Buttercups posing in dew cascade down a mucky bank at dawn. My father has pointed them out with the tip of his cane pole as we glide by in lemoned light and shifting silences.
He is a man who sees all that moves — even the tender grip of the sun on flowers and the vanishing hand of the moon among the ferns — along these yawning bayou banks.
The pole is a wand in his hand, and it roams in vertiginous loops, as though he might be inscribing the path of the Southern Cross as it cleaved through the sky last night. But he is conjuring fish.
“Around this bend last year,” he says, “I hooked me a monster.”
My father paddles one-handed from the front of the boat, fishing as he goes, stirring the water like dark, medicinal tea — a trick he learned from gaunt, forgotten men, handsome in their poverty, who seined carp in the God-soaked sloughs of Arkansas.
Primordial vapors bloom in our wake — methane sketches of quaking lost seas. Ahead, the bayou lays out like an ancient road in love with its meanders, wrapping old sorrows in green, loamy pallets of duckweed.
Dad says there are no lies here but our own — every turtle worships the sun; every frog knows the heart of every snake; an alligator ambles from the bank and swims through 10,000 years, content in his cold, cold rage. Wary marsh birds grumble up to the safety of the sky, still lusting for the silvered flesh of minnows.
In the distance, a gargantuan stump rises through memories, casting a twin of itself on mirrored water; the insolence of time has sanded clean the clawing etches of remorse.
The morning unfolds in seams of colors without names and sounds that clarify the primitive heart. A hundred years ago, hard men with crosscut saws, drunk on pride and bitterness, laid the Atchafalaya low and shipped its timber north. Yet some got left behind, like lost, defiant soldiers who fell clinging to orders on beaches long forgotten.
The trunk of this cypress lies in wet, cradled darkness, a mummy happy in its ooze. Bull catfish worship its barnacled limbs and guard them jealously, like grizzled hounds ready to die at the barnyard gate.
Remembering every hook he’s lost in these old bones, Dad says, “We’ll try this spot.”
I lift my spinning rod and flick a floating broke-back minnow across the marbled light. The riff of line; the lure bug-dancing through sun-sweetened air; the hollowed-out song of the bait settling on water.
What is fishing but the unfathomable longing of expectation? I twitch the rod, and the lure, a toothy vixen made by machinery, carves a gorgeous, rippled face on the surface.
A bass — wanton in its hunger — rises in a crushing spray of tannin diamonds. Startled, I jerk the rod and miss, and the fish is gone — certain as a woman I once lost. Dad, who fishes like some men box, laughs and says, “You city boys have lost your touch.”
Dad won’t have a spinning rod. He’s a cane pole and live-bait man in the drought-cut ruts of his father. They are men gouged by rusted hopes and splintered times, when only sharp, baited hooks and the scared, lean looks of women they loved kept supper on the table.
I am not exactly my father; I sit in gentler history; I sit in the boat with cities in my head. Words course through me like the quickening pulse of June, as though I’m required to explain it all. I deeply love this place — but I am the witness.
Dad sits, rooted as that stump ahead of us, but a predator, cocky as a wolf some days. He scans the bayou for secrets such as willows keep; he can tell you exactly why he’s here.
My father reaches into a battered bucket for a shiner; the minnow throbs like a wet star in his weathered hand. The hook finds its place in a ritual of sacrifice, and Dad pitches his offering up close to the stump. The shiner dances with its broken heart, a slow disappearing tango.
Time rafts across an arc of quiet and then a strike — the cane pole throbs, bends and crackles like a violent reshaping of the crescent moon. The line cuts sharp, sizzling hackles through the water, and the fish appears like some thunderbolt hurled to wreck the surface — a yellowed orb of fury, mouth agape as in some primal, silent roar.
It preens like August, huge and unafraid, then dives, through a stake of sunlight. The pole cracking, the thrip of line failing — fading ripples knead through watchful hyacinths in the distance before Dad says, “Son, did you see that?” I saw every second of it, in slow motion.
Other fish are not so lucky. We catch a mess of sac-a’-lait and thread them on a stringer. They trail the boat, in a speckled ballet of resignation, toward my mother’s frying pan.
We paddle back in no hurry, through the reluctant lapse of morning, past dark-bruised irises that blink from pillowed banks of green. My father has been thinking about that catfish and says, “A fish like that probably wasn’t meant to be caught.” I can only nod.
We land on a levee brushed in sweet clover, pile the boat on top of the car and drive home along aching, pummeled roads that crawl, turtlebacked, through places where trailer parks share the swamp with egrets and shirtless men who sit on stoops, as free and feral as the gaunt, hungry dogs that prowl the ditches.
Dad begins to unwind the story as if I had not been there — as if it must be told fresh or go bad. Thirty summers will come and go until the sun one day fells my father like the crosscut that took down that cypress. By then, that catfish had grown to 60 or 70 pounds as it dove through the stake of light of that endless summer where my father stored his dreams. But what I remember most is Dad stepping from the boat, a good loser, on the last day he walked as a young man.