Dedicated to Barry Hannah
There was this time out in Chef Menteur, out by my grandmother’s Fisherman’s Rest, that something occurred, in the ways of mysticism, I suppose, or perhaps, mere insanity. I was standing on the shore of Bayou Savage. The boats were coming in at sunset. Skiffs, red and green, trawlers, large and small. It was a summer evening. That time in August when the gnats blacken the sky, swarming out of the rozo cane, where they live and hibernate. My grandfather was coming in with a large gar. A hundred pounds or so. They got that big back then, way before the Feds came and regulated everything, cutting out excessiveness, bringing things into proportion. My grandfather had his teeth out, I don’t know why; he usually wore his teeth in during the day. This frightened me. This flapping hole scared me. I ran into the outside restroom. He ran after me. He knocked on the door. Come out of there Lucas, he said. I’m not coming out till you put those teeth back in, I said. He laughed and laughed. He walked away from the steps singing:
Yo-ho! little fishes Yo-ho! Yo-ho!
Yo-ho! little fishes Yo-ho! Yo-ho!
Yo-ho! little fishes don’t cry, don’t cry.
Yo-ho! little fishes don’t cry, don’t cry.
Yo-ho! little fishes you’re just going to die.
He came back to the door. He had his teeth in. I could see that he did. I was looking through a curtained window. Seems like I’ve spent a lot of time looking through curtained windows. I have my teeth back in Lucas, he said, come out and help me with the gar. No, I said. I didn’t open the door. He jigged at the knob. The door opened. He grabbed me and took me to the boat shed. He didn’t beat me.
It was nearly dark when we got around to the gar. My father had arrived. He’d shaved his beard, but kept the mustache. He took out a machete and chopped on the gar, skinning the gar, from the back fin on towards the head. What is that? I said. What’s that coming out of its mouth? What? he said. Bring me that bucket, the white one. It’s got wheels, I said. It’s got wooden wheels and fire coming out of its eyes and mouth. Its gut is leaking green now, and the fire and the wheel. I fell on the soft Bermuda grass. My father and grandfather stood over me. Two men, identical and all.
I woke up the next morning in my grandmother’s bed. She came in holding a porcelain pitcher and a tall blue glass. She said, Lucas, you are sick. You are not to leave the house today, darling. Through the window I could see Nigger Joe and Barclay rowing away from the launch in a green wooden skiff, heading out to Alcedia Lagoon in hope of lake runners and striped bass. I can’t stay, I said, I’m going crabbing with Desmond. My grandmother set the pitcher and glass on the night stand. Her mouth was dark, no teeth. She wet my forehead with a dish cloth. She said, You are sick. You are an only child.
I had fallen asleep and an hour later awakened by some slow knocks at the window. It was Desmond. I don’t know how he knew I was in my grandmother’s room. He stood at the window. He was wearing flannels and jeans. He had white rubber boots on. He didn’t have but three teeth. Meet you by the launch, he said. I put on a t-shirt and shorts. No shoes. I slipped out the back door. Desmond was fooling around with the boat’s motor. We’re going out to Lake Borgne to bait some traps, he said. I didn’t know you had traps in Lake Borgne, I said.
The sky was gray. Black clouds were moving in from the west out of Lake Pontchartrain. It would rain soon, and hard. We were pulling through the trestles at the Chef Menteur bridge. We spotted some dolphins. Dolphins are a rare sight out here, and Desmond couldn’t resist. He raised his Winchester and shot about three of eight. Why’d you do that? I said. Desmond responded, They’re a nuisance. They eat up all the fish and shrimp. We pulled alongside the dolphins. Dolphins have always scared me. Humanlike and soft. When they come up to you in your boat they’re humanlike, when they’re dead, especially if you’ve killed them, they appear manlike. Desmond was not an evil man, but he committed an evil act. He pointed his rifle towards the sky. He shot two seagulls, cousins to the albatross. They fell into the water next to the dead dolphins. An unlucky storm Desmond had started up there. Desmond was not an evil man, he just liked to kill what was sacred, because he never had anything sacred, he was a dirty and ignorant man, but not an evil man. Let’s go get them traps, he said. I was too shy to tell him I wanted to go home.
I didn’t know we were going so far past Alligator Point. On the horizon there were at least a half a dozen water spouts. Don’t worry about them, they’re way off, Desmond said. He started pulling traps out of the water and putting them into the boat. I thought you were coming to bait them, I said. Naw, he said, I come to take them. I didn’t know Desmond was going to steal traps, an honor code not easily broken among fishermen.
I could see them coming. They were in an aluminum bateau with an eighty Johnson, pushing about thirty-five miles per hour. You see them? I said. Desmond said nothing. He already had the whole boat filled with traps. I was forced to sit in the bow with my legs tucked underneath my ass. One man was about seven feet tall and bald. He had a huge silver revolver sticking out of his trousers. Don’t worry about them, Desmond said. If they fire, we’ll fire back. Besides, this 429 can out run them. It began to rain. It rained so hard we began to lose sight of the three men that were coming at us. Bail the boat out, Desmond said. We’re taking in too much water.
Through the ride in the storm I couldn’t stop my head from hurting real bad. Huge fins were sticking out of the water everywhere. Dolphins? Sharks? Desmond said, Jackfish. We were moving in towards Brother’s Bayou. The rain was not giving up. We spotted a boat shed alongside a rather large house. We pulled into the boat shed. There was only a small skiff in it. I could see an old man watching us from a window. Then he disappeared. I could hear the clicking of the crabs now in the traps. Desmond was loading up his Winchester. He said, don’t worry about them guys, they’re not going to find us now, or ever. And don’t you tell anyone about these traps. I told him I wouldn’t. I wasn’t worried about the men or the traps. I kept staring at the house. It was an old house but it looked to be in good shape. The man was coming out of the back door. The man kept running towards us. Desmond yelled out, we’re just looking to get out of this rain. The man had a pistol strapped to his side. Desmond cocked his Winchester. The man came to the opening of the boat shed. What did you say? he said. Desmond said, Me and this kid got stuck out by Alligator Point in this storm; we’re waiting for it to pass. The man didn’t seem to know what to do or say. He didn’t look as if he wanted to be mad. Then he said, What makes you think you can just come upon a man’s property like this and take over? Desmond didn’t like these words. Desmond said, This rifle here says I can do just about whatever I want. The man said nothing. Rain dripped from his pistol. Then he said, ya’ll look alright, come in and dry off. The man pointed towards the house. I was shivering. The cold was getting to me, no, I felt a fit coming on. I began shaking, not shivering. I fell onto the traps. The last thing I felt were claws poking into my skin.
It was about an hour later, I awoke to an old lady staring me in the face. I was lying on the bottom half of a bunk bed. There were animals’ heads hung all over the walls, and pictures, of the type and feel of the late nineteenth century. Men holding rifles and shotguns, dressed in an attitude of professionalism. There were blacks and Hispanics in the pictures too, one I thought was Nigger Joe and one I thought was Desmond. My head was aching. Desmond was talking to the man. They were both drinking coffee and talking. The old woman wet my forehead. She said, You collapsed in the boat. They picked you off from the crabs. What? I said. I had no idea what was going on. I thought I was in some crab’s dream. Desmond came towards me. What the hell’s wrong with you Luke? I didn’t know you to be the sissy type. It’s my fever, I said, I mean my fits. I didn’t know you had fits, Desmond said. Desmond was looking mean and crazy. He was changing right before my eyes. I started thinking about the gar yesterday. Then I started thinking about snakes and alligators. Similarities, dissimilarities. It wasn’t raining anymore, and the sun fell into my eyes from a high round window. We’re going to lock you in a room till you feel better, the old man said. Desmond grinned. The old lady looked sorrowful. The gar came back to me brighter than the day before, without the body of a gar, but instead, with the body of a snake. It was half snake, half gar. Look at him, the old man said, he’s done gone crazy. They wanted to shoot me, I heard one say it. Desmond said, We should shoot him because Lucas has a divine disease. Gar, gar, gar, was all I could say or think. My fever was hitting a high pitch. It was taking me beyond myself. Desmond said to the old man, You want to lock him in that room now? With the other patients? My legs and arms were growing numb. Where am I? I said. The old lady responded, Why, you’re in the oldest duck hunting club in America. The Tallyho Hunting Club! I said, I didn’t know this place existed. How far are we from Jeanfreaux’s Fisherman’s Rest? She said, You’re very far from there. About ten miles away. She was right, that was far. Ten miles through the bayous and marsh is quite some distance. I want to go home, I said. You can’t go home, she said. Why? I said. Maurice, she said. I heard some yelling coming form the next room. What’s that? I said. Others who stay here, she said. Who are these others, I said. Why, the other trespassers, she said. Desmond is a trespasser, I said. But he’s of a different sort, she said, he’s one of us. What am I? I said. She said, You are a victim. You can’t go around sleep talking about gar heads and snake bodies and expect to get away with it.
Why not? I’m just a kid.
Because it can’t matter.
The old lady slapped me across the face for no discernible reason. Desmond started yelling at the old man. Desmond took a swing at him and the old man fell back in his chair.
You’re looking to be alone.
I was only trying to tell you what to do with the boy.
Sucking his cock and then chopping it off ain’t what I’m about old man.
Desmond grabbed me up off the bed with one arm and we fled out the door.
It was near dark. Desmond put me at the bow of the boat. He wrapped a rain coat around me. He said, I’ll take you back home if you promise not to tell your folks nothing. I said nothing. Desmond untied the boat. He wasn’t worried about the old man inside. The old man could have shot us from where he was. I looked out the boat shed and watched some black ducks flying in v-formation towards Washout Lagoon. Desmond started the motor. I could see the dark shadow of a gar move slowly through the boat shed. Desmond held the steering wheel with one hand and his rifle in the other. We were going back to the Chef Menteur. I was glad to be alive. But I was sick.
Louis Bourgeois is the Executive Director of VOX PRESS, a 501 (c) 3 arts organization based in Oxford, Mississippi. His latest collection, Damascus, is to be released by VOX PRESS in the summer of 2013.
Dedicated to Barry Hannah