Paul Gilberry: The Iroquois King
Once we needed Christmas lights for a 4th of July party, so I went out to the shed, which was getting a little rough after Katrina and Wilma, and there was a possum sleeping on the Christmas lights, and I was torn between just slowly pulling them out from under the possum, and running an extension cord over and plugging them in, because that would be a great way to wake up a possum. I opted to pull them out slowly, and the possum would sort of blink itself awake and hiss at me angrily. So I would stop, then start up again, and we’d play the same game. Untimely Christmas lights and an angry possum. That’s my Southern Legitimacy Statement.
The Iroquois King
I thought of Julie today.
I remembered the Iroquois King. It was a good story, but especially so because Julie kissed me.
I want to go back to Track Rock, but I am afraid that it wouldn’t seem like an adventure anymore. Not in the way that a school desk seems smaller somehow. We went as deeply into the woods as we dared, and sometimes found trails on the other side. But what if the whole time there were chunks of reality and civilization, and we never were so far into the woods at all. It’s not that things would seem small, but that they might seem well lit and safe. And in spite of those Track Rock summers, I am much better at finding reality now.
I was hardly prone to adventure. In Florida, at least. Sunview Park excursions (it was a quarry full of perfectly round holes in bleached white rock, and between soccer games it was Valhalla). Irrigation ditch explorations, who knew these were just long half pipes we swung from side to side through, for miles it seemed). But I was always already to the other side at some point or another, and the middles, in spite of packed lunches, pocket knives and compasses, left us wanting. It was very, very suburban.
So I read. And I wrote even then.
Summer friends were different.
At home, we all pretty much did the same things, and nobody was much better at anything than anybody else. We weren’t the greatest soccer players or BMX riders. Still, we did those things. The difference between a forward or a defender on a soccer field might only be height. But those summers at Track Rock, we had a different kind of team. Our only thing in common was that we were camping. We had kids that could climb, and kids that didn’t get tired of hiding. We had a kid with a cool bike and another kid that rode it like a stuntman. We had kids with snorkels and masks and kids with pocket knives and BB guns. Everybody had fireworks. We were a team like they assembled in movies, not in school yards or on soccer fields.
How was I special that summer? I got the girl. I told the story, and I got the girl, and everybody trusted it all.
The Iroquois King was the last of the Indian Kings, and he was as big as a two story house, which in South Florida was a big deal. Florida grew out, not up, not even one story up, mostly. Carl was from Nag’s Head, and he said it sounded like I was talking about a stilt house. So when Carl and I told the others, they thought of the King the same way, strong enough to lean into a hurricane like we all saw on the news the summer before. He fought his way down from New York (another world to all of us), heading for the swamps in North Florida to sign a secret treaty with the Seminole to take the country back. And the only way we ever knew he existed was a rotten stump, as wide across as any of us was tall, it seemed. It was bigger than the other trees in the woods. It was his wild, headdress crown, spotted ferns for feathers. The bumps on the leaves were codes. We knew it.
So that summer, other than catching trout and panning for gold, or searching for Florida from Brasstown Bald, we looked for clues. The Iroquois King was sure to return, and just as surely, he would murder us to the last.
We didn’t find him that summer. Not at the bottom of the lake or by the real petroglyphs. Still the team, mostly intact (he got Carl and Piper and Troy, we knew it), reconvened the next summer, and we searched again.
We should have had a name.
The summer before Julie and I shot Roman candles out at the floating dock in the middle of the lake. Pieces of light arcing out, reflections rushing up for kisses. They skipped and hissed and sank yards short of the dock, where older kids laughed across the lake at us. “I know it’s you, Julie,” her sister laughed. But this year her sister went somewhere else for the summer, and we all got to lay and talk on the dock. More innocent than her sister, except for the Roman candle artillery at the ready. “You all looked like you’re waiting for the Monitor.” they said each morning by the Coke machine and the freezer with creamsicles. We didn’t know what they meant, but now if I could talk to Julie for a second, all I would say is “The Iroquois King could have broken the ironclad, all the ironclads, even. He’d break them with with his tomahawk.”
Julie gave me a locket, and she promised me the chain couldn’t break. She let Carl light a Black Cat off in her palm, so who could doubt her.
And she still believed me.
I knew we’d find the Iroquois King this time, and just as he was about to tumble down the side of the mountain to his final demise, he’d reach up with a creaking, branch of a claw of a hand, and grab that locket, and it would saw his fingers off at the knuckle. That was how we were going to win.
He escaped us again that summer, though we knew we were closer than ever to finding him.
My family didn’t go back to Track Rock the next year. And no, I don’t have the locket, though the chain never did break. If Julie did go camping that next summer, she would think the King got me, just like Carl and the others the summer before. I like to think she still stomped around the woods, still waited on the dock. Not waiting for me. Not searching for me. So depressing, and she wasn’t depressed. She was angry.
In my heart, if he didn’t get her too, Julie was there for revenge, and to take her locket back from the Iroquois King.