First, you wrap your hands in duct tape,
fingers into wide hooks. “Don’t want
to lose a one, do ya son?”
Second, you shove pliers in your back
pocket, ever on the ready for alligator gars. Sharp rows
of teeth worse than a flathead’s dorsal.
“Break the jaws like this,” Uncle Melvin instructs,
squeezing the pliers around a gar’s head,
flicking it back, the way you take the head
off a chicken, to drown. “Gutter fish.”
Uncle Melvin knows everything
on Moon Lake, oxbow of brackish water,
a former leg of the Mississippi, before might
of river muscled its deep roots away, drowned its own.
Third, Schlitz empties litter the hull, a twelve-year-old’s
kiss of the hops, greasy sack of rooster fryes spill the keel’s length,
Fourth, Uncle Melvin grabs me, a swamp monster
pulling me below. He pushes me towards
sodden brush. Fifth, I reach out, something
takes hold and swallows my arm whole.
It could have been a whale. How old was Jonah, anyway?
The flathead swims away hauling me down into
the former Mississippi mud. What ocean
is there possible in a swamp? Where would we
go in these brakes, gulping brown sludge?
Sixth, my hand slips through the gills and slices open.
I clutch and thrash, blood in the water.
Blinded, I think of his blind horse Myrtle stepping off
the ledge and breaking her neck. “Catfish are sinkers, heavy as
stones,” Uncle Melvin says. Seventh, it took a tractor and chain
to drag Myrtle off. Uncle Melvin’s arm ropes itself,
towing me and catfish, one forty in all,
into the skiff. “They lay on the bottom, not like regular fish,
and eat trash.” I lay like sodden garbage.
Eighth, this is all about abandonment
and nurture. You have to rip their skin off
with pliers because catfish have no scales,
harder than peeling an onion, cold and slippery.
Ninth, only after Dad lit out West
did Uncle Melvin show me these dark crevices,
only then did I learn about negative buoyancy,
the redneck’s introduction to Keats.