Cousin Rat

Cousin Rat

Sometimes I walk old man fast, five miles an hour. Sometimes I walk in a meditative state, oblivious to humidity, biting insects, the pace dictated by the see. This was one of those walks. Clouds, shadows, sun, shadows, breeze, still. I walked on air. The music of the creek and its waterfall accompanied my musing.

I thought about James Killion Jr., for whom the Alton park is named. I have had the honor this week to edit Mr. Killion’s WWII letters to his mother, his tales of guarding German and Russian prisoners near the beaches at Normandy, his anxiety about his family and his newborn son James III, his experiencing racism from white American soldiers, his friendship with the prisoners, who treated him with respect, the fragile sheets of paper, the fading penciled words. I have been walking with Mr. Killion for a week.

Twice on the walk, I saw a woman with red hair speed walking. Only the second time, her return, the red hair was dyed, she was hunched and limping and old, out of breath and facing the long hill to home.

A pileated woodpecker proclaimed its dominance, and female dragonflies flitted their wings in the grass. The green of the forest so intense from inches of water, the premature crashing of acorns as they bounced on the trail like ping pong balls. The tock-tock of chipmunks.

Descending the long buff hill, I saw a black stick—so it seemed—perpendicular to the path, but it was too straight, too perfectly rounded, and then I stopped and watched the stick slowly move east, into the grass. I ran down to where it had disappeared, and there under leaves was a juvenile rat snake, obsidian black. It let me approach and kneel at its tail, and then it coiled in case I was a predator, its white markings under its jaw, my face just inches from the gorgeous reptile.

Cousin rat, I said, though snakes do not have ears, Thank you letting me keep company with you. And I stood and backed away, and Cousin Rat became one with the undergrowth, woven into weeds and sticks and nuts and stones, the tapestry leading to the riffled water.

I said Mr. Killion’s name, for I felt he was with me, the path filled with ghosts of First People from 16,000 years ago, escaping slaves, dancing children, a woman mourning, a bent old man walking slow as an opening flower, lovers in the dark.

Sweat streamed from my face and chest and legs, but still I walked on, emerging from the woods at the river. Great egrets and snowy egrets lined the north shore of Scotch Jimmy Island, and a clutch of pelicans fished together off the sandbar. Clouds, shadows, sun, shadows, breeze, still.

Up a steep bluff hill, I paused midway and gazed at long stalks of hollyhocks and beyond were Rose of Sharon trees, and to me came a cat flopping and offering its belly, its color like marbled rye toast.

Chaos reigns. Death awaits. Time reminds us, the only specie on earth that thinks about time, the ghosts shaking their heads at our folly, Cousin Rat oblivious and entirely engaged in the present. The green cathedral and the snaking paths of the river my solace.


About Eugene Jones Baldwin

I am a writer: non-fiction, fiction, journalism (Alton Telegraph), essays (The Genehouse Chronicles) and have a website: I've published a couple dozen short stories and had eleven plays produced. Current projects: "Brother of the Stones" (available on Kindle), a book of short stories; "The Faithful Husband of the Rain, short stories"; "A Black Soldier's Letters Home, WWII,;" "There is No Color in Justice," a commentary on racism; "Ratkillers," a new play. I am an avocational archaeologist and I take parts of my collection of several thousand Indian artifacts (personal finds) to schools, nature centers, libraries etc. and talk about the 20,000 year history of The First people in Illinois. (See link to website) I'm also a playwright (eleven plays produced), musician, historian (authority on the Underground Railroad in Illinois, the Tuskegee Airmen) and teacher.
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