The Folklore Project
The Lost Boys in the Pond
By Claire Porter
My Nanan could tell a whopper of a lie. She was my mother’s grandmother, and she was one of those who was always busy doing something. She and Papaw lived in a little apartment situated next to a large pond, and my sisters, cousins, and I would go over to visit in the summers when we’d head down to Florida.
She always kept a refrigerator drawer full of old bread heels, squished hot dog buns, and anything else she thought the minnows in that pond would eat. We’d run in, a gang of tanned, sandy kids, and we’d wait for our eyes to adjust to the cool dimness of the apartment. Once we could see again, we’d ravage the fridge and grab some Planters Cheez Balls for the turtles. Turtles love Cheez Balls.
Papaw would call us back to a special closet where he kept the fishing nets. There was only one that had small enough holes to hold the minnows from that pond. Papaw was a marvel of sinew and muscle in his old age, and he loved to beat all of us in arm wrestling. He called all of us girls Doll Baby, and kept my cousin Geoffy company since he was completely outnumbered, the only boy.
Fish food and net in hand, we’d make a run for the door, and Nanan would block it, ready to douse us in DEET.
“The bugs! The bugs! They’re bad out there. If you’re not careful, they’re gonna carry you off. Last week I saw a mosquito THIS BIG flying through the neighborhood.” She would hold her hands up a foot apart, a classic pose, and we’d stare in awe.
Once we were covered, out we’d go, into the wavy heat of the parking lot. The heat in Florida’s parking lots is so oppressive in the summers: Everything you’d see would move just slightly, and if you paid too close attention to it, your body would try to trick you into just lying down under its weight and giving up.
We’d run to the pond and take our spots in the grass next to the edge. There was always only that one net, so we’d fight over it while we argued over how many pieces of bread we each got. Perched on the side and peering into the water, somebody would throw bread in, and the dark coolness would come alive in a second. A quick scoop of the net would bring hundreds of minnows to us for inspection.
I can clearly remember putting my hands in the net and wiggling my fingers against their slippery, cool bodies, and they’d wiggle back, staring at us with unmoving eyes. I’d keep my hands among them as long as I could, washing my hands with them almost, before we had to throw them back. Inevitably, one or two would end up lost in the grass, only to be found later, sticky and mostly dead, still staring. We’d throw them back and watch them sink into the unknown.
After we ran out of bread, we’d walk down closer to the fountain, crouch down in the shaded grass, and hold Cheez Balls between perfectly still fingers, waiting for the turtles to emerge. They’d approach suspiciously and take the Cheez Balls gingerly before turning on a dime and scooting back to the safety of the water. They were more likely to take them from you if you didn’t try to look them in the eye. How we weren’t worried about losing a finger is beyond me.
The fountain in the middle of the pond was always on — something about filtering the water, though the pond never looked like anything other than a mud puddle.
Nanan always worried. She was a world-class worrier, a trait passed down through the generations of women in the Sheets family, and passed down now to me. She always clutched a wadded tissue and played with it, a rosary of sorts to keep herself busy while she worried about mosquitos, or untimely deaths, or floods that would sweep in and take everything away. There was always a story about the flood just waiting to rise to the surface. That tissue also runs in the family, as I often find myself clutching a small, wrinkled tissue while worrying. I’ll look down and there it will be, like someone else put it there when I wasn’t paying attention. I guess it just feels good to hold something soft in your hand.
One of her biggest worries was that we were going to fall into that brown pond and drown. Never mind that we could all swim like fish. She’d come out every half hour or so and knead her tissue in the parking lot, telling us, “Get back! Y’all stop standing so close to that pond! You know, just last summer, two boys about your age rode their bikes into the pond on a dare. They rode them right into that water and the fountain sucked them up before they could get out. No one ever saw them again. Their bikes either. That fountain was so strong they just didn’t have a chance. Once you hit that water, that fountain just sucks you up.”
We all gazed out at the fountain, seeing it now in a shroud of darkness. She watched in pleasure as we all took a step or two back from the edge. I took to dreaming about lost bikes and wondering what the roar of the fountain sounded like underwater.
Weeks went by, and we eventually forgot about the doomed boys and their bicycles. More hot dog buns, more Cheez Balls, more sticky dead fish in the grass.
One afternoon, my cousin JJ and her little brother Geoffy were fighting over the net. They were close in age, so squabbling came easily to them, and after a few minutes of it, JJ got tired of hearing Geoffy wail and pushed him right into the pond, into the darkest, deepest spot, where most of the minnows lived.
As soon as he hit the water, they both started screaming, and Nanan’s apartment door flew open. Papaw sprang out and into the dark water, always so quick for his age, and yanked Geoffy out. He was completely hysterical. We all just stood there, struck by the weight of it. Geoffy was fine but completely traumatized, sobbing about the fountain sucking him up. He laid out on the Florida grass, that thick stuff that feels like a shag carpet, and cried and cried.
It took Geoffy a while to get over that incident. It took a while for all of us to get over it. After that, Nanan cut back on her tales, and we all focused more on feeding the turtles from the safety of the shaded grass. Nanan saved less bread for us in her refrigerator. The marvel of those fish had tarnished a bit.
A few summers later, Nanan died. I was 7, I think. She was loved fiercely by her family, especially Papaw. In a way, we lost him too that summer, though he lived on as a transient for 15 more years, his eyes looking like those fish’s, unmoving and afraid. When I see a muddy pond, I still feel the minnows between my fingers and think about those lost boys.