I haven't seen cypress knees (above-ground roots) in nearly 30 years, but I'll never forget the way they ripple away from the mother tree like ribbons of brown velvet in pools of black satin. The deep silence under those huge trees is broken only by the occasional splash of a carp, heavy with yellow-pink eggs that it has come to lay in the backwaters. The big fish will swim lethargically through the warm, still water and then suddenly leap with surprising speed and agility to swallow a blue-winged dragonfly.
My father grew up on the Mississippi River and was known to load my brothers and me into the old Army ambulance and take us with him down to the Grassy Lake Bottoms, the backwaters of the Mississippi River near Memphis.
He said that only the rangers knew of the places he was taking us. It's true; we very rarely ran across other people down in the swamp. We hiked down past the spring and lake, down where the trees were bigger and the underbrush disappeared to give way to moss and deep silence.
Silence, except for the millions of bugs that lived there and sang incessantly. A swarm of mosquitos in the Grassy Lake Bottoms was a genuine threat. Like everything under the cypress trees, the mosquitos were bigger and meaner. So we never went there without the mosquito net ghillie suits my mom had made for us.
Yards of camouflage mosquito netting covered me from head to foot. Only my hands were exposed. Once we'd gotten down to the edge of the swamp water, Daddy would bend over and scoop up a handful of mud. As he plastered it onto the back of his hands, he recommended we do the same. Mosquitos couldn't get that little stinger through it to draw blood.
The mud I scooped and plastered on my hands was thick and black and had a wonderfully sweet smell. Mud too near the water would smell rotten and acrid. But the mud near a rotting tree has a sweet, mineral-rich smell. My mouth waters to remember it. I always wanted to taste it, but never did. I guess I figured that would be too primitive.
Once our hands were plastered, the tackle boxes were laid out on the bank and the mad scramble for the lures we wanted began. A favorite fishing lure is central to a good time in the swamp bottoms. I liked the ones that looked like rubber squids. They didn't have so many hooks on them that they were always getting caught in the cypress knees, but they were exciting enough to keep the fish interested.
Daddy had gotten bored with fishing poles and had gone to using a bow and arrow. He called it “bow fishing.” A string attached from the end of the arrow to his bow so that he could haul the fish in once his arrow had speared it.
Although he was anxious to get a-fishing himself, Daddy took the time to put us all in separate good fishing locations; otherwise my youngest brother was likely to get a hook in one of us while trying to cast his line. So Daddy spaced us out for safety's sake.
He set me on a big, fallen cypress tree surrounded by water. He knew I could swim like a fish and wasn't worried. My brothers stayed on the bank.
I imagined I was on an island all alone, waiting to be rescued. The idea was exciting for a few minutes but soon began to frighten me, so I put it out of my mind and went back to fishing.
An amusing sight caught my eyes. A trio of turtles had crawled out of the still, black water onto a large, floating log. The problem with a floating log is that it rolls when you try to climb on top of it. I knew, because I'd tried it myself. All three of them came at the log from one side and scrambled madly to get on top. The faster they climbed, the faster the log rolled.
The turtles disappeared under water for a while and then came up on the other side. The log was still spinning away from them, and I watched with interest as they managed to finally climb on top of that heavy, wet log, using the last counter-spin to secure success. Not more than a couple of seconds of triumph passed before the log began to slowly turn toward the turtles. This time they were on top of things and in unison they all stepped forward.
I laughed aloud when their unified compensation spun the log forward and dumped the trio of turtles back into the water.
Daddy was wading back toward me.
“Catch anything yet?”
“No. Not even a bite.”
“Yeah. Me either. Something's up.”
I agreed. In the Grassy Lake Bottoms something was always biting. To wait a full minute without a tug on the line was a poor day for fishing.
“I know they're here somewhere,” he said. “The carp are spawning, but where?” He stood in thigh-deep water, looking out across the dark swamp under the canopy of cypress trees. “I'm going to wade over there,” he said as he pointed to an inlet some distance away.
“Can I come?”
“It might get up to your neck, deep.”
“I don't care. I want to come.”
“Alright. Hand me your pole.”
I slipped into the water behind Daddy and followed as he waded back to the shore to toss my pole on the bank near my brothers. He told them where we were going. I was trying to find my way through the cypress knees that spread in every direction under water. The swamp was waist-deep on me.
We waded in silence, avoiding the cypress knees that guarded the banks. Green and blue dragonflies darted here and there, and I thought they seemed like they wanted to play with me. I admired the way they could go right down to the surface of the water and hover there while they drank.
One dragonfly dipped down right in front of my face and flew backward as I stepped forward. His wings moved so fast I could only see a blur on either side of his body. His huge black eyes looked like old aviator goggles to me. I wondered what I looked like to him. He darted away, and then came back to land on my shoulder. I was careful not to disturb him, happy to be part of his swamp home.
I followed my dad as he waded out of the water onto a small island where he paused to peer into the water of the inlet he was headed for.
“I think I see carp in there,” he said. “Come on.” He waded into the water slowly and carefully. I followed him.
“Sure enough, Bek!” he whispered. “They're in here, spawning!” As I waded after him in the two-foot-deep water, I felt my legs bumping against the live bodies of the big fish that were lying in the warm, shallow water where they had laid, or would lay, their eggs.
I wasn't quite tall enough to get the view my dad must have had at 6'3” tall.
“They're packed in here like sardines!” Dad whispered excitedly. “There's a big one. Watch out, Bek… I'm going to shoot that one… ”
I felt a twinge of fear at being in the middle of so many large fish, but I stepped back to give Dad room as he prepared his arrow and drew his bow.
The shot was good and the arrow scored a 20-pound carp about ten feet away from us. The carp flopped and fought in the shallow water, disturbing the other carp nearby. They began to flop as well.
A chain reaction of carp jumping and fighting in the water spread. And spread. Suddenly we were standing in an acre of boiling water. The heavy stillness of the swamp dissolved as thousands of spawning carp awoke.
“Look at that!” Dad shouted in amazement. “Bek! Look at that! You'll never see that again! Is that something, or what!”
For a moment I felt like I was one of the fish, sensing the group panic and ready to run. But my Dad's wonder at the phenomenon around us held me and then a great stillness washed over me as I stood and looked.
I realized I was seeing something few people ever saw and I was only eight years old. The moment satisfied me, but it also filled me with determination to go and see other things. I didn't know what, but I knew there was more and I was going to take every chance I got to see the rest.
I was glad I hadn't stayed on my log near the bank. I was glad I hadn't run when the carp started to flop. I was glad to be there, to feel life flowing around me, to look a dragonfly in the eyes and wonder what he saw when he looked at me.