holding his pale palms outstretched, water-stained sedimentary rocks filling his hands, and I smile and say It could be true, not wanting to be the one to correct him, not wanting to stifle an imagination that has turned leftover lake fill into remnants from the Mesozoic Era. This used to be an ocean, he says, pointing to the water, and he tells me about the gray dolphins and the blue whales, the mighty shark with their five rows of teeth, the cuttlefish and the crabs, the stingrays and the clams. Is that so? I say, my face alive with delight, my mind privy to the knowledge that this lake is man-made, built behind a dam to stop the flooding down in the valleys, but I dare not reveal this secret to this imaginative boy. Instead, I say, I’ve never been to the ocean, and I know that he hasn’t either, that all these creatures he talks about — the dolphins and the whales, the cuttlefish and the clams — were introduced to his young mind via thick school books, from reading about mysterious ocean animals that he’s never encountered. Well it was here once, he says, plopping the rocks into a draw bag, tightening the string and flinging it over his sun-burnt shoulder, and we walk together through the forest, up the beaten mountain trail, brown sparrows perched in vibrant green trees, white and yellow honeysuckle perfuming the land, no mighty blue ocean waters anywhere to be seen.
Back at camp, he dumps the rocks onto the plastic lounge chair, studies each piece the way I imagine a paleontologist would, separates them into piles only he knows the meaning of. He does this all evening long, moving closer to the fire as the sky turns from red to blue to black, the stars and the hazy Milky Way flooding the nighttime air. In time, he drifts off to sleep, his little body sprawled across the chair, one of the rocks still clutched in his small palm. I pick him up, move him to his tent, the rock in his hand falling to the ground. After tucking him in, zipping the tent’s mesh door, I go back, pick up what was dropped. I can decipher small ridges in the rock’s face. I move my thumb over the surface, feel the dried mud drop from dented grooves. Then, in the fire’s light, I see it: the outline of a small sea shell, the relic of a creature not found on the banks of the fresh water from where the rock came. I clutch the rock, smile at my ignorance. They’re fossils, I acknowledge, surprised at my own foolish discounting of his young understanding.