Another in our Series of Memoirs by Mule editor CL Bledsoe. Read on, my mule readers … read on.
Feeding the Fish
My Dad woke up, and woke me, before the sun, which is something I’ve never forgiven him for. He’d sit in the kitchen, slurping his coffee and reading a paperback western or action/adventure novel until the sun got off its lazy butt and shined. I’d have cereal and watch cartoons, if there were any on, until I heard him speak from the kitchen.
“Come on, Boy. Day’s a wasting.”
We’d got out to his truck—he had a few over the years, but they all shared certain characteristics. The driver’s side door was never fully closed, only pulled to, so he could slip out if he saw a snake or needed to pull over to take a leak. He kept a gold triggered .22 rifle stuck into the floorboard for snakes, and the seat was piled with various other essentials: a dirty roll of paper towels to wipe the windshield with, his beer set in a rubber holder, and magazines and newspapers in case he needed to make a pit stop and ran out of paper towels.
We’d drive down to the shed where Dad kept the fish feed. He’d toss 50-pound bags of the stuff into the back of the truck with a solid thunk while I’d struggle to drag one bag. Most times, he’d get annoyed at how long I took and bark at me to move aside, then we’d drive back to The Lake, a stock pond down the hill from our house where we kept the bulk of our catfish.
He’d haul the bags into the boat, and I’d climb in. The sun was up by then, and the air was cool and full of the smell of water. Dad would rip the top off a bag and hand it to me. I’d balance it between my legs, almost as big as I was, reach in with a plastic dipper cut from a milk jug, and scoop out the feed pellets. My biggest joy was being on the water as he eased along and I broadcast those pellets out to the hungry fish. We’d circle the shore until the bag was more manageable, and then I’d lift the thing to the edge and pour a steady stream into the water.
We’d circle to the other side, park, and climb up the levee. Another, much smaller pond sat on the far side. We didn’t always use it because it was harder to get to, but when we did, we had to feed those fish, too, which entailed walking along the levee that separated the two ponds and throwing feed into the water there. This smaller pond always seemed mysterious to me. There was a gate at the end of the levee that served no real purpose but gave the impression of some forgotten history. A stand of pines sat in the hills beside the little pond and extended past The Lake. There were ghosts in those pines. My sister and I played there. In some spots, erosion had made mound-like lumps in the dirt, and we’d convinced ourselves they were ancient American Indian burial grounds. On the other side of the little pond, closer to the edge of our land, was the cow graveyard where Dad would drag any cattle that died. We’d play there, too, among the sun-bleached bones, gnawed clean by the coyotes we’d see just beyond the edge of our porchlight at night, the foxes we’d sometimes flush from the woods.
When we’d finished that pond, Dad and I would close the loop in the main pond and then drive out to Brushy Lake, where our other stock pond was. Brushy Lake was a swamp. Part of it had been sectioned off into a wild-seeming stock pond, with the odd cypress swamp still jutting from the water. This was a smaller pond, and we’d just walk the levee and pour the feed in.
* * *
My father’s right arm was scarred along the wrist, though I didn’t know why. One time, after we’d fed the fish at Brushy Lake, he said he was going hogging. I didn’t know what that meant. He slipped into the water and swim over to the cypress stumps in the middle of the water. I stood on the bank and watched him.
“They nest in there, and you can catch ‘em on the nest,” he said. “You can smell if it’s a meat eater. It’s a bitter smell. Acrid. Stick your hand in there when you smell that and you might pull out a moccasin or snapping turtle.”
He stuck his arm in the stump and struggled. I had no idea what was happening. He ducked down low in the water.
“Got her,” he bellowed. He struggled away from the stump, fighting something. I still didn’t know what was happening until he brought his arm up. There was a giant, gray beast—a massive catfish—on the end of it. It seemed to be almost as big as him—half as long, at least. He waded, walking through the deep water, breathing heavy and cussing with the weight of the thing, holding his engulfed arm with his left until he got to the shore. I reached down and helped pull him out, afraid to touch the fish that was eating his arm.
“Ever see anything like that?” He asked when he caught his breath.
He knew that I hadn’t. He got the gape-eyed, gray creature off his arm. It flopped and wriggled in the deep grass by the water’s edge. His arm had a ring of bloody cuts along it from the fish’s mouth.
“They’ve got burrs,” my brother explained to me later. “Like teeth, but not quite. They bite your arm, and you can grab them by the gill and pull them out.”
I stared at the fish for a long moment. I didn’t know such a thing had even existed.
“Get that thing in the cooler,” Dad said.
“It’s still alive,” I said, almost a whine, but he was already walking up the hill to the truck. I put my hand tentatively to the monster fish’s gill. It wriggled; the sharp fin on its back spread like a sail. I jumped back and tried to kick it toward the truck. Dad reappeared and grabbed the thing up without saying a word. He flopped it in the cooler, too big, really, to fit, and got in the cab, pulling his door to without closing it. It was time to get back and check the fields.