed clear--I was there--on the other side of the creek. The gang circled around me. I saw in their expressions the fear that I might be injured. But when a smile cracked across my soiled and sweaty face, their reactions of joy were instantaneous. Reaching down to help me off the ground, my brother congratulated me, impressed by my innovative approach to crossing the Root Bridge.
Many times we had made the trip out of the woods, but the walk back home that early afternoon was not the same. I found strange comfort in the taste of the sweat and the grit, the feel of the little dried patch of blood tightening over my eye, and the burning rawness of my stomach. The scrapes and bruises of childhood were certainly not foreign to me, but these injuries were different somehow. Perhaps they were not the injuries of childhood but the first injuries of something new, someone new. I remember the rest of that day only vaguely. I do recall with strange clarity, however, the following Monday at school when for the first time I opted not to beat the rugs or dust the erasers at recess but instead asked two fellows if I could join in their football game that day.