Death on a River

Violence will always be a current topic.


January 15, 2018

Maybe I was 13 when I first read James Dickey’s Deliverance. I know I was headed south on a bus after a stay with my sister, whose home was a little heaven of comforts and attention that I dreaded leaving. My brother-in law gave me his paperback copy as consolation and to occupy me on the eternity of stops. The trip still takes 20 hours, according to the Greyhound site, but costs only $24 and was probably a third of that then. My mother chose to let me ride alone rather than drive four hours to get me and risk our car breaking down on the highway. 

Of course my reading of the novel was indelible due to discomfort and the adventure of being on my own, among strangers, and believing myself on the verge of manhood. The book felt illicit, with its murders and rape. We didn’t read contemporary books like that in classrooms. Murder was in Shakespeare’s time.

When my elder son, Starbuck, now 15, needed to read a book of fiction over winter break for a class, we discussed the options. He chose Deliverance. It was an NBA finalist in 1971 and, since I read it, had been chosen by the Modern Library and Time for their 100-best of the 20th-century lists. Now it was on his teacher’s list too.

By coincidence, we were visiting my sister’s family after Christmas this year, so my son also would be reading the novel on a long drive south from her house—not in a bus, but in the back of our Honda, surrounded by family, blankets, pillows, and snacks. Still, it’s a 14-hour journey back to Louisiana. Odd, these chords. On our last night we all went out for pizza, and several large white-tailed deer crossed the icy road ahead of us in the dark. I counted us lucky to have seen them in time. One of the does refused to cross and turned her face from the headlights, as if embarrassed. My sons loved the visitation, worked it into the story of the trip, and didn’t want to come home.

Starbuck asked about the river in the novel, the Cahulawassee, said to be based on the Coosawattee, in northeast Georgia. He wanted to use some of the Coosawattee’s water for his class presentation. I told him we couldn’t make a two-state detour going home, but it occurred to me we would pass over a small river in northern Mississippi that also has an Indian name and is at about the same latitude. I didn't say the connection was tenuous. If there’d been an easy way to get to the Mississippi where we crossed at St. Louis, Memphis, or Baton Rouge, I’d have done that instead.

The state of Mississippi has long, lovely stretches of forested hills that remind me of where I grew up. There’s not much evidence of settlement from the highway, and you have to remember to fill up ahead of time. But a strange feeling of human presence persists, of the land being tended, watched. How much of this is the landscape, how much a mental overlay? I felt a similar haunting on a train through lovely forests in Europe, where the wars had raged.

We passed over the river I was aiming for and looked for an exit to take us to its banks. The old concrete bridge was a kind I haven’t seen elsewhere for decades. My wife was googling something instead of mapping our route. This is the river they found Emmet Till’s body in, she said. I was startled. A long way from here? I guessed. No, she said, not all that far. Maybe 25 miles. 

Something in me thought we should pass on by, but we’d been planning to stop for the last five-and-a-half hours, and my son had been reading the whole way and needed to make his presentation. The fictional river is a river of death too, I justified. A river is always a new river, I thought. 

Emmet Till was a year younger than my son is now when he was murdered. Ten years later Pops Staples wrote “Freedom Highway”:

Found dead people in the forest
Tallahatchie River and lakes
The whole world is wonderin'
What's wrong with the United States?

The exit ran down a quiet road past a Serta factory (Beauty Rest? Memory Foam?) and a small Thermos plant. No one was out; it was New Year’s Eve day, cold and bright. Over the tracks, then another turn in my dead reckoning, and we approached the river again. My sons exclaimed at signs on the two-lane road that said: No shooting from the highway allowed.

Another sign, for a boat ramp. The dirt road was rutted and wash-boarded, and I drove cautiously down it in our little car filled with luggage and the weight of my growing sons. At a grassy place the road turned into the trees and dove to the water somewhere below. Off to the left the river ran full and high, purling like it wanted to ice. 

A dead deer! my younger son called out. It lay nearby, body neither bloated nor desiccated, eyes intact. Starbuck and I got out of the car; there was only a whiff of corruption in the air. The doe had no visible wound, and I thought maybe it wasn’t a kill at all. But then we saw the next deer and the next and the next and the bobcat, all of them lying facing the same direction, and other piles of rotten flesh and bones. There were maybe a dozen animals, maybe many more. We walked down the short concrete ramp and found the end of it covered in offal. The river tugged at three distinct piles: purple lungs inflated like hard balloons; rich organs wrapped in hide with a pair of forelegs resting casually on top; and a stripped rib cage with something indiscriminate spread beneath it. In the yellow water, the pale gleam of bone—a skull with the empty eye socket still expressing the fear of a maiden.

We should have left. It was an unholy place, not just from the filth of slaughter but also from wastefulness. The recent freeze had kept even the crows and bacteria from using several of the bodies. Were the men who did this of a higher order than the slain does? What was I, modeling calm and determination for my son?

He followed me 50 yards upstream. The swollen river ran beneath a steep bank, and we slid to it in the greasy clay. Dead canes scratched lines on our bare skin and pulled runs in our clothing. Starbuck got to water’s edge and leaned down to fill a Dollar Store jar with water, and I held him as tightly as I ever have in my life. It took him two tries to get enough, then I pulled him back so hard he fell on me, still holding the jar high. We got a lid on it and fought back up through the brambles. Watch where you step, Starbuck said. He saw death everywhere.

We got back in the car, which stunk now of something unclean—my ruined shoes, smeared yellow, and the jar of yellow water in back with our gifts. My younger son wanted his own adventure and begged to be let out to see the bobcat, something he’d never seen in the wild, he said. It was camouflaged so well in the dried grass he couldn’t see it at first, and I rolled down the window and called, To your right. Walk forward. Forward. Stop. Look for the spots. It’s right in front of you.

We got going. Starbuck took up his book again. I was worried about his presentation. He’d have a lot to say, if he was given the time and freedom to say it. We took the highway south, toward Jackson, and passed a billboard from a group that wanted things great again. It showed an enormous American flag waving and read:

God help America, please!
It’s Urgent!


Photo of the Tallahatchie, south of Minter City, Mississippi, by Richard Apple, courtesy of CC.


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