Maidencane isn’t half as elegant as it sounds. Not even close.
When I came across the plant’s name in a copy of Gulf Coast Flora I had checked out from the library—the first to do so since 1976—I had just finished helping my eight-year-old brother Eli pronounce the word “eucalyptus” in a picture book about koalas. Infiltrated by images of those bears-but-not-bears and their country-slash-continent on the farthest side of the world, I had latched upon the idea of maidencane as a thing I might be able to admire in what may as well have been Australia to me—a bayou town at the tail end of the Mississippi, where Eli and I would be living in a week’s time. But as I found out, maidencane is just a regular sort of grass that grows half-drowned in swamplands. I guess I could say that it’s tall, jointed, and bladed on the edges of its leaves, which look to me like the sapling husks of corn. It’s the most boring type of grass in the world besides the ordinary kind that grows on lawns—which, as I found out that summer after seventh grade, grows much rougher the farther south you go.
As I crouched in it during that first hunt in Bayou Bonne Chance, my umbrella sagging and the tail end of my rain jacket dyed by the puddles at my boots, that maidencane bent and sulked like I did, battered by the gray linen rain. I could hear my grandfather Papa Roy and Eli muttering words of encouragement to each other up ahead toward the direction of the deep water.
“It looks like a soccer field,” said Papa Roy, “but all that green is duckweed—one wrong step and you’d be twelve feet under, boy.”
They wouldn’t be pressing on much farther, not with nightfall on the way. I struggled to see them because of the downpour, which they had decided to slog through with their flashlights, but also because I had stuffed as much of my face as I could into the crooks of my arms atop my knees, the hood of my jacket falling over my eyebrows. A peeking clam for a head. With two white pearls I glared out from my shadow, through the maidencane and the patter. I almost hated this world of grass more than the cracked playgrounds and apartments I knew best. Almost. At least the bars of rain I could cut through if I wanted. I would have to ask Ma if jail cells even came with bars anymore, if I ever decided to write her a letter. Maybe she would even answer, if she ever decided to read it. Mostly I think she would be offended that I had brought it up, her new reality.
The maidencane continued to tremble—stuck second-hands, every stalk—and the water vibrated just barely, as if Muskogee footsteps were echoing from two hundred years underground. The earth might have pulled me down inside if I had let it, down under all those layers of river-spun soil, which gathered black and loose as the oil far deeper below, far older. Meanwhile, all this chaff above ground could change so quickly. No more Muskogee. One day, no more oil. No more Ma. Papa Roy in her place.
I had not cried in many months, so under the trees I held my breath to stop it from happening, my lungs pressing my ribs closer against my thighs, the skin around my eyes burning thin and hot.
I saw this in National Geographic one time: in Namibia, there is a beach of uncountable black sand as ordinary as dust swept from a floor. But scattered throughout it, in a million, billion, trillion specks, is another, more secret sand: tiny grains of gleaming diamonds, disguised as common quartz. They’re everywhere, those gems, for anyone who looks close enough.
I looked: at nothing, first. At the bubbles squelching around my boots, through the wet blur on the lenses of my eyes. At my hands clenching around my forearms, holding myself together. Raindrops landed, grew heavy, and dripped, molecules spilling everywhere into the swamp. I lost track of them.
All that matter running away. Everything dispersing, falling, breaking, until something there in the grass—something extraordinary—approached me of its own accord. Invisible at first. Just a sound. A buzz like an electric bulb plugged in and pulsing somewhere atop the water. So close. I squirmed as the sound crawled into my sleeves, around the edges of my jacket. Again. It happened again. I thrust my head upward, the rain hitting the tip of my nose. Part of the weather now. Part of the world around. And I didn’t believe it at first, the thing I saw. That sea-blue creature in the grounded muck, gold in the eyes and huge for its kind—as big as a tea kettle, and glazed like glass. Our chests swelled at the same time and I stared and stared, afraid to breathe out. To my ears, the tap dance of the rain had slowed to a cavernous percussion, and the blades of grass bowed a high and prolonged note like the twill from Papa Roy’s violin. There. There. There. I thought of Papa Roy and Eli in the misty clouds far ahead. I didn’t know whether to call for them, or to wait for them to find me. I wanted a witness, someone to alert. Maybe the egret that hid close by, watching. Perhaps she saw this creature every day, and I was the strange and sudden difference in the swamp.
But then, I had been crouching for so long. My balance betrayed me and I dipped forward from my ankles, the teetering movement pushing ripples all through the water, my clamshell head snapping shut. The violins crescendoed at my mistake and hummed, wavering. I realigned my body, pushed back the hood. But the thing had disappeared. Startled away.
Eli would believe me. Papa Roy had just about convinced him that this new town wasn’t such a toilet after all, not even with all the sludge of the Mississippi racing past us for bigger and better waters. He would believe me if I told him, that of all the people and places in the whole wide world, I saw, in all that stupid maidencane, the famous Blue Bull of Bayou Bonne Chance.