by Hope Yancey
I walk the ¾ mile trail along the banks of the Catawba River and emerge at an overlook, where a mass of dark green stalks several feet tall and topped with large white blossoms is on view in the middle of the water. The lilies are a white shawl draped almost as far as I can see in each direction. At first, I gaze at them as one continuous group, then focus on individual clusters and clumps in the shallow water of the shoals.
This place in Catawba, South Carolina, boasts one of the largest colonies of rocky shoals spider lilies in the world. The rare lilies’ prime bloom is in May and June each year. They prompt a festival in their honor and eco tours.
I’ve developed a minor fascination with unusual natural phenomena that can only be experienced for a limited time, in a specific place, or both. I remember the mystique of a childhood visit under cover of darkness to my parents’ neighbor. An avid gardener who grew orchids and other plants, Irene extended the invitation because she wanted us to observe a particular nocturnal flower. I forgot the name of the floral wonder in question (could it have been night-blooming cereus?), but retained the feeling of excitement accompanying the quest. I was Nancy Drew, solving the mystery of potting soil and garden gloves.
And I have yet to glimpse – but it’s on my list – the blue ghost fireflies and their bluish light that appear like delicate nature spirits for a short spell at the DuPont State Recreational Forest in western North Carolina. Someday, I will see these fairies perform their nighttime dance through the forest.
Then there are the synchronous fireflies I’ve heard about at Great Smoky Mountains National Park that coordinate with each other the patterns of their flashing lights, the behavior peaking for a couple of weeks during May and June.
South Carolina’s Landsford Canal State Park, where the beauty of the aquatic lilies can be seen, still has historic stone ruins from a 19th century canal system. Sit on the benches at the river overlook and listen, and the lilies elicit exclamations such as “Wow!” and “Aren’t they gorgeous?” as one park visitor after another arrives with a smartphone to take a picture. They are young and old; on foot, and pushed in wheelchairs. One person claims to detect the lilies’ fragrance perfuming the air.
A man asks what I am doing as I scribble observations in the slim notebook I carry with me. We talk, and I learn he is from Charlotte, North Carolina, where I also live.
Many things divide people, but somehow we still come together in mutual admiration for nature’s perennial cycle. To do so seems more vital now than ever.
Few in this pilgrimage seem to mind enduring the afternoon heat for the prized scene at the end of the trail. Other than their voices, the only sounds this Sunday in May are birds chirping, water bubbling over rock, and an occasional and needed breeze stirring the trees.
The kayakers who paddle the shoals for a closer look have the best vantage point. Then again, maybe the better perspective belongs to two bald eagles that make their home up in a tall pine tree, not far from the riverside path.
Eagles mate for life, and this pair are permanent residents, opting not to migrate as others do, according to a sign erected in the vicinity. I don’t catch sight of the raptors, but do spot their massive nest in the distance. Eagles can live 40 years in the wild, I learn. A female is said to have begun laying eggs at this site in the mid-1990s.
I wonder what has held this eagle pair in the same location for so long, not tiring of it when they could have moved on elsewhere. Perhaps they, too, appreciate the springtime show on the water, as well as the display we humans put on as they watch us with their keen vision from a high perch above. We may not be able to entertain an audience with the bioluminescence of fireflies, but I expect we are a spectacle, and I like to think we make a kind of light.
Hope Yancey is a writer and native North Carolinian. Her work has been published in The Charlotte Observer and on Our State magazine’s website. Hope is a graduate of Queens University of Charlotte and Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. She enjoys wandering in the woods as often as she can.
by Mallory McDuff
The life expectancy of a free-range hamster in a Southern pasture is often short.
One breezy summer night, our young neighbor Lael brought her two hamsters to visit my 10-year old daughter, mere minutes before bedtime.
It’s hard to say no to this neighbor who often comes to our doorstep, holding her carrying case with its pink and brown leopard print, the cozy home for Stitch and Sunny, her black and yellow hamsters.
With her nymph-like features and high-pitched voice, Lael projects one singular message with her gaze: “Just five minutes, puh-leez????”
But a lot can change in a hamster’s life in a few minutes. And what happened next underscored to me those childhood lessons of how change happens in a heartbeat, especially in our landscape of rolling hills, fields, and forests.
As the sun began to dip beneath the pasture, under the shadow of the Appalachian Mountains, the girls chased Stitch and Sunny in the overgrown grass. The air smelled sweet, fragrant, and full of possibilities.
Around 8:15 p.m., I overheard Lael’s instructions to my daughter to “keep on eye on Sunny” while she watched Stitch. With those five words, Lael transferred the responsibility for this yellow hamster onto Annie Sky, who couldn’t have predicted the dramatic events that would unfold.
When I opened the screen door, I saw grass moving near a white drainage pipe and a furry yellow head popping out of the pipe, as if looking for intruders.
This free-range hamster, under supervision, was now an escapee headed down a narrow drainage pipe, wide enough for an adult-sized fist. We all stared at each other, uncertain of our next steps.
“Let’s get lettuce!” Lael said breaking the spell. “That’s her favorite food!”
Annie Sky ran to the garden to grab the lettuce, realizing with each step that this escape might have been her fault.
“I shouldn’t have let her go, or I should have watched her more closely,” she said, shoving the lettuce inside the white pipe. Tears pooled in her eyes, spilling onto her cheeks as she dropped her lanky body onto the grass and peered into the dark hole, a possible death trap for Sunny.
“It’s not your fault,” said Lael. “It’s Sunny’s fault. She was the one who ran away.”
This perspective seemed reasonable to me, but Annie Sky wasn’t convinced—and Lael was putting on a good front—in the face of the loss.
Looking for reinforcements, I called my teenager from her Netflix haze to help with the crisis. My older daughter Maya used a broom to push a piece of lettuce further down the pipe, shining the light from a headlamp into the hole.
By 8:45 p.m. we continued to stare at the white pipe, as a dim orange and grey glow fell over the pasture.
Maya was the closest to the pipe when a yellow fuzzy face peered out of the pipe.
“Grab him!” yelled Lael, but Maya hesitated a mere second, and Sunny retreated beyond the curvature in the plastic, so we couldn’t see him at all.
“I forgot to mention that hamsters kind of freak me out,” Maya admitted.
With the onset of darkness, Lael went to fetch her father. It was time for both girls to go to bed. With his help, I fashioned a trap out of a large Ziplock bag with air holes made by a ballpoint pen and rubber bands to hold the bag onto the end of the pipe. As bait, we replaced the lettuce with dried hamster food.
While Annie Sky cried in her bed, Maya went into overdrive, pouring water down the outside drains, trying to push Sunny out using drops of water. When that strategy didn’t work, she began banging on the drains and stomping on the top of the pipe.
“It will always be my fault that Sunny got lost,” cried Annie Sky.
Approaching 9:30 p.m., I gave a rousing lecture on my perception that girls take on more guilt than they should, which seemed an empowering premise at the time.
“Does feeling bad make the outcome better for anyone?” I asked.
“No,” she responded.
“Does it make it worse for anyone?”
“Yes,” she said. “It makes it worse for me.”
“Does it change the outcome?” I repeated.
After delivering an address worthy of Gloria Steinem, I called Lael’s dad to tell him about the brilliant strategy of using water and banging on the drainage pipes, even though we hadn’t achieved any results.
“I think Sunny’s a goner,” he said.
Seconds after I hung up the phone, Maya ran into the room, her face jubilant, her hands holding the plastic bag filled with yellow fur!
“Are you sure she’s alive?” I asked.
“Oh yeah! Although I wasn’t sure at first,” she said.
Hearing the news, Annie Sky leapt out of bed, grabbed the bag, and ran to deliver Sunny to her owner, slamming the screen door behind her.
How many pets have been lost and then found—when finding them seems almost impossible, especially in a Southern pasture at night? And why did I have tears running down my face—because of a hamster?
Perhaps I was crying because we found a lost hamster named Sunny in the pitch-black night with a yellow moon rising bright above the pasture. The return of the hamster felt like an impossible feat that turned our emotions upside down with the immediate loss but then restored our faith in the impossible.
In the moonlight, Annie Sky didn’t need a flashlight to find her way next door.
There is a feeling when you find something that feels lost forever, when you can’t figure out a solution, but resolution finds you anyway. It’s the feeling of embodied joy, even when you know this too will pass in time. Even when you know so many losses are forever.
Some stories truly do have a happy ending. And even free-range hamsters—once in a while—will find their way home in the night.
Mallory McDuff teaches at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC, where she lives on campus with her daughters. She is the author of Natural Saints (OUP, 2010), Sacred Acts (New Society Publishers, 2012), and co-author of Conservation Education and Outreach Techniques (OUP, 2015). Her writing has appeared in publications including BuzzFeed, Full Grown People, The Rumpus, US Catholic, and USA Today.
Belle Rêve Literary Journal is a southern literary experience. Our mission is to capture everything that makes the South and its residents unique through the best contemporary literature we can find. We publish new works weekly.
Passionately Ran, Compassionately Fed.