New Year’s at Sea Level
I had had sutures removed just before Christmas but the technicians apparently left one stitch behind. In hotel rooms on our road trip, my mother tugged at it with tweezers, but nothing much happened. My doctor’s office back home suggested I get it checked out, so we cut our road trip a half-day short and, back in Oriental, went to the urgent care.
The doctor’s southern down-homey-ness put me at ease as I lay on my stomach and she poked at my back. I was a little alarmed when she kept talking about how old she was and how she had to get her glasses, and then asked for help of some sort from my mother, who in turn had to get her glasses to prod at me. But after numbing and cutting, they managed to retrieve the lone stitch, and the doctor even gave it to me in a sterile cup as a “souvenir.”
The night, just before 11:30, we walked down the street to Oriental’s marina for the dragon race. This was my first New Year’s in Oriental. As we waited by the water, I suddenly recalled that years before I had invited someone I thought was special. Though I hoped he was doing something that would make him happy, if he happened to be languishing in misery and regret about not spending New Year’s with me when he had the opportunity, I would really be just fine with that, too.
“So, why are there two dragons?” I asked. My mother had been to these festivities several times and was familiar with all of the events.
Originally, there was only one dragon, she explained. Then a few years ago, there was some in-fighting among the Oriental New Year’s organizers. One faction split off and ordered their own dragon. Just before the holiday that year, the two groups made up, but now there are two dragons. They approach each other and kiss during the festival.
People began filling the street. It was far from freezing, but the cold had a bite to it. Revelers wore various holiday costumes and brought any and all noise-making items, including regular kitchen pots and pans.
At 11:30, the first dragon approached.
“It’s good luck to touch its nose,” my mother yelled to me as we moved closer. Reading from the town website, she had warned me earlier that it was bad luck to stand in front of the dragon and impede its path. Naturally, I did not want to do this. However, the dragon sort of kept coming at me, causing me to jump out of its way.
I did get to touch its nose, though.
Then the second dragon slithered into the street and danced around a bit and, sure enough, the two dragons met in the middle and kissed, to much clapping, chanting, and general merriment.
“This is the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Ok, now time for the croaker drop!”
As the dragons retreated, we turned to a boat with a lit-up fish affixed to the top. Every year, a boat volunteers to host the croaker so it can drop at midnight. They even rigged a screen under it with a countdown going.
At 11:59, the croaker began to drop. At midnight, the town screamed and clapped. We cheered and headed back to indoors and warmth.
The next day, I was thinking about our road trip, where everywhere there were signs about the “low country.”
“So are we in the low country?” I asked of Oriental.
“Are we in the high country?”
“Well, where the hell are we then?”
“We’re at sea level.”