Paul Colby :: Declaration of Independence ::

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I’ve lived in the former confederacy most of my life. I was born in Texas, grew up in Virginia, and now live on a two-acre spread in Wake County, North Carolina, half-covered in pine trees and bordered by a muddy pond. Someday, not too soon, I hope to be buried in the graveyard of a Southern Baptist Church, where mockingbirds and mourning doves will serenade my remains. I’ve never seen a dead mule but plenty of dead possums.

Declaration of Independence

After the storm had rolled through our county that Sunday morning, and the rain had finally petered away, I came out into our backyard to find the world rousing itself again. Dogs were barking hoarsely in the distance, cars growled along the highway down the hill from the trailer, and birds were twittering and squawking to each other, darting from one tree to another, assuring each other that the whole world had actually not washed away this time.  

Dark clouds were pouring swiftly like smoke through the sky, while another layer of clouds loomed far above—white, bulky, and still.  

The ground was littered with tree limbs, pine twigs heavy with needles, and thousands of sodden pine cones. I picked up a tree branch that was unusually thick and straight, and for a moment it became a light sabre and I became a Jedi knight. I was about to take at swing at Darth Vader’s mechanical face when I happened to glance over my shoulder at the back door. I felt certain that I could see Mom’s eyes glaring through the glass panel at my newly muddied sneakers, so I suddenly dropped the stick and headed into the woods.

I didn’t mean to go anywhere in particular, but by instinct I began following the path toward the lake. I had gone down the path so often that I wasn’t thrown by the altered look of the forest after the storm. Trees that served as landmarks had been shredded by the wind, and large branches lay across the path in several places, but I could probably have found my way to the moss-covered stump, then down the slope to the lake, if someone had replaced my eyes with ping-pong balls. My feet were sure of the way.   

I began walking along the bank, heading toward the nearest bend in the lake.  With no one around, and with my head turned away from the highway bridge and the telephone lines, I could imagine that I was a lone adventurer, exploring the last ten square miles of unmapped terrain in North America, hoping to find garish vines that seeped with poison and animals that were distantly related to the shrew and the groundhog, but with strange mutations, like needle-sharp fangs and green, scaly tails. When I rounded the bend, I found a stretch of lake shore that looked dismayingly like the shore that I was already familiar with. The bank was higher here, but otherwise there were the same pines skirting the edges of the lake, with a narrow reach of bare ground sloping down to the water. 

I ransacked my imagination to find an image of whatever unknown thing I was looking for. The next moment I peered over the edge of the bank and spotted a metal boat bobbing against the steep-sloping shore.

I felt suddenly naked. I guessed that strangers were nearby, that I was being watched from somewhere in the woods all this time when I had felt comfortably alone with my wandering mind. I hid behind the ample trunk of an oak tree and surveyed the woods around me. I listened intently but could hear nothing except the wind stirring the limbs of trees high above me. I turned my attention to the boat and realized that there was nothing to suggest that anyone was using it for anything—no fishing poles, no tackle, no thermoses, no metal lunchboxes, not even any oars.  About four inches of standing water gave it a port side tilt.

My sense of perfect solitude gradually returned, and now it was the sense of being unwatched that oddly disquieted me. I had choices to make and no one to tell me what not to do. I couldn’t continue to hack my way into an imaginary wilderness when something real had been laid at my feet, practically. And the only other alternative was to go home and . . .       

No. I knew what I had to do, and now that it was decided, I began to feel slightly giddy. I slid down the muddy bank on the heels of my sneakers and landed with my feet in the water, about five yards from the boat. I splashed my away across to it. Grabbing the prow, I tipped the boat to the right, long enough to let most of the water dribble out, then I heaved myself into it. I raised my chin up to the side of the boat and gazed at the spread of olive-green water, rippling, swaying, catching glimmers of dull light from the overcast sky. 

I dropped my arm over the side and ran my hand through the cold water, and then I realized that if I was going anywhere I had to have something to steer with. I jumped out, clambered back up the bank, and looked for just the right kind of tree limb. But there were no whole branches around, only small sticks and twigs, mostly flimsy pine limbs. I went back to the oak tree where I’d been hiding and gazed up at what appeared to be the perfect bough, about eight feet long, and with a cluster of leaves at the end. I jumped up, grabbed the drooping tip, worked my way along the length of the branch, tugging on it with all my might; then suddenly it snapped, and I was pitched against the trunk of the tree, my left shoulder taking the force of the blow. I got up slowly, slightly dazed, but I was pleased to find the branch still in my grasp. With one final yank I separated its last few clinging strips from the tree.  

Once I was back in the boat, I used the butt end of the bough to push off from the bank, and the boat began drifting off toward deeper water. Then I plunged the other end of the bough into the lake, and began trying to steer. The leafy ends of the limbs acted like a dozen small paddles, giving me a great deal of leverage, and I was able to thrust the boat forward with some force. 

As the boat drifted counter-clockwise, toward the upstream end of the lake, I slumped against the side, already a little sapped from frustration, and I got a good view of the little island that sat about where the lake forked off into two strands, one running south to the marina, the other, smaller, fork winding away to the east. This was the island that I had glimpsed from Highway 102 so many times. You could see it for just a moment as the car came whizzing up to the bridge from the west.  In that brief glimpse, it always seemed so aloof and serene, a little world of its own. And then in a flash it would be gone, hidden by the nearer bank. With the boat approaching the middle of the lake, I was closer to the island now than I had ever dreamed of being, and I suddenly knew my destination.  

I brought the bough back over to the left side of the boat, to correct the upstream drift, and as soon as I got the boat moving forward I flung the bough back to the right, then back to the left, keeping up a steady, dogged rhythm, weaving a little as I went forward, fighting the roll of the water that pushed back against me, but still going forward all along.

As I approached the island, it seemed to drift away from me, but I had already reached the point where going back would be even harder than going forward, so I ignored my aching elbows and armpits, and the soreness in my shoulder from my collision with the tree, and kept rowing. The bank of the island was high and rocky, much like the shore of the lake. When I reached it, I cast the bough forward to try to steady the boat, and once I got close enough, I stood in the prow and leaped forward. I missed the bank, but I was able to avoid slipping in the mud that ringed the island; planting my feet firmly, I reached out to grab the boat and pulled it toward me and then heaved it up until I could set the prow on the dry edge of the bank.    

The soreness in my arms was worrisome, given the fact that I would have to row back in the boat, but as I began looking around another feeling began to take the place of that mild dread. I began to take stock of what was around me. I noticed that the trees on the island were a different sort of mix than the forest that surrounded the lake. There were slender cedar trees here, and small oaks, as opposed to the legion of pines that crowded the banks of the lake. There was tall, whitish grass along the edge of the island, and a spot of bare, clayey ground near the middle. A single scruffy pine stood tall and alone, like a mournful sentry on the south end of the island. 

“My island,” I said to myself.  

From history class I had learned that if you climb ashore someplace you’ve never been before, and there’s no one around with a piece of paper to say that it’s theirs, then you can claim it. You can say, “It’s mine,” even if there are people there already. All you have to do is think of it before they do. And another thing I had learned is that you can make your own country if you decide you want to be free and tell the whole world that you’re free. It should be in writing, I figured, but if you had nothing to write with, why couldn’t you just say it? The words were the same, weren’t they?   

Once my plan was fully formed, I walked to the bank facing the eastern shore of the lake and shouted: “HEAR YE . . . HEAR YE . . . THIS ISLAND OF WHICH IS NOW AND FOREVERMORE TO BE CALLED TIGGER’S REPUBLIC IS A FREE AND INDEPENDENT COUNTRY!”  

I stood still for a moment to see if there was any reaction. I half expected someone to shout back, but I heard nothing. I looked over my head, thinking that fighter jets might come screaming through the sky, but I saw nothing except the slow circular glide of an ordinary buzzard. I didn’t know whether anyone was on the shore of the lake, or whether anyone on the shore could hear me anyway, but I didn’t think that was my responsibility. I said the words. That was what counted.  

Now I began thinking about how the encyclopedia entry for Tigger’s Republic would look. There would be a little map of the island, of course. I tried to imagine how it was shaped, and decided I would walk around the edge of the island to try to get some idea. As I wandered along, I took note of the high spot and the low spot, the location of various clusters of rocks and fallen trees. All of this would need to go on the map, of course. 

When I got back to the other side of the island, where I had come ashore to begin with, I stared for a while before I fully realized what I was looking at. My first thought was that I was seeing something funny that someone had told me about once. It couldn’t actually have happened to me, I thought, but I blinked several times, and there it still was. My boat. Out on the lake at least twenty yards away from me, drifting farther and farther away.  

Two warm tears dribbled along the sides of my nose and licked the corners of my mouth before I had a chance to wipe them away.  The shame of shedding tears when I was twelve years old, almost thirteen, and not used to tears anymore, shook me a little, just enough to make me stop. Instead I sat down on the ground and considered my situation.

Of course, I could swim. I’d learned to swim at the High Point Boys Club when I was eight years old. But I knew the water was cold. And after a storm like the one we had just had it would be muddy. Snakes might have been washed out of their holes or out of marshes and into the lake. And even if I got across safely and reached home before dark, I could just picture myself staggering into the trailer, dripping large goops of mud, shivering. I knew Mom would hug me tight as a bear, and sob until her eyes were purple and then give me a belting like I’d never had before, and Dad would rouse himself long enough to say, “Go easy on the boy, Kathy,” before dropping off to sleep again. All the while Grandma would be clucking her tongue like a fat old guinea hen and urging Mom to give me a few more licks.

I stood up and began pacing in a tight circle, trying not to think of how helpless I had suddenly become, trying with all my power to keep the tears out of my eyes. Up above my head somewhere I could hear a bird chattering monotonously. All I could think about was how easily the bird could get off the island, and come back if he felt like it, and then fly away again, all afternoon, and it made me mad. I hunted around for a flat rock to hurl at him and when I looked up, rock in hand, I saw something approaching from the north end of the lake.

I thought it was some kind of goose at first. But in time I could see that it was a person paddling a kayak. I had never actually seen a kayaker on the lake before, but I knew that there was an outdoor provision store below the dam where you could rent or buy kayaks and canoes and jet skis. I let the rock slip out of my hand, and I began to jump up and down and wave my arms and shout, “Hey there! Hey there!”

The kayaker stopped paddling for a moment, leaned forward, seemingly squinting at me, and then, without making any sign of acknowledgement, started paddling toward the island. I kept my arms in the air to encourage my rescuer to keep coming, but my arms suddenly drooped down when I realized something kind of surprising about this kayaker. This was not one of those angular suburban orthodontists or accountants on a weekend outing, the kind that used to hike the trails around the lake, glaring at our trailer with disgust before disappearing into the woods again. The occupant of the boat was, in fact, a girl—a tall girl, with a reedy neck and rubbery arms.

“Hey!” she called out, once she was within spitting distance. “What are you doing there?”

I was reluctant to say anything. I was not at all sure that I wanted to be rescued by a girl.

“I said what are you doing?” she called out again.

“Nothing,” I said, which was basically the truth.

“Nothing? Then how’re you going to know when you’re done?” She let out a high-pitched cackle, not a real laugh.  

The girl started paddling again until she had reached the lowest part of the bank. She pushed herself out of the kayak, butt first, sat for a moment on the bank, until she could extract her legs, then hoisted herself up. As she stood, she used the paddle to hold the kayak in place, and then she bent down, grabbed hold of the boat by the inside edge of the cockpit and lifted it out of the water, setting it down vertically next to her, along the length of her body. The kayak was at least a ten-footer, and she was less than four feet shorter than the boat. She was wearing a lavender T-shirt and black bicycle shorts, which only came about halfway down to her knees.   

“I never expected to find a little boy out here in the middle of the lake,” she said.

“I’m not a little boy,” I insisted, momentarily glad that she’d given me a reason to be angry rather than scared. “I’m almost thirteen years old.”

“Must be short for your age,” she mused. “Do they call you Shorty?”

“I’m not short for my age! I’m just not thirteen yet. I’m really tall for my age. Everyone says so.”

“You’re tall for your age. If you’re a midget.” Once again she let out that fake, high-pitched cackle.  

She walked over to one of the taller cedar trees and rested her kayak on it, and then she happened to glance over in the direction of the metal boat, which had now drifted more than halfway to the western shore.  

“Hey, Shorty. Is that your boat?”

“My name’s not Shorty,” I muttered.

“O.K. Well what is your name? Pee Wee? Doodlebug?”

I felt self-conscious about my actual name, Daniel Peter Whittington. It had always seemed ripe for mockery. Instead I simply said, “My name is Tigger,” and tried to put a little growl in my voice.

I knew immediately I had made a big mistake. 

“Tigger?” She began laughing, for real this time. “Well, ain’t that a coincidence?  I’m Eeyore!” She immediately started braying at the top of her voice: “Eeeee-yahhhh, eeeee-yahhhh!” She stuck her paddle against her bottom, like a tail, and pranced back and forth, swatting the ground with it.  

Her braying finally dissolved into more laughter, and she tipped back and let herself fall against a small oak.  

“Well, Tigger,” she said. “You got yourself a little problem, aincha?”

“Not really,” I said.

“Are you here by yourself?”

“Yes.”

“Then I’d say you’ve got kind of a problem, Tigger.”

I was beginning to feel slightly queasy, and my skin was prickling all over—the normal symptoms of humiliation. In this state of mind, I wasn’t about to concede anything, especially to her.

“I’m all right,” I said slowly. “I like it here. This is my island.” 

Your island, huh?” Eeyore began looking around, as if making some sort of appraisal. “Who gave it to you?”

“No one gave it to me. I discovered it. I claimed it. It’s mine.”

“So you must be the king of this here island.”

I shook my head. “There’s no king.”

“What do you mean? Someone’s got to be in charge.”

“It’s my island.”

“Hmmm. I don’t know.” Eeyore put her hand to her chin, and began to walk back and forth, pounding her paddle into the ground at every step. She stopped right in front of me and peered down.  

“I think we need to have an election. We’ve got to do everything according to the book, don’t we? No one can be a leader without a free and fair election.”

I couldn’t stand to look up at her, so I just glared at her sneakers.

“All right, so who thinks Tigger ought to be king?” She was speaking at full volume, as if there were people all around us.  

“Come on,” she said.  “Any votes for Tigger?”

Reluctantly, I raised my hand.

“All right,” she said. “Who thinks I should be queen?”

She lifted the paddle high in the air and whirled it around a few times.

“O.K.,” she said. “The votes have been counted, and I win! Yayyyyyyyy!”

“Wait a minute,” I snapped. “We both got one vote!  It’s a tie!”

“You’re not old enough to vote, Tigger. So I win. It’s a landslide! Wooo! Wooo! Yay team!” She banged her paddle against tree branches to make as much noise as she could. Then she twirled it up in the air like a baton, and caught it behind her back. She grabbed it with her other hand and started gesturing with it.

“All right, my loyal subject,” she said. “We’ve got work to do. Don’t just stand there like a stop sign. There’s lots to be done here. We’ve got to build a palace. Every queen needs a palace. You gotta get some sticks for the walls and leaves and straw for the roof. But first you got to get some rocks together for the foundation.  Come on, now! Stop your lally-gagging!”

She spanked me with the paddle and shouted, “Hup now! Get moving! March! March!”

I was a little slow to respond, so she whacked me again. Lacking a better idea, I did exactly what she had told me to do. It was nothing new for me. I had spent the first few years of my schooling at High Point Christian Academy, so I was accustomed to obeying women armed with paddles.

“Over there!” she commanded from behind. “I see some big old rocks. We’ll need those. Go on! Go on!”

I marched over to the shore of the island, where bulky stones were embedded in the bank. Eeyore supervised as I pulled them out of the mud, one after another, and carried them to the clearing, where she ordered me to drop them and arrange them into a neat pile. I felt too ridiculous to keep marching, so I gradually began walking normally as I went back and forth from the bank to the clearing; nevertheless, I kept up a smart pace, always with a wary eye on Eeyore’s paddle. She walked right behind me all the while, keeping up a steady one-way conversation about her plans for landscaping the palace grounds, the rows of palm trees that she thought would look nice around the edges of the island, a dock for cruise ships, market stalls for fresh strawberries and tomatoes.

After about twenty minutes, I decided that I had endured all that my dwindling pride could bear. After lifting another muddy rock out of the bank, I began formulating a plan. On my way to the clearing, I picked out a clear path through the trees to Eeyore’s kayak. I had just about reached the rock pile, when I hiked the stone between my legs like a football, straight at Eeyore’s shins. I didn’t really expect to hit her. I just wanted her to jump back a step, so I could get a head start as I raced to the boat. Instead of springing back, she simply hopped up to dodge the stone, but I still got a jump on her, thanks to the element of surprise.  

Three steps ahead of her, I reached the boat and wrapped my arms around it. I fully intended to jump with it into the lake, and paddle with my arms. But it was heavier than I had expected it to be, and the effort of lifting it threw me off my stride. I fell to the ground with the kayak on top of me. Eeyore, coming right behind me, lifted it off me and for a moment seemed ready to throw it back down on me in righteous fury.  

I saw instantly that she had dropped the paddle to pick up the boat, so I rolled away, jumped up behind her, snatched up the paddle, and brandished it threateningly at her.

“That’s not yours! Give it back!” she screamed.

Her face turned blistery red, and she seemed to be on the verge of tears. In that one moment, I let my guard down, just long enough for her to dart forward and seize the paddle by one of the blades. With her other hand, she took hold of the stem between the blades, but I didn’t let go of my end. We tugged against each other, twisted and jerked our ends of the paddle, until she finally reached over with one of her spindly legs, hooked the back of my knee, and sent me tumbling down into the tall grass along the bank.

She held the paddle over her head in a gesture of triumph, but she didn’t spend any time gloating. She went straight for her kayak, lifted it with one hand, hurled it over the bank into the water, and then, taking a hop and a skip through the shallows, she wedged herself into the cockpit. With her paddle she pushed off from the bank.

“You are one crazy little dick!” she shouted at me over her shoulder. “You’re worse than my little brother!”

With that, she began thrashing her way across the lake, toward the dam. In a state of numb fascination, I watched her until she disappeared under the bridge.  

After she was finally out of sight, I realized that I should have told her to let someone know I was stuck here. I started pacing along the waterline again, but quickly got tired of it and, slumping against a tree, just sat and looked out at the water. I figured that eventually I would have to swim to the shore of the lake, and all I could really do was wait until I finally had the nerve to do it.

I sat there for a while, looking up at the high white clouds that remained once the dark clouds had rolled away to the south, imagining that Tigger’s Republic had drifted away from me just like the boat and had taken its place among the ice floes of the frigid heavens. I massaged the shoulder that I had injured when I crashed into the tree and further strained while picking up rocks for Eeyore, and thought wearily about my plight, but I was no closer to making a decision when I began to hear the puttering, sputtering sound of an outboard motor. A man on a fishing boat came into view. After my last experience with a boater, I was little reluctant to call out to this one, but I felt like I might not have another good chance, since the morning’s rain had kept most of the traffic off the lake.

I waved and called out, and the man steered his boat over to the island. He cut the engine about six yards from the bank, and I had to wade out to him. The man took hold of me by the armpits and helped me crawl over the side. I tumbled over into the bottom of the boat, my pants wet and clinging to my legs all the way up to my crotch.

“What on earth were you doin’ on that island, son?” he asked, after catching his breath. 

A chill was creeping up my body from my drenched pants, and I didn’t feel like saying anything right away. The fisherman could see that I was cold; he took a yellow raincoat out of a storage bin under one of the seats and threw it to me.

“What were you doin’?” he asked again. He was a heavy-set man, with gray stubble along the sides of his face and gray hair spilling out of the front of his flannel shirt.

“I was just exploring,” I said flatly as I put on the coat, pulling it tightly over my chest and shoulders.   

.   “You were pioneerin’, huh?” The man chuckled. “Well, I’ll tell you something, son. The pioneerin’ life can be rough. It can be a lonely, lonely life.”

“I wish!” I shot back at the top of my voice.

But I don’t think he heard me. By now he was cranking up the engine again, sending a cloud of blue smoke into the air. And as he turned the boat back toward the middle of the lake, he started singing, loudly, in a deep, self-satisfied voice:

Yore cheatin’ hearrrrrrrrrrrrrt . . . .