The Great Fishless River

The Great Fishless River

A Story by Prodigo

          The drought was good for fishing. You could get close to the deep parts of the river where it had been carved out and there were channels where the fish were on the hot days to keep cool. If you threw a net into it, you could catch many at once. The bend of the river ran into our property. Our house was on a hundred acres and it was hilly country, except near the river where it was flat because it flooded often. The river was closest a half mile away but the current was much too quick. If you traveled upstream a bit, the current was only a little quick and you could survive if you were swept into it and you swam well.

Tim was my cousin and he lived across town. His house was in the rich suburbs. They had only four houses to a street. Some of the houses were great white plantation homes with a forest growing along the edge of their land. His family had two acres with a great live oak on it.  It was very old and white with tears in the trunk where the brown flesh showed. The live oak shadowed a stream that cut through a grove of trees. It ran along the base of the hill his home was on until it ran off into a brook that led to the great river a few miles away. He wanted to see the river and fish in it. I told him I would take him if he stayed the weekend.

It was still very early and the sun was baking the hills. Wild wheat was along the shoulder of the hills because of the great sun and near the base you could find bluebonnets. They went on through the hills and the long dried cattle grass, stretching into low flat plains and stopping when the dirt was too moist where the river could reach sometimes with a good rain. The trail ran along the bluebonnets. We followed the blue bonnets instead.


The wheat on the ridge bent into the sun coming up and it warmed our faces and we were baking in it. You could follow the trail until you hit the fast part of the river where it was dangerous, or you could follow the train tracks laid between a line of trees and some thick forest that was guarded by a wall of thorns and long patches of blackberry bush. We were close enough to the river now to run across water moccasins and they liked mostly to lie on the wooden planks in the tracks because it was smooth and warm and close to the water and the shade.


          The trees shaded the tracks and Tim and I would pick the blackberries close enough and forget the rest. The thick forest was well lit and it was nice and you could not be afraid of it. The tracks turn off and it goes over another part of the river by a bridge. The hills here were smoothed out and you could climb down to the slow part of the river comfortably. We started for the river from the tracks and rested on the smoothed pebbles that made up the bank. I set the net onto the ground and kicked away some of the rotted branches left by the rain that carried them there.


          Tim dropped his net beside mine and was watching the river. He had one hand resting on his knee and he said, “It’s hot.”


“Walked in the shade too long.” I said. I kicked my shoes off.


“Why you takin’ your shoes off?”


“Cause of the mud. Mom would kill me if I got ‘em dirty.” I looked them over, “These are my school shoes.”




He kicked off his own shoes and I said, “You ain’t gotta do that.”


“Wouldn’t be fair if I had ‘em on.”  He smiled and I thought I was proud of him


I felt badly for him because my father could fix most things, but his father sold paint for a living and I knew that there was little to be proud of in that sort of thing. I teased him sometimes and I don’t know why I did that. He was a delicate boy and that rot could kill him. I decided that he would catch a great fish today and it would take both of us to carry it home and it would feed us until we were sick of fish and we couldn’t eat any more of it without getting ill.


The sun was behind the trees and the fish were near the surface to warm up a little before heading into the big part of the river where the current would carry them. The river, upstream, ran a short ways and got shallower where it turned off into a manmade lake. Downstream, it was vicious and went straight a ways divided by sand bars and finally bent to the left to disappear behind more trees.


Tim was dipping his feet into the water, watching the thin branches floating toward him to see if they were snakes. He was growing bold and he started into the river. His pants were soaked and his shirt was getting wet and he was having a hard time moving gracefully. He stepped forward into the river once more and turned to look upstream and a curved stick that looked like a moccasin was floating towards him. He gasped and threw himself into the current. I looked into the water but it was moving too quick and the sun was coming through and blinding me a little. I grabbed my net and ran downstream to find him. I waded out into the river and was praying please God, please God, please, please, don’t let him drown. Please God, please God, please don’t let him drown. When Tim came up, he had gotten lucky and caught onto one of the rocks. The rocks broke the bullying current and the water ran strangely there but he was further downstream and I ran to him. I threw the net out to him and he grabbed hold of it. He threw the net over the closest rock and pulled himself to it. He got across the river and I grabbed the net and pulled him in. He lied there breathing heavily and trying to keep from shivering. I helped him up and carried him into the sun to dry. He took his shirt off and lied there, laughing and I hoped that he had baptized some of his fear in the river. He was delirious so I waited to ask him if he wanted to do some fishing. He agreed to it. I took the net out and he was shivering a little and he said, “I don’t see no fish.”


“Ain’t supposed to.”


“How you know if you gonna catch anything?”


“That the fun of it, I guess.”


          When I fished alone, I was more upstream. I would lie there until it was almost dark and the mosquitoes were coming out and the water was black but you could see the branches and the leaves. I held my machete close. The coyotes were bold, sometimes.   I would listen for my mother to hold the horn of my father’s truck to signal me to come home.


I showed him how to hold the net and throw it so it would cover more area. We waited a few seconds after throwing it to let it settle before pulling the ropes to turn it into a bag and drag in our fish.


When the net settled, it bubbled up and sank quickly. We were soaked from preparing it to toss again, all the while watching the bank for snakes. Tim said, “I never done this before.”


“You did good gettin’ out of the river. Betchyou that river could carry a whale.”


“It ain’t deep enough” He said confidently


“Maybe not.”


Tim stayed quiet and he looked downstream to where he came out of and he was grinning proudly.


“I never swam like that before.”


“I ain’t never seen nobody swim like that. Not even my Pa.”


He smiled again and took some of the water from his bare chest and wiped it away and he said, “Where are the fish?”


“I dunno. You were just down there.”


We laughed and then it was quiet again and he became different almost instantly. He looked down at his bare feet all muddy and he said, “My brother is coming home.”


“From the military?” I asked


He nodded and said, “From the war.”


I pulled the net in and handed it to him. He loosened it and threw it out. I watched him let it settle and he yanked on the ropes. Nothing came up and I asked him if he was staying this time.


“For a few days. Mom keeps cryin’. My dad brags a lot to your dad.”




“So, everybody will come home and never have to go back and my dad won’t say nothin’ else.”


“Your pa talks an awful lot.”


“He sells stuff. He has to.”


I looked out across the river and you could see past the thicket to a clearing where a sycamore was struck by lightning. It was cut in half and you could climb almost to the stump if you didn’t weigh much. It was wet and starting to rot. Tim saw the tree and said, “James don’t have no friends here no more.”


“What about Rodwaan?” I asked


“No.” he stood up, “He died, too.”


“He must be awful lonely.”


“He says he ain’t. He says he makes new friends all the time.”


“Where do they live?”


“All over. He says he got one friend from Kansas City.”


“Is that a big place?”


“Real big. Like Houston.”


“I wish I could see him.” I said




“James. Your brother.”


“He’ll be here tomorrow.” Tim said, “I got lots of stuff to show him.”


“Like what?”


“Stuff I done at school. He used to draw. I still do. I like to do it.”


“I can’t draw.” I said


“Maybe he’ll show you. If yer smart, he won’t get mad.”


“Why would he get mad?”


“I dunno. He can get real sore, though. Last time he was home, he kicked through the door.”


“Why’d he do that?”


“The light bulb popped and he got scared. I dunno why he got so scared. He got sore and he kicked through the door. I never seen nobody so mad. Not even your dad.”


My father drank a lot then and it was hard getting along around him. He would drink and then go out in the driveway to work on his car. I used to help him, but he got angry once and he beat me while my leg was pressed against the exhaust. He thought I was crying because of the beating. He held me there for almost a minute. I had burns from my knees to my ankles and they were tender for a long time. He went out and bought me shorts because the pants rubbed against my skin. He would cry when he saw the scars. He would cry and apologize a hundred times and I would tell him it was okay and it didn’t even hurt. It was only bad luck, I said.


“I saw my brother cryin’ once. We was just eatin’ dinner and he started cryin’. Then he got real mad and said we was stupid and we couldn’t understand. He cried like nobody I’d ever seen.”


“Was it worse than when my brother got charged by that bull?”


“It wasn’t like that. He wasn’t hurt or nothin’.”


“Maybe he killed somebody.” I said


“Have you ever killed somebody?” He asked


“No, but I fed my dog chicken feed once. My pa says it got in her lungs and she choked to death for two days. I ain’t never cried like that before.”


“My brother didn’t kill nobody.” He said


“No, prolly not.”


“He could if he had to, though.” Tim added


“I know.” I said and I waited to see if he would say something else, but he stayed quiet. He was quiet for awhile and he said finally, “I miss him so bad. So terribly bad.”


I adjusted the net and handed it to him. I prayed he would catch something but the net was dragged in empty.


The fish were below the surface and they were not jumping. I had not seen one jump in some time. They would come out of the water and they were gone again, carried downstream towards the big river. If you were close enough, you could see they were spotted and almost gray and smooth. The big catfish had long whiskers that curled when they were above water. I had seen really big catfish, but only in the earliest part of the summer. Our white bucket to carry the fish was beginning to sink in the mud from sitting still for too long.


For a spell, I sat by on the rock and watched him toss it and pull it in again and toss it out and just like that he started crying. He buried his face into his knees and hugged his legs and he cried hard. I tried not to watch him do it. I stood there holding the net while it dripped against me and didn’t move or say anything. He was crying without making any noise. He kept his face buried and cried harder and the river was picking up and starting to drown him out. I watched his body and knew he was sobbing. After a few minutes, the river was dying down again and I could hear him praying. He finished praying and he looked up and blew his nose into his sleeve and he said, “He’s going back.”


I didn’t want to say anything. I took the net and threw it out. I didn’t catch anything.


He was sitting by and watching me. After a time, he stood up and took the net and threw it out once more. He drew it back empty. He wasn’t disappointed. He was not thinking about me nor the fish nor this river.


“I like net fishing. You can catch an awful lot if you’re lucky.” I said


Tim stood there with the net and looked upstream and his eyes followed the turn and then downstream to where he had come out of the water and he said, “Can we take my brother here when he comes home?”


“Can he keep a secret?”


“He never told nobody nothin’.”


“Okay then.”  And I smiled at him and tossed the net out and caught some branches. I was pulling them from the net when we heard the horn coming through the trees. 


© 2012 Prodigo

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Added on April 25, 2012
Last Updated on April 25, 2012



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