LUCIOUS JONES gestured toward a bamboo pole that rose from the water, the signs of a weak current showing against it in the form of shallow eddies. The surface hardly moved, yet was still moving unlike the water in the trees that sat motionless.
“Mais, don’t walk past that pole, no, or you gonna find the channel the hard way,” Lucious said, smiling like it was a joke and revealing his green teeth. “The channel’s about twenty feet wide, so just cast you line where the opposite bank would be at and wait. You’ll see what I’m talkin’ about.”
Dale Guidry took another hit off a joint, now shrunk to the size of a cigarette butt, and the fire crept down and burned his finger tips. He wished he’d thought to bring along a roach clip.
“Come on, coon-ass,” Lucious said. “Why you smokin’ that shit anyway, uh? I thought we come out here to fish.”
Dale blew out the smoke and the mosquitos and deer flies clouding his head momentarily dispersed, repelled by the skunk weed’s pungent odor.
“The bugs don’t like it,” Dale said, dropping the roach to the water where it hissed. He reached for the bait cage hanging off his back.
“There’s a time and a place for that,” Lucious said, surveying the area. “And this ain’t it.”
Dale Guidry despised Lucious Jones. He hated his long-limbed, wiry body. His red hair and pasty skin. He even hated the way he smiled, and not just because of his moldy, rotting teeth, which gave off the foulest of odors. Lucious always seemed to be up to something and Dale wondered what he was up to now. Dale decided he’d better keep an eye on him.
Dale was only with him because he needed Lucious to show him the location of Bayou Noir, a small river that cut through the heart of Grands Bois, a vast swamp outside of town. Dale had heard the stories about Bayou Noir and the monster sac au lait people supposedly caught there. And while he knew it was somewhere in Grands Bois, he didn’t know exactly where in the sunken forest Bayou Noir was.
Then one night at a coffee pot in the rice mill, Dale overheard Lucious talking about it. Lucious swore Bayou Noir existed, that he’d fished there before. So Dale began pestering him. He rode him for weeks until Lucious finally relented and said he’d take him. As much as he disliked Lucious Jones, as much as he didn’t trust him, Dale figured he could put up with him for a few hours if the fishing was as good as the stories claimed.
It didn’t take long for Dale to realize he would never have found Bayou Noir on his own. Not all the directions in the world would have led him to it and he was glad to have Lucious along as a guide. Dale followed Lucious for over a mile in the knee-deep water, wading farther into the sunken forest through thickets of palmettos and low lying branches, over and over again walking face-first into the dense network of zig zagging webs constructed by the large yellow and black writing spiders. More than once, Dale thought about turning back, wondering if a stringer of sac au lait was worth the trouble, but he couldn’t give Lucious the satisfaction of seeing him bothered by a little discomfort.
Dale itched beneath the mud he’d caked onto his face, arms and neck—dry now, and hardened—to keep the biting flies and mosquitoes from feasting on his bare skin. It was a trick Lucious showed him as they entered the swamp, insisting mosquito repellent didn’t work in Grands Bois. While the mud worked the way Lucious said it would, it was at times unbearable. A part of Dale thought it’d be better dealing with the menacing insects without the mud that clung to his beard and itched and stunk of rotten vegetation and swamp gas. Besides, Dale was more concerned about the cottonmouths that were everywhere, in the branches overhead and swimming on the surface of the water. He wished he’d brought along a pistol the way Lucious did, the handle of it poking out of the holster hanging from his belt.
Dale took a cricket from the bait cage and began working the hook into its back, the bug crawling and fighting against his large fingers. Dale assessed the area. There was no distinguishable channel, the current so slight the water appeared stagnant.
The branches of the trees that stood on the opposite side of the bayou hung well out over the channel, so making a good cast would be difficult. Dale no longer doubted Bayou Noir was there, or that Lucious had been telling the truth when he said it was a good fishing hole. A number of fishing lines hung from the branches, the red and white corks dangling like Christmas tree ornaments—the results of so many errant casts. Dale decided he’d have to side-arm it, at least until he got used to the confining area. He was glad he’d brought a shorter rod, rigged specifically for bream, sac au lait, goggle-eye and small bass.
To his left, about twenty yards down river, something rolled over on the surface of the water, something as big as a man, making a tremendous splash and startling Dale. “Got-damn,” Dale said. “What the hell was that?” He felt a dizzying surge of adrenaline rush to his chest and into his head, and he knew the joint had taken effect.
“Probably an alligator,” Lucious said. “They don’t usually fuck with you durin’ the day.”
Before Dale could cast his line, he saw Lucious’ cork bob, then go under, slowly disappearing in the dark, tea-colored water.
“Ha, lookit there,” Lucious shouted as he set the hook, his rod barely bowing against the pull of the fish. The rod he used was more of a big bass rig, and he reeled in the fish without much of a fight. It wasn’t a bass, but a sac au lait, or what they called crappie in east Texas and Mississippi. Lucious held the silver fish up, still dripping, with a thumb in its wide-open mouth. “See that, Dale? What’d I tell you?”
“Why you usin’ that big rod anyway, uh? Dale said. “There ain’t no fight if you just gonna hoss ‘em in like that.”
“Cuz you never know when you gonna run into a big bass. They got ‘em out here, too, yeah. I guarantee it.” Lucious unhooked the fish and threaded the rope stringer through its gill. Then he let the fish drop back into the water where it could swim tethered to his belt.
Dale wasn’t happy with his own cast and he reeled in. He figured it would take a few casts before he was used to the surroundings. Lucious was already re-baiting his hook while cautiously moving closer to the pole. Then he cast his line at about the same spot. Lucious had obviously fished here before, Dale told himself, the way he found casting so easy. Dale didn’t want to believe Lucious could be that much better than him. Not at fishing, not at anything.
“You ain’t gonna catch you no fish with you line out the water,” Lucious said.
“Fuck you, Lucious. I gotta get used to it, that’s all.” Dale recast his line and, again, his cork landed well short of the spot he was aiming for. Still, he left his line where it sat. Reeling in would be admitting to Lucious that he’d not cast where he intended.
Lucious’ cork began bobbing and he took in the slack. He set the hook and the tip of his rod shuddered as he muscled in the fish. Another sac au lait.
“That’s two, Dale,” Lucious laughed. “Man, what you waitin’ for, coon-ass?”
Lucious strung the fish onto the stringer. The surface of the water roiled as the two fish found themselves suddenly tethered together.
“I ain’t after the small fish like you,” Dale said, knowing the two fish Lucious caught were big for sac au lait.
“You full a shit, you,” Lucious said. “If you really after the big fish, then you better start casting you line at the other side of the channel. You ain’t gonna you catch nuttin but bream and goggle-eye where you at now.”
Dale knew Lucious was right. Still, he left his line where it was. He’d wait a minute before re-casting. He’d reel in on his own terms.
“Like I said, that pole tells you where the channel’s at,” Lucious said. “It’s about two or three feet this side the drop-off. It’d be a lot easier makin’ a cast if you stood even with the pole or a little on the other side of it.”
And that’s when it struck Dale. So this is why he brought me out here. He wants me to walk into the channel. Then my hip boots would fill up and I’d drown. It was unbelievable. But then, Dale knew he was stoned. Maybe he was just being paranoid the way he sometimes got.
Enough time passed and Dale reeled in his line. He checked his bait and saw that the cricket, now limp and soggy, was still firmly attached to the hook. He decided to cast one more time before changing to a fresh bait. It was always a pain in the ass having to work a cricket out of the bait cage. Again, he cast sidearm and, again, his bait fell several feet shy of the opposite bank.
“Shit, I thought we come out here for sac au lait, not bream,” Lucious said, casting his line, and his bait just missed a low-lying limb, landing in a spot that looked ideal. And, sure enough, the ripple-rings had yet to settle when his cork went straight under.
“Goddamn, Dale!” Lucious laughed. The bend in his rod showed he had something far bigger than the first two he’d caught and the fish raced out of the channel and into the trees on the other side of the bayou. In the shallower water, a bulge grew on the surface above the fish. Lucious lifted the tip of his rod and the fish rose from the water, for an instant dancing on its tail the way they do on fishing shows. “Look at that, Dale,” Lucious mocked loudly, “I told you they had big bass in here. Didn’t I, podnah?”
Lucious moved parallel to the channel, allowing the fish to run at him. Dale took the opportunity to move closer to the pole. He hated when people you fished with threw their lines at the spot where you’d just caught a fish. It was breaking an unwritten rule. But he was desperate and, standing at the pole, Dale cast his line a few feet from where Lucious had just hooked the bass. As he took in the slack, Dale stepped forward and felt where the bank began to slope slightly downward toward the drop-off. Dale was now certain of Lucious’ plan. It was clear in his mind and Dale moved back behind the pole where the footing was again flat and solid.
Lucious held up the bass by its gill.
“What you think, Dale? About eight pounds?” Lucious admired the fish and then strung it onto the stringer. The bass still had some fight in it and the water churned as it slid down the rope and met the two sac au lait already there.
“Looks like five or six pounds to me,” Dale said, thinking it looked more like nine or ten. It was bigger than any bass he’d ever caught, as big as bass got in that part of the state.
“Fuck you, Dale,” Lucious said.
Dale noticed from his voice that Lucious faced the other direction. Dale turned to see him standing at a tree, his rod held under his arm as he worked his zipper open so he could urinate. Lucious said, “I still think you might catch you a fish if you stood even with the pole some. It’d be a lot easier casting you line, too.”
Without thinking, Dale pulled the bamboo out of the ground and, careful not to slip on the slick sloping bank, he felt around with the bottom of the pole, searching for the drop off. When he found it, he stuck the pole into the soft mud, not a foot from the channel. Then he stepped back to where he’d been standing before, on solid, level ground.
“Like I always say,” Lucious said. “If you wanna catch fish like the pros, Dale, you gotta fish like the pros.”
“I’m doin’ okay. I’m just buyin’ my time,” Dale said, standing several feet behind the pole.
“Podnah, if you gonna steal my spot, at least get you a better cast than that,” Lucious said, moving toward the spot where Dale had been fishing earlier. Now forced to side-arm his cast the way Dale had, his cork hit the same low-lying limb he’d managed to miss on the previous cast. Lucious quickly jerked his line back, but it was too late. The hook bit firmly into the limb and the rest of the line, cork and sinker spun and tangled in the branches.
“Fuck me!” Lucious said. Then, shouting at his line, “Goddamn you.”
“Looks like you got you one of them stick fishes,” Dale laughed.
“Fuck you, Dale.”
Lucious reeled his line in taut. He pulled on it and the line sang like a guitar string. To get closer to the snag, Lucious moved toward the channel. When he reached the pole he took a step and went straight under. Lucious let go of his rod and disappeared beneath the surface.
Lucious’s head resurfaced. “Dale,” he shouted with water in his voice, the mud masking his face beginning to wash off.
Without thinking, Dale moved to help Lucious. It was one thing to think about letting it happen, but an entirely different matter now that it was actually happening. Dale moved as close to the channel as he could without sliding in. He reached his rod out toward Lucious to give him something to grab on to. But Lucious was already toward the center and the current that couldn’t be seen on the surface made itself evident and Lucious slowly drifted down river. “I can’t swim,” Lucious said, flailing his arms in a panic and struggling to keep himself from going under. “Help,” he said, and when his hand hit the tip of Dale’s rod, he took hold of it just as his head dipped below the surface again. Careful not to slide in, Dale pulled Lucious back toward the bank. Winded and unable to gain traction on the slick channel wall, Lucious gasped for air. When Lucious reached his free hand toward him, Dale wavered. Their eyes met and in that instant, it was obvious Lucious could see the hesitancy in Dale’s face.
“What the fuck you doin’?” Lucious shouted. “Grab hold a my hand, couyon.”
Lucious lost his grip on the rod and, still frozen, Dale watched him move slowly away.
“Goddammit, Dale,” Lucious screamed and he disappeared beneath the surface again, continuing to drift down river. Unsure of himself, Dale paralleled Lucious, deciding what to do. Lucious broke the surface and lunged at the bank, this time managing to gain traction, and he slowly hauled himself out of the channel. Lucious remained on his knees a good while, catching his breath and coughing out water. Weakend, it took him some effort to stand up. The only mud left on his face was caked at the corners of his eyes.
“You fuckin’ asshole,” Lucious said, still gasping. “You were gonna let me drown.”
“Nah, man, I was tryin’ to think what to do,” Dale said.
But it was no good. Dale could tell Lucious knew better.
David P. Langlinais’ stories have appeared in South Dakota Review, Los Angeles Review, Concho River Review, Avalon Literary Review, The MacGuffin, Raleigh Review, and others. He’s published two story collections (UL Press), and has just finished a novel, entitled Bayou Noir. “It Happened At Bayou Noir” is his sixth publication in Green Hills Literary Lantern, and is an excerpt from that novel. He currently lives in Dallas with his wife and daughter where he works as a freelance copywriter.