His face had sharp features and a blonde-gray beard that seemed white from the sun.
A brilliant white sand dollar on a rawhide string dangled from his neck. He wore faded torn jeans, a white fisherman’s cap, and a T-shirt. He was weathered and tan and could have been thirty, forty, or fifty.
I walked over to him, brushing clay-like muck off my hands.
“My name is Slater Watts.”
“Rikard,” he said, “Rikard Blackshear.”
We shook hands, and I picked up the paddles I’d made.
“How in the hell did you know I was in trouble?”
“I was cutting through the marsh west of here,” he said, pointing, “and saw the old canoe floating off and knew somebody had messed with it. A canoe just don’t free itself, you know. It’s been stuck in this marsh for months. I was planning to get it myself and sell it. I don’t have much use for canoes otherwise or the people who use themen-viron-ment-alists, as a rule,” he said, stretching out the syllables.
“Where in the hell did you come from? I didn’t see you out there,” I said pointing toward the sea, the only way in I knew of.
Rikard was coiling his rope in easy loops over his shoulder.
“I stay away from the big water. Don’t need the trouble big water brings. The creeksthey’re my highway. I knew a way in here from back there,” he said pointing back over the hummock of grass I had stood on. “I couldn’t get in here at low tide. We were in a death race. Lucky for you the rising tide let me in here just in time.”
“Yes, lucky for me. I have a friend over there at the edge of the island. She’s there somewhere. Can you take me to her?” I asked, pointing.
He shielded his eyes against the sun and turned toward the island.
“We can get only so close since the tide’s not in good, but we can get close enough. She’ll have to walk over to us at the point over there,” he said sweeping his hand along the edge of the island.
“If you can help me get that canoe, it’d be a big help to me.”
“The canoe? Well, it can’t get far enough away. Let it ride.”
It was an odd comment. I walked over the hummock with him, fighting my way through thick grass to a creek where an old beat-up bateau painted in marsh camouflage rocked in the wind.
“I’m gonna take you out into some water where you can jump in and get all that mud off. That okay?”
“Sure. No problem,” and it wasn’t, drowning, jellyfish or not. I hated having all that slime stuck on me.
We stopped and I jumped in, holding onto a short rope tied to the bateau. I allowed myself to sink as if the tide was claiming me but it had not and would not. I came up and went under once more then got into the bateau, which wasn’t easy with the wet, heavy clothes weighting me down.
Rikard started a small Evinrude and we cruised down an alley of water where the grass grew high. We made a slow about-face and worked our way into the little creek where I had nearly drowned. He cut the engine and poled the boat over to where I had been sucked into the muck.
“All right, now,” he said as he screwed a large hook into one end of the pole. He fished around with the pole, then thrust it into the right hole where I had lost my shoe. He fished the pole around and came out with my shoe.
“That’s pretty cool,” I said. “Thanks.”
“Believe me, you won’t go far without shoes here. This island’s got burrs and spurs that will go right through your feet.”
He swirled my shoe in the brine until clean, removed the hook, and put it away. He turned the craft around and headed into the creek, taking forks to the left, and I saw where Tyler had stood. She was nowhere to be seen.
We beached the craft seventy yards from where she had stood and worked our way from low marsh to high marsh into a transition area and then up to maritime forest where walking was easier and eased down to the marsh where all my troubles had started. Then I saw Tyler coming through some trees. She saw us and began working her way toward us. We met on a slender spit of land jutting into a wide meandering creek.
“Oh, I’m so glad you’re all right,” she said. “I was going to swim out to free you but if I couldn’t get you loose, I was going to give you this.”
She handed me a hollow bamboo stalk seven feet long. It would have saved me, though spending six hours in all that dark water would have seemed like eternity.
“I thought it was over. Then this fellow came along.”
I introduced her to Rikard.
Tyler put her business on the table.
“My name is Tyler Hill,” she said, pulling the ever-present flyer from her blouse. “I’m here looking for my daughter, a young woman named Lorie. Do you recognize this woman?
Rikard stared at the flyer, saying nothing. Then he repeated the name.
“Lorie … that would be Lorie Hill?”
“No, I can’t help you,” he said returning the flyer to a crestfallen Tyler. “As far as I know, no white people live here at all.”
“You live here,” I said.
Rikard gave me a cold stare.
“Sure do, but I’m black or haven’t you noticed?”
Tyler looked at me and I looked at her. We were too stunned to say anything. Rikard turned and walked toward his bateau. We fell in behind him.
“If I’ve insulted you,” I said, “it was purely unintentional. I’m not in the habit of insulting people who save my neck.”
“You’re not the first person to mistake me for a white man.”
“Look, I wouldn’t insult you. I need your help. If you could take me out to that canoe, I’d be most grateful. I’ll paddle it in.”
“Not in the wind and current. It’d take you all day,” he said, “and you’re gonna be one tired city slicker tonight. Not only did the marsh suck you in, it sucked your energy out too. You’ll see. You’re not going to have much muscle for that canoe, trust me on that.”
“We sure need it,” I said.
Rikard looked at the sun then across the marsh and pulled at his beard.
“Good thing I came along when I did or you’d be crab bait. Well, I’ve done my good deed for the day. I need to go.”
“Hold on. I came here to find you and write a magazine article about you.”
“A magazine article? On me?”
“Yes, you practice voodoo or so I hear.”
“You don’t know nothing about me,” he said, and it was clear he was agitated.
“Just tell me where to find you. I’ll write a story you’ll like. I guarantee it.”
“You guarantee it. Can you guarantee people will leave me alone after they read it? Can you guarantee that?”
“Maybe. We can keep your location a secret.”
“Well, well. You just let me think about that for a while. As they say, don’t call me. I’ll call you. And if you mention me to others, they won’t recognize ‘Rikard.’ They know me by my island name.”
“On this island, my island, people call me the Mullet Man.”
“Mullet Man, all right, I’ve got it.”
Then Rikard, this Caucasian who claimed to be black, this “Mullet Man,” did something I would take with me the rest of my life. He walked to the water’s edge and scanned the estuary from one horizon to the other. He checked the wind and the angle of the sun. He reached into his pocket and brought forth two smooth, white river rocks, then reached into a hip pocket and pulled out a short section of bamboo with holes cut into it.
He squatted over the water’s edge and tapped the rocks in a rhythmic clicking-tapping code. Then he placed the flute into his mouth and whistled lilting tones that floated away at higher and higher pitches. He clicked the rocks and whistled for fifteen seconds more then quit. It sounded musical, a beautiful harmonic. Then he turned and tipped his cap to Tyler.
“I hope you find your daughter. She’d be a pretty woman by now... just like you, pretty lady. A woman like that could make a man happy, real happy.”
He looked at me. “You be careful out here.”
Voodoo stood on his back legs so Rikard could pet him and Rikard rubbed the spot between his eyes, then his ears, one at a time. The dog wanted to go with him, but Rikard whispered into Voodoo’s ear and the dog trotted over by Tyler’s legs and lay down
And then Rikard, the Mullet Man, left through the woods to make his way to the bateau without so much as a glance back. As he disappeared into the marsh, I cursed him for not getting the canoe. It had almost killed me, had cost us most of the day, and we still didn’t have the damn thing. I began dusting the dried muck from my clothes when Tyler spoke in reverence.
“My God, would you look at that.”
Far out in the estuary, the canoe was coming at us. Its bow rising, it came across the estuary straight for us with surprising speed.
“I don’t believe what I’m seeing,” I said
The canoe never slackened its pace, nor veered from its course. As it approached, we could see the dorsal fins of four porpoises, a pair up front and a pair in the backon each side of the canoebringing it to us. The porpoises drove the canoe onto the point where we stood. Then each pair leaped from the water, dove, and raced away, clicking and whistling, surfacing and diving in incomparable choreography, paying homage to the fabled voodoo priest of Sapelo, Rikard Blackshear, the Mullet Man, the man who killed with his thoughts.
Through the Heart
Nothing spurts adrenaline into your blood quite like a brush with death and witnessing a miracle. As soon as we returned to camp, I began making notes about my Baptism in the muck, which in truth had almost been my drowning, Mullet Man, alias Rikard, and the miracle of the porpoises. After almost five years, I had something genuine to write about, something no one else would have or could have but me. And that made all the difference.
When Cameron arrived, we could get photos of the porpoises performing another miracle. We would document a phenomenal eventa voodoo priest commanding animalsprovided Rikard, this survivalist living in a land of no laws consented.
Sitting in my tent’s screened alcove I went to work. Information, impressions, and observations flowed onto my legal pad. Like a shy girl, Tyler edged toward my tent, not so curious as to what I was writing as how. She had never met a writer and wanted to know how writers work. I explained how I write for I didn’t care how other writers worked. My work involved making descriptions real, getting facts right, and styleinvolving readers by connecting them to the writing itselfa true art and the hardest part by far.
My murderous campmate’s interest was not feigned as bored, self-centered people do who feel compelled to ask about your work. English had been Tyler’s favorite subject in high school and she had wanted to study English or Journalism, but her family could not afford collegethey had no money.
After a series of odd jobs and a stint in a rainwear factory, she went to work for a florist and taught herself floral arrangement and did well, but she could never shake an American myththe belief that college makes people better. The trial, which brought her lack of a degree to the surface, did nothing to destroy that belief. I told her college was among the most overrated aspects of American life. Hemingway had never set foot into a college, and it doubtless helped him. No meddling professors had ruined him. I loved the fact that Tyler had never gone to college. We were two shirts cut from the same cloth, each with a blue collar.
Tyler watched as I finished making notes. We had about five hours of daylight, so we decided to take the canoe up a large creek running north right off the channel and hone our paddling skills.
We loaded the canoe with water, Voodoo hopped in, and we put out into the channel. On either side of us, the island’s blue creeks ran like veins, recycling nutrients into the great body of the planet.
We paddled like kids, hesitant and out of rhythm, but we were moving north into the interior where a rich abundance of bird life flourished. We drifted through marshlands where turquoise creeks snaked through emerald grasses and eased through this world eons from the city.
We floated through the fruitful estuary, through the heart of the island, where so much life begins. Magnitudes of waterfowl commanded attention, and Tyler, like a sentry, scanned the horizon for telltale signs of pelicans. Any bird rising from the marsh caught her eye, but pelicans alone pulled Tyler from her seat. With each flight of pelicans, rising and gliding on their wide wingspans, she fell reverent, half stood, knees bent as if praying, hands steady on the gunwales, as quiet as the hour before dawn, placing her faith in the solitary bird that would lead her to Lorie.
Her dream flew on the wings of a solitary pelican, and I feared her dream would forever fly out of reach.
Tom Poland’s work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. He’s published five books and more than 600 magazine features. His column, “Across The Savannah,” appears weekly in the Lincoln Journal. The University of South Carolina Press has published three of his books, most recently, “Reflections of South Carolina.” A Lincolnton, Georgia, native and University of Georgia graduate, he lives in Columbia, South Carolina.