Birth of the Fishing Beast
Ned felt pain in his hands as dumped his armload of firewood in the box on the office cabin porch. He straightened, looked closely at his red palms and then up at Jamie’s father. “Mr. Garrath, could I get a pair of gloves?”
“Good idea. Tell you what, go get a couple of pair for the both of you. They’re in the back room in a blue cardboard box on the shelf against the back wall.”
After he found the blue cardboard box that turned out to be a green cardboard box, Ned saw two fishing poles leaned in the corner, along with the little trench shovel. He hadn’t seen Jamie’s father get either of them. He looked at the gloves in his hand and back up at the poles, his mouth tight.
Ned strode back outside, gloves in hand. He heard Jamie’s father talk about sorting through wood piles and stacking as to length and size.
Jamie groaned. “Untangling piles of dirty boards, will the excitement never cease?” He held out his hand to Ned for one of the pairs of gloves. “Gotta be experts at something, I guess.”
“Don’t you get smart with me, Mr. James.” Neither Jamie’s father’s face nor his voice was smiling. “You get to it.”
By afternoon Ned had lost all remnants of enthusiasm. He heaved a rotten grime laden board toward the trash pile. The board missed by several feet, landed flat and sent up a cloud of dirt. He spit in the dust and looked at Jamie, who was reaching to grab another buried plank. “Thought you’d never have so much fun, hey?”
“Huh? What?” Jamie tugged at the plank.
“What’s on your mind?”
“Well,” Jamie grunted as he leaned his weight back hard against the plank, “how we’re going to get that rabbit box …” he slipped as the plank came free and hit one knee on the hard ground, “ … ow … to work.”
“Can’t be too hard, can it?” Ned pulled off one glove and tried to rub the grit from his eyes. When he opened them again he noticed Jamie’s father, Snow and Cyrus beside the pickup. “Lots of people do it, some ‘bout as smart as a bag of hammers.” He watched Jamie’s father talk directly to Snow. Snow nodded and walked off toward the saw shelter. Jamie’s father and Cyrus climbed into the pickup and pulled out through the mill gates. He bent down to pull another board out of the pile. “We could always ask somebody.”
“Nah. We’ll figure it.” The afternoon train whistle blew and Jamie dropped the board in his hand straight down into the dirt. “Tell you what, you go fill up our water jars and meet me at the hideout. We’ll go figure it out right now.”
“Yeah, the corner in the back of the cabin.”
When Ned got back he saw Jamie sitting by the old rabbit box, turning and looking at it and pushing on it with his hands. He handed one of the jars to Jamie. “Where do you think they were going?”
Jamie took the jar and unscrewed the lid. He shook his head, eyes on the box. “Daddy and the Indian? No idea. Maybe looking at timber stands.”
Somehow Jamie referring to Cyrus as ‘the Indian’ didn’t sit quite right with Ned. He took a deep drink. “His name is Cyrus. Your pop said people call him ‘CC’.”
“Oh, okay.” Ned watched Jamie scratch dirt onto his nose. “You know this thing is rotten? Any self-respecting rabbit could break out of it quicker than a pig pushin’ up to a trough. Here, watch this.” Jamie pushed one finger right through a patch of black wood. “See?”
He knelt down by Jamie and looked closely at the box. It was true. And the rotten spot Jamie had pushed his finger through was not the only one.
Ned watched Jamie push the box back over on the ground. “Only one thing for it.”
“Build another one.”
“You think we can?”
“Oh, you bet. You get some wood out of the scrap pile and I’ll get the tools.”
Ned scrounged around the trash wood piles for boards about the right size and carried them back to the hideout. He watched Jamie work, lent a hand here and there when a board needed to be steadied as Jamie sawed and handed him nails when needed. When it was finished the new one looked pretty much like the old one, but for the life of him, Ned could not understand how it worked, how that sliding door on one end was held up and tripped to let down.
Jamie stopped, the hand gripping the hammer stuck on his hip and just stared at it. “I can’t figure it yet. I’m stuck.”
“Yeah?” Ned sipped at his water.
“Only one thing to do.” Ned watched Jamie scratch his nose again. “When I’m stuck like this I always try the same thing to get my brain blood moving to make me think right.”
“And what’s that?”
Jamie’s mouth widened and showed white teeth. “Fishing. You want to go? And you wanna fish this time?”
At the word ‘fishing’ Ned saw Toby jump up, wag his body and start to laugh. The only time Ned had ever seen fishing was when Jamie had taken him. “I don’t know. I’ve never done much of it.”
“Well … none.” Ned looked down and shoved his fists in his pockets.
Jamie pulled his hat from his head and slapped it against his knee. “You mean to tell me you’ve never had a fishing pole in your hand? Never, ever?”
“That’s right, never ever.” Ned shoved his face out at Jamie. “I grew up in town working a store all the time and Pop don’t fish. You got somethin’ to say about it?”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, come on. It’s fun once you try. Daddy even got the poles for us, they’re right there in the back of the cabin.”
Ned made his hands relax. “Yeah, well.”
The path from the mill to the lake was more closed in than the path from the house because it wasn’t used as much. Branches and briars ripped at Ned’s ankles and he almost ran smack into Jamie’s back when Jamie slowed to look around. Jamie then stepped off the path entirely and circled the black soft loam at the base of a big persimmon tree.
“What are you doin’?” Ned watched Jamie place his straw hat on the ground and start to scrape the leaves from between two roots.
“Worms. This tree has the best night crawlers I ever saw.” Jamie grinned up at Ned and held up his finger to his mouth. “Don’t tell nobody. Found it myself last year; it’s a secret.”
“You said the mulberry tree had the best night crawlers in three states.”
“It does. This one’s better. Swear on your mother’s grave.”
“She ain’t dead.”
“Yeah, well all right. I swear.”
“Why do you wear suspenders?” Jamie did not look up, just kept digging. “I’ve never anybody but grown-ups do that.”
“I just … I don’t like the way belts feel.” Ned swallowed and watched Jamie scrape away the layers of loam. “Braces are just more comfortable.” He saw a small shrug in Jamie’s shoulders, but it didn’t matter. It was none of nobody’s business but his. Toby came up and pushed against Ned’s leg. “Why are you so all fired up for working at the mill, anyway?”
“To be with Daddy.” Jamie lifted a spade full off to the side and pawed through it. “Sometimes it feels like there’s this stranger coming in and out of the house. Comes in, sits down, eats, listens to the radio for a little while Momma clears the supper dishes off the table then spreads his books out.”
“Yeah, well. Don’t let it worry you. I’m not sure which is worse, not being with your dad or being with him all the time.”
“What makes you say that?” Jamie pulled huge night crawlers out of the deep black loam and laid them into his hat.
Ned stuffed his hands in his pockets. “’Cause Pop’s the same, c’ept I’m there all the time. He’s either got his nose buried in his big account books or goin’ to do church stuff so he’ll look all spanking clean.”
“Daddy does that too, ‘cept he don’t wear church on his sleeve.” Jamie spaded the hole in again. “Don’t tell him I told you, but he don’t get on with the preacher.”
“Pop calls the preacher Ol’ Crap-horn.”
Ned watched Jamie laugh as he lifted his hat carefully, since it was half full of dirt and worms. “Is that like a horn-of-plenty except full of …”
“Yeah well, pretty much. I hear a bunch of stuff but I’m not sure of what all of it means. Ever-body complains, but nothin’s changin.’” Ned twisted a smile. “I don’t think my pop likes him very much either.”
“I sure don’t. It’s not so much that he shouts all the time and waves that walking stick of his around, but it sure don’t feel very good to be told you’re gonna go to hell no matter how hard you try.” Jamie scraped the hole full again, stood up and leveled clear eyes at Ned. “It’s like you’re supposed to hate yourself all the time. They tell a body what not to do, but if it don’t do any good what’s the difference?” Jamie stepped back onto the path.
Ned crunched along silently behind Jamie. Toby pushed his way past Ned’s legs to run ahead to Little Lake. They ducked under branches, carried the cane poles backwards to keep the lines untangled from the branches and brush.
When they arrived at the lake Ned tried to answer the question. “I’m not sure what the whole point of church is. It just takes the wind out of my sails to want to do things. It’s not that I want to brag, but sometimes I’d just kinda like to enjoy something I’ve done for a minute. Seems every time I get to there Ol’ Crap-horn just say we’re all black sinners through and through no matter what we do.”
“Look, can we just fish? You’re taking all the fun out of life here. I feel like all the joy in the world is just peeing out of me like Gramma when I’m trying to milk her.”
“Oh yuck. Awright, you win. Let’s fish.”
Ned took a deep breath of pine air. Shadows from the trees cast across the water swayed back and forth as a small breeze rippled the world. But Ned saw that Jamie had things other than beauty on his mind. This time he watched Jamie closely as Jamie took the slender cane pole and unspiraled the slim braid line from around it. The line had a single small hook on the end, a small lead bead attached to the line just a little above and what looked like a half of a cork from a wine bottle just up from that. He watched Jamie dig in his hat for a worm and thread the hook back and forth through the worm’s wiggling body. Jamie winked at Ned. “The lead keeps the worm down and the cork holds the worm up off the bottom. You watch the cork and when a fish bites the worm you see the cork wiggle. Then you pull it in. Simple.”
“What do you do when they bite?”
“Heave ‘em in. Then we put them on a stringer, take ‘em home, dress ‘em out and fry them up in Crisco.” Jamie smacked his lips. “Food from the gods, that’s what it is. ‘Specially the tail when they fry up all crunchy.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“Here, you take this one; I’ll string up yours. See if you can lay that worm right down next to that stump, but not too close.”
The water was smooth in the spot and smelled of algae baking in the sun on the mud flat beside the pier where thin stalks of water grass curved up out of bubbling holes in the muck. Ned swung the worm out over the spot and lowered it into the water.
“Might be good to use a cricket. You can hear them, can’t you?”
Ned could indeed hear the quiet, then not so quiet, crickets ripping their evening song. “Hey, how did you know when you got a … “ A quivering jolt shocked his hands, shot right up to the top of his head and popped like a firecracker, except it didn’t because then it was gone. Then his memory heard Jamie’s voice in his ear to pull him in, set the hook, pull him in, aw he’s gone.
“What … was that?”
“That, my friend, was a fish.”
Ned turned toward Jamie and saw his hazel eyes blink tight and dimples play across his cheeks.
“But ya gotta be just a lit-tle bit quicker.”
“Yeah?” Ned turned back to the water. He wanted to feel that again, right now. “Yeah. Well, how ‘bout that?” He tossed the line back in the water again.
“Hold up there a sec. Let’s freshen that worm. If ya don’t got a fresh worm, they’ll never come callin.’ “
Ned chewed on his tongue open mouthed as Jamie gripped another squirming worm and drove the hook barb through it back and forth. He watched Jamie wipe the blood and fluid on his overalls as he tossed it back in again.
Truth be told, Ned was more hooked than the fish. He held himself still so he would not have to admit it. He had never felt anything like that. Ned Custis, neophyte angler, waited, watched and wanted more.
But that was the only bite that day. The air grew open and still, not a mouse breath moved and the electricity faded in his arms. He leaned back against one of the wooden pilings. He blinked one slow time and the sun was gone, replaced by shadow and cackling crickets he could not see. He looked around and saw Jamie in the same condition, head lolling to the side. Jamie’s hat was kicked over, the dirt dried and forgotten, the worms having crawled away to escape, only to drop off the dock to a watery grave. The air and his mind were still, not thinking, just watching. Despite his best effort to stay that way, his mind betrayed him and churned once more.
Ned knew it was time to go or Jamie’s mother would worry. Dammit. It was nice, just sitting and taking in whatever came to eye and ear. Ned heard Jamie’s boot shift and slide across the wooden planks, then Jamie’s drawl. “We gotta get home ‘fore dark.”
Ned yawned through his words. “Yeah, well. Time to go, huh?”
Jamie nodded and turned back to the water. “But I gotta admit, Daddy is right about one thing.”
“He says ‘You cannot tell me there’s more God in church than there is right here.’ I do believe he might have something there.”