An Island Between
Caddo Lake has always been a special place for me; it's 26,000 acres of swamp, moss, and mystery. My family has frequented the lake for as long as I can remember. My grandparents bought land in the little forgotten town of Grey, Texas when I was about nine.
I would go fishing there with my parents and grandparents during spring and summer breaks from work and school. My father had been on the lake since he could cast a line. He and his brothers are part of the last generation of true outdoorsmen. They reside right on the edge of when television took over for nature as the main form of entertainment. Caddo was where my father taught me the finer points of fishing; I was taught how to tie knots, how to look for a brim-bed, and how to respect the outdoors. It would be years later that I would teach my fiancé Natasha how to fish there, sharing the same lessons and appreciation my dad taught me.
A native of Russia, she had never seen cypress-knees poking up from under the surface water. Giant leathery spiders and alligators were creatures reserved for books and the Discovery Channel. Branches strung with moss as long and stringy as witches' hair and a cork bouncing up and down with the waves were things that lost their wonder to me long ago. Seeing these sights through Natasha's eyes allowed me to see them again for the first time and recapture a bit of that lost charm.
On one morning, we floated along in the early summer warmth hunting goggle-eye and bluegill in my little flat-bottom boat. I shared with her all the legends centered on the lake. I told her of the old-momma alligator that had evicted a family of beaver from their dam and still lived there to this day, of catfish large enough to sink a boat and swallow a man. I told her just about everything I had heard and everything I had seen. The last story I told her this morning was my favorite and maybe the most difficult to believe.
A few years before, I had been out on the lake with my father fishing. We enjoyed the snacks and sports chat more than watching our corks do absolutely nothing. The sun was heading down on the horizon but, being summer in Texas, there was still plenty of heat in the air. My dad asked me if I wanted a beer. I said sure, but was certain that we hadn't brought any along. Dad pulled in his line and I shrugged and followed suit. We trolled out of the salvinia and started up the outboard. Throwing our life-jackets on, we buzzed across the lake. We went past fishing spots I knew very well. I recognized the low, bunched cypress of Jap Island and the always trot-line laced waters of Twin Island immediately. Then the sights became foreign to me. We left the open water boat-run of the lake and followed a path only my father knew. We turned down small little trails through the woods in water so shallow you could see the catfish lying on the bottom, and through Cypress-knees taller than most people I've seen. We traveled on small lines of water, jutting in and out between the trees, where there were neither openings nor light. My dad formed trails with experience and we traveled the rest of the way on them. Eventually we exited this tangle of old-world into a large river path. Up ahead I saw smoke coming from a little mass of land.
It was an island, but not one made of earth. This one was a man-made pirate cove cobbled together out of wood, moss, broken paddles, and lost boats. Smoke was coming from a building in the middle and a number of boats were tied up, their owners standing around nearby. I was momentarily at a loss for words. Only when we came to a sudden stop did I realize we had docked.
We were at one of the small docks for individuals to tie their boats to and board the floating structure. An old man who seemed to have been created at the same time and from the same materials as the island appeared beside the boats holding a long rubber hose and asking if anyone needed their gas tanks topped off. The planks that made up the majority of the little wooden atoll were grey from years spent in the elements. No kind of modern water-proof sealant or weather coating had ever been brushed over the wood; the planks dated back to a time when people built structures tough, mean, back when such things as sealants were unnecessary. If the mass were to ever separate, the long grey planks would hide on the clay bottom of Caddo in their same grey perfection for all time.
There was a small building in the center of the structure that served as a general store of sorts. The most diverse assortment of river-folk, bayou drifters, and grizzled fishermen were docked near the store. The boats ranged from new Bass-Tracker VIPs to old dinged and punctured flat-bottoms that were held together by necessity and a caulking gun. No one seemed to notice anyone else. People made their way to the store and back to the boat, only stopping to hand the gas-man a dirty wadded up five or ten dollar bill. The gas-man would then thank the boater in a voice consistently one octave louder than it should have been, and scuttle back to the store to give the proprietor the payment.
My father and I stepped onto the small tie-up he had decided upon and made our way to the general store after pausing only long enough to refuse any gas for our boat. We passed a couple of time-worn old men cleaning large, dark-blue catfish at a makeshift table. Flies, enticed by the smell of fresh blood and flesh, came to dance around the table and celebrate the catch. None involved paid us any mind as my father and I entered the store.
The contents of the old, crude structure did not hearken back to anything in the past. They were still in it. From the soda ads hanging on the wall to the actual cans themselves in the cooler, nothing looked as if it could have been from the last 30 years. Everything had shades of the lake on it: rust on the signs, mold pulling the shelves into the walls themselves, and trinkets and knickknacks strung up by cobwebs. However, it was not a stretch of the imagination to believe that none of these would ever age, rust, or rot past the condition they were presently in. They had manifested on the island itself, just as the island had manifested out of the lake.
I glanced around the shop and found that it had pretty much everything that one would need to survive. There were little packets of fishhooks, though most of them were rusted almost through; in the corner there were whole rod and reel sets that would never turn or pull in line. Wafting out of the back was the smell from a grill that had never cooked anything store-bought. The woman behind the counter could never have been younger than 60. I could imagine her first memory: her opening her eyes to a sun darkened fisherman asking for a pack of peanuts. I could tell in those eyes that the little store, and even the island itself, would forever be in this one moment, only separated from the next by the outsider presence of my father and myself. Tomorrow the gas-man would hop about shrieking his offer. The fish would give up their meat to be eaten, and we wouldn't even be a memory to the island. Everything would be just as it had been since the lake had first formed.
Before I knew it, I was sitting back on our boat with a beer in my hands. It was a Budweiser, though the design on the can was one I had only seen once in an antique store. My father used a paddle and pushed us away from the island and turned us around. I was going over everything in my head to make sure I wouldn't forget a detail when the tiny island finally disappeared from sight and maybe even the world.
When I finished telling all of this to Natasha I watched as she tried her best to grasp my descriptions of a place made up of materials and lives she had never seen or experienced. She asked if we could try and find the island. I said "sure," and we pulled in our lines. I started the engine up and we set off across the lake.
It wasn't long into our search that I realized that even if we looked a hundred years, I would never set my eyes on the island again. My father had been running up and down this lake since he was far younger that I was. His connection with the lake is something that I'll never be able to possess. He comes from a different time. All the lessons he taught me, he learned from the source. When he looks at the lake, he does so with the same eyes as the woman behind the counter. Maybe that is the key, the literal key, to finding the island. Maybe I'm just one generation too late.