He made his way to the lake watchfully, crossing the bulldozer-built dam that was covered in weed-grass across its ridge and in trash trees growing on the waterside. It was late afternoon. The sun was behind him, his shadow making a long ghost that wobbled over the weed-grass. Grasshoppers sailed away from his footsteps.
At a clearing among the trash trees on the east end of the dam, he stopped and surveyed the ground. The lake had not been fished in a long time, he believed. Weed-grass grew high, with no look of being trampled. Left-behind bait cans were old and rusty. A coil of nylon line dangled like a spider's silk from a limb of one of the nearby trash trees, causing him to smile a smile that did not show on his face, knowing the spit of frustration the miscast had caused in some fisherman. A child's cast most likely. Not easy for a child to make a cast with nylon. Would be better to teach him with braided line.
He thought about the fishermen who had abandoned the lake. Once, they had come to it from the logging road, he reasoned, bringing their families in wagons or trucks, chairs to sit on, fishing early to late with long bamboo poles and cork floats, eating their sausages and sardines and baked sweet potatoes, and at day's end taking home their stringers of bream and bass and catfish, muscle-weary, smelling of fish slime and worms.
The water of the lake was the color of dark tea in the late-day shadows. Acid from trees. He closed his eyes, listened. The water lapped softly against the bank, rolled in, seeped back. The lapping sound was like a slow and lazy pulse beat. A dozing lake. Not much different from an old man sleeping in sunshine. Just enough breathing to keep alive.
A good place. A good place.
He wondered if it was the lake he had heard of. His sense told him it was.
A hundred yards or so up the east side of the lake, he had seen a small frame building that seemed empty from his distant view, though it was hard to tell since it had a screened-in porch, the screen hiding whatever was behind it. Probably a shack used by hunters, he had reasoned, remembering such shacks from his childhood. If somebody lived in it full-time, they did a good job of making it appear deserted.
Whoever it was that owned the lake and the shack had a good place.
He squatted at the lake's edge, placing the fishing rod he carried on the ground, and then he leaned forward and lightly touched the palm of his hand on the surface of the water.
Tell me, he said silently, said inside his mind.
The water was cool. Against his palm it had a ticklish feel of silk.
Yes, a good place.
He pushed his fingers into the water and wiggled them, paused, let his eyes scan the lake.
Forty feet away, against the bank, the water roiled, quivered like a muscle.
He smiled again, held his fingers in the water, watched the roiling ripple toward him in perfect circles. Soon, the first ring touched him. He pulled his hand from the water and lifted it to his face and inhaled slowly, taking in the scents of the lake. Algae. The decay of trees pushed over by wind storms and dropped into the water. Hickory, oak, beechnut, sweet gum. Silt of leaves and wash-off of wood dirt. Frog and snake and turtle. And fish. The sharp, almost metallic scent of fish.
He rubbed his hand across the front of his shirt.
A very good place.
He stood and slipped the army knapsack he wore off his shoulder, then picked up the rod and pulled loose the line on the bait-casting reel, letting the lure dangle before him. It was an old lure, turned like a small minnow with silver flecks on its sides. He had caught many fish with it before snipping off the hook with a pair of wire cutters. It was now a lure for holding his line on the rod and for teasing.
One cast, he thought.
One cast to let Mr. Fish know he was there.
Enough to anger Mr. Fish, to make him restless.
Make him coil and leap at anything moving near him.
He tilted his rod to the water, dipped the lure, wetting it. Then he made his cast near the bank where the fish -- a bass, a largemouth, he believed -- had rolled. He watched the lure slap the water, dive and disappear, and then he began his slow reeling-in of the line. He could feel the lure drag through algae and he flicked his wrist twice, giving the line a jerking motion.
A cloud skimmed the July sun, dimmed it. He felt a puff of air against his face and stood motionless to let the air pause on his skin. A sense of peace settled over him as though he had marked the place he stood on a map and, after a long journey, had arrived at his destination. He wondered what day of the week it was and the date marking the day. Thought: What does it matter?
For more than two years, he had walked into days and weeks and months without knowing them by calendar, only by season. The season he read in trees -- lime-green buds in spring, full-leaf in summer, colors of hot embers in autumn, the dark limbs of winter. He had walked and fished, leaving behind war and the burial ground of his parents and the sadness of his brother and the open and the secret experiences of his boyhood. Walked far enough to stop looking over his shoulder to see if his history tagged after him like a scolded yard dog. Now it was only memory, and memory had a way of rubbing down most of the rough edges.
Still, he had always believed there would be a place to stop the walking, to stay, to become his own forest, show his own seasons.
And there, with the air on his skin, he wondered if he had found that place.
Three weeks earlier -- in Kentucky, he believed -- he had come upon an old, white-haired man with bowed shoulders fishing from a bridge over a wide, slow-moving river. They had made nods to one another and he had gone below the bridge to the riverbank and made his touch of the water, and then had joined the old man on the bridge and unreeled his own line over the bridge's railing and they had fished together for a long while, paying more attention to the talking that went on between them than to the fish that swam in the water below them.
The man, who offered his name as Hoke Moore, had put him on the path to the valley. Had said it was a good place to find fish and rest if a person could avoid certain elements of the population. "It's called the Valley of Light by some, Bowerstown by others. Where I was born," he had added in a voice that had the sound of longing. "They's some good people there, and some you'd just as soon not get caught with. Mostly good, though. Mostly good. You need a hand, they'll give it."
And then Hoke Moore had begun telling of a great lake called the Chatuge, built some years earlier as part of a government project called the Tennessee Valley Authority. Said word of the lake gave it good enough marks for fishing, though there were still too few fish for all the water pooled up behind the dam. "Takes time for fish to find out where they want to be when they's so many places to go," he had speculated.
He had never fished the Chatuge himself, Hoke Moore had admitted. Liked smaller places, something he could walk around and not lose sight of where he'd started the trip. "They's another little lake over there -- twenty or twenty-five acres, I'd guess -- that's got the biggest fish I ever seen in it. A bass, it was. Must have been fifteen pounds. Maybe more. Used to try and catch him, but all he'd do was spit water on me. He'd jump up out of the water, like he was trying to swim through the air, mad as a wet hen. Never seen a bass do that. Not one that big. Not coming out of the water high as he did. It was like he was telling me I weren't good enough to catch him."
Hoke Moore had paused and turned to look in the direction of the far-off mountains in the southeast -- the direction he had given as the location of the valley -- and he had added, "Must be big as a whale now, if it's still alive. You just wandering around, you ought to go down there and try to catch him. You might can do it. Might can. You a fisherman, sure enough. I can tell that in any man just by studying him a little bit. If you go down there and you catch him, you look him in the eye when you drag him up and you tell him Hoke Moore's been thinking about him for a long time."
He had smiled, had said, "Yes sir. I get down that way, I'll do that."
"You got to take your time with him," Hoke Moore had said. "Got to aggravate him some. Got to make him want you, much as you want him."
"Yes sir, I've seen fish like that," he had replied. And it was true. Even as a child, he had known fish liked to fight, some more than others.
And then Hoke Moore had chuckled and made another soft cast with his line, watching the hook disappear under the pull of the sinker. After a moment, he had said, "I wonder if they doing the fish-off in the Chatuge these days."
He had asked, "What's that?"
"What I call it -- a fish-off," Hoke Moore had answered. "Used to be on the river. Been going on over there for twenty years or more. Got started by the school as a way of making some money to pay teachers. First year they done it, they was catching fish fast as they could drop a line. Not much need to bait the hook, they was catching fish so easy. Had the biggest fry at the school I ever saw. You'd of thought Jesus had blessed them fish, they was so many of them. Everybody pays a dollar or two to get in on it and the man that catches the most fish by weight gets a cash prize. Used to be ten dollars. Guess it's more now. When they get through with the fishing, they have them a fish fry and everybody in the valley shows up. That's where they make the money."
Hoke Moore had paused, wagged his fishing rod over the water; then he had added, "Won it myself two or three times." Had laughed softly over the thought.
"When's it held?" he had asked.
"Right along now," Hoke Moore had answered. "July, August. Date changes about -- or it used to. Tell the truth, I don't even know if they do it no more. War changed a lot of things." He had paused, clucked with his tongue, shook his head slowly, had added, "Had me some ups and downs there, but I miss the place." He had gazed again at the distant mountains. "You just going place to place, you ought to head down that way. Get in on that fishing if they still doing it. Catch that fish of mine while you there."
"Maybe I will," he had said after a moment of thinking about it.
"What you ought to do," Hoke Moore had urged. Had said again, "You a fisherman. Yes sir, you are. One thing I know about is fishing. Some people just born to it. Others can't do nothing but drown worms. You born to it, boy. You born to it. Just like I was."
"You going back over there someday?" he had asked, wanting to be friendly.
And Hoke Moore had turned slightly to look at him in an old man's studying way before answering, "About all I ever think about, you want to know the truth of it, but it's a long way off for old legs. If I go back, somebody'll have to throw me over his shoulders and carry me. You take a mind to go on down there, I'll consider I'm along for the ride." And he had smiled and turned back to his fishing and to his low-voice way of talking.
He had listened with interest to Hoke Moore, had found something pleasing in the description of the valley and had made his turn in the direction of Hoke Moore's pointed finger, walking toward the far-off mountains, so distant and pale gray on the horizon, they had the look of a lace hem on the blue skirt of the sky. Had made his journey at a languid pace, catching an occasional ride in a farmer's truck, stopping often to fish. One river in Tennessee -- the Ocoee -- had held him for three days with its hypnotic run of water over rocks and with the satisfying look of the mountains around it. Good fishing, too. If Hoke Moore had not told such a happy story about the valley near the Chatuge, he would have liked staying longer on the Ocoee.
But maybe Hoke Moore had been right. The valley had a natural feel to it. Coming into it, he had got an idea of the people living in it by studying the washings hanging on clotheslines. Reading a clothesline had always been an easy thing for him to do -- a trick taught to him by his mother. If you read it with some careful attention, you could tell if the house belonged to a couple just starting out, or if it had children, or old people, or whether they were fat or skinny people. Could come close to guessing how much money the people might have by the new or faded look of their clothing and bedsheets and towels.
The clotheslines of the valley left him believing it was a place fairly well off, with people more or less settled in, happy enough to be where they were and who they were.
It was little wonder that Hoke Moore had a yearning look when he pointed out the direction of the valley.
He saw the water behind the line heave and bubble, and he raised the tip of the rod. He knew what was about to happen.
"Take it," he whispered.
The fish erupted from the water, flinging itself high, like a god becoming flesh, a spray of water spinning from its silver head, its tail fins dancing over the shattered surface. For a moment -- a flash -- the huge mouth flared open in outrage at the tasteless lure and he could see the orange of the gills shining in the sun.
He had never seen a lake fish so large.
The fish fell hard against the water, making a belly-flopping slapping sound, a sound like a sudden thunderclap, and then it disappeared. Water rippled again in circles and the late sun filled the circles like ringlets of liquid gold.
Hoke Moore's fish, he believed.
Hoke Moore's fish announcing itself, coming out of the water like that. Not the habit of bass to leap up, though it depended on the spirit of the fish, he guessed. He had seen such leaps. Not so high, though. Not from such a large fish.
Soon, he thought. Maybe tomorrow. Soon, I will catch you and see if you are the giant Hoke Moore says you are.
The fish would bring good money, being so big. Feed a good-size family, though it might not be easy finding somebody wanting a bass as big as a small pig. Most country people he knew -- white and colored -- liked the taste of catfish more than bass. So did he. Catfish -- small ones, the length of his hand, wrist to fingertip -- were as tasty as any fish he had ever eaten if they were cooked right in seasoned meal and melted lard. Some of the colored men he had fished with in his boyhood would come close to fighting over a string of catfish. One he knew -- Runt Carter was his name -- had a habit of collecting the heads of catfish and stringing them across his barn with binder twine, saying the fish kept away owls. Runt Carter had so many catfish heads dangling on binder twine, his barn had the look of wearing a necklace.
He wondered if there were many colored families in the valley. Doubted it, being in the mountains. Most colored people he knew were workers in cotton fields, and there was little cotton grown in the mountains. He had seen only one colored family in the last two days. They lived in a small house -- if it could be called house, for it was more barnlike than houselike. Remembered watching three or four small, knobby-shouldered black children at play as he came upon the house, and then seeing them become suddenly quiet, suddenly motionless, like small deer going on guard, their eyes following him as he walked past them.
It was a family that would like catfish, and maybe he would catch some and take a stringer to them. It would be easy enough to do, though the walk to where they lived was a good distance. Still, he knew there were catfish in the lake. Knew by the scent of the water. Bass and catfish and bream. He would catch stringers of each, enough for a good sale, or for trades.
Soon, he thought. Soon.
First, he must find his place for sleeping.
Around him, birds made cheerful throat music. Redbirds, he guessed. Coming off the hill to the dam, he had seen some. And wild canaries, yellow as the bloom of a jonquil. Blackbirds with scarlet-tipped wings. Sparrows. Brown thrashers. A hawk, balanced on invisible cushions of air like a war glider, crying its war cry. He stood, holding the rod, the line still in the water, and listened. A breeze stirred in the trash trees, making its whisper. A squirrel chattered from a laurel bush. A frog made a jump from the bank of the lake, landing with a dull belly splash in the slush of water and mud. And then he heard the faint braying of a mule and he believed there was a farmhouse not far away, one he had not seen from the hillside above the lake, one probably resting on the hump of a knoll, hidden by trees.
He reeled in his line and locked it down, the lure snug against the eye at the tip of the rod, and then he lifted his knapsack and slipped it over his shoulders.
It was likely the owners of the farmhouse were also the owners of the lake. If he could find the house and the owners before dark, maybe he could make a trade of fresh fish for sleeping in the lake shack. Could even be a cot in the shack. Such a place would bring good sleep, better than the ground and a mattress of raked-up pine needles. He would have to be careful, though, approaching a farmhouse so late in the day, and he would have to be forthright about his offer. Mountain people were all right if you were straight with them. Try to fool them and they could turn rough.
On the edge of the lake a black snake slithered against a washed-up limb, curled, buried its head beneath a wad of decaying oak leaves. It was a good sign, a black snake.
He paused in the fringe of the woods, his soldier's training still with him, and surveyed the farmhouse. It was as he imagined it would be -- off the road on a knoll, tucked under oaks, a tree line of pine and hemlock along the road gully, hiding the house from travelers. At one side of the house was a barn with a barbed wire fence, and near the barn, a smokehouse and a corn crib that had sheets of tin fashioned around its stone pillars and nailed to the underneath to keep rats from gnawing through the flooring.
Being summer, and the oaks in full leaf, the house was as camouflaged as a deer, and could easily have been missed by some stranger walking past, not paying attention to what occupied the right and left of his or her vision. The house surprised him. It was larger than he thought it would be -- add-ons, he guessed -- and had been recently painted a light gray that reminded him of troop ships. He had thought that it, and the barn with it, would be small, the same as the house and barn of his childhood -- clapboard and tin, the clapboard unpainted, aged with weather, the tin roof coated in rust, its nail spots making rust freckles. Just room enough for what was needed. His mother -- in despair, as he remembered it -- had once said of their home, "No reason to go to dreaming, son; there's no room here to fit one in." And it had been true. He had not missed the home of his childhood, not after the death of his father and mother, not after the jailing of his brother. Once his childhood home had seemed as permanent as mountains. Now it seemed as distant as stars.
He stood patiently, himself camouflaged, and watched for the outside appearance of someone belonging to the house, seeing only the shadows of movement behind windows that he guessed to be at the kitchen. The light, fading in the sun's fall behind the mountains, was tricky. He could not tell if the movement was from man or woman. Woman, he believed, from the size and shape of the shadows. Near the front of the house, there was a car, a Ford of recent model, he thought.
He looked for dogs, but did not see any, and thought it strange. Most homes had dogs for hunting or for keeping guard with their barking.
In the pasture leading to the barn, he saw two tan cows and a white mule standing near the fence, each claiming a familiar space, each casting a gaze toward the house. The mule was old, as was one cow. The other cow was younger, had birthed one calf, he judged, but the calf was not in sight. There was still a sleek coloring to its coat and an alert lift to its head, as though it understood the time for being milked was soon. The older cow seemed sleepy, the mule weary from years of harnessed labor, having a used-up look about its drooping head, its bowed back, its ribbed sides. He saw the bobbing heads of chickens prancing in the yard near the barn, making the pecking that filled their gizzards with grains of sand.
The cows and the mule and the chickens could have been from the farm of his childhood. The cows, the mule, the chickens, the house, the barn -- all that he saw was as familiar to him as the reflection of his own image in a mirror. It was the look of the South in the years after the war. The only changes seemed to be the number of tractors in fields and the lights from electricity that bloomed like the buds of flowers through the windows of the houses.
He saw the door to the house open, and a woman carrying a milk pail stepped outside. She crossed the yard to the barn, her stride showing purpose. He moved to step from the woods -- to call out -- then moved back. Was pushed back. Not by his own action, but by a force he could not explain, yet was familiar to him. It had been with him through the war, invisible, though present. Something he had learned to trust. Once, he had talked of it to an army chaplain and also to his sergeant. The chaplain had reasoned it to be an angel, saying he had seen such angels drifting like holy medics among the dying, their wispy bodies floating over battlefields in the stagnant air of gunsmoke, the gunsmoke taking shapes that carried wings. His sergeant had called it gut instinct, the thing that bullets could not strike and bayonets could not penetrate. He believed both were right. Sometimes, he was certain he could see the angels.
He turned and left, made his way back to the lake and went to the shack and examined it, finding the door to the screened-in porch unlatched and the door to the house unlocked. On the porch was a rocking chair and a narrow cot, but without a mattress. He pushed open the door of the shack and stepped cautiously inside, noticing a sag in the floor near the doorsill. Let his weight test it and found it strong enough to hold him, though he did not think it would take much to make the underpinning give way. The inside was a single room with a small woodstove in one corner, one that could be used for heating as well as cooking. Beside it was a wood box with a few sticks of split wood peeking up over the sides. Oak, he guessed. Maybe hickory. Not far from the stove was a pie safe containing a few dishes and glasses and eating utensils and an iron skillet and a coffeepot and a pot for boiling water. A handmade eating table was in the center of the room with two chairs. A kerosene lamp was on the table, having a chipped dish under it. Another cot with a mattress and pillow and blanket was pushed against another wall. He saw a broom leaned in the corner, near the cot. A framed picture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was hanging from one wall.
The room had a slight musty smell to it, like a place that needed airing out, or a place that had gone too long without somebody staying in it, leaving the scent of having been there -- of cooked food and coffee and tobacco and soap and perfumed skin lotions. A lived-in place gave off its own odors, the same as the earth did.
It would be a good place to stay, he thought, but he would not -- not without permission. To do so would be like housebreaking, and he knew the law on housebreaking. He had a brother in jail because of it.
He found a large beechnut tree in front of the shack, between the shack and the lake. A carving head-high on its trunk read:
And now this tree
Belongs to me
The carving seemed several years old, the way it had crusted over, and it made him think of the beechnuts where he had carved his own initials as a boy. He wondered if the trees still stood, still held his initials, or if they had scabbed over and disappeared.
He made a bedding of pine straw under the tree and covered it with his sleeping bag. Put together a circle of stones and started a stick fire to boil water for his coffee. He ate from a can of sausages, sandwiched between soda crackers, and as he ate and took his coffee, he pondered over the force that had pushed him back into the woods as he watched the woman. Was it something his senses had seen, or not seen? Where was the man? Still in the house? Would the man have come from the house and chased after him with a gun?
A half-moon, bright in the clear air of the mountains, nudged itself over the trees, made a dull light around him. He wedged himself into his sleeping bag and pulled the mosquito netting over the pyramid of sticks he had jammed into the earth and tied with a string. The netting filtered the moonlight, gave it an eerie glow. From his position, he could barely see the carving on the tree. Wondered who A W was, or had been. He closed his eyes and let sleep follow.
• • •
He dreamed of Hoke Moore and the fish as he slept.
Hoke Moore stood at the lakeside, making a long cast with his rod, calling out to the fish, "I come for you." The fish rose up from the lake, split the water in a graceful leap, dove, split the water, dove. Then, in the sudden, unknowing way of dreams, the bass was hanging from the limb of the beechnut, a fishing line laced through its mouth and gills. Below the tree, Hoke Moore looked up, watched the fish quiver against the line, watched its soul spin out of its body like a dancing white flame and then reshape itself into a see-through ghost-fish with the faint coloring of pale yellow. A soft wail, moan upon moan, came from Hoke Moore, the same sound he had heard in Dachau from the chests of men so thin it did not seem possible that the chests could hold any sound at all. Then he saw a cloud of fish ascending from the lake. Thousands of fish suspended eerily in air, water dripping from them in moonlight, and the yellow-colored see-through bass, its torso twisting grotesquely, flew over them, and the fish followed, soaring above the trees, making the moon dark, so many of them. And then they were gone, and the water of the lake became calm, and the wail of Hoke Moore became a great cry.
The cry woke him.
He sat up, his head nudging against the mosquito netting he had fashioned over his bedding. He was perspiring, a condition that had marked his dreams since the war. From the lake, he heard the monotonous bellowing of frogs, and from nearby, the singing of cicadas and an owl's solitary announcement of itself. There was a scent of water in the air and he wondered if it was from a warning of rain or from the fog cap of the lake. The lake, he hoped. He had not pitched his pup tent, believing in the cloudless sky. Yet, if it rained, he could take shelter on the porch of the shack, trusting that if anyone found him there, they would not call it a break-in.
He glanced up, through the netting, through the limbs of the beechnut, saw the limb of his dream and believed he saw the fishing line that had held the fish. He blinked and the line became a twig. The sky through the tree was still cloudless.
He let his body drop again on the mattress of needles, turned to his side. He could smell the dead fire in the circle of rocks and the left-over coffee from his coffeepot. Tomorrow, he would need to find a store and buy more coffee, he thought. Coffee was his great luxury. In the war, he had never had his fill of coffee.
The owl sailed from the dark bark of a pine thirty yards away -- less maybe; twenty maybe -- and feathered a landing on the ground. The owl's wings had an astonishing reach, wings that could have been robbed from a sleeping eagle, and he propped up on one elbow, wondering what the owl had trapped on the ground. Field mouse doing its night feeding, most likely.
He eased again against the rolled coat he used for a pillow and imagined the fish of his dream hanging above him, turning lazily in the breeze. In the war, he had seen a hanged man at the death camp called Dachau. More boy than man, though. Dressed in the uniform of the SS. His eyes bulging, his arms hanging limp. An old Jew wearing the rags of prison stripes had stood near the dangling body, moaning like the moans of Hoke Moore in his dream.
Thirty yards away -- twenty, maybe -- the owl made its slaughter with a beating of wings that could have belonged to an eagle.
Copyright © 2003 by Terry Kay