By Cousin Jeeter
Below a surface smooth as marble and glazed on top with dust from the road, bluegills hung in a pale green mist of algae. The slough had gone way down over the summer, its banks now dry little cliffs below their dangling legs, and Bill could see things that used to be hidden in the depths. Cousin Walter kept watching the long shadow of a sunken tree where they had cast their lines. He thought he’d seen something too.
“What are you looking at?” Rissy called from the blackberry bushes behind them.
Walter’s step-sister was one year younger than them, but she thought she was wise beyond the minds of two ninth-grade boys. She’d been rattling on again about the toney school she’d gone to down in Mobile, claiming she had an IQ of 155, when Walter had tossed his buck knife and the plastic bag of ripe bacon at her bare feet and said, “Here, Einstein. Shut up and cut some bait.”
That was when Rissy had thrown Walter’s knife into the slough. Walter had chased her into the blackberry bushes where she burrowed in like she didn’t feel the thorns and Walter didn’t even try to follow. Now she’d ventured out to the edge of the bushes again, staying just far enough away to get a fast running start on him or to see a rock coming and dodge.
“What are you doing?” she called.
Walter eased his pole onto the ground beside him and reached slowly for the frog gig. He was staring at the water like he’d seen a ghost.
“Don’t move,” he said.
When Bill saw what was coming, he froze. Walter whispered, “Jesus,” without moving his lips. Two catfish, big as bloodhounds and smooth and dark as iron, were gliding closer in the murk below, tails languidly sweeping, anvil heads advancing. The bluegills scattered before them.
“What is it?” Rissy demanded.
Bill turned his head slowly and slid his eyes around to give her a warning glare. She looked crazy with her wild hair and bramble-torn t-shirt and ragged cutoffs, her skinny limbs all scratched and berry stains on her hands and face, walking around barefoot in those thorns.
“Hey,” she said, coming out of the bushes.
Walter raised the gig like a spear and bent forward, looking straight down on those cats, his bare feet dangling and his back glowing like a polished shoe in the afternoon sun.
“Don’t move,” he breathed.
Rissy’s dirty legs come up beside him. The catfish fish writhed once and disappeared. Walter leapt to his feet. Halfway back to the bushes, he caught Rissy by the hair. She kicked at him, and he pushed her down on the clay and jumped on her when she tried to crawl away.
“Come on,” he called. “Help me throw her in the crick.”
Walter was still on top of her when Bill got there, but it looked like he was on a bucking horse at the rodeo. “Get her arms,” he yelled, trying to protect his head.
Her arms were flailing and hard to get hold of. Bill bent into them, and she punched him. He caught one arm and reared back, pulling hard.
“You ugly stupid,” she screamed.
Scratching at Bill’s legs with her free hand, she grabbed his baggy swimming suit and almost pulled it down before Walter caught her fingers. He twisted them until she let go with a cry of pain. They dragged her to the bank and tumbled her over. She landed on her back, went under and came up blowing, tossing back her hair with a flip of her head. They reeled in their lines while she tried to splash them, beating the surface with her cupped hands and sending geysers of water in their direction, shouting insults so limp and girlish that they had to laugh.
Bill picked up the gig, and Walter got the tackle box. They ran with bare feet slapping down the road and around its curve until her voice was harder to hear than the outboards whining out on the open lake. They stopped in the shade of a tree to relieve their feet. The asphalt in the sun was hot as a griddle.
“I can’t stand it no more,” Walter said. “My old man sure got a pig in a poke when he married Audrey, and guess who gets to put up with the pig?”
Rissy came into sight around the curve running lightly on the scorching blacktop. When she saw them she stopped, hopping from one foot to the other. Walter picked up a rock, and she ran back to the first blotch of shade. Walter threw the rock, and it bounced past her.
“Get lost, bosom-boy,” Walter yelled.
“Missed me, stupid,” she yelled back.
“Let’s ditch her,” Walter said.
They ran down the pavement. The curve of the road moved away from the slough until they could no longer see the water through the brush and the trees closed above them. They slowed to a walk to enjoy the cool feel of it.
“Jesus dat girl is mental,” Walter said.
“A loon for sure,” Bill agreed.
“Well what else would she be,” Walter said. “Her mom is definitely paddling a tilted canoe.”
“She’s nice enough, though,” Bill said, “Audrey is.”
“Give her that, I guess,” Walter said. “But don’t tell me to call her mom.”
The park ranger’s pickup truck decelerated up the road, honked and pulled onto the gravel. Rissy stood in the back, leaning on the cab’s army-green roof. Aunt Audrey’s leather face was in the passenger’s window, her arm on the sill. Smoke rolled out in wisps from the cigarette in her hand.
“You making sure Billy catches some fish today, Walter?” she croaked. Her voice was throaty and deep, almost like a man’s.
“Sure trying,” Walter said as they walked over to Aunt Audrey’s window.
Bill looked up at Rissy and she made an ugly face. Aunt Audrey reached out and pressed her forefinger on Bill’s bare shoulder. “You’re getting a sunburn there, Billy,” she croaked. “That’s going to hurt tomorrow.”
Bill flexed his biceps at her. “A man likes pain,” he said.
Aunt Audrey had a hoarse, loud way of laughing, and she turned it loose.
“Aren’t you the one,” she said. “Look at the muscles on that boy,” she told Walter, and Walter nodded. She turned back into the truck, and Bill could hear her say, “Billy is my favorite nephew.”
Uncle August leaned over Aunt Audrey’s lap. “If you boys care to hop in,” he said, “I’ve got a surprise for you.” Aunt Audrey stroked his hair.
“What?” Walter asked.
“Hop in and I’ll show you,” Uncle August said.
Walter slouched impatiently, “Can’t you just tell me what it is?”
“You want to catch fish or not?” Uncle August said. “Get in.”
He pulled back into the driver’s seat and gunned the engine. Aunt Audrey looked at the boys and shrugged.
“I don’t know what it is,” she said.
They climbed into the back and sat on opposite wheel wells, and they could still hear Aunt Audrey talking.
“But whatever it is, it’ll be fun. I know this man.”
Bill could see her finger shaking at Uncle August through the cab’s back window by Rissy’s legs. Rissy sat down on the spare tire, covering the center of the window with her back and scowling at Bill as the truck gained speed, the wind pulling up dry strands of her hair and throwing them down over her face.
“What are you gawking at, dork?” she demanded to know.
“That’s your cousin, Rissy,” Walter said.
“Neither one of you monkeys is related to me,” she said.
“Thank God,” Walter said.
“Hallelujah,” she said.
Walter poked a toe at her foot, and she kicked at it. He tilted back his head so the sun was on his face and closed his eyes. The way his blond hair flapped and streamed in the hot wind made his sneer look grand.
“I bet you cried to mommy.”
“Why should I?” she asked. “I’m getting a lot of fun out of you apes. Aren’t you having fun?” She lifted her upper lip toward Walter with both fingers to show her teeth and gums, still blotched with crimson and flecked with black seed.
The road went up along the hillside through open meadow and tunnels of live oak and back down to the lake’s flood plain, up again and down around the edge of the old campground. Uncle August honked. Bill’s folks waved from their camp as the truck passed, and everybody waved back, even Rissy.
“Be back later!” Aunt Audrey shrieked from her window. Over the wind and the engine, she sounded like a squawking chicken.
“Buck-buck-buck,” Walter said loud enough for Bill to hear, and they were taken by the giggles.
“Apes,” Rissy said.
Uncle August turned off on a dirt road beyond the campground, crossed a cattle guard and banged along until the trees opened on clearings of bamboo stand and tulie marsh, and stopped. The emergency brake cranked. Uncle August climbed out.
“Well, come on,” he said, smiling at his big secret.
A trail of green grass and damp clay led along a ridge just above the water level. Berry bushes on both sides, their roots submerged, had expanded into the trail. Rissy was behind Bill, and Aunt Audrey brought up the rear, holding the wide skirt of her flowery sun dress on both sides to keep it away from the thorns. But still it caught. Bill went back with Rissy to help her while Walter and his dad stopped to wait. Aunt Audrey was bent over, picking at the places where the thorns were fixed. They helped her pick.
“It’s alive,” she said.
“Only at night,” Bill said. “Then it creeps down into the campground and feeds on children.”
Aunt Audrey gave her raucous laugh. “You are the one,” she said. “Isn’t he the one?” she asked her daughter, nudging her mischievously.
“The one what?” Rissy said disgustedly. “The one-watt bulb?”
She turned and ran as fast as she could up the path, and Aunt Audrey winked at Bill. Rissy went right on by Walter and Uncle August and out of sight around the corner. They caught up to her at the edge of a long pool that looked like yellow pea soup, with a knotted and half-submerged log lying in the middle.
Tulies made a high green wall around the pool, with gaps where cattle had trampled through them and churned the mud banks into goo with their hooves.
Rissy was staring at the water, but when they came up behind her she ran into it and fell over with a splash on her side.
Walter dumped his gear and hopped in but stayed on his feet, staggering like he was caught in something. Bill went in after him. Enormous fish were right below the surface, thick scaled backs rising into view and going under again as they rooted in the bottom.
“They came in from the lake,” Uncle August said. His face had a big, satisfied smile. “But the lake went down and cut them off about a month ago.”
The water was warm as broth and only knee deep but came to Bill’s thighs because his feet went so far into the bottom. Swamp gas came up in streams of bubbles everywhere he stepped. The mud was almost liquid at the top and pudding underneath, holding his legs with a strong suck when he tried to move. Bill churned muck to the surface every time he pulled a foot free, unleashing a sewer smell.
“Eee-haa!” Walter yelled. He reared up with his fingers in the gills of a flipping carp and threw it at Bill. It hit his chest like a sack of potatoes and knocked him over backward.
“You asked for it,” Bill said, and he went for something hard that had just slammed against his legs. He cornered it against the log and got hold of a tail the size of an axe handle, but it whipped his hand away in a jet of water. A V-shaped swell shot across the pool like a bolt of electricity.
Walter jerked a hand from the water with a yelp of pain. ”Christ!” he shouted. “Damned cats!”
“You have to watch the dorsal spines on those catfish,” Uncle August advised.
“What if you step on them?” Rissy asked. She was still sitting where she had fallen, the tops of her shoulders barely sticking out of the water.
“You better not,” Walter said. “Those spines are full of poison. It’s like the water’s full of five-pound wasps.”
“You step on one and your foot will swell up like a balloon and explode,” Bill said.
Aunt Audrey laughed from the shore where she stood smoking a cigarette. “Don’t you boys go scaring my little Clarissa, now,” she sang in a lazy voice.
Uncle August was squatting on his heels in the shade and watching Rissy struggle to her feet. The wet cloth of her t-shirt showed there was nothing under it. The arm she had stopped her fall with was still glued over with black ooze.
“What a stink!” she said, sniffing it and holding it away.
“The water’s going fast,” Uncle August said. “In another week these fish will all be dead, and I’ll start getting complaints from the campground about the smell. I’ll have to put some poison in here in a few more days and clean them out. So anything you catch, just throw it out on the bank.”
Rissy lay down in the water and started going after the fish like an alligator, but she was too weak and uncoordinated to catch anything. She crawled to the other end of the pool where the water was shallow.
After a while, the sun had sunk low enough to leave the pool in shade. Bill and Walter had only managed to catch a couple of the big fish with their hands, but it just made them want to keep trying. So they said they’d just as soon stay when Uncle August and Aunt Audrey decided it was time to leave.
Aunt Audrey tried to get Rissy to go, but she just lay in the far shallows, resting her head against the bank, pulling up handfuls of mud and piling them on her chest and mushing them around and saying no.
When they were gone, Walter got his gig and they started taking turns spearing the fish. That worked a lot better, and they must have pitched twenty fish into the bushes by the time the sunlight left the tops of the tallest trees.
Walter got out and sat on the bank with his feet in the water, slumping like he was exhausted. Rissy appeared to be sleeping.
A steer bellowed from the marsh, and another one answered it from farther away. Mosquitoes were beginning to whine. Bill felt them on his back. He lowered himself to sitting on his heels so the water would cover his shoulders and get the mosquitoes off. A bullfrog boomed from the far side of the pound. Another one harrumphed in the distance. A sound like the call of a child floated on the air and was gone.
“A loon,” Walter said, looking up and around.
Motorboat noise wasn’t coming from the lake anymore. Something black fluttered above, darting this way and that, a bat come for the mosquitoes. Something was thrumming in Bill’s ears. All the bullfrogs in the swamp were in full chorus now. Except for the ones nearby, they didn’t sound like individual frogs anymore. Their sound rose and fell in rhythm, the swamp pulsing.
“Is there anything more exquisite than the torment of rural boredom?” Rissy sighed from beneath her mud.
“I didn’t know pigs could talk,” Walter said.
“That’s from a play by Anton Chekhov,” Rissy said. “But you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you? Dumb hick.”
She rose, shedding gobs of mud that slapped on the water, waded away to the far shore and disappeared through the tulies. Bill could hear her in the bushes beyond the tulies, beneath the trees. After a while she came back with a handful of blackberries, her cheeks full, chewing as she waded into the water.
“Want some?” she asked Bill. “Catch!”
She tossed the handful into the air and it rained down around him with little splashes. She laughed, and her open mouth looked like it was full of black blood. She eased herself down into the water and alligatored in slow motion to the middle of the pool by the log, where she turned and sat. Only the tops of her shoulders stuck out of the water. She pulled the t-shirt off over her head, swished it around in the water, held it up to squeeze out and laid it on the log. Bill stood up from the water again and pretended to be looking around for a big fish to gig.
Walter was slapping himself over by the tulies. “Mosquitoes are getting bad,” he said.
Rissy held up her shorts and squeezed them out too and laid them on the log. Then she was quiet and watched while Bill stalked his prey, but she kept squirming around.
“What are you doing?” Bill asked.
“You know how good mud feels on your toes?” she asked. ”That’s how good it feels all over.”
“Well, you’re scaring the fish.”
“No, I’m not,” she said. “There’s great big ones by this log.”
Bill lurched over and looked around, holding the gig ready to stab. “Where?”
“Let me do it,” she said. “It’s my turn.”
“In a little while,” Bill was starting to say when she grabbed the gig and tried to yank it away.
“You’re going to stab yourself, cousin,” Bill told her, pulling back.
“Then let go,” she said, and then she let go, and Bill feel on his back and went under.
Before he came up, she was scrambling over him reaching for that gig, trying to find it with her hands in the water. Bill jerked it up and threw it toward shore.
“Get it, Walter,” he yelled.
She scrambled over him crawling after it. Bill’s head went under again, but he could feel her shoulders and tried to catch them. His hand slipped down and clawed across her chest. Her heel jarred his ribs as she kicked away. When he came up, she hit the dirty water into his face with her open palm. He turned away to clear his eyes.
When he looked back, she was sitting there holding herself beneath the surface and glaring at him. The gig was floating near shore. Walter was dancing around in the tulies, slapping and swearing.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said.
“That hurt,” Rissy told Bill, and she splashed him again. He splashed back, and she started scooting toward him, kicking below the surface. He backed up, swatting water at her and fending off her kicks. She rolled forward in the water and lunged at him. She was pink and rubbery with all the mud washed off.
“Bare-ass beach,” Walter hooted.
Rissy ignored him. She just kept coming at Bill like she was mad and was going to teach him a lesson. Bill couldn’t push her away because she was too slippery, and then the back of his neck was against the log.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Bill warned her. He could hear Walter laughing as he waded in to get the gig.
“All right, Rissy,” Walter cheered.
She got one knee on Bill’s leg, trying to hold him down, and her knee bone really dug in and made it hurt. He really didn’t want to hurt her, but he felt like punching her. The knee slipped, and she was straddling him. Bill tried to push her off, but she kept shoving his arms away.
“Don’t touch me, you creep,” she said, leaning forward with a fierce face.
Her eyes were so close that he could see the lines in her irises. He put his arms back on the log to keep himself from sinking in the mud. When he moved them to get a better grip she grabbed his elbows like she thought he was going to try something, and held on tight.
The light was slipping away, and bullfrogs harrumphed from hiding. Rissy relaxed her grip on his arms just a little but tightened it when he tried to move. Mosquitoes enclosed them in a sac of swirling motion, landing delicately on her shoulders. She brushed the mosquitoes away from her face with her free hand and pulled a wet brown string of hair from her cheek.
“Come on, damn it,” Walter said. “These mosquitoes suck.”
“They don’t bother me,” Rissy said, trying to stare Bill down. Her grip loosened, tightened when he moved and loosened again. She scooted farther up onto him like she was trying to pin him good in the muck.
Walter’s outline was no longer distinct in the dusk along the shore. The light was going fast. Bill couldn’t see the Rissy’s eyes anymore. Against the darkening blue afterglow above, only the silhouettes of Rissy’s head and the marsh horizon stood out sharply.
“Bill!” Walter said. “Are you coming or not?”
“Wait a minute,” Bill said.
“I’m not waiting. If you don’t catch up to me, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Walter went through the opening in the tulies at a trot, his feet slapping on the clay and rustling the grass, dwindling into silence.
“Come on, let go,” Bill said.
“No way,” Rissy said.
Through his swimming suit, he could feel her on him, sitting hard to keep him down. It really didn’t bother him all of a sudden. They both stayed quiet for a long time. Mosquitoes prickled. The swamp thrummed with bullfrogs, beating like a pulse in his ears. Rissy wiggled, shifting herself on him.
“What’s happening?” she whispered.
Bats flapped down and skimmed the pond above their double images. The backs of big fish rolled drowsily as they rooted, wobbling the surface’s silver image of the first faint stars in a cloudless sky.
Rissy shivered the image around her, coming forward on her knees, rising twilit and dripping. Mosquitoes swirled above her. She eased back down, so slowly that she seemed to be melting into her own reflection, and pressed herself on him, watching his eyes like she wanted to see what he would say. She wiggled again, and then she held still.
“What’s happening?” she whispered.
Her breath smelled like blackberries, he could smell it, their faces were so close together and she was breathing, her face coming closer. “Did you ever…” she began, but she didn’t finish. Her mouth tasted like blackberries.
“Clarissa?” Aunt Audrey’s voice came through the dark from the shore. “What are you doing out there?”
Rissy reached over his shoulder for her shirt and shorts, rolled and subsided into the water, pulling them along.
“Oh Rissy,” Aunt Audrey sang.
“What!” Rissy complained, twisting into her shorts.
“Your father’s waiting for dinner, honey,” Aunt Audrey said. “I thought maybe the swamp had swallowed you.”
“Coming,” Rissy said.
The smell of mosquito repellent came across the water. Rissy ducked under and pulled her shirt over her head with a small splash.
“That you Billy?” Aunt Audrey asked.
“He left,” Bill said.
“I must have missed him,” Aunt Audrey said. A match blazed and went out. Rissy paddled toward the shore, where a cigarette glow waxed and waned and then swung down to Aunt Audrey’s side.
“You coming too, Billy?” Aunt Audrey said. “I have the truck out here. I can give you a ride back to camp.”
“It’s not far to walk,” he said. “I want to keep fishing.”
He rolled onto his knees, adjusted his trunks and slid down into the water on his belly. He floated, only his hands and legs touching the bottom.
“Billy been nice to you?” he could hear Aunt Audrey ask. “Billy,” she called. “Your folks might be waiting supper too.”
“They’ll save me something,” he said.
“Okay,” Aunt Audrey said. “Well, look out for swamp-devils. Say good night Rissy.”
Rissy didn’t say anything. She was a shadow at the opening where the path began, and then the shadow was gone. The glow of Aunt Audrey’s cigarette flared once, dropped and bounced. Something snuffed it. Bill was pulling himself through the black water in slow circles, paddling his hands in the mud.
“You still out there, Billy?” Aunt Audrey called from the night.
“Ribbit,” he croaked.
The dark wall of tules chuckled. “Aren’t you the one,” Audrey said, an amiable hazing in her voice. “What are you doing out there?”
“Waiting for the swamp-devils to come,” he said. “I aim to catch one.”
Aunt Audrey gave that raucous laugh again. He could hear her feet move along the shore and rustle away on trampled tules.
“You’re the one, all right,” her voice drifted back. “I believe you are.”
He lay still, floating with arms that dangled to the bottom and legs in the mud behind him until her sounds on the path were out of hearing.
Big fish bumped and nibbled at him. He snatched at them, and they fled. He crawled after them, propelling his chin across a mirror of stars and groping at the fish beneath it, not really trying to catch them anymore. He just liked the slippery feel of their bodies, the way they wriggled and shot from his fingers like electrical bolts.