Back to Secrets - Part 3

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 I saw

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 dogs.

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 wasn't.

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.

Back to Secrets - Part 3