By Wendy Hodge

The setting was perfect. Sun sparkling on the lake, white clouds hanging low and puffy in the bluest sky you can imagine, and not another soul in sight. All around me the symphony of the lake played softly – frogs croaking to each other, birds calling and chatting from one tree to the next, and the water rolling onto the bank and sliding back into itself with a slap and a gurgle. I sat in a chair with Lake Harding spread before me and my timeworn copy of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ in my hands, stretched out in the sun… just breathing and so grateful to be in that place at that moment. I couldn’t have chosen a more ideal spot in the whole world to spend an afternoon.

“I think I’ll slip into the water and just float around for a while,” I suggested to myself. “Sounds lovely,” I answered my own thoughts.

A movement in the air caught my eye, and I looked up to see a heron swooping low to the water. He landed just a few feet in front of where I sat. I was motionless, afraid to startle him away. With his blue head feathers standing up, he looked like a punk rocker from the 80’s. He tilted his head to one side and stared at me as if to ask “Exactly what ARE you doing on MY riverbank?” I barely breathed – I so wanted this beautiful creature to stay put. He either didn’t see me as a threat or didn’t really see me at all, because he turned his back and strutted on his long, pencil-thin legs ever so slowly, keeping parallel with the shoreline.

His tail feathers were an even darker blue than the ones on his head, and his chest was silvery white. His wings stayed tucked in, and his feet seemed to glide in the shallow water. His head ducked down into the water a couple of times, the water running off his head and wings as he straightened up, and then he would glide a few more steps down the shore, as graceful as a ballerina at the Bolshoi. I sat there in my front-row seat, smiling and feeling like I’d been given a gift I didn’t even know to ask for.

Once again, the heron dipped his head into the water, and this time he brought something up in his dagger-like beak. “He caught himself a fish,” I thought. “How sweet – the circle of life and all that.” And then he turned to face me, and hanging from his mouth was not a fish. It had four legs, four paws, and a tail. It was a rat. A big one.

I may have squealed like a little girl. I most definitely curled myself into the fetal position. The heron did not appreciate my reaction. He picked up his pace and strutted quickly toward the dock, dropping the rodent with a nasty sounding plop. The heron leaped onto the dock and turned toward me one more time. He raised one wing as if he was saluting me, and then he spread both wings and lifted himself as easily as you and I take a breath. He soared across the water onto the opposite shore and disappeared from view.

I forced myself to look back at the water. The rat was still there, floating just a few feet from where I sat. I’m not sure if he was dead or just pretending to be. Maybe he was deeply shocked and terrified. “I know the feeling,” I said out loud.

I looked around me, and everything looked different, as if I’d put on someone else’s glasses. What was so tranquil and peaceful a few minutes before, now seemed slightly sinister and downright creepy. “I almost got in the water right in that very spot!” I thought. “Would that rat have swam by me? What else is swimming or crawling or slithering around out there? How fast can I launch myself out of this chair and run back in the house??”

Thankfully there was no one there to see me as I sprinted to the porch, covered with goose bumps, and doing my own little dance of revulsion.

I sat on the porch, slowly regaining my composure, laughing at my own fear and picked up a newspaper. There was a story on the front page about a woman who lived just around the bend from where I was sitting. She had been out boating with a family member and, for reasons no one can explain, had jumped into the boat in the dark of night knowing full well that she could not swim. She had drowned, her body staying hidden in the dark waters for two days.

My best friend and I were out on the lake that night. We’d taken his boat out to do some fishing at sunset. The flashing lights of rescue boats turned the water red as we made our way back to the house. We’d wondered at the time what was happening. And now we knew.

While we were laughing and making more precious memories, someone was fighting the current and struggling to cling to this world. While we were very much alive, they were facing death. My favorite floating spot, in front of the lake house and under the big oak tree, is a refuge. But it’s also a life and death struggle for creatures too numerous to count.

Life and death – two opposite sides of the same coin, and only a breath apart. Someone like me – an over thinker, a worrier – can take that kind of knowledge and let it turn to fear. But fear is a choice, and I am choosing today and every day to live with joy and gratitude. With a conscious awareness of what lies beneath the surface, I am grateful for lakes and boats and chattering birds and sun on my skin and my best friend. I am grateful for every moment on this side of the coin.