The water under the trees was clear light brown. I can see it now, cool and still in the shadow of the bridging trunks, and clear brown as the tea that mother used to bring us when we were small and sick abed.
A little further along, the creek would bend and dip and trickle in riffles of white foam over greenly mossed stone and velvet brown mussel shells. We hunted for live mussels to pry open the shells and poke around the slippery occupant for a possible pearls. We never found any pearls, but always the gold of sunlight glinting through the cool brown shadows.
Sometimes we emerged from the dappled shade scratched and bleeding from a brush with the low hanging branches, or with toe stubbed or cut by the sharp fragments in the creek bed. But the only real tragedy occurred on our very last picnic at that meadow, for after that, we could never go back again.
The kitten was small and gray and soft and fast as a fluff of milkweed. My sister had wheedled it just the last week from a farmer’s wife who lived about two miles down the road from our house. Sister carried it very tenderly all the long dusty walk home, cradled kangaroo-style inside her blouse. She dressed it in doll clothes and wheeled it around in her little reed carriage. She fed it milk from a saucer and made it a bed on the porch in an old box.
On this particular Sunday, she persuaded Mother, against Mother’s better judgment, to let her bring the kitten along on our picnic, and she tied a pink ribbon on its neck with a tinkle bell so it wouldn’t get lost.
While we were wading in the cool brown water of the creek and slipping around on the slimy mossy stones, Mother and the hired girl were spreading out the picnic cloth on the grass and setting out the covered bowls of fried chicken and slivered raw vegetables and apples and bread-and-butter sandwiches. The kitten catnapped under the biggest box elder and would not go near the water.
When lunch was done, the leftovers were packed away and the paper plates and napkins and trash stacked in a tidy pile to burn. We cut willow switches and toasted marshmallows over the little fire. When the last marshmallow was eaten and the last stubborn embers doused with brown water from the creek, and we were already to go home after a perfectly wonderful day, sister remembered her little cat.
“Here, kitty,” she called. “Time to go home now. Here kitty!”
The kitten wouldn’t come. We never were quite sure exactly what happened. First it danced and pranced around the meadow, daintily hopping from stone to stump to flower. Then, suddenly, bell tinkling, it ran up a tall tamarack . . . branch stub to branch stub to the very top . . . and then it whipped around up there like a witch on a broomstick, all the while screeching out the wildest caterwauling.
Quietly, Mother herded us into the old LaSalle and we drove away in the dusty sunlight. And, as I said, we could never go back to picnic at that meadow.