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An excerpt from the book "What the River Means," by Elizabeth Hodges

"What the River Means"

My Grandfather and the Fish

The pike is a fierce and voracious fish, even devouring small waterfowl and mammals, and it puts up a strong fight when hooked. James Beard, James Beard's Fish Cookery, 1954.

Pike will eat their young. Barry Lopez, "Yukon-Charley: The Shape of Wilderness," 1983.

Dawn, August 1963

Dog days on the Severn River: the water is bathtub warm and brown from an August of no rain and endless heat. The tides rise and fall in slow motion as if they rise and fall in vats of molasses. There are dead fish on the shore. The stinging nettles are big, and they come in white and pink, yellow and rose, purple. We kids are sure that the different colors actually sting with different severity. Adults do not agree, but we kids are right. When the nettles arrive, we usually just smear on Vaseline and mineral oil and let their slick coating try and protect us. But this summer is extra bad. No one--not even the dogs--will go in the water, and that is serious surrender.

For several years, I have been going out with my grandfather in his boat most mornings when he goes fishing. He can't eat fish anymore, but the fire to catch them schedules his retirement. I am his tender. He had a problem with sunstroke (brought on by Old Crow bourbon) when I was seven, and since then I have gone out with him most days in case the sun got to him again and he couldn't get himself home.

Early every morning I leave my house with a bacon and egg sandwich in my hand and cut across our back yard and a neighbor's to the road, to the beach hill, and down to the pier. My grandfather always leaves about the same time and drives down. He's always there waiting in his skiff when I arrive, and he always tells me I am late. I climb silently off the pier into the skiff, never suggesting that I ride with him. I like the walk alone through dew-damp grass in innocent morning light. Nor does he suggest I ride with him, and I never wonder why.

As my grandfather primes the engine, thumb thunking the black button on the greasy red gas tank, I inhale slowly the perfume of the diluted gasoline that radiates out from the five horse outboard in concentric rainbow circles on the brown glass surface of the motionless morning river. Then I watch the rainbow shatter into ripples of hues when he pulls the cord and the engine sputters to life. We back away from the pilings with a comforting growl and putt around the end of the pier to an area, just down river from the pier, where boats too large and deep to moor at the pier are moored at floating buoys, small empty barrels like beer kegs or red and orange spheres the size of beach balls, all chained to cement anchors. We tie the skiff to his buoy, pull up to his big boat with its many horsepower motors and clamber aboard. For me it is always a scramble. Every day I bark the same part of my left shin bone climbing the three feet up from the edge of the skiff into his fishing boat.

We fish all over, up river for yellow perch, down toward the bay for white perch, blues, croakers, spot. Nine miles down where the Severn meets the Chesapeake we troll out into the bay over oyster beds for rockfish, often pulling up toadfish, which Granddaddy pierces through the brain with a hunting knife and flings off the stern, slicing their bodies out over the water in an arc of red spray. One day, in silence, we skim across the river and down toward Annapolis, nibbling on the forbidden Danishes he always manages to have on board, him sipping from a thermos of coffee steaming with the scent of bourbon. We come abreast of a point, just after the next-to-last bridge, and turn right into a cove you wouldn't know is there, if you didn't know the river well. He calls to me over the engine to be ready to drop the anchor, and I am. When he says "Now," I drop it and read its rope with my palms as it skips along the bottom until it snags. Then we bait, cast, and sit to fish.

As usual, I have one rod and reel. He has three. I sit with mine in my hands, daydreaming as I stare off down its length. He sits watching his as they stretch from their rod holders on the deck of his boat. It is a perfect spot, over weeds just off a sandbar. The fish nibble. The lapping and swelling lull. The gentle water slaps the wood of the boat playfully where water and hull meet. Out on the river beyond the cove, engines of other boats hum steadily, near then away, remote and calming like the drone of cicadas in steaming, still summer. Near the far shore, a blue heron fishes along with us. A true angler, so still and silent. We watch for golf balls from the course above the point to zing out into the water. "Waste of money," my grandfather says. "Gone forever."

"Not necessarily," I think, knowing of a Nancy Drew mystery in which Nancy finds the golf ball clue in several feet of water. Sometimes, too, I kayak over here on my own and search the shore and shallows for balls for my father.

We are fishing for perch, white or yellow. For a while we catch them just right, not too fast, not too slow. The stringer of fish looks healthier and healthier each time we pull it from the water to add a fish. We've caught several good dinners here, and soon it will soon be time to go. My line starts out again and the pole begins to bend. I feel sharp hard tugs and uneven pauses. Hard. Almost too hard. I get excited. Granddaddy grabs the pole from me and pulls it back in a huge long-armed arc. Graceful. Whatever has the hook resists, then pauses. "It's an eel, Bets." He hands the pole back. "Don't bring an eel into the boat."

Eels. In this river they get as much as six maybe seven feet long and two and a half even three inches in diameter. They are like snakes only slimy. My dad and uncles like to eat them. Me, they just fascinate and scare. I have a hard time resisting the urge to catch them, maybe to get them on my turf, if only so I can study them hard.

If this is an eel, which I know for sure it isn't, it will be the biggest I have seen. I keep reeling and feeling the line and my grandfather keeps warning me about the consequences of bringing an eel into the boat. You can never completely wash an eel away. Where they touch a pier, a boat, they leave a sticky coating of green mucous vegetable scunge all over. You always know where an eel has been. And if you get a finger in its mouth, it is like your finger is caught in a pair of heavy relentless pliers. But I know this isn't an eel. My grandfather just won't listen. And I have to make sure, just a look.

Back and forth we go--

"It's not an eel."

"It's an eel, Bets."

"It's not an eel."

"It's an eel, Bets."

--till I see a shadowy shape rising sharply yet eerily from the murk and beginning to fight harder and harder. I call out, "It's a barracuda, Granddaddy." But my grandfather sits and ignores me. Doesn't budge. Doesn't look. Angry. He opens his newspaper between us like a curtain. "I need the net. I can't hardly hold this." He ignores me still. So I wrench the fish somehow up and into the boat.

It is a pike. Easily eight pounds. Maybe more. It throws those pounds around with a frenzy I am sure will land it out of the boat again. But my grandfather snaps to action, grabs the fish and yells "Line! Line!" I reel in some, not realizing he wants more line instead of less. He yells. My hook has pierced his thumb, past the barb. He wrenches it out and then, and then? Then he begins a steady and economical purging of the boat.

My rod goes first. He breaks the pole into four pieces and throws the handful of shiny shellacked brown sticks over the side in a bunch, punching the water. Then the cushions. Orange. Blue. Green. One by one in quick succession they fly low over the water, spinning like boomerangs, till they slap into a skid on the surface and skip like stones a little further from where they landed. As the first cushion flies, the heron jolts up into the air, with its prehistoric squawk, and heads for a tree at the far point in the cove. I hunch low in the back left corner of the stern, holding on, my fingers under the edges of the fiberglass deck at the sides where there is a gap left for rain and spray to escape to the bilge. The pike throws itself around the deck. The sides of the boat are too high for it to get back to the water. The oars follow, awkwardly rotating, blade over end over blade, once or twice until, gawky, their broad ends trip on the water and the oars angle down and pierce the water, then bob awkwardly as they sink.

I know I could make it to shore. No problem. But we are on the other side of the river, at least six miles down river from the pier. I would have to find a phone and explain to too many people why I was stranded.

A spare gas tank splashes in a bellyflop. The perch we caught. His deck chair. The Danish. His newspaper. I huddle in the corner until the only things left in the boat are me, the pike still slapping around the boat, my grandfather's rods and reels. His thermos. Him. With a silver slash of steel blade, his hunting knife severs the rope that holds us to the anchor, and he starts the boat up. His lines still out, their poles bend like willow limbs in a strong wind as he tears too fast out of the cove, revs the engine full, and throws the boat over waves and wakes back up the river to his mooring and home. I huddle, the day gone wild and frightening, bleak and unsure.

We surge straight and fast across the river, no mind paid to smaller boats, till we get to his buoy. He ties up, takes the pike into the skiff with him and putts back to the pier. He gets smaller as he goes and fades from color to silhouette. As he marches up the pier to his car, the pike swings from his stringer, still flapping and fighting. I watch his car disappear up the steep beach road going home. He never said a word. Nor did I. I have made myself as small as possible, crouching against the boat's ribs in the back left corner. Alone now, I listen as silence grows loud. No people are in the water or on the beach. No geese or swans honk and hiss in the shallows. Only crows break the silence, filling the hollow sky now and then, their grating metal caws announcing the presence of dead fish washed ashore.

My mother told me much later, when I finally felt able to recount this series of events, that she knew something was wrong when my grandfather drove in fast and slammed the car door so hard that it might have broken the window. He had broken car windows before. She was afraid to go next door and ask what was wrong, what I had done, where I was. After a while, when I didn't follow him home, she drove down to the beach. I saw her car coming down the beach hill and ducked down, peering carefully through gaps in the bundle of tarp my grandfather had neglected to snap over the boat. She got out and walked out the pier to the skiff's slip, looked out at the boat. Finally, she walked back to the car, climbed in, drove away. I stayed in the boat as the sun moved from right above towards the west, letting my body bake on the gritty fiberglass deck, letting the sun sear my skin rather than seeking shade in the packed prow or swimming to shore. Occasionally I rose to peek over the edge of the boat at the shore up the hill towards home. Waiting for I don't know what--perhaps for the feeling that my chest and belly were collapsing, that I was caving into myself, to ebb. Perhaps just hanging on to the last peace I thought I'd ever know. The sun burned down and the boat rocked, drifting far enough every once in a while to pull hard at its chain and then give in to its mooring a hundred and fifty yards off shore. And finally, I lowered my body down into the tepid dog days' river, without the armor of mineral oil and Vaseline to protect me from stinging nettles, and I began a slow crawl shoreward, the tentacles of nettles caressing my exposed flesh, burning, the ropy lengths of tall seaweed reaching almost to the surface and winding their strands around my legs and arms, pulling and dragging at me until I could only swim like a retriever, legs and arms spinning up close to the body, my chin pointed up and towards the beach. By the time I got to the shore, welts like red varicose veins were rising wherever the nettles' tentacles had caressed me.

2:11am, September 17, 1973

My grandfather sleeps on his back au naturale. I pass the open door of the room he sleeps in, my parents' room, on my way to bed. In the light from the bathroom, left on so he doesn't wake up in confusion, I can see quite clearly that his balls are shriveled like prunes, gnarled like the shells of black walnuts. But pale like anemic chicken livers. Maybe mauve. The door is open so I can hear him if he calls. Night after night for almost two weeks now, I've helped him sit up and then shouldered him down from my parents' tall post bed where he is sleeping during his visit. Guide and crutch, I half carry him to the toilet so he can urinate. I have gotten to know the contours of his big-boned old body, with its flaccid and pale flesh, long white whiskers sprouting from his chest like the wires of broken springs spiraling through a chair seat. He is six-four, but weak. He feels fragile to me--I worry as I guide and support that my fingers' pressure on his ribs might rub his crepe paper skin away and he might bleed.

In the middle of the night, I go to him when he cries out "Sis!" and wakes me. It interests me that he calls me this. Sis is the name he's always called Mom, which confused me when I was a kid. Mom was his daughter, not his sister. For no reason I can really recall, I eventually knew that for him his women were sort of generic. He called my sisters and my cousins Sis. He called mom Sis and my grandmother, his wife, Mom. I was fourteen before I realized that my grandmother and I shared the same first name. Elizabeth.

But now, at night, he calls out Sis and I go, to balance his near two hundred pounds of bone and flesh, stagger-stepping him from the bed through the dark bedroom to the brightly lit bathroom. I hold him up in front of the toilet, my arm around his waist as if in a hug, while he drapes his long skinny penis over the long warped fingers of his right hand and lets go a yellow stream in stops and starts, a trickle, a rush, a trickle.

It would be easier for us both, but he just will not sit down to pee. He is not shamed that I stand there, twenty, full-breasted and firm, supple and strong, lush, holding him while I brace myself against the cold tile wall so we won't fall. He says, "Girls sit." I wonder if he knows which Sis I am. I watch and wonder if he's unembarrassed because I'm just family.

During the day, he seems to know I'm a granddaughter, though he still calls me Sis. I keep him entertained, bake apple pies and let him eat them warm with butter and slabs of sharp yellow cheddar. Today, when I pressed the knife through the cheese, I remembered one night when I ate alone with my grandparents at their house. Though they lived fifty yards from our back door, I hardly ever ate any meals at their table on my own. But this night, I think Mom was still in Annapolis in the hospital after having my new sister, Kathy, and that Dad was visiting. I was just seven.

My grandmother brought a hot apple pie to the table, sweet-scented steam rising gustily through the brown-edged A for Apple. As she went back to the kitchen to get the butter she always slipped in between the upper crust and the hot fruit before she passed a slice, Granddaddy winked at me and whispered, "Watch this, Bets." Then he called out, "Bring some cheese, Mom?"

My grandmother came back, anger stretching eyes to slits, her lips to lines, butter plate in her hand, and snapped that if he wanted to spoil her good pie with rat cheese to damn well get it himself. And he did. And then he began to eat his hot pie with thick slices of cheese, sassy lip-sucking and mm-mms with each full mouth. Grandmother steamed in silence. Granddaddy offered me a slice of cheese, and I almost took it, like a fish to bait. But it was bait, and nowadays I think he meant it as bait. It was too much of a test of my guts allegiance. I wanted, suddenly, to just leave, so my slice hardly touched, I said I was too full to eat anything and could I be excused. And excused I went, out into the surprisingly warm mid-March evening, across the wide yard, and back to the safe upstairs of my home. Lifting the window facing down on their house, I watched and listened. Through their opened back door, I heard my grandmother's voice rise up and his roar answer.

2:17am, September 18

I am keeping him entertained by playing the guitar and singing. "Waltzing Mathilda, waltzing Mathilda, will you come a waltzing Mathilda with me?" I sing that song at least fifteen times a day. It seems to be his favorite. He always has liked what Grandmother used to call "those bawdy songs"--those raucous, hip-slapping, stomping songs. He never liked sweet or bittersweet or just plain sad or bitter songs, and he had no use at all for classical music. Mostly, the songs he likes have some sex to them, but when I was a kid and he came into the house while I was practicing the piano, the best I could do was to stop wrestling with Clemente or Schubert and play something he liked. The "Little Brown Jug" or "Blue Tail Fly." Some polka. He liked the beat. Nowadays I do know a few truly bawdy songs I can sing to him, and a few I shouldn't, but today I sang those too. "Don't You Feel My Leg (Don't You Make Me High)" . . . "Woman Be Wise" . . . "Let Me Be Your Blender, Babe." They keep him happy, particularly the blender song when I get to whipping, chopping and pureeing. He slaps his thigh and laughs and calls me Sis. It helps us pass these days waiting for someone to come home so I can go back to school.

2:13am, September 19

He was only here about thirty-two hours when he got to Mom so badly that she finally just threw some things in her car and drove off. I don't blame her. I should be worried, but right now I can't say I feel much. Dad is gone on business. I have always been one of those people who can smooth things out between people, but with Granddaddy here, I have met my match. I sent Kath off to stay with her friend, Lisa. My little sister has such a temper. She tolerates no seeming sin against her thirteen-year-old self. My grandfather has always been quick to zero in on sore spots, like a yellow jacket to a rotten spot on a windfall pear, and my sister has got a bunch of sore spots these days. She does not know this man like I do. She would not be careful. She has yet to learn caution.

So it's just him and me, this grandfather and me. If I have to be the one to take care of him with no adults around to help, because right now, even almost at 21, I don't feel much like an adult in some ways, well, I certainly don't need my little sister acting out. I need to keep cool and tend to the immediate.

Today I added to my repertoire. "Alberta let your hair hang low. Alberta let your hair hang low. I'll give you more gold, than your pockets will hold, Alberta let your hair hang low" and I baked another pie and sliced up the cheddar. No problem. It's sort of getting routine now.

10:32pm -- September 20

The smell of him is beginning to get to me. I can help him to the toilet at night so he makes it on time, but I am not sure how to get him clean of daily sweat and armpits. I have suggested a bath, but he doesn't want one. He asks, "What have I done to get dirty, Sis?" It's not that he's modest. He just does not want to get wet and chilled, and I can understand that, but still. There's a stand-up shower I might shove him into, but if his knees give way like they do at times, he'll fold up like some collapsible chair, and I'll have a hell of a time getting him out of that narrow space without hurting us both.

3:41am, September 21

After eight days, I have cracked. I put a step stool in the bathroom this evening and when he called Sis and he finished his pee, I as gently as possible forced him to sit on the stool while I ran soapy hot water in the sink and sponged him down. He whined. Scary. "Aw Sis, don't. It's cold. I'm cold. It's cold. I'm cold." He was keening. I never knew what that sound really was till now. His voice rising like a high pitched siren, like the ones in war movies that keen over London when the Nazi bombers are zeroing in. "You're killing me Sis. You're killing me. Freezing me, Sis. Aw, Sis. Aw, Sis."

He scared me. He hit a high pitch and held it, long and clear, like the eerie howl of a beagle trailing a scent through a cornfield in a raw and gray November dusk when the uncut stalks stand tall and dry and rustle, making sounds like scratches on an old 78. Like the beagle whining on and on, up one row, down the next, Granddaddy kept up his echoing whine. A bath had seemed like a good idea. It was just water, but he keened on and on with a terrible rhythm till he started flailing, whipping the air with his arms like he was a windmill, swatting at me like I was a gnat. I worked fast. I told him, "It's warm water," trying to keep my voice sweet and get the soap off him. When his bony forearm connected hard with my nose and drew blood, I gave in.

I can't sleep. I keep hearing him telling me I'm killing him.

5:19am, September 22

Around 4 this morning he tried to make the toilet on his own and fell. He is so big, and one leg got bent under him. He is so heavy. He wet himself and made a mess of my mother's white rug. He's got a lump on his forehead and a bad bruise coming up on his shoulder. I think he hit the bed when he fell. I have been scared in my life, but this was different. I thought he was dead, and it would have been my fault. I have promised him no more baths and have been putting arnica and witch hazel on the bruises. I can hear him breathing evenly now. I feel so hollowed out.

12:15pm, September 22

So far, he's staying in bed today. Nice, though I feel guilty. But I need a break from needing to do showtime all the time. Time to think. The longer this goes on the more I remember. I am a little unnerved by how much there is to remember, how much I've forgotten.

I remember that when I was a kid, Granddaddy shot any cats that he saw come into the yard around his house. It didn't matter that they were the cats from the Schroederer's place down the road and that he knew it. He shot them anyway. Now Thomas P. Whiskers, big and black, our near feral tom, sleeps away his days on the foot of my parents' bed. Granddaddy seems tickled to have the company.

Grandmom didn't seem to care about the cats, but she was very protective of squirrels. She tamed them. Bunbuns. I still call them bunbuns, even though I try not to. She'd sit on the back steps humming out, "Here bunbun, come and get a peanut. Here bunbun here bunbun. Come and get a pea-nut." And those squirrels came. They took the nuts right out of her fingers without ever biting or scratching. Some would climb up her pants leg to get a nut. One old fat one with only half a tail would sit on her shoulder to get nuts. One day, my grandfather was outside by the steps. He had shorts on, no shirt, and I don't know why he was dumb enough to stand like he was, hips cocked, one leg slightly thrust forward, as he said something to my grandmother through the screen door. He stood there the way Grandmom stood when she called squirrels, and they really didn't need calling anymore. The fat one just came out of nowhere and scaled my grandfather's bare leg and chest right to his shoulder. I stood at the upstairs window facing their house and watched. I remember that I giggled once, as I watched, out of nervousness, I think.

11:22pm, September 22

Granddaddy has always been a tester and a judge, one of those people who has a place for everyone and always makes sure they know exactly where it is. I've learned that there are many people like that and that I am perversely drawn to them. Early conditioning, I suppose. I would have done anything to pass one of his tests with the very best grade. He used to lean towards me and smile and say, "Hey Bets. How are you?" and he'd squeeze my knee or elbow joint until I thought he'd press his fingers through and pinch my lower arm or leg right off. I'd smile into his brown eyes and say, "I'm fine. Just fine." But I wasn't and tears always oozed just enough from the corners of my eyes to give me away.

But to be fair, it wasn't just us kids he tested. Once he squeezed my father's right hand so hard in a handshake that my father brought his left fist up into Granddaddy's sternum and evicted the wind out of him. His eyes hardened to marbles, but his smile stayed in place.

4:44am, September 23

I can't sleep. When I try I get trapped somewhere between sleep and waking. In the doze-zone. Paralysis. The house is so quiet. I am just sitting here in my bed listening for something. Keeping some vigil. And remembering. They say your life passes before your eyes as you drown. For days now I have found myself drowning in memories, wading through the now, then suddenly caught in a rip tide of the forgotten. Brains are attics with many trunks, often musty, a different key for each lock. And the trunk lids fly up and open without warning. Today, as I sat by his bed and played and talked, he started talking about the river, the fishing that was so much a rhythm of my life. He lay there recalling trips with my cousin Tim and Uncle Carver, with Mr. Peterson and Mr. MacCroirie. I was the one who went out with him most, yet it seems like he doesn't recall that. He said, "You were good at catching those minnows, Sis, and you were good at catching those eels."

"I was pretty good at other things too," I responded. "I caught my share of fish."

"Yeah," he snorted, "fishing up golf balls over near Sherwood Forest."

In my head, the lid of a trunk flung itself sharply open with the squawk of a startled great blue heron and the jolt of a boat moving too fast and direct across the wakes of other boats. I had, until this moment, forgotten that fish, that pike I caught, consumed a decade ago by Mr. MacCroirie and his wife, the neighbors to whom Granddaddy gave it along with a tall tale, a fish story of him struggling to bring it into the boat, with no net and too light a weight of line. I felt again the sun, the stillness of the moored boat, the grit of the deck, the fear of that day gone wild. At the edge of the woods beyond my parents' bedroom window, the crows of 1973 called back those crows on the shore ten years ago, and I felt again my own body caving into itself.

"Those were good days on that Severn River," he said, that frail old man lying comfortable in my parents' bed, pleased that a cat he would have shot ten years ago lay curled up at his feet. I sat very still, for a long while, and watched him and my black tom cat doze, knowing that all his river memories were sunlit.

How is it, I wonder, that we can forget our lives?

Excerpt © 1999 Duquesne University Press. Posted with permission of Duquesne University Press.

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