When I was six when my father half pulled, half carried me to the top of the hill to watch the water burn. His fingernails dug into the thumb flesh of my hand as we rounded the curve at the end of our street and climbed the hill, the tallest in our suburban neighborhood just outside New York City. My arm stretched to full length as I fell behind him, and he stopped to carry me, lifting me to his back with ease and leaning forward to carry us both up the hill. I closed my eyes and listened to the buzz of cicadas and lawn sprinklers alternating through the heat of a concrete summer.
We reached the top of the hill where the buzzing was louder. Helicopters circled the air above our heads like hornets, weaving over and under each other in figure eights above the Little Neck Bay. My father turned to face the water that usually reflected the sky in shades of blues and grays. Today, the water burned. Thick plumes of black coated the surface of the water. Flames reflected the wind, and blew from side to side, while Maritime Coast Guard boats circled the black slick and flames in silent vigil.
I watched the flames from the top of the hill rise above the surrounding reeds and tall bay grass. “But water can’t burn,” I lifted my voice above the buzzing and waited for my father’s explanation, brushing strands of sweaty hair away from my forehead. He stared at the water, his matching hazel eyes drawn together, trying to find a way to explain the flames to a kindergartener who’d stood behind the back door begging to go along.
“It’s because of bad chemicals,” was all he said, maybe hoping that someday Rachel Carson would find a way to say it better.