CATFISH

BY J. Frank Jamison

Most people just call me Bibi. It means Granny. My momma named me Melissa Shawl. My own Bibi said my name was Dae. She told me it means “dream,” and she always called me her little “dream girl.” My last name is Durber after I married my husband, Polk. He’s dead now. I love to sit in the cool shade of the porch in the middle of the morning after I finish with the dishes and get the beds all made up. I just love to rock and think. 

It was a long time ago, but I remember that morning. I was rocking and thinking about what I dreamed in the night. I was rocking and remembering my dream. I was rocking and thinking it through. In my dream I was looking across Kakunga. That’s what my own Bibi called the line that separates us from the other side, and I dreamed I was looking across. It was like a river, all heavy and thick with big brown gobs of water rolling up and spreading out into thick whorls rolling on and blending. What I saw were lions and wild dogs walking back and forth over there, and they were hungry and looking across at something. I wasn’t afraid. They weren’t looking at me at all. They were looking at something else, maybe back over my shoulder, something in the dark coming up behind me. I wasn’t afraid of that either in my dream. I knew it wasn’t harm walking up on me, it was just something I couldn’t see, but it was what the lions were walking back and forth and staring at. They had their heads lowered down, staring into the dark behind me. I knew some of those lions too. One was named Trouble, and another one was named Death, but those two are always over there. Those wild dogs? I didn’t know. I couldn’t see their names plain in the dark, but it wasn’t long before I did.

Mani is my grandson. Nathan is his daddy and he came home one evening with a bright new tackle box for his boy. I love that boy. His name means “from a high place.” It was green with red-and-white bobbers, fishing line, and hooks in little compartments on a foldout tray inside. Mani ran upstairs and came down with his fishing rod bumping the steps behind him wanting to go to the Hatchie River to fish. His daddy went down there now and then, but Mani had never been into that swamp. 

Nathan stared off into the distance the way he often did as if thinking on some further idea. Mani danced around and pulled on him until he looked down and said, “I think maybe we can. Yes, I think it’s time we did just that and you know what? We’ll go at night.”

June, that’s Nathan’s wife and my daughter, didn’t like the two of them going off down there, especially at night.

She wanted to know what I thought, but I didn’t know what to say at first. I remembered my dream, but I saw little Mani’s eyes shining and it nearly broke my heart to think he’d be disappointed so bad. So I said, “Let’s all go.” Won’t nobody bother two women, especially when one is an old woman like me. But June said she didn’t want to. Said she didn’t like to fish anyway. So that’s how I ended up in a dark swamp looking straight at that Lion named Trouble.

Nathan didn’t seem to think much on it. He whirled Mani around and said we can catch some big catfish at night. Then he grabbed June and swung her around and kissed her, all the while bragging to Mani about Hatchie Bottom catfish. The best, the biggest, and on and on. He made it seem like an adventure and he got that far-off look like he was gone to some other world. And that’s the way it turned out, just the three of us going and June staying home.

That afternoon when he came home from working at Mr. Clifford’s, Nathan said he knew a place where a man had a bottom field we could drive to and walk just a ways and be where the water flowed easy and the catfish were easy too. We’ll take the Chevy and be back by midnight. It was an old ’29 Chevy he’d bought and fixed up. June still didn’t like the idea, but she knew when Nathan made up his mind, it was probably all over. He smiled and took her in his arms, and she laughed and giggled, but when he put her down she put her hand on his face and said, “Y’all be safe over there.” He told her we would be just fine.

Nathan put poles and a shovel in the back of the Chevy. The little coupe had a trunk in place of a rumble seat. It was in bad shape, but June said it was a cute little thing. She liked to ride around in it with Nathan, proud they had saved up enough to buy it. The shovel was to dig worms when we got there. We jammed in the one seat, waved goodbye to June, and drove off toward some kind of midnight only we didn’t know it then.

It took us a little while to get over to Hatchie Bottom and down to Nathan’s special catfish spot. He pulled off into a field and drove the car on around the edge to a copse of trees and parked in behind them so the car was out of sight. The sun was already going down behind the cypress trees.

“Can’t lock up this old car, so I’ve got to hide it just in case.” Mani looked around wide-eyed and clung to his daddy.

There were a lot of tire tracks coming and going out of the field and Mani said it didn’t seem like a secret place to him. Nathan said it’s probably just a lot of other fishermen who had found the spot. He hoped they hadn’t taken all the catfish. Then we set out across the field, toward the woods on the other side where the dusky darkness had settled thickly, and I went tagging behind in the dusky light. 

“You remember to bring the flashlight, Mani?” 

“Daddy, you never said anything about a flashlight!” 

Nathan ruffled the child’s head. “Now how’re we going to see in the dark, Mani?” 

Mani looked up at him and Nathan laughed and put his big hand on the child’s shoulder. 

In the woods you could tell we were near the water because the ground was boggy and damp. The air carried the sweet odor of rotting things. A swamp can be one of the deepest, darkest places on earth, day or night, like a live thing, the way the ground sucks at your feet and night birds call—birds you never imagined before—and sounds carry and every tree root could be a snake and the streams come together and split again with no sound from the water. I guess that’s what it means to say you’re going down in the swamp, because that’s the way it feels when you get there, like you are down inside of a living creature, all moist and slick without a handhold anywhere. It was already getting dark, and soon it would be dark as pitch, black as midnight.

In a little way we came upon some tamped-down ground where somebody had sat fishing. There was an old wooden stool and a turned-up bucket they’d left behind. Nathan set off to dig worms and Mani and I looked around. It was the blackest water you’d ever see, not dirty, just black from all the leaves and stuff falling into it, but it seemed like a solid thing, like you could cut it with a knife. It didn’t seem any catfish could live in something so dark. 

In a minute, Nathan came back grinning real big, “All you have to do is lift a shovel full of dirt from this ground and the worms just tumble out. Here, take ’em and let’s get started.” 

It wasn’t two minutes before Mani had a catfish on the hook. It bowed his rod and he squealed. Nathan whooped and got the bucket and scooped in some water. Together they pulled the fish out and Nathan declared it the biggest one yet. Mani said that it was the only one yet. He loved his daddy for always being funny. He worked out the hook and Nathan said, “Drop that old booger in the bucket and let’s catch another.” In no time at all, they had six big catfish between them. That’s when we heard a car coming down the road. 

Nathan cocked his head and listened. 

“What’s wrong, Daddy?” I pulled the child up close.

“Nothing, just listening,” he said. But I heard them too, more cars on the road turning down our way. “Let’s pick up our stuff and get out of here.”

“What’s wrong, Daddy?”

“Nothing, son, but we better be scarce a little while till we see what’s going on.” 

“Aren’t we supposed to be here? We trespassing?” Mani looked at me because I had told him never to trespass on someone else’s property, especially a white man’s property. “Get you in trouble,” I’d say. 

“I don’t know what all those cars are coming down this way for, but it’s not usual.” 

“What about the Chevy?” 

“It’ll be okay. It’s hid pretty good back there.” 

“We going home?” 

“No, we’d better just slip on down here into the bottom a little more. Nobody gonna bother us. Won’t even know we’re here. Come on.” Nathan took him by the hand and Mani asked what about the catfish? Nathan told him to leave them and come on. He led us deeper into the undergrowth, looking up now and then to find the openings in the trees and then down to feel with his feet where the solid ground lay. 

“We’re not going far in here. It’ll be okay. Just stay low and be quiet ’til we see what the layout’s going to be.” 

Some cars and trucks turned into the field, and we watched headlights swing around, and then flick off and it was dark again. Then another truck pulled in, and we could hear talk and the sound of wood being tossed. Thwack, clump, thwack, clump it tumbled onto a pile. By the sound, it was growing, and then there was more talk and a loud shout like someone in command. There was low laughing too. 

“What they doing, Daddy?” 

“Don’t know, son, but we just better be quiet. We may be in a bad place for a little while, but if we stay quiet and still, we’ll be all right. This may take a while.” 

It was as if Mani had no notion of what was happening, but deep down he knew. A child deals with bad things in ways a grown-up cannot. He can know a thing so bad his mind won’t let him know it, but know it anyway. And Mani knew this thing without knowing it out there in the dark swamp, hiding like a criminal, like he’d done something wrong, but knowing he hadn’t done anything except catch some of God’s catfish after walking across a white man’s field. 

He held on to me tight and I knew he understood this wasn’t good. He closed his eyes and he whispered, “Let’s put those catfish back and go back home.” As if those fish were the wrong we’d committed. 

“Hush, child.” The pile of wood was now a bonfire that swayed and wavered, casting long shadows across the field as men moved back and forth before it. And that child knew what was coming. Oh, Lord, he knew what was coming when the huge cross started to burn. He’d seen a cross like that before, burning in front of Elbert Wiggins’s house that other night, but God almighty this one was bigger and scarier than anything any of us had ever seen. The child cried softly as we watched through the thick underbrush and the live oak trees.

“Damnation,” whispered Nathan. There was nothing you could say about him cursing God’s cross on account of this was something else, something else for sure. 

Our neighbor, Mr. Gibbs, on his porch one night told the children a story about such things, and the children thought it was just to scare them like a ghost story, but knew too it was a lesson being handed to them. It had to do with them being black skinned. It was the first time the child had really felt different. And now here we were, him and his daddy and me, squatted down in the Hatchie River Bottom watching the Ku Klux Klan live and in person as another truck pulled into the field. Two of the men in robes dragged a man out of the back. He wasn’t standing up at all. He was limp as a rag and we didn’t know if the man was black or white or a Chinaman. You couldn’t be sure anything was real in the awful darkness.

They drug the poor man across the beaten-down grass and two of them took him up, one by the feet and the other under the arms, and began to swing him until they had a good arc on him, and then plain as day, they counted out loud, “ One, two, three” and let him go up onto the burning pile. Mani started to cry again and I folded him up in my arms, and quiet as the child’s mother, began to hum a little song and whisper, “Don’t, don’t cry now, Mani, we’re gonna be all right. I’ll take care of you. Just be quiet and rest now. It will be all right.” And I watched his daddy turn hard like he changed all of a sudden into something else. It was like all that was good and innocent flowed right out of him and he wasn’t Mani’s good-looking and smart daddy anymore. He’d become someone else and so did the child. 

We stayed where we were until all the ruckus was over and the cars and trucks had pulled out. The Klan men scooped up the ashes from the bonfire into the back of one of the trucks. We could hear some talk about whose truck it would be. It seemed none of them wanted it to be his truck. Finally, one was chosen, and they scooped most all of the ash into the chosen truck and it drove off. They didn’t bother to clean up the burned-down cross. It was just a pile of ashes anyway. 

Nathan reached over and took Mani and held him ever so close, and the child slept until it was almost daylight. Then we hustled over to the Chevy and headed for home as fast as it could go. June was up and waiting, and Nathan could tell as soon as we got out of the car that she knew something awful had happened. She ran out in the yard and folded them up in her arms and said, “My sweet boys, my sweet family. God help us all.” 

When we were back in the house, I could tell that Mani was still upset so I took him up in my lap. He looked up at me. “They never hurt anybody, Bibi.”

“Who you talking about never hurt anybody?” I rocked him. 

“Those catfish. We left them in the bucket.” 

I didn’t know a word to say to that. I just rocked and remembered my dream. Mani laid his head on my breast. “They never hurt anybody. They were just living a happy life right where they were supposed to be, and they didn’t deserve to die.”


Frank Jamison grew up in West Tennessee listening to the stories of that region. “Catfish” was inspired by a true event there in 1940. Frank was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2006. He lives and writes beside the Tennessee River in Roane County Tennessee.

Image Credit: “Oldfarmhouse” by Jennifer McCune
Read by J. Frank Jamison

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