By M.O. Walsh
The fish that saw us were not impressed. Who could blame them?
We thought we were smart, my buddy Brock and me; a couple of writers in grad school skipping class to fish a place called Spring Lake. It sat along Highway 7, off a pale stretch of road between Oxford and Holly Springs, and it seemed nobody fished it but us. This was north Mississippi, circa 2004. I was near 30, still rocking a full head of hair and just married. My buddy Brock was younger, maybe 25, but had already been married for a fifth of his life and therefore looked as old as me in his way. We had our tackle and poles and our beer and my boat and had each hauled in enough fish in our day to have stories, to have techniques. But we had never seen this.
“Look at them,” Brock said, and thumped a can of Skoal with his finger. “They’re just staring at us.”
Two big largemouth bass, hog legs, we liked to call them, sat floating beside our boat in plain sight. They were maybe a foot deep in the water and hovered next to tangle of roots, both facing the same way as if expecting a bus. They looked close enough to shake hands with and their exhibitionism unnerved us. Based on our previous experience at Spring Lake, which we’d fished nearly twice a week that past year, this felt like spotting a couple of Yetis.
I cast out a jig to see what would happen. It sank as quiet and quick as a dream, but the problem was that we could see it, just as clearly as we could see the fish we were trying to catch. Nothing had ever looked as artificial to me as my bait in that moment; the black metal head, grey wire skirt, green rubber tail, the red hook. It resembled neither the living nor the dead. I might as well have dropped in a radio. My cast missed the larger one by less than an inch but neither fish bothered to move. No strike of hunger, no strike in self-defense, no flash of color as they high tailed for cover. They instead seemed preoccupied, almost philosophical, as if above the entire charade.
“Well,” I said. “This is atypical.”
On the map of our lives, we’d met in the middle, me and Brock. I’m from South Louisiana and he’s from East Tennessee, so we were somewhat equidistant from home there in North Mississippi. Since our schoolmates were from places like Philly and NYC, Brock and I bonded over our collective Southernness, if that is a word. Yet we still had our differences. I was raised Catholic and he was raised Baptist. I was more Swamp Pop and he was more Country. What this meant is that I would say, “Come on, man, let’s have another drink. Let’s get tooted,” and he would check his phone to see if his wife had texted him to go home and let out the dog or mow the lawn and then say, “Nah, I probably shouldn’t” but then have six more. All to say that we took different routes to the same destination and understood each other well. We were friends.
I reeled in my line as Brock changed his lure.
“I don’t know, buddy,” he said. “It might be a long day.”
I cast again.
“Maybe if I can hit one on the mouth,” I said. “He’ll just kind of breathe it in.”
To understand my frustration with this water, you should know that where I grew up you don’t see what you’ve caught until it’s landed. If you’re in the salt or the marsh or the Gulf, the water is so often dark and choppy and large that you could pull up any number of surprises: a speck or a red or a flounder, maybe even a turtle. You could pull up something ancient with teeth that you’d still gut and fry if the size was right. Even in our rivers and lakes, the water is silted to the color of chocolate milk and you can’t see what goes on down there. You likely don’t want to know.
Brock was used to clearer waters in Tennessee, sure, water you might even be tempted to drink, but rushing by him so fast in the creeks and streams that he’d waded, casting flies to land fish so handsome and sleek he couldn’t help but release them, that this still-water clarity was new to him, too. His were the kind of fish you pull from swirls and take pictures of, not for their weight or ferocity, but for the way sunlight glints off their skin like a prism, for the way they already look like a picture.
We’d fished the bass of Spring Lake plenty that year, putting around every inch of it in my john boat, trolling across the big blank slate of its middle, pushing ourselves through the clusters of cypress and mangroves the edged its banks. We’d run buzzbaits and flukes and poppers. We’d dropped worms and jigs and more jigs. We’d rigged Texas and Carolina and had, what felt to us like, plans for every occasion. But the lake appeared transformed since we last came across it, it had been purified in some way, and so we poked around our brains for the reasons. Had there been rain lately? There had, we remembered. Pouring rain. Maybe that was it. Enough rain to turn the lake to a bath.
Brock stood up and took in the scene. “Look over there,” he said, and nodded toward a circle of trees ahead. “Three more,” he told me. “Hog legs, too.”
I clicked on the small motor as Brock cast about and I looked down into the lake as we trolled. I could see the bottom as clear as I saw my own hands. Every once in a while, though, I noticed a strange thing; a sliver of gold, it looked like, a toothpick set atop the grey dirt of the lake floor. I saw one and then another. I checked the other side of the boat and saw the same thing. Five or six of them, easy, some as long as a pencil, all of them sharpened to points and facing the same direction.
“Are you seeing this?” Brock asked me.
I clicked off the motor and stood, figuring maybe his line had gotten snagged in a tree, but he had stopped casting altogether. In front of us now, a field of golden slivers. They were uniform in their arrangement, as if the outward rays of a sunken sun we could not see, and the closer we got to the stand of cypress ahead of us the denser they became. We passed fish standing so still below us that I could see the easy work of their gills.
“What the hell are they?” Brock said, and I knew what it was that he wanted. We were no longer looking for fish. I sat back at the motor and made it hum slow. We coasted like hunters over the new landscape beneath us, the brightening bottom of the lake bed, and found a path into the cluster of trees.
“God, man,” Brock said, and we saw it.
In the middle of the circle of trees, a cypress so gold as to dull all the colors around it. The top had been shorn off completely, relieved of its limbs and bark, and the remaining trunk stood as proud as a sword. At its base, the water as clear as new glass.
“Lightning,” Brock said, and the probable past unfolded.
In the night, perhaps, sometime that we were not looking, that we were not there, an explosion so powerful as to have killed anything that was. All of those golden slivers, we now knew, were not slivers but splinters, arrows, darts that would have shot into our bodies like needles. The power of it, the awful beauty. We did not speak for a time, and we did not fish.
Instead we looked up at the neighboring trees, where huge golden limbs sat snagged in their branches. Wood as large as human legs hung tangled above us, all glowing and undeniably new. We became amateur sleuths in our heads, wondering how long ago it could have happened, what it would have felt like to be there the moment it did, and how widespread the damage could be. We took the boat out of the trees and trolled circles around the point of impact.
“Another one over here,” I said, “and here,” and the last one we saw, finally, more than a hundred yards away from the strike. We traded scientific theories, me and Brock, our poles planked between the seats of the boat. What sort of velocity were we dealing with? What frightening speed. And then a strange notion we had both heard in school, long ago, about how lightning actually starts on the ground. It is some sort of disagreement between positive and negative energy, we remembered, recognized by a passing storm, and then corrected without discussion. What we had seen, we both knew, was a place where lightning began.
When I think back about this now, and the way we acted for the rest of that day, I wonder if the ghosts of those needles got in us. We left the lake and loaded the boat and took off down the road as if high. We guzzled beers and called up friends and retold the story to ourselves again and again. We went to the store and bought more beer, a bottle of bourbon, and thick as your fist steaks. We were going back to Brock’s to eat well, by God, to drink heartily, to let out the dog, and to pet him like we hadn’t seen him in months.
We were never going to sleep. And then the years went by and Brock would find out about another man in his wife’s life and he would go on to find another love and then another after that and our professors would die or become famous and our friends would write books and enter rehab and either birth or miscarry children and I would go on to raise children of my own and find myself in a hospital with my wife as the doctor asks if she can feel what he is doing on her left side as strongly as what he is doing on her right and the answer she gives me with only a look will blow me to bits and I will be reminded of those golden splinters.
The power. The awful beauty. The phrase itself. The place where lightning began became and remains a refrain for me and Brock even now as we try to puzzle out the current state of our lives, how we got here, if we are happy, and what we can do to control that which is so obviously bigger than us. We speak of it often, on the phone, late at night; the pattern of gold on the lake bottom, the clarity of the water, the stunned fish floating reverent below.
Yet what I remember most is this: We were young. We were friends. We were fishing. We had unknowable futures before us and had seen something, that day, that no one else had seen. We were naïve. We were unprepared. And though we had little money we felt so tremendously grand, so thankful for what we had witnessed, for what it felt like we had somehow survived and could speak about, could even live on for a while if we had to, that, when it came to eat, we threw an extra steak on the grill for the dog.
M.O. Walsh is the author the novel My Sunshine Away and the story collection The Prospect of Magic. He directs the Creative Writing Workshop MFA program at the University of New Orleans and The Yokshop in Oxford, Mississippi. This essay is excerpted from the upcoming collection Gather at the River (pre-order here), 25 essays on fishing from contemporary authors, edited by Bitter Southerner contributor David Joy.