Smitten Gate (Chapter 31)
Copyright © Stan Goff 2022, All Rights Reserved
July 12, 2010
Jordan Lake, North Carolina
Monday was a down day for Farah. She’d come up from Fayetteville to meet Deanglea for a fishing date. Farah had discovered the spot back in the 90’s. It was a weekday, so there were only three cars at her spot, a patch of field between road, water, and bridge, offering access to the bank. A creek emptied into the lake where once a deep draw had been. Ten feet from shore there was a drop-off that plunged to 30 feet, submerging the old stumps and stones from the dry land draw and creating a perfect hot-weather habitat for black crappie, a panfish that worked well in the fourteen Belizean fish recipes Farah had tried. She southern-fried them too, in beer batter, dressing them with her own hot salad. Fusion cuisine.
Farah was a cane pole purist, insisting that Deangela learn cane-poling, too.
“You look at them men with they big motors makin’ rooster tails over the water, five-hundred-dollar rod and reels, artificial baits cost twenty dollars apiece. You need a trailer for the boat, and you need a truck for the trailer. You not even past the retail phase, then, are ya? They fish all day, get ten pounds of fish, and some trophy photos. All that to catch a fish. Not fair to the budget. Not fair to the fish. You need tens-a-thousand-a-dollars to catch a little fish! We come down here, spend twenty on gas, drinks, and some minnows, we go home with ten pounds of fish. Way we do it, my opinion, is closer to art.”
Farah had given this monologue at least twice a year for the last five. Deangela tried not to roll her eyes.
Deangela was competitive when she fished. She pretended she wasn’t, but not very convincingly. She was already grasping for a wet minnow from the bucket to bait her hook while Farah was still at the car changing from sandals to sneakers.
To the southwest, against the tops of the pine trees, a threatening line of clouds encroached against the otherwise blue sky. As Farah looked down the bank at Deangela, a band of wind swept in and stirred the high oak leaves. A cardinal streaked out of a crippled old pin oak, passing behind Deangela like a drop of blood skating across the afternoon.
“Some people are water people.” Watah people. Deangela didn’t ask for an explanation. She knew it was coming. This was the preface. This had come up — wherever it was going — because Farah just landed her fifth crappie to Deangela’s one. Deangela’s mood, in response, was not altogether charitable. Farah rubbed her nose in it by stopping after each catch, pulling out her fillet knife, and stripping each fish, dropping the fillets into the cooler. Like she had all the time in the world while her incompetent daughter fed broken minnows to four-inch bluegills.
Farah, meanwhile, would give her line a twitch, setting the hook, skate the catch over the surface to her, lip the fish, and pop out the hook with the hemostat she wore clipped to her dirty white t-shirt.
“People live on the water, they all tied to the water.”
“This sounds like a Credence Clearwater Revival song.”
“Don’t be fresh, or I jalapeño ya bottom.” Against her will, Deangela smiled at this.
“I’m not gloatin’ on you. I’m tellin’ you somethin’. And if you drop that bait another foot from the bobber, you’ll hit the slabs instead of them squash seed.”
Deangela grudgingly swung her line back and raised her bobber, pitching a limp minnow in the water.
“They’s mountain people, swamp people, people who work in mines, then there’s most of the people here. They mash buttons and spend money. Okay, so they mash buttons or wiggle a computer mouse all day. They not tied to nothin’ real. People got headlights for eyes, they lost they peripheral vision . . .”
“Oh!” blurted Deangela, as her bobber plunged out of sight, grabbing her cane pole and giving it a snap with her wrist to set the hook. Just in time, because the pole suddenly bent hard as the fish dove toward the bank. Something big enough to strain her shoulder and arm. The line stretched out again for deeper water. Farah was on her feet.
“Holy shit!” Deangela blurted.
“Ain’t a crappie, sweetbread. Finesse that one. She break ya line and pole on ya.”
Deangela had one foot on the bank, one down in the water, dreading the sudden relaxation of a broken line. But it didn’t. Not yet. The fish pulled hard away from the shore, then gave up for a bit. Deangela gave an exquisitely light rotation to turn the fish without breaking the line. When the fish took off again, hugging the bottom, it went left toward a thick patch of coontail and hydrilla. Farah was saying something to her, but Deangela couldn’t really understand it. Deangela stepped into a hole as she waded in, sinking to her hips and almost capsizing, but she held the pole aloft, maintaining that light tension with her right hand, batting at the water with her left to regain her equilibrium. She wanted the fish in the weed bed to impair its thrust, but she knew she had to keep the line high to prevent tangling in the vegetation. With two clumsy steps, she came back up out of the hole to knee level. The fish decelerated into a patch of duckweed, then turned left again, coming right toward her, bending the pole almost double. Farah was shouting that it would break, when Deangela choked up on the pole, re-grasping it halfway up with one hand, and reached for the line with the other. Stepping backward, she held the fish inside the weeds as it approached the shore. Deangela backed up again, hit the little ledge on the bank, dropped onto her behind, recovered, and stepped back, the whole while leading the fish in. She had both hands on the line now, the pole lying useless at the waterline. Then the snout appeared at water’s edge. She’d partially beached it, and it was churning the water into mud. Two feet long from the looks of it.
“I don’t know what that is.” Farah said, standing right behind her and looking down at the snout. “Hand me your pliers.” Farah’s little hemostats were too small for this one.
Deangela was kneeling now, holding tension on the line to prevent the fish gaining any purchase on deeper water. She shifted the line from her right hand to her left, pulled the Leatherman off her belt, and handed it to Farah. Farah flipped open the pliers, squatted in front of Deangela, and grabbed the fish hard behind the barbels.
“Got some frightenin’ teeth, this one. Oh mah jeez!”
Farah lifted the fish up on the shore, Deangela stumbling behind. The great fish heaved against Farah’s strength. Both women yelped at that. The fish was green like tarnished silver, and somehow ancient, cylindrical, almost a snake. The long dorsal fin and the short anal fin almost blended with the tail, so far back were they set, and there was a black bullseye on the tail. The teeth, as Farah had noted immediately, were rows of curved needles, real thumb-shredders. Deangela wondered how the teeth didn’t cut the line. The fish was gasping, it gills fanning, and one of the eyes was covered with dirt and twigs. Deangela was seized suddenly by an uncharacteristic anxiety.
“Put her back in,” she said.
“I don’t know how to cook this anyway . . .”
“Now! Put her back in now!”
Farah looked up with concern now.
Clouds began filling the sky behind them, and a gust of wind raised Deangela’s hair. Farah had never seen Deangela exhibit fear. Not like this. This child had rescued spiders, chased bees, picked up snakes. She could hold a live catfish without getting spiked.
Farah squatted with the fish, gripping hard. She fastened the pliers to the shank of the hook, buried in the fish’s hard pallet, and gave the pliers an authoritative twist. The hook popped loose with a little crunch, like someone stepping on a beetle. She stood, pushed her toe under the fish, and kicked it back into a few inches of water. It lay for a moment twitching and gasping, then battered the surface and disappeared back into the hazy green depths.
A roll of thunder sounded far in the southwest as the clouds overtook the sun. The afternoon went dark, the water turned opaque. The cardinal shot past again. Tears pooled in Deangela’s eyes.