My father told me that back deep in the swamps of Peach Coulee, his father had gone squirrel hunting and found an old farm. Nothing there to really indicate it except neat rows in the soil, large trees rising from them, and a bit of old brick, enough evidence to convince him it had been there. Itís all private land now and there are signs all along Peach Coulee forbidding entry and threatening prosecution, despite my ancestral claims to it. I thought of challenging their black letters and white backgrounds, thought of arguing with their plywood and nails but shrugged it off as yet another by-product of the Great Sadness that began on this continent five centuries ago.
I found a little pond on the map that happened to exist in a state wildlife management area, not far from Peach Coulee. It was well into the woods, through what appeared to be relatively high ground, or at the worst nothing a good pair of knee-high rubber boots couldnít handle. It was, I thought, worth going to take a look at and late winter was the best time, with the snakes down and duck and deer season just over.
One day when the weather was not quite so cold I readied myself. I have a sort of backpack that is a tackle bag where I keep all my gear. I slipped a rod tube containing my vintage bamboo Granger Victory into the straps on its side, along with a graphite backup rod. Thick rubber boots, usually called Cajun Nikes here. A handheld GPS I left at home; it would be useless in the dense cypress and tupelo stands, but I brought a trusted compass. I was a little worried about my pickup, but found a nice niche in the tree line to conceal it from all but the most curious of passersby.
I hoisted my pack on my back, put my fedora on my head and headed into the brown jungle ahead. Within moments the truck was out of sight, and then the road, and the distant drone of occasional passing cars. Moments after that, there were no reminders on the ground: No beer cans, no worm buckets, no orange plastic tape on the trees.
A couple of wild hogs, big and brown and snorting, scared up within fifty feet of me and, chortling angrily, stalked off while I stood there trying to blend into the woods. They grudgingly took their leave at my intrusion, but scolded me harshly as they departed.
On I went, noticing huge fallen cypress logs that would bring thousands of dollars for their heartwood, and smiled with satisfaction that theyíd never, ever be harvested or see the saw. A pair of wood ducks took flight as I passed, whistling. Now and then, though, the bright red and brass of an expended shotgun shell on the ground reminded me that I was still far too close to civilization, far too lodged in linear time.
Something rumbled to the northwest and I cursed angrily. I had the good sense to check the weather forecast before departure, and there had been only a small chance of rain for the day. I was probably nearly halfway to the pond, if it indeed truly existed and was not merely a low spot in the woods no more than three inches deep. The canopy of cypress was thick though defrocked for the winter. I decided to continue, congratulating myself for packing my rain gear in my bag.
Itís tempting to imagine that I was seeing the swamp like it was five hundred years ago, but I knew better. All these trees are second and third growth after the lumberjacks deforested Louisiana of cypress and most of its oak. Who knows what spirits they banished Ė or freed, depending on its nature Ė with their saws? After that, invasive and secondary species had settled in, forever changing the landscape. But I could dream, perhaps, that it was something like this. In fact, I saw few signs of invasive plants this deep in the wood. Perhaps they did not do so well under the thick canopy of even successional growth cypress and tupelo, as these were larger trees than I expected. Now and then a palmetto patch would appear, green against the stark brown backdrop, and I was, as always, glad to see it. Chitimacha covered their huts with these plants, a natural-made shingle of the finest kind. The gutter-shaped fronds displaced water neatly. But I knew these woods. It was near here, on the way to Peach Coulee, that teens found a wooden cross nailed to a tree and a hangmanís noose nailed below it. It was not far from here that there were wild hogs big as men, one of those same ladsí fathers said, and another shot a squirrel that screamed like a man until it broke its neck in the fall. In those woods, just off the lake, headless women floated through the trees and red-eyed beasts stared at hunters in their deer stands.
Itís thin there, an old fisherman told us as friends and I camped along the lake shore when I was in my early twenties. He scared us half to death when he approached in his old skiff and called out to the camp from the darkness of the lake. Thin there, he said, nodding at Peach Coulee and accepting a beer from us, then paddling off and vanishing into darkness. Gone, as if he had never existed at all.
At last I detected an opening in the distance and the familiar smell of swamp water. I reminded myself it still might be nothing but a puddle, or it might be choked full of water hyacinth since the aerials were shot. But I emerged from the trees and there it was, a little pond, perhaps just less than an acre, nestled into the woods. I saw no bobbers, no monofilament line and no cellophane. Could it possibly have gone unnoticed? I had walked perhaps forty minutes to reach it, and since it was public land all the way and I had seen the few shotgun shells farther back, it would seem like someone should have been here. Bass fishermen, bait fisherman, a duck blind in a patch of reeds. But I saw nothing to indicate anyone had been there since my ancestors were unfettered.
Poking around with a fallen tree branch revealed the pond had some depth to it, and I was so encouraged and excited I dropped the mid section of my rod twice trying to mate the ferrules. I had the tip on in three tries and strung it up. There were no signs of life on the surface, no rises, but that meant little. It was midday, temperatures hovering around fifty-five. I had no room for a back cast but the pond was shaped oddly enough that I could stand sideways to it and work various juttings and pointings along its margins. I opted for a small Clouser minnow, about a size six, to descend slowly and probe the pondís depths.
Rumbling to the northwest again troubled me, and over the trees I could see the sky darkening. Forty or so minutes back to the truck. I had my boots on. Would the lightning be ground-contacting? Lightning always is unpredictable, of course. But I couldnít turn from this little pond, now that I was there. I might never find it again. My grandfather said if you find pirateís treasure you mustnít leave it. It would vanish before you returned. You mustnít curse or turn your back on it, he said. I was afraid that little pond Ė its potential still unknown Ė would dissipate into some marginal place if I departed, frightened away by a little rain and thunder. Notions like that may defy sensibilities reared and honed on city streets and in office buildings and urban sprawl, but they are at home in the swamp. They are indigenous to places barely real, places where my ancestors might dance, in the back ends of dark canals. It can only be sensed in the swamp, the power and substance of such notions.
Thunder rattled and a gust of wind twisted the bare cypress tops. I lifted the Clouser out and cast it back a little over to the right from its previous spot, stripped in slowly. Nothing. Perhaps the cold had put any fish down? The pond might have been deeper in the center. I sent it there next with a pathetic roll cast, letting the Clouser settle longer, began a different strip, much slower, much longer between pulls.
A glimpse of something out the corner of my eye made me look up, but I couldnít be sure it was anything more than a roll of the clouds, a billow expanding and collapsing, churning along as the thunderhead moved just north of me. I could tell by the flow of clouds it might miss my location by a half mile, tops. I was hopeful, anyway.
Another cast into the pond, fanning. I stripped slow, but I realized the water was shallow there. Hidden there in the trees with little sunlight throughout the day, it would be colder than a deeper pond. Largemouth and bream within would be sluggish, reluctant. And the threatening shadow of the clouds darted across the curve of the Grangerís nickel silver ferrules.
I took the rod down. The storm worried me, and my casts had produced nothing. I would return when the weather warmed but before the snakes became active again. I was sure there had to be something there in that secluded little pond. When the rod was back in the bag and tube, I looked up at the clouds again and it might have been great wings up there, gargantuan and black, or it might have been a purple spot on my cornea, floating. I donít know.
But I do know that I didnít go back that spring because the fishing elsewhere was so excellent. I did return in the fall, but whether because of the storms that had wracked Louisiana that summer or it just being thin there, I could never find it again. Gone, as if it had never existed at all.