from Songs of Gentle Sadness
By Buie Seawell
“Sometimes what ‘pears to be, ain’t what’s gonna be.“
(Blanche Rogers, Sister, The AME Zion Church, Lumberton, NC)
The River is dark in early January. Low angles of winter light glance softly off cypress and pine. My little boat moves so quietly neither Judge nor I hear a ripple. The light blue of the wooden hull of the flat bottom river boat reflects off the dark brown water like ice in summer sweet tea. Judge stands up in the bow rocking the boat slightly and staring at the bank — ears up, tail arched. A momma musk rat slides down the muddy shoulder of the stream, and splashes under, two bony back claws then her black tail disappearing into a circle of darkness.
“Sit, Judge!” He’s thinking about leaping out now. Louder, “Sit!” And he does, front paws on the gunnels; nose over the rub rail, a soft whine his only protest. I stroke slowly on the starboard side twisting the paddle out into a long “J” and we ghost onward down stream toward Dead Man’s Cove.
Twenty minutes before, Judge and I had arrived at The Goat Club — a silly old place where ancient, wizened river guys gathered daily to violate the County’s dry ordinances by wetting their raspy whistles. My boat lived under the front deck of the brown shingled building right at the river’s edge. I think they let me keep it there ’cause my Dad, the Solicitor for the county, ignored their harmless indulgences. Judge had run and I had biked the mile or so from our house on 20th Street to the dirt road leading down to the Lumbee River, and as I shoved the boat into the stream my brown and white beagle leapt squarely onto the fish box and sat like he’d just been anointed a prince or maybe Pope.
Dad had got out of court early on this unusually warm January day, and called home to see if I was there. Blanche, our black maid, yelled, “Spook, your Papa wants ya.” She called me Spook just like my Mamma did. Hated it. But I loved what I knew Dad wanted. “You got sense enough to pick me up in that boat of yours in half an hour at the VFW dock?”
“Yes, Sir!” I’d only done this about twenty dozen times, I thought.
“I guess you’ll bring that damn dog? You make sure he’s quiet this time. Cost us dinner last month.”
Paddling strong now as the river bent left carving out that deep and, in dimming light, fearsome cove that had claimed so many lives over the centuries, Whites and Blacks and Indians, without regard to race, color, creed or national origin. Then straight along and half a mile ahead I could see the Lumbee River Bridge framing the VFW dock just beyond. And there was Dad. He had not even taken off his lawyer clothes, but had pulled on a jacket over the grey suit, and loosened his tie. He still had on his hat. His cane pole balanced in his right hand, a popping bug already affixed, he waived.
“You got a motor on that thing?”
“Just me,” I beamed.
“Tell that damn dog to shut up.”
Judge was whining and wagging and wiggling with excitement. But he wasn’t making much noise. “He’s OK,” I said. Dad just nodded and settled in the front seat.
“Take it right over there,” he gestured with his fishing pole, pointing towards a group of four or five cypress trees on the other side of the river. Digging deep with my paddle I moved the boat cross current towards the green-and-Spanish-moss-gray spot on the opposite bank. Flipping out ahead of us his popper hit the water, then back, then again, then right at the base of the biggest cypress knee. Kersquoosh! A big bass hit like my Uncle Bill plopping down to Christmas dinner and farting at the same time. I was backing water quick.
“Careful! Easy! Be patient!” Dad was ordering. I figured he was talking to himself. Judge was jumping around like a ferret with ginger up his rump. “Whoa!” Dad yelled. I kept back paddling. The pole was bent down and the fish was obviously trying to get back to its bed in the knees and trees. But the current was taking us, fish in tow, to deeper water. The little boat twisted toward the center of the river.
“Control this damn boat,” Dad yelled. The big bass bore down and away. Judge was looking like Kilroy-Was-Here over the side of the boat, feet and nose extended downward. I was trying not to pee while paddling and praying at the same time. This was one big fish my Daddy had hooked! But if it got off his line, it looked like Judge or me or both would be the fall guys.
Now the fish, changing tactics, came right at us and took the line under the boat. “Oh shit!,” said Dad. Then, just as the boat spun nose down to the current the bass broke water on the other side of us, and with that Judge leapt into full flight — front legs extended — landing right on the spot where the fish had disappeared. Judge made an even bigger splash than the fish. For a moment neither beagle nor bass was visible in the swirling dark currents. Then head up and looking desperate the little beagle broke and began to thrash water. Dad’s pole unbent and the line went slack. Mr. Bass was gone.
“Son of a bitch!”
I think that was meant for both me and Judge, but the messy implications of the expletive’s literal meaning were not worth musing over in the moment. Judge went under, then up again thrashing water rather than really swimming. “He’s in trouble, Dad,” I cried.
“Can’t he swim?” Dad asked.
“‘Course so,” I said. “But something’s wrong.” The river swept the little dog under a log and into some brushes on the near bank.
“Quick,” said Dad, “Get us over there.” I whipped the boat around 90 degrees and dug hard for the spot in the shadows where Judge had disappeared. As we closed with the bank, Dad grabbed the bush above the log, and pulled the nose of the boat in under the low limb. Under the bushes now, he was looking down into the dark, brown-stained water. I was looking down and tears were coming. No Judge. Not a ripple on the surface between my boat and the bank.
Then the damnedest thing happened. Lawyer clothes and all, Dad jumped into the river.
As he went under in the cold water his lawyer hat, a grey felt job with a black silk band, floated up. Then Dad himself came back up thrashing for the gunnels of the boat and nearly turning us over. But his feet found bottom, and with water up to his armpits, he lifted my wildly cavorting dog up and into the boat!
Attached to Judge’s hind legs was the broken end of the fishing line from Dad’s pole and attached to the other end of the fishing line still in the water was the biggest, flappingest, jumpingest, most beautiful big mouth bass I ever saw. As startled as I was, Dad caught the fish between himself and the side of the boat, and lifting the front of his jacket with a single motion scooped the big bass over and into the boat. The fish kept on jumping, but just when I thought he might get back into the river, a snarling snorting beagle landed square on the bass holding that sucker between his front paws and the line now taught around his back legs.
“No damn fish getting away from us today,” the Solicitor of the County said from the bank, as though he were addressing the local Bar Association. And he was laughing. Through tears, I was smiling. Judge just lay there in the bottom of my boat holding on to that bass.
“Never saw a dog catch a fish before,” my Dad said, as we paddled back up stream towards the Goat Club. Mr. Bass was safe in the fish box, and Judge now untangled, sat atop his Papal throne with his beagle smile glowing. I noticed Dad was trembling a bit from being wet and cold, the January sun having gone down. But he pulled hard on his paddle and didn’t cuss or complain. Staying to the right bank and out of the current we were quickly back to the Goat Club landing.
When we had pushed the boat under the porch, Dad turned towards me and Judge and said, “I think I’ll go in for a minute or two just to warm up . . . one of the boys will drive me home. Leave the fish in the box, I’ll take care of it . . . and look, nobody’s going to believe this story anyway, so why don’t we just keep it to ourselves?” I nodded, and me and my dog headed home.
Next Monday there was this story in the Robesonian about Solicitor Seawell catching an 11 ½ pound big mouth bass, “one of the largest bass caught in the Lumbee River in recent memory.”
The boys at the Goat Club mounted that fish; put it on a plaque with a brass plate that read, “11 pound, eight ounce big mouth bass, Malcolm Seawell, January 17, 1949.” Far as I know it’s still there. And I ain’t telling any different. From then on, when Dad’d come home and Judge ran up, he’d just say, “Damn fine dog.” And I’d think, “You bet you sweet bass he is.”