Shannon and I held hands as we rode our bikes side by side. A skill we’d recently perfected. He’d just guessed my Hum That Tune, I Was Made for Dancing. I’d plastered my room with Teen Beat Leif Garret posters. His looks ranked better with me than his music. But I did like that one.
“Okay, my turn.” Then he hummed his selected song. “Betcha can’t guess it?”
“You’re the One That I Want?” I answer. He only ever picked songs from Grease or Xanadu. Shannon and I became best friends over Olivia Newton-John. I’d just moved into the neighborhood when he invited me to see her first movie, Grease, with him. He’d been obsessed with her, and my best friend, ever since.
Our hands separated. We needed them both on the handlebars to maneuver off the gravel road onto the well-beaten path. This had been our ritual in the weeks post Hurricane Frederick—a dusk bike ride to The Singing River. Our parents were too busy picking up the pieces since the storm to care.
Since school was canceled indefinitely after the Cat 5 ripped our town to shreds, we busied ourselves. Most of that was outside because we still didn’t have electricity. Daddy put a large tarp under our manual water pump. We’d put on swimsuits to cool off. We’d dig up worms and fish for brim. But dusk was when the real magic happened.
Once we got to the river, we dropped our bikes and headed toward our favorite fallen tree via Sir Frederick. About half the pines in our neighborhood fell. The last two weeks’ outdoor soundtrack had been nothing but chainsaws, and the odor of gas and oil tainted the once earthy air. We craved the river. We needed her.
“Race ya!” Shannon took off. But I didn’t. Instead, I kicked off my sneakers. I wanted to savor the feel of the soft soil and decaying leaves under my bare feet.
Hues of orange and red cast a beautiful glow over the rippling waters of The Singing River, and large trees covered in Spanish moss framed the image. “Do you think we’ll hear it tonight?” he asked.
“Maybe.” The folks in town said, on the quietest of nights, if conditions were right, you could hear the river sing. I put my bare feet on the log and hugged them to my chest. I loved the story, even though it kinda scared me. But night after night, I wanted to hear it.
Shannon cleared his throat in preparation for his retelling of the story that brought normalcy to the post-storm chaos. The story his grandfather taught him. The story he vowed to keep telling in the aftermath of losing his grandfather to the hurricane. Each time he told it, I could tell he remembered more details from his grandfather’s version. Each time it became more real.
“You ready?” he asked.
“Yes.” I responded.
“Okay, here we go.” He cleared his throat one more time. “The Biloxi and Pascagoula natives co-existed peacefully for years. But Chief Altama of the Pascagoula tribe and the beautiful Biloxi Princess Anola fell in love. But Princess Anola was promised to the Biloxi tribe chief. In a fit of rage, he hatched an evil plan to send his lethal warriors to enslave the Pascagoula natives and retrieve his bride. An informant loyal to the princess warned them. Altama, Anola, and the entire Biloxi tribe decided suicide with the hope that being together in the afterlife was better than enslavement. One night, they met at this river and walked into it, singing the death song. Their ghosts wander the river’s floor, and some nights their voices reach its surface. The legend continues that to make it to the afterlife; enough people need to know their story and hear their song. So that’s why we’re here. To help Altama, Anola and their people reach their final destination.”
I laid my head on Shannon’s shoulder. He was a couple of years older than me, but he never treated me like I was younger. I appreciated that.
He reminded me of the next step. “Three deep breaths, then we hold it. We have to be perfectly still, so they feel safe.”
We breathed our three inhales in unison. Then we held our breath. We listened.
It sounded like the rustling of leaves in trees—a bird, no a flock, cutting through the breeze. At first, it was quiet. I could barely hear it; then it increased in volume. I slapped my hand over my mouth. Shannon and I shot each other wide-eyed gazes—shadows, illuminated by moonlight, cast an eerie glow across the water.
My lungs were on fire. I needed to breathe. But I couldn’t. Hundreds of shadows, all shapes, and sizes, emerged from the water and rose toward the moonlight. Their somber hums grew louder and louder. The speed at which they ascended quickened. Then there were only two. They rushed toward each other, became one, and faded into thin air.
Then it went black-hole quiet.
I exhaled. I could barely breathe.
Shannon patted my back. “It’s okay. Take a few deep breaths. Get some oxygen back in those lungs.”
Once my respiration normalized, I looked at him. I didn’t know what to say. “Did that just really happen?”
“I think so. Listen. We can never tell anyone. They’ll think we’re crazy. Grandad said many folks didn’t believe anymore. Our secret. Deal?”
“Deal?” We linked pinkies.
“Well, I guess it’s time to get back.” Shannon hopped off the log and helped me down. It was almost too dark to see. But we made it back to our bikes. We pedaled home in moonlight and silence.
# # #
It’s been thirty years since that night. Shannon and I haven’t spoken about it since. I often wonder if it really happened or if it was just the overactive imagination of a couple of bored kids post a hurricane.
In my extensive research over the years about The Singing River, I’ve uncovered that mullet, when conditions are perfect, flap on the river’s surface, creating a humming sound.
I can’t confirm or deny it was the mullet phenomenon we heard that night, or if me and Shannon were the last two people the Pascagoula tribe and its Biloxi bride needed to access their portal to the afterlife.
And I guess I’ll never know.
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