I should like to flee like a wounded hart into Arkansas.
It’s early January, and I’ve forgotten that there would be death here. Little brown bodies litter the shore of my father’s stock pond like the aftermath of a plague. Mud‑cats, he calls them, brown-skinned cousins of the catfish he raises to sell, trash that get mixed up with the immature fish stock called fingerlings that he buys to restock the pond. Nearing the bank, I smell them almost as soon as I see them. It’s a trick of the breeze; I’m upwind of them. The water level is low and an old, red tractor sits on the bank, watching over us all. My father’s been seining, but no one is around now.
When I was a child, seining meant my father and my uncle, along with a couple of field hands, braved the sucking mud, and dragged a net out to the edge of the water, about half the stock pond’s length when it was low, and then dragged it back to shore, full of catfish and buffalo fish. It was a slow and difficult process.
There was a winch and pulley attached to the tractor on the shore, and attached to that, another net with a trap door on the bottom. At the shore, they sorted through the fish. They tossed the catfish and buffalo fish, one at a time, into the tractor’s net, and tossed the mud‑cats up on the shore to die. With easy movements, never broke the fluid motion of grab and toss. The tractor swung its net around and dropped fish into the tank sifting on the back of my father’s truck.
Once, when I was a child, I asked my father why he was throwing the brown ones on the shore. He said, “They use up food that costs money.”
After they filled the tank and drove away to empty it, I went along the bank and tried to push the mud‑cats back into the water. They just sat on the surface, floating upside down like mobiles hanging over the lake. I stared, realizing that even this, I couldn’t manage.
I used to wish I could join in, but not enough to actually do it. It seemed so hard, my father and uncle and a couple other men dragging a net through mud that would have swallowed me whole. I would stand on the bank and watch, running to join in, help out, at any hint of an opportunity, but my father would yell me away. When I was finally old enough to help out, my father shied me away for good.
“There’s no future in it,” he said. “Ain’t nothing worse than being a farmer, except maybe being a cop, or a preacher.” My older brother had been working on the farm all his life, and my father fired him for the same reason, forcing him to find factory work.
Now, my father is old. My uncle passed away a year ago. Now three or four men, my father and whoever is around, drag a net out, making a show of it. Each time, there are new faces among them, none members of the family. My father will never admit that he is too old to do what he has done every winter for nearly half a century.
My father’s house watches me from on top of the hill, above the pond. The house is red brick, faded with speckled gray and black shingles on the roof. There’s a pecan tree beside the carport, which my sister, my brother, and I used to climb. A long gravel road leads up from the world to his front door. You can see traffic on Highway One down the hill and hear the loud speakers from football games at the high school, both a couple miles away. The house is empty, so I walked down the hill to the Lake. That’s what we’ve always called the stock pond. The mud of the exposed bed is already cracking in the Arkansas heat. They have drained it to make it easier to seine the fish.
The harvest. It will be the last one, we all think. We’ve been saying this for the last couple years as they’ve been selling off more and more of the farm. “This will be the last year,” we say, and then come winter, Dad scrapes together a couple of old drunks and manages to pull it off somehow. Then, we say it again the year after, “This will be the last year.” We’re almost pleading with him to end it. All of his friends, all the old men I’d grown up barely knowing were dying one by one while I was away, every one a surprise I’d forgotten. And with each death, we thought, “Now, he’ll end it.”
“Do you remember Round Boy,” my brother would say on the phone.
He was the one who got hit by a train, years ago, and Dad sent him a new pair of pants in the hospital, with a note saying they were to replace the pair he’d probably soiled when he saw that train coming. “How’s he doing?”
“He died last week.”
Or, “Do you remember Charlie?”
The last time I’d seen him, he was so drunk all he could do was sit in the corner and cry.
“He died Tuesday.”
My father talks less and less about his old friends as there get to be fewer to talk about.
My brother told me that my father had started drinking again. He said, “You remember Jerry Andrews, the oil man?”
Jerry had made millions from owning gas stations.
“Well now Dad carries around a couple of bottles of champagne when he’s watering the rice, and Jerry will stop by the field and have a drink.”
And then Jerry died, and my father drank alone.
Lately, my father seems to be in the hospital about once a week. A month ago, he went to the doctor because he was having trouble eating, and wound up being rushed to the hospital with pneumonia in both lungs. A couple days ago, he was released from another stay after a blood clot in his leg finally subsided. Both times, he immediately went back to work, and within days was seining again.
There is gravel mixed in the mud of the shore. A gravel quarry sits just cattycorner with the Lake. The quarry used to be hills, when I was a child. (To be fair, it used to be a sink hole, that they drained to rocky hills which were mined, stripped down, and hauled away while I watched, wishing they would hurry and be done with it and leave so I could explore this new terrain.)
I realize, all of a sudden, how quiet it is here. The birds have left for fuller terrain, but it isn’t just their calls I don’t hear. It’s the cows. There used to be cows on my father’s land, but he sold them last year, got out of the cattle business completely. I’m surprised that I didn’t notice the silence sooner. I remember a time, after first moving out of my father’s house, when I couldn’t sleep for days. I thought that it was just nerves, being in a new place, being worried about burglars, but after the third night of lying awake listening to the traffic of the interstate a couple blocks away, I backed into my answer. There were no cows. Every night of my life, I had fallen asleep to the sounds of cattle breathing, crying out, chewing. I gauged the seasons by their noises. There was no fence around my father’s house; it had been knocked down years earlier. The cows ambled right up to the brick exterior. Sometimes they rubbed themselves against the bricks, scratching. I realized that the cars almost sounded like animals. There was a steady rhythm of motors that seemed like some strange herd breathing, so I was able to sleep. Now the cows were gone for good. I ambled into the pasture, away from the lake and listened. In the distance, I could hear the noise of traffic down the hill.
Back at my father’s house, I don’t even want to think about how few trees are left. Later, I will mention it to my father and he will say, “I do the best I can to save them,” surprising me. He is just around the hill at The Fish Shack, where he sells the fish, cleaned and cut up however you please.
Beyond The Fish Shack is a field he used to own. He grew corn there, grapes, milo, more things than I can remember. I used to ride on the tractor with him while he plowed it. Once, I sat beside him, hanging my feet out over the giant rear tire of the tractor because I was too young to know any better. As he came to the end of a row and turned, I fell. The lumpy ground came up at me so fast I never realized that I was about to be mangled by the plow. But he saw me, stopped the tractor and jumped down to pick me up, so scared that it took him a full minute to yell at me.
Once, my brother, my father, and I were burning the chaff off a field and the fire spread too fast. We formed a ring around the diesel gas pump near the field and beat the grass with shovels, my father shoveling dirt to bury the flames so fast I forgot where I was and stood in the middle of death’s eyes and watched him work, until my singeing hair reminded me there was danger.
In that same field, I sat the next year eating a watermelon I’d found growing wild in the middle of milo.
A man died there, once, walking out of that field after harvesting grapes all day. He fell over stone dead at the doorway to The Fish Shack from a burst blood vessel in his brain, but this was before my time. What little work I did on the farm before shipping off to college made me envy the dead man, though, every day I came in from the fields sure I was going to die from exhaustion, and every morning I woke, almost disheartened I was still alive.
My father doesn’t own the field anymore. He sold it, part of it to a church, part of it to a company that built a nursing home. Only months after it was built, my mother moved in. She could look out her window and see her home, on top of the hill less than a mile away, if she could remember that there even was a window. But I’m not going there, yet. Maybe that is why I am doing this, walking by the lake, driving around; maybe I am just buying time.
When I get to The Fish Shack, my father is not there. The parking lot is white dust and thin pea gravel. Down here, it is flat. It is delta. There is nothing down here but rice fields and mosquitoes. I grew up in something of an odd place, on a hill, overlooking the delta. A ridge, specifically: Crowley’s Ridge, a geographical anomaly. A few years ago, scientists from all over the country converged on our backyard to study the dirt. They said we had dirt that didn’t exist anywhere else in this hemisphere. They said there was some like it in China. My father said it was just from all the cow shit, but he told me not to tell them that, it might disappoint them.
My father had jet black hair until he was in his sixties, then it faded to gray. My father has red skin, he doesn’t claim tribal membership but they say my grandmother was close to full-blooded Cherokee. My father tends to be red in the face, but I don’t know if this can be entirely attributed to his lineage. My father doesn’t drink champagne in the rice fields anymore. He’s sold the fields. The world keeps creeping closer and closer, the town encroaching on my father’s farm more and more each year. Now my father drinks champagne at home. We’re all worried about that, but no one mentions it. It’s something he’s struggled with all his life. When Mom went into the nursing home when I was fifteen, he dried out. Lay on the couch for a couple days, sweating it out, then got up one morning, showered, changed clothes and went to work.
My father grew up during the Depression. He had ten siblings. He dropped out of high school to work, though he claims that he would’ve been valedictorian. He fought in WWII, lost a brother there, then came back to farm. They wanted to send him for officer training, but he just wanted to come home.
I am looking around the parking lot, thinking about him, when I notice his truck at the shed he keeps fish tanks in. I walk over, remembering the last time I was there. It was winter, a couple years ago. He’d been dumping a load of fish in a vat. This meant opening a drain valve on the tank in the back of his truck and pouring the water out, and then dumping the fish into the vat. There was snow on the ground. His hands were straining the water in case any fish got through the narrow opening. It must have been freezing. His breath did not steam, he was so cold. I just stared at the thin cloth gloves over his hands. He said that the rubber gloves made him drop the fish.
As I approach the shed this time, he walks out. “Hey boy,” he says. I see his hand compulsorily reaching for his back pocket. His wallet. I smile, but part of me wants to grab him, drag him home and shackle him to the couch with a good western on TV. We’ve told him that he shouldn’t work so hard, that he doesn’t need to. We’ve told him to stay home more, relax. “What good is that?” is his answer.
“Getting a good haul?” is all I can say. Now that he’s sold off the rest of the farm, the fish are all that’s left. Every morning, he rises before dawn, my brother tells me, and goes out to feed them, as he has every morning of my life, and most of his. It’s all he has left.
“About to go for one more load, but everyone left me,” he says.
“Need some help then?” I ask. For a moment, I am almost the son I always wanted to be, pitching in to help this old man who doesn’t know how to do anything but work. Ten minutes later I would be sitting beside him as he drove his old black ford down the hill to the Lake. I would be wearing another man’s waders. My father would pull up to the tractor and push his door open. I remember that he never closes it, just pulls it to. He would walk to the seine sitting on the bank and pick up one end, and I would step up as he handed me the other. He would stride out into the water, and I would almost have to run to catch him. My feet would sink deep into the mud as I pulled the seine after me and tried to fan out.
“You sure you want to do this?” He would yell. “I hate to think what you’re going to tell all your college buddies about me.”
With each step my legs would sink deeper into the mud, and I would have to rock them side to side to get them out, as I’ve seen men do time and again. After a few feet, I would give up any hope of catching up to my father.
“Tell them that easy living has got to you. Tell them you couldn’t keep up with a seventy‑six‑year‑old man,” he would say, joking, but at this point I would be gone, sunk completely under the mud, drowning my way to China. Even this, I couldn’t manage.
“No,” he says. “Somebody will be around directly.”
I watch my father’s tired muscles push his body across the parking lot. Inside the Fish Shack, he sits in an old plastic‑backed chair, looks out the window, and studies the weather. The building is drafty with exposed black insulation on the outside. Big metal tubs, the ends of barrels that had been sawed off, sit on the floor. This is where the fish guts go. An old man used to pick them up every few days to feed to his pigs.
“Gonna get cold,” my father says. “I hope you’ve got a better jacket than that, when the cold hits.”
“Dad,” I say. “How are you? What’d the doctors say?”
“Aww, they turned me loose soon as they saw how ornery I was.” He grins.
“How’s your leg? Did they say the blood clot was gone? Completely? Do you think it’s a good idea to be seining? Shouldn’t you wait a while, at least?”
“No, I’m fine,” he says, annoyed that all I know is to pester him, like a woman, he’s said many times.
“You’ve got to take care of yourself, Dad; you’re getting on in years. You’ve got to rest, and do what the doctors say.”
He nods. “I get along fine. Are you gonna need some money for gas to get you back to Fayetteville?” He asks.
I shake my head. I can’t take his money, even if I’m starving. He’ll only wait until I’m gone, put it in an envelope and mail it to me. He is my father, and he will not listen.
We exchange awkward hugs and I get in my car.
“Be careful,” he says. “Lots of crazy drivers out there on the weekend.”
I want to tell him to go home, relax, put his feet up. Instead, I pull out onto the road. It used to be gravel but now it’s been paved. On my right, they’re building a church in what used to be the Bledsoe vineyard. Past that is the nursing home.
I remember when I was younger, every so often we’d see foxes crossing the field from the woods that no longer exist on the other side of the road. Deer, coyotes. I haven’t heard a coyote in years. I learned to drive on these roads, back when they were gravel, before that, when they were dirt. Now, there’s a subdivision of thin‑shelled ugly houses with tiny yards. I drive on. Behind me, my father is sitting, reading a newspaper, waiting for the crew to show up so he can seine again. What else is he going to do?
© C.L. Bledsoe