It was deep in the glades, as the sun fell slowly in the South Florida sky, that Sam and his father realized they were lost.
“What now?” the boy asked as he slapped his own arm, knowing for certain that the mosquitos were out.
The father was silent. He studied the horizon carefully and tried his best to retrace their route. He checked the fuel valve. The boat’s tank was just over half-full. He checked the port side compartment and confirmed that he had remembered to bring the tent, which was folded up inside. They’d been out for a few hours but had caught very few fish.
In recent years, the father prided himself on being a skilled fisherman, for it had become a new sport in his life that he enjoyed nearly above all things. He often went deep into the swamps, for he cherished the wilderness and seclusion of the glades, being away from the city and constant chaos of the Miami highways.
It certainly struck him with surprise then to find that he was lost for the first time in his outdoor career, and that it should happen on the first day he’d take his six-year old boy with him, whose own experience outdoors was minimal.
The boy had a good technique and demonstrated good form, since he’d often practiced by the canals in their neighborhood, which were decent for fishing. But he still had much to learn. He had never been in environments such as this, and he had never camped overnight, which was increasingly beginning to appear as the plan for tonight. The sun was setting fast and they were no closer to finding their way back to the car.
While the father and the son loved each other as many fathers and sons do in the world, the truth was that they hardly knew each other, for neither of them were very used to being in the other’s company.
The father was an older man. He was older than most of the new fathers he’d known, many of whom were younger men in their early thirties if not in their mid- to late twenties. By now, he was a man of fifty. In the days of his youth, he was passionately interested in all religions and philosophies, and in debating the merits of each. His friends regarded him as someone who was always searching, and it was a reputation that stuck; even though he couldn’t quite identify what exactly he was searching for, even in his older age, or even if there was anything at all.
Whatever it was, if it did exist, perhaps it was the driving force that led him out on warm, quiet mornings well before sunrise, onto the still ocean waters beneath the black and starlit sky. The outdoors, the primitive nature of the Florida wetlands, the lakes and quiet canals all had become his sanctuary, his temple and church.
He’d spent much of his life on his own until he met the woman he loved, the woman who would become his wife and the mother of his first child. His only child.
That was six years ago. Much had changed since then, and most of that change had occurred very recently, about a month ago, when his wife left the house and said that she needed time away. She wrote this in a letter. She never said goodbye to him. Not to him or to their son.
Tonight, Sam was afraid, but he swallowed the fear. He refused to let it show in front of his father. After another twenty minutes, the father decided to set up camp for the night. They found a small clearing on the shoreline and set up the tent.
It was late in the night and Sam had not fallen asleep. He checked his glow-in-the-dark watch and it read 10:30. He and his father had said goodnight almost two hours ago and the boy was pretty sure the man was asleep. He heard a noise outside. At first it sounded like an owl. Then it sounded like something else. Something bigger. In most cases, Sam would have stayed in the tent and kept his eyes closed, waiting for the noise to go away. But this wasn’t most cases, and somehow tonight he found the courage to grab his flashlight and go outside in the night.
The sky looked unusual. The stars were out and they seemed brighter than ever, while a number of large clouds could be seen in patches throughout the night, their shapes illuminated by the moon, which was itself hidden by one of the larger clouds. Sam looked ahead and studied the outline of the sawgrass, clearly visible beneath the soft, white glow cast from above; sawgrass which he knew stretched out for miles.
He turned on the flashlight and pointed it straight ahead. The noise had subsided. He figured whatever was making the noise could not be far at all, and that it could probably see him, or at least that it was aware of his presence, since it silenced almost immediately after Sam came out of the tent. He searched the camp and could find nothing. He looked all around the tent and in the surrounding sawgrass.
He looked up at the night sky. Never in all his young life had he seen the stars look so beautiful. He looked up at the moon. Never before had it looked so bright. He thought of his mother. He felt cold.
Then he heard the noise again. He pointed the flashlight in its direction, away from the water and down one of the trails that led into some darker, thicker trees. He looked back at the tent. His father was still sleeping inside. The tent looked much smaller to him now, standing all alone on the bank of marsh by the water. It looked safe inside. His father was safe inside. Sam felt a warm feeling swell up inside his chest as he looked on the tent. It was a feeling he didn’t recognize. He wouldn’t be long, he told himself. He would be right back. The man would never know that he left.
He set out that night and the air seemed colder as he walked farther and deeper into the wilderness. Every so often the noise would stop for about a minute and then continue, and Sam would continue following it. The trees were growing thicker and so was the grass, which was brushing the side of his leg as he walked in it.
Suddenly he heard a noise coming from behind him. Sam started walking faster. The noise behind him grew louder. Something was following him. Sam walked even faster now. What had he done? Why did he ever leave the camp? Now he was out here alone and more lost than he and his father had been during the day. Sam broke into a run. He heard a screeching sound coming from somewhere in the darkness. Somewhere close. The swamp was alive and well aware of his presence and there was nowhere to run. It would swallow him alive because he was a fool. A young fool and all alone. Alone in the dark. He was sprinting. He could feel it chasing him. Creeping down his neck. He was freezing now, though he could feel the sweat all down his back and arms. His hair was drenched across his forehead. Then he fell. Down a small slope and into the damp tall grass. He lost the flashlight. He could feel a pain in his right leg. He lie there breathing heavily. He looked up at the moon, still visible though the patch of trees above him. It stared at him. Judging him. He’d failed. He was unworthy. The noise that had been following him was louder than ever now and it was moving in fast. Sam closed his eyes.
He opened his eyes and saw his father standing above him in the darkness. He could see his face barely in the shadows, lit up only by the light of the moon. His father was out of breath.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“No nothing I—I was just looking.”
He could feel his father sit down beside him. Exhausted and resting for a moment.
“Well, did you find anything?”
“Are you hurt?”
“I think I hurt my leg when I fell just now.”
The father stood back up and walked in the direction they’d come, he was looking around for a moment before reaching down and grabbing the flashlight. He walked back over to Sam as he shone the light in the boy’s direction. He inspected the cut on his leg.
“Just a little cut. It looks like. You should be fine. Can you walk alright?”
“Yea I think so.”
“Good. You said you heard a noise?”
“Yea. Yea I did. I don’t hear it right now. I heard another noise too. Like some loud screeching sound.”
“Yea well, by now you’ve woken up the whole damn jungle, boy.”
“What?! I did?”
The father laughed. “I’m kidding. You’re always going to hear noises out here, son. The swamps never sleep.”
His father looked at him for a moment, thinking something that Sam certainly could not identify. Then he smiled again.
“What’d it sound like? The noise?”
“I’m not sure. Something big. Something…weird. It was a sound I didn’t know.”
“Well…don’t be scared.”
“I’m not scared.”
The father smiled again. “Good.”
He stood up and reached out his hand to help him up. Sam stood up and felt his leg hurt a little bit more, but he would be able to walk just fine.
“Well,” said the father. “Let’s go find this sound of yours.”
The two of them walked together for a few minutes in silence. They made their way back onto the trail.
“Are there alligators around us, you think?” asked Sam.
“Yes. I’m sure there are.”
“Snakes too. That is why you need to be careful and not stray from this trail.”
“No quick movements, right Dad?”
“For leaving the tent.”
He could see his father smile, though it was barely visible in the glow of the flashlight.
“Will the light attract the animals?”
“Probably not, they’ll want to stay away from it.”
“Oh. Do you think we’ll find our way to the car in the morning?”
“Yes, I’m sure that we will. I think we just stayed out a little longer than we should have today.”
Sam agreed. They had been out for a long time. And yet the wilderness tonight, and all day today, felt more like home to Sam than the tent ever could, more so even than his own house which was miles away and safe from any strange noises and dangerous animals. More so than the comfort of his own bed.
He looked up at his father once more as he walked close beside him in the night, the man he’d always admired so much and yet knew so little. Suddenly this man wasn’t as tall as he’d always appeared, and no longer did he seem invincible. His father could bleed. He felt pain. He didn’t have all the answers. He was right there with Sam and they were lost together, and in that moment Sam admired his father more so than he ever had in his life.
The two of them walked into a clearing and sat to rest upon a fallen tree trunk in the middle of the clearing.
“We’re not lost from the tent,” said Sam with a smile. “That’s the most important thing.”
The father laughed. “That’s right.”
They sat together in silence for a moment. Then they heard a rustling from the trees ahead and a soft moaning sound coming from inside.
“Is that the noise you heard?”
The animal walked out from the trees and into the clearing. It was a black bear.
“Just stay still,” said the father. “No quick movements. He won’t hurt us. Remember that he’s probably more afraid of you than you are of him.”
Sam looked at the bear as it walked quietly in the night. It stopped for a moment and looked at the two of them. Sam half-expected its eyes to glow the way a cat’s eyes do sometimes. He had never seen a bear before. It was all alone and looking for something in the night, just as he had been. He wondered how old the bear was, if it was as old as him. He wondered what it was looking for, if it was looking for more than just food, and he wondered if it had heard the same sound that he’d heard earlier in the night. They looked at each other for nearly a minute before the bear turned away and continued in the direction it had started.
“I’m sorry Sam.”
“Sorry for what?”
“I’m sorry about everything that’s happened. With your mother. With me. You apologize for leaving the tent earlier tonight. Ah well… you’re just like your old man. Leaving the tent. I should have stayed home more, I—I should have seen things coming. With your mom, I…But I’m still here. From now on, I will always be here with you.”
Sam sat silently for a moment. Not really knowing what to say. His father meanwhile continued looking on ahead.
“The next time you come out here, can I come with you?” Sam asked.
“Yes of course you can. From now on you will.”
He gripped Sam’s shoulder and squeezed it affectionately, and Sam turned back to him and hugged him tight. He held onto him for a long time, with the moonlight and stars shining upon them in the cold and quiet night.
“Well first thing’s first,” said the father as his boy finally let go. “We need to find our car. Find our car and get back home.”
“We will tomorrow. In the morning,” said Sam. “For now, we have the night.”
The father smiled. “Yes we do.”
“With the bears and the other lost, wild animals, and the strange noise that’s somewhere around here.”
“Somewhere around these parts,” said Sam. “Or somewhere farther away.”