© James J. Doyle 2012
“Dem fisheez dey sure be a bitin’.”
On the other end of the phone line, Uncle Joe heard the Cajun chew, stop and blow a bubble. Archibald had one of the finest fishing operations in southern Louisiana and an almost unnatural fondness for bubble gum.
“I’ll be there Tuesday,” Uncle Joe said.
He heard the bubble break, followed by muffled unintelligible sounds.
“Have Celestin pick me up.”
“Hill bee der.” Scratching, pulling noises accompanied the words.
“We’ll talk more later.” Uncle Joe said, hanging up.
He needed to pack and load the pickup.
It was a long way by truck and boat to Archibald Brokenpaddle’s Cajun Swamp Camp.
* * *
Butte La Rose, Louisiana sits at the big bend in the Atchafalaya River. It is a small community on the high ground near the water and the start of the Atchafalaya Swamp. The swamp of the long river is the largest swamp in North America and one of the most productive and isolated wetlands in the world.
After being forced from Canada, the Acadians found this remote hideaway more than two hundred years before. The Atchafalaya was where many started their new lives. Near the river and within the protected boundaries of the swamp, they became Cajuns.
Before the Cajuns, the butte had been home to the Chitimacha Indians. The Chitimacha are like no other tribe. Their language is spoken nowhere else on the planet. Chitimacha still reside at the butte and in the swamp.
Uncle Joe set the trip gauge back to “0,” got out and grabbed the duffle bag. He’d filled it with groceries at the last road stop.
Standing on the dock with the duffle and other gear at his feet, Joe raised his hand and waved.
A long, wide-bottom boat with a big outboard motor pulled alongside the pier. The red-skinned driver nodded, smiled and reached to hold the post. Uncle Joe stepped aboard. There would be no words. Celestin Rose could not speak. It was said in town that Butte La Rose was named after one of his ancestors, a famous Chitimacha grand chief, a warrior and a hunter whose line reached far back in these waters.
Smiling to the Indian, Joe settled on a middle bench as Celestin turned the boat and opened the engine up.
In the bright sun, they slid across the dark water of the channel. Uncle Joe gazed into the haunting and mysterious beauty of the towering moss-draped bald cypress trees lining the banks.
* * *
Uncle Joe and Archibald Brokenpaddle stood on the front porch of Archy’s house boat. Cajuns call their homes “camps.” Archibald’s camp was a ramshackle floating structure anchored to the shore and connected to his dock and boats.
“Where will we fish today?” Uncle Joe asked.
“Monsieur Oncle Joe, for you, ownze de best fisheen spodt.” Archy popped a piece of bubble gum into his mouth and continued. “I was thinking a longer ride out and then working back. We’ll take Celestin.”
From past experience, Uncle Joe knew that Archibald would be speaking his own blend of Louisiana Cajun and then switch to everyday American English. The transitions were not predictable.
Archy had told Joe once that he blamed it all on a proper education.
* * *
The fishing was slow. They’d caught crappies, sunfish and a few small-sized bass. No big bass or drums had taken the bait.
Searching for the bigger fish, they’d wandered off the main channel into a tree-lined side lane. Uncle Joe could probably find the way back, but he was glad Celestin was driving.
“I am sorree, Joe. Nuffin make the beeg fisheez bite dis day.” Archy blew a bubble and pulled it in. “Should we call it quits and head back?”
Uncle Joe had been watching different kinds of bubbles in the water. Could it be a big fish? The bursts and circular motions on the surface were moving away into a denser portion of the cypress-willow-tupelo swamp, where it was darker and difficult to see between the trunks.
“Can we try over there?” Joe pointed.
Archibald motioned in sign language to Celestin, who turned the boat and moved them in that direction.
Beyond a group of cypress roots knotted above the water and looking like knees, Uncle Joe saw farther into the swamp.
“There’s a small channel in here, Archibald. Let’s see where it goes?”
Archibald looked at Celestin, who made quick signs.
“Celestin says we should not go this way. Dat is sometin. He does not say dis often.”
About twenty feet ahead, something twisted in the water and made a large circle and splash.
“It’s a big one, Archibald. There’s still light left.”
Archibald motioned with one hand to Celestin, who guided the boat forward into the narrow space between the trees.
Ground began to appear on each side, seeming to lift the trees out of the water, defining the tight stream. Branches and moss reached down, blocking the watery path. The men lifted the drooping barriers aside.
“Der is sometin about dis place, Joe. I tink der is sometin saved up and old here.” Archibald removed his gum, wrapped it in a piece of paper and put it in his pocket.
Joe watched his friend, then turned toward the front of the boat. There he saw a line of sticks poking just above the surface of the water and stretching from bank to bank.
“Celestin, there ahead.” Joe waved forward.
The boat edged closer.
Joe moved to the bow and reached out to the tops of the sticks. He untangled some vines and started to push. “Celestin, bring the boat forward slowly. Archibald, take that side and push your section open and away from the boat.”
“Dese branches oldee stuffs, but workin jus fine.” Archy’s face held a questioning look. He pulled his hand back into the boat and changed dialects. “This is a gate in the water.”
As they floated forward, the cypress trunks grew bigger and farther apart. More light filtered to the smooth surface which stretched out in a wide expanse broken only by single trees reaching high into the sky. To the sides, the cypress, willow and tupelo crowded close forming a dense barrier.
“It’s like a meadow,” Uncle Joe said softly, “a water meadow.”
They turned to see a large fish break the water and smack back against the surface.
Archibald and Uncle Joe reached for their poles, cast the baited lines out from the boat and reeled slowly back.
Uncle Joe jerked his line and set the hook. “On!” he yelled. The fish ran, turned, dived and came up, bursting through the surface in a jump and twisting back with a flop into the water. Tiring, the big fish tried a shorter run and turned back toward the boat. Pole bent, Joe worked the fish closer.
From the side, a line of bubbles and circles moved quickly and intersected Joe’s line, which went limp.
Archibald shouted from the other side of the boat as he set the hook and fought to bring the fish nearer.
The bubbles and circles zipped in, and his line fell loose.
Archibald touched the broken line.
“Joe, der is a ting in dis water.” Archibald paused and glanced back at Celestin. The Indian’s face was unreadable. “Something here asks for our respect.”
The boat rocked from a nudge to its side.
Joe and Archibald looked at each other and nodded.
Watching, Celestin turned the boat back toward the water gate.
* * *
Ahead, the camp was visible in the fading light.
“My friend,” Archibald said, “I cannot join you tomorrow. An old customer called before you arrived. It is three days. We will camp in the swamp. Pardonneze-moi. The moneez dey are très bon. Please, my friend, you will take Celestin with you, yes?”
“Celestin has other work he needs to do here at the camp.” Uncle Joe answered. “I know the waters. Let me have a boat and I’ll be back before nightfall.”
“Of course, the boat is yours. May the fisheez dey be vit vous.”
“One thing, Archibald,” Uncle Joe said as gazed off into the trees. “That big drum fish alive in the camp tank, can I take him with me in the morning?”
Archibald narrowed his eyes, blinked them wide open and pulled out a new square of bubble gum.
“Fer vous, anyting. Mine is yours always. And, my friend. . . .” Archibald gestured with the piece of gum between them. “Be careful.”
* * *
Next morning, Celestin helped place the big live drum fish in a large cooler of fresh water in the middle of the boat.
As Uncle Joe turned the boat and headed down the channel, the Indian watched without moving.
That night, Uncle Joe returned with a different big fish alive in the cooler and a catch of many more big fish.
Celestin and Joe put the one live fish in the camp tank. Then, they cleaned and filleted the rest of the catch. Most of the filets would stay at the camp to be sold to help with expenses. A sampling would travel back with Uncle Joe to Texas to share with family and guests. It was a good division between friends.
The Chitimachan noticed that Uncle Joe was soaked when he arrived back with the fish, but the native made no comment.
The next day, Uncle Joe and Celestin put the new big live fish from the day before in the cooler. That evening, Joe returned with a different live fish in the cooler for the next day. The boat also held a catch of many more fish. Uncle Joe’s clothing was again drenched.
The morning of the third day, Celestin helped load the live fish into the cooler and see Joe off, down the river and into the swamp.
When Uncle Joe had passed from view, the Indian moved to another boat and left for a different channel.
* * *
“Ms. Mildred New Bedford,” the voice said from behind his back.
Startled, Uncle Joe turned to take the outstretched hand.
“I see you have quite a few fish there. And, you’re soaked to the bone.”
He and Celestin had just pulled the cooler with another large live fish out of the boat. They had started to unload the remaining fish for processing. Joe glanced back at the Indian working in the boat.
“Don’t worry,” Ms. Mildred said. “Celestin can handle it. Come sit with me on the porch.”
She turned and walked down the dock. Old and frayed, her wide pleated green dress was patched with fabric pieces of every imaginable color and pattern. A bright turquoise shirt with long sleeves added a pleasant topping to the disarray of hues below. The wide-brimmed straw hat, adorned with feathers, bones and stick pins, bounced with Ms. Mildred as she moved toward the porch.
Uncle Joe did not know what to think as his eyes and feet followed the display.
Mildred New Bedford sat in the large orange rocker and motioned Uncle Joe to a chair beside her.
“My nephew speaks well of you,” she said with the tingle of a laugh as she pulled a long stemmed pipe from somewhere on her person.
“Don’t worry. I don’t smoke. It’s for effect. No room for a cauldron of newt and stewed bugs here on the porch. They’d help with the credibility of the advice, but this get-up will have to do.”
“Ma’am, Mildred, are you a. . . .” Uncle Joe could not bring himself to say it.
“A witch?” She rocked, put the pipe in her mouth, stopped, leaned forward and spoke around the stem.
“My nephew, Archibald, graduated from Brown, a good school. Years ago, after the family was tossed from Canada, they moved to Massachusetts, New Bedford. Still have ties back there, which is why Archy picked the school. Rhode Island is nearby. We have always had ties here too, back to the original Acadian migration. Even farther back on one side, the Indian side. I speak a little of the native tongue. They have a name for me. It means ‘the one between.’ And, they expect me to play the role. So, yes, I am a witch, of sorts. Is that okay?”
“Yes, Ma’am. I just, well, never met one before. You’re the first.”
“Call me ‘Mildred.”
“Yes, Ma’am, Mildred.”
“We have a problem, Joe.”
“Yes, Uncle Joe, if I may call you that? In fact, the natives favor that title. In their culture, it is an honor to be referred to as “uncle.” That, your skill as a fisherman and your care for the fish are probably why you’re still alive.”
“Uncle Joe, I will tell you about a very old people and their ways. You have won a trust that allows me to do this, but they will allow only so much. They are a skilled tribe of farmers, traders and makers of things from sources only they know. The long river, their name for the Atchafalaya, and its great swamp are their home. They care for its waters and steward its resources, taking only what is needed. Do you agree to keep what I am about to tell you only to yourself and to those who can know.”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Do you like to fish?”
“Yes, Mildred, I like to fish very much.”
“Take my nephew, Archibald, fishing with you tomorrow and show him how it’s done.”
Uncle Joe nodded his head and laughed.
“Yes, Aunt Mildred, I would like to hear more and I will keep your words secret.”
Ms. Mildred New Bedford smiled back.
“You can let Archibald in on the parts I say you can. Archy was not raised here. In the summers, he visited and we talked. After his formal schooling, he came to camp and fish.”
Pausing, Mildred New Bedford gave a deep sigh.
“Uncle Joe, my nephew is on the ‘outs’ with the tribe. They say he takes too many fish, chews too much bubble gum and talks funny. I find the gum and accent endearing. The young man has a good heart, but he is struggling. A few words might help.”
Aunt Mildred New Bedford reached over and patted Uncle Joe on the knee. Uncle Joe returned a thoughtful nod.
“Thank you. Now, where to begin. Oh, yes. It started 6,000 years ago where you wouldn’t have expected it to start and a long way from here. The first Grand Chief was named. . . .”
By the time Uncle Joe escorted Aunt Mildred to her dugout canoe, his clothes had dried completely.
* * *
“It’s over there.” Uncle Joe motioned above Archibald’s head back to Celestin who had the motor. The Indian’s face showed nothing as he turned the boat between the trees.
“Good memory, mon ami.” Archibald unwrapped a square of gum. “Celestin he tells of the big fisheez you have catched. Dose be some of de biggestess fishee steeks I see in owee a longest time.”
Brushing low branches aside, they moved into the narrow channel.
“Here, Archy, help me with the gate,” Uncle Joe said. Out of the corner of his eye, Joe caught a quick movement on the bank and flash of bright reflected light.
Celestin brought the boat between the two halves of the open water gate.
“I nebber seez no gates like deez, no sirree, not in dis svamp.” Archibald pointed to the wooden slats.
“See the spacing, Archy. The wooden branches are tied with vines so they’re not tight. The spaces between the pickets allow the little fish in. When they grow bigger, they can’t get out. They stay here and grow more until it’s time to harvest them.”
“But, Oncle Joe, who is dis dat traps the fisheez and arvests dem?”
They entered the wide water meadow under the towering trees. Celestin guided them to a center location.
“The Indians, Archibald, the Chitimacha tribe. This is their fish pond, and it has been for a very long time. They care for the fish and remove only what is needed.”
“Monsieur Oncle Joe, I dink you aks anuffer of dis snuff.” Bright yellow flashed on the far bank. “Have you been talking to my aunt, the one with the pipe?”
“There are ways that must be followed, Archy, if the fish are to be protected.”
Uncle Joe turned to the Indian.
“Celestin, help me with the fish.” The native opened the cooler and handed the live striped bass to Uncle Joe. Joe stood in the boat, held the fish out with both hands, bowed to the bank and lowered the live fish into the pond. The big fish moved its gills, stayed in place for some seconds, then flashed off through the water. A line of bubbles followed the fish’s trail.
“Now, let’s fish.” Uncle Joe reached for his pole.
With a thoughtful glance at the water, Archibald stood and cast his line to the opposite side of the boat from Uncle Joe, who was already reeling back ready to set the hook at the first strike.
* * *
Celestin reached down, grabbed the 20-pound red drum by the gills and flipped the fish into the boat where it flopped between the seats.
Archibald stood with his pole while the Indian removed the hook.
“We have enough, Archy,” Uncle Joe said.
Scanning the catch, Archibald Brokenpaddle returned a thoughtful nod.
The afternoon sun had drifted low, lengthening the shadows of the tall trees across the surface of the fish pond.
Uncle Joe propped open the lid of the cooler and sat back.
“There is one last thing to do.”
Joe reached under the seats to slide the long pole out, signaling Celestin to lift it free. Uncle Joe stood and took the pole, dipping it back toward the Indian. A length of vine already dangled from the tip. Celestin grabbed the vine end, knelt beside the cooler and passed the natural string through the gills attaching the big fish to the line. Uncle Joe leaned back and leveraged the fish up and over the water.
“What do you do, mon ami? Dat is de best of de fisheez.”
Uncle Joe lifted the heavy fish higher.
A dark armor-plated shape exploded up and out of the water. Wide jaws full of sharp pointed teeth opened and closed around the fish. The vine snapped as the long shape continued upward, the whip-lash setting Uncle Joe back onto the bench he’d been straddling.
Seeming to stand suspended in the air, the alligator turned its head over and flipped the powerful tail up revealing the full length of its 18-foot body.
As the huge gator fell back, one large eye scanned the men in the boat and fixed on Uncle Joe. The outer lids opened and closed.
“Sssmackkk,” the huge reptilian body hit the surface of the pond.
“Sssplashhh,” a wave of water washed the boat and soaked the men.
* * *
“Dat vas sure some strange vays for de fisheen, Monsieur Oncle Joe.” Standing on the camp dock, Archibald Brokenpaddle held out his hand.
“They are the ways of the guardians, Archy.” Joe firmly shook the hand of his friend. “The tribe guards the pond and only allows those to pass who abide by the rules. They train one alligator from birth. That alligator is like a sheep dog. It gathers and herds the big fish, and it guards the waters from any who don’t know and follow the ways.”
“Vat be deez vays, Oncle Joe?”
“To harvest the fish, a live fish must first be added to the stock. You saw me put our best live fish from the last catch back into the water. Only then will the guardians of fish pond meadows allow fish to be caught. The pond represents the river and the swamp. It is a place to learn that the river, the swamp, the fish and the people are one. All are related and each protects the other. The watchers ensure that the balance is maintained. When fish have been harvested for the needs of the people, the alligator who guards the waters must be fed with the best fish of the day lifted high so it can be recognized.”
“And vat happens if deez dings de not be doon?”
“You saw, Archy, when we first tried to fish. Our lines were broken.”
“And vat happen if vee keep on de fisheen?”
“For anyone without a pass to enter, the Chitimacha are expert with the blow gun and deadly accurate. And, not following the ways, I would not want to be there when that big gator is angry.”
“Owee, no sirree, you gets de points on dat one, for sure.” Archibald Brokenpaddle gave his friend a big slap on the back, almost sending Joe over the side for another good soaking. With a laugh, Archy grabbed Uncle Joe’s arm and hauled him back. “It’s time for you to get on down to dat boat and on your ways back to Texas.”
Next to the dock, Celestin sat with the engine running. The gear and cooler of fish filets were loaded and fastened in place.
Uncle Joe stepped into the boat and settled on a middle bench.
“Mon ami, one last thing, before you go.” Archibald looked down into his friend’s eyes. “I dink dat beeg gator vinked at you. Sure enough, he did.”
Smiling, the Cajun waved as Celestin guided the boat into the main channel and Joe started his journey back to Texas and home.
* * *
“How’s the fishing?” Uncle Joe asked.
He could hear Archibald chewing on the other end of the line.
“’Pends where the spot be at der.”
Joe heard something in the answer that concerned him.
“Did you go back, Archy? You remember. We talked.”
“In mee ead, I be earing dos vords of vous. Still, I vant to see dat place and de beeg fisheez.”
“Not fer vous to vorries at dis one.” Joe could hear Archibald stop chewing. “Joe, I went right to the spot. There was no channel. Where it should have been, there was now a bank. The soil looked new. There was no way in for me.”
“So, you left?”
“Maybe I should have. Tied up and walked around. Only. . . .”
“Only what, Archy?”
“I wasn’t alone. Movements between the trees. Flashes of something bright and metallic. Then a blowing sound and a ‘thump’ behind me. When I turned, a hand reached out against a tree and disappeared. Whoever was there was fast, very fast. They left something.”
“A fish-bone dart was stuck in that tree. And from the dart, there a thing dangled?”
“I took it to my aunt, your friend, Ms. Mildred New Bedford. She laughed a gud long one at dat. Said to send de ding your way, sure nuff.”
“Be watchin. De package on de vay, courrier postal, pour vous.”
Joe could hear the bubble starting to form between the words. Time to break the connection.
“Sacre bleu. . . .”
“We’ll talk more later, Archy. Thanks for the heads-up.”
* * *
“This is for you.” Charles, Uncle Joe’s brother, placed the small brown-paper package on the kitchen table and sat down to watch.
Bent over, Uncle Joe was working on a school project with his nephew Lance.
“It’s from ‘Louisiana.’” Lance read, looking over at the return address. Lance was thirteen and he spent as much time as he could with Uncle Joe on the farm.
“Those sure were fine tasting fish you brought back from your trip,” Charles said.
“Thanks, Charles.” The fish fry with family and friends had been a great success.
Uncle Joe moved the package in front of him. Pulling the wrapping free, he stared at the small wooden box.
“Go ahead, open it, Uncle Joe.” Lance moved closer.
Slowly raising the lid, Uncle Joe peaked inside and slid two fingers under the top.
“Joe, stop with the suspense.” Charles was eager. “What is it?”
Uncle Joe lifted the piece high and into the light.
The chain flashed bright, reflecting the sun.
“That’s a good looking chain, Uncle Joe.” Lance narrowed his eyes on the rotating chain.
Charles leaned forward, his elbows on the table top. “Gotta be gold.”
“What’s that dangling from the end, Uncle Joe?” Lance asked.
Slowing, the glittering pendant came to a stop.
Charles raised his glasses and squinted. “That’s an alligator, a golden gator.”
“Uncle Joe, that gator is standing straight up, like it just jumped out of the water.” Lance smiled a wide smile. “And, there’s a fish in its mouth, a big fish.”
Uncle Joe slid the chain over his head and around his neck, the fingers of one hand touching the gator.
“Why’d they send you an alligator?” Charles asked.
Lifting the alligator between thumb and index finger, Uncle Joe grinned and nodded his head.
“How would you two like to go fishing?” Uncle Joe asked.
“I’m in,” Charles answered.
“Sure, Uncle Joe. Where are we going?”
“Oh, I know just the place. And, I think this gator will show us the way.” Uncle Joe knew the golden alligator was a gift from the guardians. It was the pass that would allow them to enter through the water gate.
In his head, Uncle Joe was planning their visit to Archibald Brokenpaddle’s Cajun Swamp Camp and fish pond meadows.