Vol. IX, No. 3, 1996


Noodlers

by Roland Sodowsky



Hot yet mid-morning, but the sun was hot on their backs, the two Tucker boys, the water already warm. Limp, they let the slow current carry them, their feet dragging on the bottom, lifting their faces for air when they had to, exploring the rocks with their hands, searching for holes with fish in them. They already knew that the rocks could be painful: Kenny, the elder, fifteen, had a bruise and bloody scratch across his knee, and Wayne had scraped his thigh.

They were imitating the Shakaskey brothers ahead, the real hand fishermen, the real noodlers, small, Indian-looking men who, Rufus Tucker said, "could stay under water till a week from Sunday and then not come up by God unless they felt like it." If they found no fish, then Kenny and Wayne knew they wouldn't. But it was their first time to noodle, and Frank Shakaskey, the gray-haired elder, had said, "Just drift behind us and try to cover what we miss. The river's wide here. We'll miss some." Both Frank and Milo had gunnysacks with drawstrings of braided cotton rope, but Frank had told the boys, "You better let your dad carry yours till you get used to the river. You might get tangled up at the wrong time."

Rufus walked along the sandy bank beside them in flopping overalls and mud-stained tennis shoes, shirtless, scarecrow tall and skinny. He carded the boys' sack in one hand, in the other a six-foot section of lightweight pipe with a large fishhook welded to one end, the point and barb newly filed. The shaft of the hook was as thick as his little finger. He would not get in the water, they knew, until they reached Caboose Rock, the first of the giant boulders, where the big catfish would be.

"Hell," Rufus said,"I don't want none of them minnows. I'm after fish."

Kenny understood now why Frank and Milo wore T-shirts. His back was going to blister. He tried to sink, float lower. Strange sounds there were in the water sometimes...ping...ping...like in a submarine movie. He wondered: is it alive? What is it? When the Shakaskeys and Rufus and the other men brought in sacks of catfish, silvery channel cat, blues, big flatheads, and dumped them in the yard for the whole neighborhood to gawk over, he had imagined the fish dozing on the bottom of the glass-clear river, waiting for Milo or Frank to dive down to them. But he couldn't see his hand before his face in the murky water. Feel, it was all feel. Feel around in a hole in a rock, or on the gravel of the bottom, your eyes shut, and then suddenly the slick skin and twisting strength of a catfish, or something else. Something, he thought...and maybe it claws or stings, or come right past your hands and bites you in the face.

All the old noodling stories, stories to make a boy queasy when he got in the water: Old Man Ospauch, they said, had a hole in his hand, a three-cornered piece bitten out by a mink hiding where a fish was supposed to be; "Just as neat," Rufus used to say, "You could drop a screwdriver right through it;" rocks with cotton mouths under them, and black eels that six men couldn't hold, that oozed right through their hands; gar as long as men, with spear-shaped mouths full of teeth like yellow needles; snapping turtles that could bite off a man's finger and eat it just like that; the Holland boy who had gotten a rope through the mouth and out the gills of a catfish and tied it, and put a slipknot over his wrist, and had been found a week later and ten miles downstream. The catfish was still alive.

I don't think I'm afraid, Kenny thought. Daddy's not afraid of the fish. I don't think. But other things, he is. The story of Rufus and the beaver: below Caboose Rock once, Milo had come up from a long dive beside Rufus, who was waiting, treading water, and said "Beaver down there." And Rufus had fled, arms and legs flailing madly, squawking like a guinea hen, fled to the shallow water, threshed through the cattails and up the bank and finally stopped, panting, fifty yards away in the dry sand.

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"I don't know if Rufus can walk on water," Frank Shakaskey had said, "but he sure can run on it."

After the men had stopped laughing, Rufus had replied, "I wasn't fishing for no beaver. I didn't want none, so I just left." But Kenny knew he was afraid.

Ahead of him he saw a rift, a small pucker on the surface, and he knew a rock or log would be there. He drifted toward it with his hands out, fingers spread, and found just under the water a flat boulder as wide as his outstretched arms. Steadying himself, he began to feel for openings, the current tugging gently at him, trying to take him around the rock and on downstream. The front of it was vertical, and he could not reach the base; the water was deeper. He held his breath, went down, and found a ledge; beneath it, the water was colder and faster.

He started to put his hand in, into the blackness, wanted to put it in, and--couldn't.

I got to. He came up for air and saw that Wayne had drifted on and was almost even with Frank, who was putting a fish in his sack. Milo was working against the current, coming back toward him. I got to. Again he dove and caught the ledge, let the current push him so that his face and shoulder were against the rock, and reached under. The ledge, the rock again, the colder water there!--a hole, big as a basketball, and he put his hand in quickly, touched WHAT cold slickness, powerful surge of something away from him, his own jerking back and quick gasp, choking, and as he fought up for air he felt the fish slide past his leg and jerked away from it again.

When he had stopped coughing, Milo said, "Find one?"

" Uh huh." Kenny looked down. The water was just over waist-deep to him, nearly shoulder-deep to Milo. "I let him get away."

"I forgot about this rock. I should've been here to help you."

"You knew it was here?"

Milo nodded. "Straight down, there's a hole, right?" He held up his hands. "About so big."

"Uh huh."

"Feel around on the downstream side. There's a little breather hole over there. Was it a big one?"

"I think so."

"It probably couldn't get out the breather hole." Kenny started to go down. "Wait. Just use your foot. Feel the hole with it. If you got to get something chewed on, wouldn't you just as soon it be your tennis shoe as your fingers?"

"I feel it."

"First thing when you find a hole is to block it, with your feet, body, a rock. They know you're out here, and they won't stay put. Then keep your hand flat and feel on the bottom, see if it's clean and sandy. If it's muddy, most generally there's no catfish, because they keep it swept clean with their tails."

The sack floating out from the rope looped over Milo's head and shoulder contorted violently, and Kenny fell back from it. "You caught one?"

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"Two. Little flatheads."

They began to drift. "There's some rocks Frank's missed on this side," Milo said. "We'll pick up a couple. If you put your hand in the hole flat and real slow, touch them on their belly, sometimes they'll just lay there to be scratched, like a tame hog.

"Do you hear something when you're underwater? Kind of high tapping?"

"That's drum. They make that sound."

Downstream, Kenny saw Wayne hold the sack while Frank dropped in a fish as long as his arm. "Wait," Milo said, "found something." He disappeared as Kenny dug his toes in the sand. The riverbed was broad and shallow here, with low water weeds creeping down toward and into the water, behind them slender willows, and farther back tall sycamores with flaking white bark.

He can't stay down that long, Kenny thought, and then Milo surfaced and held up his right hand, the knuckles covered with blood. "Blue," he said, grinning. "They come and get you."

"He get away?"

"I got my foot in the hole. Hold the sack. I'll get him this time. Come here and put your foot against mine. There. When I go down, I'll put your foot in so I can move around better."

He went down, and Kenny felt his foot being pushed in, Milo's shoulder against his leg, heard--what?--thunder, almost, low. He could feel Milo struggling, the fish being pulled past his leg, and then Milo was up, his face barely breaking water, his black hair flattened over his eyes. "All right. Open the sack a little--not too much--and hold it out of the water a foot or so." Kenny loosened the drawstring and lifted the sack. Suddenly Milo brought it up, his thumbs in the comers of its wide, bull-dog-like mouth, his fingers clenched in its gills. He lifted it, thick, blue-black tapering body and white belly, dropped it tail first into the sack, and Kenny jerked the drawstring. The fish thrashed furiously, foaming the water. Milo's thumbs were bleeding, and there was a long, angry scrape on his forearm.

"He give you a bad time?"

"Not much. They grab your hand and roll, if they can. They don't have teeth, but their mouth is like a wood rasp."

"How big is he?"

"Ten pounds, maybe."

"Hey," Rufus shouted across to them. He was sitting on a drift log, a pint bottle of Heaven Hill in his hand, the pipe propped against his shoulder, the sack hanging from the hook. "When you quit fooling around? Let's get to the grandaddies."

"I heard a noise when you were down there. Like thunder."

"It's the fish, hitting the rock with his tail," Milo said.

"When you get one like I had him, you got to scissor him with your legs. A fish is just a long muscle, his whole body is a muscle; if he can use it against you in the water, he'll get away, even one no bigger than this."

They drifted again. Kenny found a hole under a rock, but the floor felt muddy, slimy to him. He surfaced and said, "I don't think there's anything in it. You want to look?"

Milo dove and came up almost instantly holding a carp curved like a horseshoe in his hands. "You're right, no catfish. This one was just visiting. You hold them like this, bent, they can't do anything."

Kenny looked at the brown-scaled body, the down-turned sucker mouth. "You going to keep it?"

"No." He pitched it away. "We're about to a place where there'll be a fish. Your turn now."

His shoulder against Milo's leg, he kept his hand flat, knuckles down against the sandy floor, pushing into the hole slowly, and when he touched the fish he flinched, felt the powerful swirl of water as it turned, and heard the oddly displaced thunder when it struck the rock. Again he found it and put his palm under its broad belly. It's big, he thought, a thudding in his chest; it's bigger than the others. But he was out of breath, and he came up.

"Got a good one? It sounded like it."

"Pretty good." He sucked in air greedily.

"You want to use the rope? Put it in his mouth and out his gill so he won't get away?"

"Can I try without it?"

Milo smiled. "Sure. Get your thumbs in the corners of his mouth--he'll chew on them a little--and your fingers up in his gills good. They have gill guards, little spikes. You just have to hold spikes and all."

Again the broad belly. The first time he ran his hand the wrong way, toward the tail, and had his fingers buffeted against the rough rock wall. The fish twisted frantically, stopped, and Kenny found one of its gills, opening, closing. He put his thumb in, felt the sharp gill guards, then thought: No. Thumbs in the mouth. He worked his other arm into the hole, felt where he thought its mouth would be, and guessed exactly right. With frightening strength it closed on his hand, shook, sawed, and he gasped, jerked away, and came up for air, ramming his elbow into Milo's shin on the way out.

"Trouble?"

"I'll get him."

"Looks like he's already got you." Kenny saw that the backs of his hands were bleeding freely. "Don't forget to get a scissorlock on him when you come out." "How do you stay down so long?"

"Just do. Just make up your mind and do it."

A bit of luck immediately, the thumb of his right hand in the comer of its mouth and fingers secure in its gill, muffled rambling thrashing of the fish as Kenny shifted against Milo's leg to reach farther, found it with his other hand, the rough mouth grinding on his thumbs, gill guards cutting his fingers, and then he backed out of the hole pulling the fish, remembering almost too late

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to scissor it, rolling on his back, doubling up, and pressing its head against his thighs, genitals, stomach as it emerged until he could lock his legs around it. He floated up slowly, its spasmodic bursts now muted, shuddering through his own bones, tasting the muddy, faintly salty water in the back of his throat, watching the murky light brighten until his face broke the surface.

"Got him!"

"All right. Catch your breath a minute." Milo held his head above the water with one hand. "How do we get him in the sack?" "Still don't want to use the rope?"

"No."

"Okay. Same as we did the other one. He'll be stronger in open water. When you lift, do it fast, right up over the sack and down again."

Bobbing in the water, he watched while Milo readied the sack. The fish was quiet against his legs and stomach. He liked the feel of the smooth, elastic skin.

"Now." His legs had cramped, and he could not stand quickly enough; he lifted it half out of the water before the whipping, twisting reaction, before it tore from his thumbs, seemed poised above the water between him and Milo for a long instant, the glistening yellow body and white belly and broad flat head and sharp side fins and fleshy whiskers, and then it splashed and was gone with a final small swirl and gurgle from its black tail.

Rufus yelled, "Well, gah-odd-damn!"

"I couldn't hold him."

Milo grinned. "He was a good one. Tough to hold."

"How big was he, do you think?"

"Sixteen, eighteen pounds, maybe."

"I'm sorry I lost him."

"Why? You had the fun of catching him, and now he's free and not hurt, and we're not starving. Nothing to be sorry about."

"You don't care?"

"I don't ever care if one gets away. Ever see a snake get into a nest of cottontails? Sometimes I think that's the way we look. They didn't do anything to us."

"Why do you do it, then?"

"Always have. But I clean and eat everything I catch, and I don't hurt anything and leave it."

As they drifted, Kenny asked, "How come it's deeper at the rocks?"

"The water digs out at the base of them, it runs faster there, too, because it's kind of funneled in that deep spot. Take a big rock like Caboose, it might be twenty feet deep, and once the current gets you, you can't do anything about it."

He floats so you can't even see him, Kenny thought, about like a fish. Barely see him get a breath of air.

At Caboose Rock Wayne and Rufus were perched high up on the oblong block of almost blue limestone while Frank waited in the water. Rufus had stripped to a pair of GI shorts and his tennis shoes.

"Kenny !" Wayne called, "I heard you lost a fish."

"If that ain't dumb," Rufus said, "Sacking him without a rope."

Wayne said, "I got me a channel cat."

"Hell, let's get after them," Rufus said. He stood up, waving the pipe with the hook on it above his head. Milo frowned. "You going to use that hook?"

"I sure as hell am. That's my fish tamer."

"I don't want anything to do with it," Milo said. "No," Frank said, "That's bad business, Rufus."

"It's all the way you look at it, ain't it? Me and the boys are going to use it, and use it right here. You can help, or find another rock."

"There's plenty more," Milo said. " Ready, Frank?"

"Ready."

Milo looked at Kenny and said,"You can go on with us if you want to."

Kenny kept his eyes on the water."I better stay here, I guess."

Milo nodded. "Be careful." He and Frank pushed away from the rock and let the strong current carry them around the end and downstream.

Climbing down the ledges that served as natural but irregular steps in the limestone, Rufus squatted on a narrow shelf just above water level and said, "Now this rock ain't near as wide underwater. It's just as long, but it's only about eight feet thick. I know, because I seen it when it was gone-dry. That hole is middleways of the rock, and it'll be about seven or eight feet underwater. It's big enough for a big-assed man to crawl in, so you got to rock it up. That's what I keep them rocks here for. We got to put them in first. Then we can use the hook and stir things up."

Kenny said, "How do the Shakaskeys do it when they fish it?"

"I don't give two hoots in hell how they do it. Get them rocks in."

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There was a ledge, the boys discovered, just above the hole; they could rest their backs against it while they blocked the hole, diving down with one chunk of sandstone in their arms at a time. When they had finished, Rufus stood up and said, "All right. Now I'll see what's in there." As he let himself slowly into the water, he said, "Jesus God almighty, it's cold!" But he paddled one-handed over above the hole, holding the hook, and then his cheeks puffed out and he sank while Kenny and Wayne clung to the shelf and waited.

The sounds from below carried, spread up through the boulder: a rock being moved, the metal scrape of the hook against the wall--first outside, Kenny thought, after that inside the hole, perhaps against the roof, and then a low, strong, reverberating sound, as much a tremor in the rock as sound. The boys looked at each other.

"That's a fish," Wayne said.

"Big."

Rufus burst up out of the water. "How about that, by damn! First time down and I got him hooked."

"How big is he?" Wayne asked grinning. "Big enough. Can't tell yet. Big by God enough." He pulled himself up on the shelf, panting "Now what we do is wear him down. He's got a lot of room in there, and he ain't coming to where you can reach him if he can help it. Just take turns making him move till he wears down and you can pull him over to get the rope in him. There's a breather hole on the other side, and I'm going around there. I'll reach in and keep him scared away from that side."

He scrambled back up the steps. "Wait till you think I'm down before you start. That hook's in him good, but if it comes out poke around and find him and jerk it in him again. Hook him underneath. Pull his goddamned gut out for him." On top he stooped, and came up with the bottle tilted. Then he disappeared.

The boys waited, and then Kenny said, "Go ahead." Wayne braced his hands under the shelf and pushed himself straight down. Kenny strained, but couldn't see him in the blue-brown water. He heard the scrape of the hook, but not the low thunder, the tremor.

Wayne surfaced. "He got off. The hook was just laying there. You try." Kenny went down, found the ledge, and braced himself against the current. Reaching in through the small opening they had left, he found the end of the pipe and began thrusting with it.

I don't even know what way the hook is turned, he thought. He found he could touch the far wall with it, heard the solid chink as it struck. It's big enough a man could crawl around in there, he thought. But where?--and then he felt it, the softer yielding flesh and the thud of its tail against the wall and swirl of sandy water in his face as it went by the hole.

"I heard it," Wayne said. "You get him?"

"No, I just felt him." Wayne went down quickly while he leaned against the shelf trembling, sucking in air. In seconds, Wayne was back up.

"I got him! I got him,! Go down and keep it in him. Don't come up till I get there. Let's keep him going!"

"I didn't hear nothing."

"I don't care, he's on. Hurry up!"

Kenny dove, and just inside the hole he found the pipe, twitching, moving like a living thing. He pulled on it and felt the weight coming toward him. I can't get him, I don't have the rope, he thought, and then with strength beyond his the pipe pulled away from him and stopped. He's against the far wall, sulling; he knows where I am, just as well as I do. When he pulled again the weight came reluctantly, inch by inch, and then the force he could not match, and the pipe slipped through his hands almost to the end before it stopped. He felt Wayne's feet at his side, Wayne beside him, pushing in, so he guided his hand to the pipe, released it, and surfaced.

When he had caught his breath he yelled, "We lost him, but we hooked him again, Daddy !" The wind had come up stronger, however, the waves slapping over the shelf, and he realized that with the wind and the steady rush of the water Rufus could not hear him. He went down and took the pipe from Wayne. Again, he found he could tug it steadily toward him a certain distance, but then there was the greater force shuddering along the handle and into his bones, and it pulled away from him.

He thought, why don't it move around more? It stays straight away from me. He twisted and jerked the handle viciously, feeling, understanding now the direction and menace of the hook and barb, and the weight reacted violently, shaking, vibrating. In a sudden swirl of colder water he knew the smell-taste of blood.

It still ain't moved. It just stays. Why don't Daddy move it? He jerked and twisted again, but there was no flurry of response, just the weight. Why don't Daddy?---and then, as if the murkiness had frozen into clear ice or glass, he looked, or thought he looked, straight through the hole and through the rock and saw Rufus, white as the white belly of a catfish, his mouth and eyes open and his jaw slack, pulled taut against the breather hole, his long arm stretched inside, the gleaming hook with its inescapable barb piercing between the bones in the palm of his hand. Kenny tried to yell, scream "NO---" but he choked, the water hurting in his nose a windpipe. As he twisted away from the hole he felt Wayne against him, nudging him, and he kicked and struck out furiously, elbowing, clawing. They surfaced at the same time.

[13 ]

"What the hell is wrong with you? You goddamn crazy--"

"We got Daddy!" he screamed, coughing, spitting, already in the current, going around the rock. "We got him hooked! He's drowned!"

Wayne looked at him, his eyes wide. "You--"

"Come on !"

Wayne called once as he followed Kenny,"Daddy!" But there was no answer. The current took them a dozen yards past the other side before they could escape it. They worked frantically over to slower water, then swam back. There was no sign of Rufus.

"We got to do down," Kenny said. "About here." They dove, clinging to the rough folds of the rock, pulling themselves downward into the colder, swifter   water coming up at them, stopping to reach out, feel about for the breather hole, for Rufus caught still warm against the cold rock. The current tugged at them, pulling their feet away from the rock. Wayne tapped Kenny's shoulder, and they came up.

Wayne said, "I can't find nothing--" and then from behind them, farther back than Kenny had judged him to be, Rufus spoke.

"Well, what...what in the hell you guys doing over here?" His arm was hooked over a willow root in a split in the rock at water level.

Kenny gasped. He said, "Well, we thought"

"Oh, hell!" Wayne hooted. "You know what Kenny said? He said you'd drowned!

He said we had you on the hook!" "Well, Jesus God almighty." Rufus grinned. I ain't hooked. You think I'm that dumb? Get your ass, around there and work on that fish.

As they climbed back up over the rock Kenny thought, he could've been hooked. It felt like it. He could just as well ve been.

Wayne jumped into the water and hooted again. "Jesus almighty! Hooked and drowned!"

They met the Shakaskey brothers as they began the long walk back to the pickup. Kenny and Wayne took turns carrying the sack with the big flathead in it, its head broader then Kenny's waist, its body more than waist-high to Rufus. While Wayne carried the sack and hook, Kenny walked ahead with Milo.

Kenny said, "How do you get them out of that hole? In Caboose Rock?"

"Just get them."

"Well, I don't see how, if you don't use a hook. It's big enough in there for a man to crawl around--" And then he did see. His voice dropped almost to whisper, and he said, "You go inside it, don't you?

Right in there with it."

"Yes."

The man and the fish, the sandy floor and low sand-stone roof and narrow sandstone walls, not much wider than a casket, Kenny thought, and in his mind's eye he heard the thunder in the stone, saw the man with his groping hands and scissoring legs and the smooth muscularity of the fish, the brief fierce straggle and the man seeking the way out, seeking light and air. He shivered. "Ain't you scared?"

"No."

"Do you always get the fish out?"

"No. Sometimes he's too strong."

Kenny dropped back to spell Wayne. He eased the gunnysack over his badly sunburned shoulder, and they walked together silently, the path leading them gradually away from the river and into the blackjacks and hickory and cedar, up a long hill beside a deep ravine, an impossible tangle of hackberry and blackberry bushes and wild grapevines and honey locusts.

Kenny stopped and turned to Wayne. "Throw it away."

"What?"

"The hook. Throw it down in there."

"You're crazy. I ain't about to." Wayne walked on.

"Throw it away, or let me throw it. I'll tell Daddy I lost it. Or I'll tell him I threw it away. I don't care."

"Go to hell," Wayne said, and kept on walking. After a moment Kenny followed, the flood of the fish dripping down the backs of his legs and the stench of its tom belly and ripped entrails in his nose.
Dr. Roland Sodowsky, Professor of English at SMSU, has published several books of fiction including Undue West, as well as stories in New Yorker and other magazines.

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