WHEN I WAS little, my grandfather, mother, and I would fish off a jon boat on Kentucky Lake, at the mouth of a cove where the saugers, quillbacks, and bluegill liked to hide among the dead limbs of flooded out trees. While my father and uncles stayed behind at the campsite telling their long stories and drinking either spiked coffee or beer, my grandfather liked to take Mom and I out with him because we were both afraid of the water and he wanted to toughen us up. Neither my mother nor I could swim, and if I whined about being cold or bored, he’d threaten to throw me in. He was rough-palmed, leathery, with a voice rough as a shagbark hickory.
My mother enjoyed fishing from the dock, but did not like to bait her own hook or take the fish off when she caught it, and her thin lips would curl in disgust. She had a fear of falling in that bordered on a phobia, but would not let me go out with him alone. Sometimes the boat would get hung on a drifting log, and he would grab the sides of the boat and rock us until we were free. My mother’s hands would lose color as she gripped the sides of the boat. When we hooked fish too small to keep, he’d toss them into the boat with us, make us scoop them back into the water.
He’d pop open a can of Sterling or Pabst and settle his fishing rod across his knees and wait for a strike. He’d growl if I made too much noise or let the tip of my cane pole dip into the water, and when he got worked up, he’d cough yellow phlegm into the lake. The small fish would nibble at it, flash away disappointed.
One day near dusk, we watched the wake of a black snake striking out across the surface from a deadfall oak. When it closed the distance, my grandfather recognized it as a cottonmouth, a snake with a nasty disposition, and tried to ward it off with the blade of a wooden oar. The snake was determined, elusive, and finally managed to slither over the side, spilling into the boat between my mom and my grandfather. I was in the prow, a greasy orange lifejacket pillowed tight around my neck. My grandfather grabbed the only thing handy—the large green tackle box with all of his sinkers, lures, and bobbers, and as the snake was striking at him, he bludgeoned it to death. I still remember the strange sound of the encounter, how odd and metallic and violent the blows were as they echoed off the shore, how the boat rocked and shuddered and the contents of tackle box rattled as he hit the water moccasin again and again. And we had no place to go.
The snake writhed though dead, turned the bilge water pink, and ruined my mother’s white tennis shoes. My grandfather put his boot heel on the triangular head, used his boning knife to slice it from the fat gray body, and stabbed it through with his knife before scraping the blade against the edge of the boat so the dangerous piece of meat with fangs and venom sacs fell off the knife tip and sank out of sight in the black water.
He sat grinning in his flannel shirt and dungarees, working a Camel free from a pack he pulled/was pulling from his shirt pocket. His hands were steady. I could smell the acrid scent of tobacco smoke and lighter fluid, the smell of fish scales and viscera, and a skunky musk that must have come from the snake’s death throes. Though headless, it still contracted and rolled beneath my grandfather’s boot. My mother wanted the whole carcass gone, but he was proud of his trophy, and took some pleasure in how it made my mother shiver. He used the outboard to putter the jon boat to the rough wooden dock, flung the snake on the weathered planks, and helped my mother up, then me.
When we got to the campsite, my father and uncles were well into their coolers of beer, feet splayed in front of them around the fire. My grandmother was fileting the fish they’d caught along the bank. My mother sat at the picnic table and took off her shoes while my grandfather held the snake up for all to see. Then he threw the muscular body on the campfire, and my mother tossed her shoes in after. Black smoke rolled off the burning rubber soles, and the fat from the snake’s body hissed as it dripped onto the coals.
The next morning I tried to coax the embers back to life again, and found in the ashes the shoelace eyelets, small and metallic, so much like eyes that upon first seeing them, I pulled my hand back instinctively, fear twitching its way through the primal parts of my brain.
To this day when my mother recounts this story, she pulls her legs up to avoid the ghost of blood-tinged water. I see the shiver run the length of her body, see the way her eyes go tight. I remember the snake rising into the boat, sinister and magical, slipping in near the oarlocks where my fractured cane pole fell. My grandfather is so alive again I could almost touch his sleeve, or hear the cellophane from his pack of cigarettes crackle in his palm. And though I loved him very much, even now when I think of him and all that open water, my mind draws back, and a slight shiver finds its way to my cheek. All memories create a wake; this one smolders like a low banked fire, curls in on itself like the body of a snake still dreaming the movement of life.
Brent Fisk is a writer from Bowling Green, Kentucky with recent work in Mud Season Review, Lunch Ticket, and Bat City Review. He has an BA in Literature and an MA in Creative Writing from WKU.