At the elephant's soap dish

WE would forget the pool wasn't ours; it lay beyond view of the house at a far end of the garden and nearly always we swam there alone, just our cousins and us. Built in the early 1930s, it was rectangular and in a strict sense, plain, but its size and surroundings gave it a natural, leafy elegance. Along one length, set back about 20 feet, ran an old boxwood hedge; from an opening at its center, a path lined with box carried off whiffs of that peculiar smell toward a narrow, arched break in a row of clipped arborvitae. On either side of the path grew apple trees. On the opposite length of the pool was the bathhouse, finished in stucco painted a golden yellow, and consisting of a long central portico with a square changing room at either end. Ivy grew to the eaves, covering most of the stucco, and in July pale yellow roses bloomed on white trellises, dropping petals and a few thorns onto the baking hot flagstones beneath.

At the deep end of the pool the edge of the woods drew close; tall locusts shaded the wooden diving board in the afternoons; toward the end of a dry summer their leaves began to fall - small, yellow ovals floating on the water. The shallow end gave onto a long stretch of lawn that ran parallel to and away from the pool and formed its main approach, being closest to the house and driveway.

A line of trees, with a ground cover of ivy beneath, traced the edge of lawn, the homestretch six children ran nearly every summer afternoon after the mile walk uphill from our farm.

Wilting from the heat, sweaty and dirty from playing around the stable, we were into our suits and into the water in nothing flat, swimming, splashing, jumping, shrieking, and feeling we must be very close to Heaven.

No lessons in those days, we swam for the sheer fun of it. The frogs poised on the gutters taught us to swim quickly; the horseflies landing on our heads taught us to duck under. And once under, we took to standing on our hands and swimming through one another's legs. With almost no chlorine, we opened our eyes and talked in bubbles and watched our hair floating.

It would be late afternoon when our oldest sister had had enough of us and we were ordered out and back into dry clothes to walk home, downhill this time in a straggling, broken line. We felt the air turning cooler; we grew hungry and thought about supper.

But there was another pool. Small and shallow, we used it less often than the first. This one our father had built as a boy by partially damming the stream, or branch as we called it, which ran through the woods below our house. He had picked a natural pool and simply enlarged it with a barrier of logs and rocks. A leaf canopy filtered shimmering patches of sunshine across the water. It had an uneven, mostly sandy bottom, silted in over time, and although too small for much swimming, there were rocks to slither off or sit on to submerge ourselves at different levels.

Our father took an occasional bath as well as a swim. On the far bank rose a huge granite boulder, a giant hump extending into the water; this was the Elephant Rock, where he and our aunts had played years before us. On its right side, about two feet above the water line lay a curious oval-shaped hole, the elephant's eye, they said; it was also his soap dish.

The first pool received only casual maintenance, the second none at all. Our mother did worry a bit about the origins of the second - where it had been before it came to us - but doses of chlorine would have flowed over the dam even faster than the leaves. The water was transparent brown, tealike; sitting on the rocks, we wiggled yellow toes and felt the slight current against our bodies, a rinsing coolness.

So the first was grand, lying at the end of its long green corridor, and it offered far better swimming than the second, but there was one thing lacking: It couldn't play for us.

What is it that is so hard to resist about the sound of flowing water? The branch ran in a shallow, rocky bed playing on and on its particular watery theme and variations. We listened up at the house sitting on the porch or lying in a bed by the open window, but it was down by the pool that the concert was liveliest, more intricate, subtler, still lovelier than its echoes.

More often, though, we didn't listen, that is, we didn't think to listen. Yet those liquid, rippling songs were always with us.

After a heavy summer thunderstorm, their more urgent sounds sang out for our attention, but usually we felt them instead on some deeper level. Trees, sand, mud, and rocks mingling in accompaniment to the running water - it was together that they made their fascinating music.

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