Deep down in his mute, cool, dimly lit domain, the monarch of the Mississippi Delta swamp hole lay in patient ambush while the terrified shiner just inches above him swam round and round in frantic arcs, desperately struggling to break free of its tether to the red and white bobber floating on the surface.
My mentor and boyhood best friend Jaybird relaxed, mopped his sweaty brow, and set his pole aside for a while.
Sighing deeply, he reflected on the trips he had made to this oxbow, one of many such lakes dotting the alluvial plain that had been his home for seventy years.
Rarely, and then only in subliminal glances, he had seen the huge, moss-colored largemouth bass cruising through cypress knees and lily pads, his spade-sized tailfin oscillating in powerful lateral strokes, his black, baleful eyes staring, unblinking. Oh, how he wanted to catch that fish!
But never once had this swamp leviathan shown any interest in Jaybird’s various lures. The old black man was a legendary fisherman, and many a time his angling skills had determined whether his and Thelma’s nine head of children were fed or went to bed hungry. Perplexed, he sat motionless and sweating in the cloying, humid silence, staring at lily pads, cypress trees, and tea-colored water.
A squirrel’s appearance broke his reverie. Inching down a drooping limb, the animal’s beady, jet-black eyes flitted nervously, his bushy red tail a vibrating question mark. Cautiously, he crept along the limb, downward, down … down toward a nut.
Then more movement, at first a mere surface ripple drawing the man’s eyes from the bobber, no longer even twitched by the moribund shiner. The spreading ripples grew, forming undulating chevrons, and at their apex Jaybird saw his nemesis swimming unerringly as a torpedo, straight for the limb.
The strike was explosive — a geyser of water and debris. Jaybird recoiled in shock to this primeval, hunter-hunted thunderclap, gaping in breathless awe as the squirrel’s question-mark tail disappeared down the bass’ cavernous maw.
Instantly, the squirrel was snatched from airy, arboreal freedom into an underwater gullet prison where cracking bones and death screams were heard only by the unpitying omnivore.
Rolling the line around his fishing cane, Jaybird took a long slug from his pint of bourbon and lit a Camel.
Then, just as he began paddling away, his eyes bulged at the sight of the monstrous fish head just breaking the surface, its black, hateful eyes framed by blood-gorged gills.
The powerful jaws held something the man could not identify, and he watched in amazement as the blood brute of the deep gently placed the mysterious object just above the waterline on the same slanting limb, then sank slowly from view into the murky deep. It was the nut.
Jaybird wasted no time rowing toward his ancient pickup on the distant shore. Not once did he look back; he would not be defeated again. He’d seen the last of a fish no man could catch.
Oxford, Mississippi, resident, Ole Miss alumnus, Army veteran, and retired Mississippi Delta cotton farmer Jimmy Reed is a newspaper columnist, author and college teacher. His latest collection of short stories is available via Squarebooks.com at 662-236-2262.
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