Friday, September 02, 2005

PAPA'S PIROGUE

This story originally appeared in 1991 in the Twentieth Anniversary Issue of the magazine SKYLARK.

Uncle Admiral's booming voice vibrated Tommy Picou's murky brain, recalling him from a rapidly fading dream. Groaning, he rolled over and pulled the pillow over his head. No use. The pillow failed to mask Uncle Admiral's vocal demand that he get out of bed.

With half-opened eyes, Tommy peeked out and focused on his alarm clock. Five in the morning it informed him. He closed his eyes for a fleeting moment but realized it was no use trying to sleep any longer and rolled out of bed. When he wandered into the kitchen, his loud uncle started in on him.

"Felix, dat boy a yours gonna sleep his life away."

Felix looked nothing like his older brother. Compared with Admiral's portly frame and gray hair, Felix was bone thin, his own hair and mustache jet black. He chuckled at Admiral's remark, as if it were a compliment.

"Ain't nobody can hold a candle to Tommy when it come to sleeping, no."

Admiral grinned. "You was de same way, you was young."

Tommy blinked sleep from his eyes and poured himself a cup of stout Cajun coffee from the blue enamel pot on the stove.

"Tom-my," Uncle Admiral said, accenting the last syllable of his name. "Gonna catch dat big catfish today, no?"

Tommy shrugged his shoulders noncommittally as he sat at the table with the two men.

"You bet we are," Felix answered for him, slipping a knot on a treble hook. "We spotted him las' week wallowin' in de big hole `neath that willow tree on de far side de lake. Mus' be forty, fifty pounds. His ol' head bigger dan dis whole table," he said, pounding the table top.

When Admiral spoke, his voice vibrated the walls of the tiny cabin. "Little brother, you doan care you catch dat fish. You jus' wanna git you new pirogue wet."

"May-be," Felix said with a grin.

Admiral's laughter rocked the table as he stood and walked to the door. "Tom-my -- you git dat catfish. And pull you papa out if his new pirogue zink to de bottom a da lake."

Admiral crawled behind the wheel of his big white Cadillac as the sun peeked over the cypress swamp. Felix followed him out the door, waving goodbye as he pulled back the tarp and checked

his new pirogue.

"Tom-my, I git de boat ready. You mama made some gumbo fo' breakfas'. Eat it, you hear, then les catch us some fish."

Tommy watched his father disappear behind the cabin, then

opened one of the two big ice chests. One held supplies, the other was for the fish they caught. Removing the lid from a container labeled gumbo, he tasted the frozen contents with his finger tip, made a face and returned it to the ice chest. Then he followed his papa out the door.

"Tom-my," his father called from the water's edge. "Hur-ry. You got lead in you pants?"

Tommy finished buttoning his shirt as he hurried to where Felix waited beside the sleek little canoe-like boat. Red lacquer coated the new pirogue made of cypress and mulberry.

"Watch you feet gittin' in de boat," Felix warned him.

Felix put his ice chest in the front, then sat down and pivoted his feet over the hull. Tommy pointed the bow away from shore, gave it a push and jumped into the back without tipping it while Felix relaxed and lit his corn-cob pipe.

They ducked under moss-draped cypress trees as Tommy paddled them through a lily pond, past turtles on a stump and a snake swimming in the opaque water. When they reached the middle of the small lake, the sun was already high above the trees and sweat trickled down Tommy's face.

Tommy swatted a horsefly buzzing around his head as Felix spotted the first white plastic bleach container floating in dark water. He motioned Tommy to paddle to it.

"Dat's de first jug," he said.

Tommy eased the pirogue beside the jug and his father lifted it from the water, deftly hoisting the attached string. After reeling in about ten feet, They saw the head of a fish break the surface. Felix lifted it out of the water and dumped it into the live box in the center of the boat. Then he baited the treble hook with a hunk of stinking blood bait and tossed it back into the lake.

Another bleach container bobbed in the water about fifty feet away. String connected the two jugs and individual lines hung from the string to the bottom of the shallow lake. The two connected jugs were the first of ten -- a passive fishing contraption known as a trot-line. After Felix secured the catfish, he motioned Tommy to continue, holding the line as they moved, feeling for the next bottom stringer.

"Know why I like a wooden boat Tom-my?" Tommy didn't answer, but shook his head no. Not expecting an answer, Felix continued. "Cause metal boats vibrates and cause headaches and high blood pressure. Your great-grandma lived a hunderd-two years and she never rode in a metal boat."

Felix let the line slip through his fingers until they came

to the next hook, then pulled it from the water, detached the flopping catfish and tossed it into the live well.

"Tom-my, you know why wood's much better than metal?"

"No Papa," Tommy said.

"Cause a wood boat absorb vibration and soothes you nerves. It doan git hot and drive de fish away. If you git a hole in it, it doan zink like a metal boat."

Felix stopped talking when they reached the next jug, but smiled and caressed the smooth side of the pirogue. Pulling another fish from the water, he dumped it into the live well and crossed his arms as Tommy paddled away. They checked several

more lines before heading for the last jug floating beneath the big willow tree.

"Tom-my," Felix said. "You know an outboard motor last two, maybe tree times as long on a wooden boat. It shake itself to death on a metal boat."

Tommy nodded and maneuvered the sleek red pirogue beneath branches of the willow tree that draped almost to the water's surface.

"If we gonna catch grandaddy catfish, he gonna be on de end of dis line right here, `neath dis ol' willow tree," Felix said, slapping the side of the boat.

Tommy held the paddle perpendicular to the path of the slow moving pirogue and let it drift beside the last bleach jug.

Felix grabbed the line with one hand and gave it a tug.

"Musta hung up on sumpen."

Felix's teeth clenched around his corn-cob pipe as he

grabbed the line with both hands and pulled, carefully measuring

the tension he placed on it.

Tommy shook his head. "Ain't hung, Papa," he said. De line's movin'. You got sumpen on it."

Felix watched the line scribe a semi-circle in opaque water. Smoke from his pipe floated into the branches of the overhanging willow, his teeth still clenched around its stem.

"If dat a fish, it mus' weigh a hunderd pounds."

He pulled the line from the water, eyes and veins bulging

and smoke from his pipe billowing like a fast moving train. Tommy worked the paddle to steady the boat, but the slender pirogue rocked like a bobbing cork in a flooded drain pipe.

"Hol' it steady, Tom-my," Felix called, now standing for better leverage.

Tommy tried, stroking the paddle in a futile effort to stabilize the narrow-hulled craft. Felix shuffled his feet like a log-walking contestant and kept pulling line from the water as the pirogue rocking precariously. Soon, a large shadow appeared, just beneath the surface of murky water.

"We got it Tom-my," Felix yelled, excitedly.

As the head of a fish broke the surface, Tommy's and Felix's

mouths gaped in unison. It was a huge catfish with two brown liquid eyes fully twelve inches apart and whisker-like proterberances extending a foot on either side of its massive head. They looked for all the world like giant feelers.

Felix's little hand net was useless and he slipped both thumbs inside the creature's mouth, trying to hoist him into the boat. With all his strength, he managed to pull the fish out of the water, even though its body was fully as long as Felix's six-foot frame.

Felix grinned broadly, still puffing the pipe, and strained to ease the passive creature into the boat. But as he did, the huge catfish suddenly twisted its girth. Like an unwinding rubber band its big tail swept ninety degrees in the water, the unexpected motion causing Felix to step backwards to regain his balance in the rocking pirogue.

Felix hugged the squirming monster and yanked but couldn't pull it out of the water. Like a reluctant dance partner the catfish squirmed in his grasp, then slashed the lake with its powerful tail.

"Whoa-a-a-a-a-a-a!" Felix yelled, releasing his grip on the catfish and desperately windmilling his arms.

Totally out of balance, their combined weight flipped the unstable pirogue and Felix and the fish plummeted into the water as Tommy grabbed an over-hanging branch and held on, listening to

the splash and ensuing struggle as his papa attempted to maintain his grip. No use. The catfish squirmed lose, sank beneath the lake's murky water and disappeared.

Felix bobbed to the surface and treaded water, the corn-cob pipe still clasped firmly in his clenched jaw. Long black hair dripped down over his eyes and when he tried to brush it aside, he watched his ice chest gurgle twice and sink. The little red pirogue floated beside him, upside down.

"Pa-pa," Tommy said, still hanging from the tree. "Know de difference 'tween a wood and a metal boat?" Felix didn't respond and Tommy answered his own question. "Flat-bottomed metal skiff don't flip over when you haul in a big catfish."

Already considering his brother's inevitable ribbing, Felix frowned and blew a stream of water from his corn-cob pipe, causing Tommy to laugh so hard he lost his grip and fell, with a splash, into the lake.

END

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1 comment:

William said...

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