The Cane River Monsters
The banks of Cane River Lake were lined with weeping willow trees
which trailed their tendrils into the water and concealed the
hiding places of large bass and huge perch the color of a sunset.
Because it had once been a river, Cane River Lake was very deep
in the middle. In the shallow parts you could see down to the
bottom, but if you went out further, the water became a deep,
dark green and the bottom disappeared into a strange, unknown
place. I always suspected that Cane River Lake concealed the
hiding place of something much bigger than bass.
One of Francois Mignon's favorite
stories was about a boat that was designed to remove the water
hyacinths that once clogged the river. It had a conveyor-belt
device that was intended to snag the plants and flip them into
a well in the center of the boat. All of the dignitaries from
Natchitoches dressed up in their Sunday best and boarded the
boat for its maiden voyage. When the belt began to move, it did
its job with much more enthusiasm than had been anticipated.
Instead of dumping the debris in its designated place, a shower
of hyacinths, lily pads, snapping turtles, and snakes rained
down on the crowd. The story was very funny as Francois told
it, but it reinforced my suspicion that there were "things"
in the lake.
One morning a pair of boats
appeared out in front of Happy Landing. They had come down from
Natchitoches and were dragging a big seine designed to catch
predatory fish like the gars that were eating up the food fish.
I went out in my little boat to watch and as the net was pulled
to the top I simply stopped breathing. In the middle, thrashing
wildly about, were several huge apparitions that I thought at
first were sharks. They were unlike any fish I had ever seen,
very shark-like in appearance, but with long narrow snouts shaped
like paddles. I wasn't old enough for a heart attack. But this
was about as close as I could get.
Click to see what
That was the only time I ever
saw a paddlefish. They had lived at the bottom of the river for
as long as the river had existed, minding their own business
and eating their microscopic bug dinners. Fortunately, they feed only on
zooplankton and not on little boy's feet. But I always wondered:
What if one of them changed its mind?
The real monsters of Cane
River were the cottonmouth water moccasins, which could get as
big as your arm. If one bit you, people said you barely had time
to say "Lordy mercy" twice before you were dead as
a stone. The snapping turtles ran a close second. Snapping turtles
could grow as big as garbage-can lids and bite a broomstick in
two. Fortunately, the giant ones were scarce, but even the little
ones could latch on to your finger and hold on like a bulldog.
People said that snapping turtles wouldn't let loose until it
thundered. And if it hadn't been for one of the kids from Puny
and Zelma's house who taught me how to make my own thunder, I
would have spent most of my time hoping a storm was on the horizon
every time I went out fishing.
Puny and Zelma lived just a short walk down the road that ran
along the river bank past Happy Landing. They took care of the
camp when nobody was staying there and were kind of like uncles
and aunts to me. Puny told me he was named Puny because he was
so little you could hardly see him when he was born. But he said
Puny was better than being named Runt, like they named scrawny
One of the kids about my age was named Junior -- at least that's
what we called him. I don't know whether his real name was Puny
Junior or Junior somebody else. There were so many kids around
that I didn't know for sure who belonged to who, and they probably
didn't know which one of us belonged to who either. Anyway, I
was a Junior, too. People used to call me Whitfield, Jr. instead
of just Whitfield so I would know they were talking to me and
not to my father, who was also named Whitfield. The problem was
when somebody yelled something like, "Whitfield Jr., stop
doing that," it sounded just like, "Whitfield! Junior!
Stop doing that." And if Junior was around, he would have
to say, "It wasn't me what was doing it." And it usually
Junior said that if a snapping
turtle got hold of your finger, and there wasn't any thunder
around, you had to get a big tin washtub and hold it up in the
air and bang your fist on it and make your own thunder. I never
had to do it, but I practiced in my mind whether or not I would
hold up the tub with the hand that had the snapping turtle hooked
to it, or use the hand with the snapping turtle on it to beat
on the tub. Just the thought of it could make me close up my
fists to hide my fingers.
One time I'm sure Junior saved
my life. We were in my little paddle boat pulled up under a big
weeping willow tree that hung over the bank. The long, thin branches
of the tree hung down around us like a big umbrella, creating
a dark cavern inside. On the bank, the tree's roots wormed their
way out of the dirt and crept down into the water. At the base
the trunk was a deep, rotted-out hollow just a few feet from
my end of the boat. We both were sitting silently face to face
at opposite ends of the boat, holding our bamboo poles and watching
for the corks to dive under the water. The rule was to be absolutely
quiet, because the slightest sound would stop the fish from biting
for what seemed like forever.
Suddenly, Junior started moving
his lips like he was trying to say something. His eyes were staring,
and he looked like he was afraid. He took the paddle and dipped
it slowly into the water and began backing the boat away from
the tree. Then he pointed.
"You was almost dead," he said.
In the hollow of the tree, just a foot or so from where my head
had been, I saw the gaping white mouth of a gigantic cottonmouth
water moccasin. Its head was raised and its tongue was flicking.
It was ready to strike. And if it had, I wouldn't be telling
you this story today.