by Douglas Young
After lunch the family sat on the back porch chatting leisurely, watching who was walking down the street, and speaking to those they knew. Everyone was shelling peas from the garden except the grandfather and his grandsons. The three-year-old was on the floor playing with little race cars while the six-year-old sat next to their grandfather, often looking up at him. Their grandmother, mother, and aunt were discussing the morning’s sermon, who was at church and how they looked, and who was not there and perhaps why. Their father and uncle were quietly comparing notes about national politics.
The old man sat pensively at the end of the porch, gazing at his backyard and smoking a filter-less Camel cigarette. The older grandson studied his smoking ritual, fascinated by a habit he didn’t see nearly as often in the city where he lived. The cloud of smoke slowly swirling about the big man seemed to shroud him in mystery. He was content to remain in his own thoughts, seemingly oblivious to his young kin’s stares.
“Did y’all see how high Alchemilla Austin’s skirt was this morning?” The boys’ aunt eagerly looked at the adults. “If it’d been much higher, we’d a seen her underwear.”
The boys’ grandmother winced. “The outfits some folks wear to God’s house these days,” she remarked softly as the boys’ mother looked down at her container of peas and chuckled.
“I do believe Miss Alchemilla may be a husband-hunting,” the boys’ aunt pronounced. “I reckon she figures she’s been divorced long enough.”
The ladies continued speculating about the length and propriety of Ms. Austin’s skirt while the men spoke of the next presidential election. The younger boy remained ensconced racing his cars while his brother alternated between watching the birds in the yard and glancing at his grandfather still staring ahead and occasionally taking a drag off his cigarette.
When the discussion of the sins of Alchemilla’s dress was exhausted, the aunt recalled the outfit of another parishioner at the morning worship service.
“Oooh, and what about Dianella Dickinson’s top, y’all?” The aunt’s mouth remained open for a couple of seconds. “Did you see all the cleavage that gal was showing? Gracious. If I hadn’t seen her in church with my own eyes, I’d a thought she was part of some burlesque show.”
“Well, young folks are showing more these days.” Her sister shook her head, smiled, and grabbed more peas.
“It’s right hard to believe her parents would tolerate that,” their mother noted.
“Maybe she’s a husband-hunting herself,” the grandfather suddenly spoke up, sighed, and leaned forward to discern the whereabouts of the loud crow cawing from somewhere high up in the pecan tree.
All discussion of Miss Dickinson’s dress ceased as the daughters grinned at each other, looked into their buckets of peas, and shelled a little faster. Their mother’s eyes had not left hers in several minutes.
The old man stubbed his cigarette and quietly left the porch, descending the backdoor steps and crossing the yard. His older grandson’s eyes followed him intently as the old man went into the toolshed where he remained for a few minutes.
He emerged with a shotgun and walked toward the big pecan tree thirty yards in front of the porch. There he stood looking up as the squawks of a crow continued to be heard. Slowly he raised his gun almost directly above his head.
His elder grandson grew mesmerized by the spectacle, only now realizing his grandfather was about to shoot something.
For a minute, there was a pause between squawks. All the while the old man continued holding the gun vertically, remaining as still as one of his hunting dogs pointing at the prey.
His six-year-old grandson leaned forward on the edge of his seat, completely focused on his grandfather. He then stood by the screen and looked up at the tree limbs but only saw leaves.
His brother remained playing with his cars as the adults continued their conversations, dividing glances between each other and their peas. All were oblivious to the drama in the yard.
After failing to find a bird in the tree-top, the boy by the screen looked back at his grandfather. The loud sounds of the crow could be heard again.
At the boom of the shotgun blast, the boy jumped.
“Good Lord, Daddy, you trying to wake the dead?” His aunt asked quietly as she looked up from her peas.
“I expect he’s after whatever crow’s been eating his corn,” the boys’ mother replied.
“I do wish he wouldn’t do that on the sabbath,” the grandmother lamented softly.
“Well, Mother, I expect the crows are still eating corn on the sabbath too,” the boys’ mother noted.
With his eyes wide and mouth agape, the older boy saw his grandfather gradually lower his gun and start back toward the toolshed.
With a thud, a large black crow hit the grass. The boy was slightly startled, and his face leaned closer to the screen. He looked at his grandfather as he disappeared into the shed. The old man was pushing 80, a little over six feet tall, and just over 200 pounds. But he emerged from the shed looking like a giant to his grandson.
The little fellow suddenly turned to the rest of his relatives to gauge their reaction to the stunning scene that had just unfolded before them, but the ladies remained absorbed in local gossip and the gentlemen appeared content with their national version. No one noticed the dead bird in the yard.
The boy ran to the screen door just as his grandfather got back inside. The old man held it open for him and the boy stopped for a second to look up at him. Then he ran to the bird in the grass. For such a noisy crow, it sure is quiet now, he thought while inspecting it intently.
“Now don’t touch it. That thing’s filthy,” his mother called from the porch. “You hear me?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied without looking up. He had never seen a bird so close and marveled that he couldn’t find any blood. He looked at it a long time before recognizing the songs of a mockingbird perched on a limb not far away. But he heard no more crows.
He went back to his chair on the porch and had not been sitting long when his grandfather called him from the screen door.
“Want to go fishing, boy?”
The boy immediately turned to his parents with wide eyes and a big smile. His mother looked at his father who nodded back and smiled at the boy.
“Have fun fishing, son, and do what Papa says.”
“Yes, sir,” he answered and jumped out of his chair.
“Go catch Mamaw a great big fish and she’ll cook it for you.” His grandmother winked at him.
He raced outside to catch up with his grandfather as the old man loaded the bed of his blue pick-up truck with a can of worms, the tackle box, a rod and reel for himself, and the smallest cane pole for his grandson.
“I don’t know how comfortable I am if they go out in the boat,” the mother said, turning to her husband. “Daddy’s older now.”
“Let the boy go fishing with his granddaddy, honey. He can swim now and your father’s fine.”
“I want to go fishing,” the three-year-old announced as his relatives smiled at him.
“And before long, you’ll be big enough too.” His father assured him. “We couldn’t let your brother go fishing yet when he was your age, but pretty soon you’ll be big enough to go with them.”
Not entirely sure he approved of the situation, his aunt intervened.
“I’ve got a chocolate bar for somebody if he’ll come over here and help me with these peas.” She looked at him with a grin.
“Thank you, dear,” his mother said under her breath and grabbed more peas.
The six-year-old eagerly climbed into the pickup’s cab and breathed deeply to absorb its unique smell. He didn’t know how to describe it but knew it was a scent unlike any other in his experience.
His grandfather got in, cranked up the vehicle, and drove out the dirt driveway in the direction of his 200-acre farm known to the family as “the Place.” The boy’s feet didn’t reach the floor and he used both hands to roll down the window since the old truck had no air-conditioning.
He counted all the fox ears tied together on the dashboard to see if any had been added since his last truck ride. But what most got his attention – as always – were the long rattles on the dashboard.
“Papa, may I please hold the rattles?”
The old man nodded and lit a cigarette as the boy gently picked them up and began counting the rings. He imagined the longer one with 12 rings as belonging to a giant rattlesnake even longer than his grandfather.
As he shook the rattles, he envisioned scenarios in which the old man slayed the deadly serpents, each one ever more breathtaking. The boy turned to watch his grandfather as he calmly steered the wheel with one hand while casually tapping ashes out the window with the other.
The farther from the little town they got, the more the winding two-lane highway became embraced by farms with lots of cattle grazing by the road.
“Look at them scrawny-boned cattle, boy.” The old man gestured. “Nowhere near as big and fat as Papa’s cows.”
The boy nodded appreciatively and made careful note of this as they veered into the Place. Now all the black Angus and Herefords loomed positively huge.
As they wound their way down the beaten path toward the lake, the boy was lost in shaking the rattles and occasionally admiring the big cows. His grandfather stared ahead and silently sized up the state of his land.
When they parked by the 12-acre lake which the old man dug many years before, the boy put up the rattles and jumped out of the truck as his grandfather loaded their gear into his old green boat.
Motioning for him to get in, the boy eagerly climbed in the boat as the old man shoved it into the water, got in, and lifted the paddle to row them to his favorite fishing spots. When they arrived at a good locale, he put down the oar and each baited his hook and cast his line.
The boy admired how adept his grandfather was at casting and was amazed how far he could throw his line. But he was more captivated by his own red and white float in the water, sitting on the edge of his seat and hoping a fish would take the bait. His grandfather lit a cigarette and looked ahead at his own float. Before long he reeled in a decent-sized bream. Then another, and then another. The boy marveled at how easily his grandfather caught each fish.
Now three fish behind, he turned back to his own float, desperately hoping he could catch something. And then his float started to jump just a bit. Excited, he quickly lifted the cane pole but only saw his worm at the end of the line.
“Not yet, boy. Wait until it goes all the way under.”
As the sun got hotter, the old man paddled them into the shade near the shore under some large oak trees. The boy got more bites but, instead of catching a fish, lost his worm. His grandfather continued to reel in several good-looking bream, as well as a couple of bass.
Growing more frustrated, his grandson started thinking of the rattles again when his float bobbed and went underwater where it stayed.
“Now, boy,” his grandfather instructed him with a raised voice that startled the child. He quickly began to lift the pole, but the fish put up a ferocious fight and remained underwater.
“Lift him, boy,” came the command, and the boy stood up and pulled with all his might. To his delight, he hauled a handsome red belly bream out of the water, and his grandfather took hold of the line and handed the fish to him.
The boy was elated and alternated looking at his catch and his grandfather. The fish tried to shake itself loose as the boy proudly held up the line to inspect his catch from every angle.
The hard part came when he tried to unhook it. The fins atop the fish were sharp and the boy kept hesitating each time his catch tried to jump. Finally, the old man took the fish and unhooked him.
“That’s nothing to be scared of, boy.”
The grandson quickly threaded another worm on his hook. He didn’t look at his grandfather for some time. Instead, he cast his line on most sides of the boat, determined to catch more. Soon he hooked another one and this time brought it into the boat on his own. It was a big bluegill bream and the boy beamed when his grandfather nodded. This time the child put the fish on the floor of the boat and then put his shoe on top of it, enabling him to unhook it without getting cut.
The old man picked up the fish and attached it to the rope holding the rest of their catch in the water. The boy began to dream of the day he got big enough to use a rod and reel.
“What’s the biggest fish you ever caught, Papa?”
Exhaling smoke, his grandfather began to reel in his line.
“Likely a bass.”
“How much did it weigh? Ten pounds?”
After a pause, “Five or Six.”
The boy noticed his float dancing. But it wouldn’t go under, and he recalled his grandfather’s instructions about when to pull up the cane pole.
“Why won’t he take it, Papa?”
“Maybe she’s just flirting with you. Or it’s a little bitty fellow.”
The instant the float went all the way under, the boy jerked the pole up and pulled in a very small bream. Excited, he announced he had now caught six. Though his grandfather had caught at least twice as many – and several larger ones – the boy noted it now took two hands to count all the fish he caught that day.
But just when he unhooked his catch and handed it to his grandfather, the old man tossed it in the water. Stunned, the boy looked up at him.
“He’s too small. We need to let him grow up – like you. You’ll catch him later when he’s all grown up and then he’ll be a right big fellow, sure enough.”
The old man put down his rod and reel and began paddling back to the shore by the truck. His grandson was disappointed but determined to truthfully tell everyone he really caught six.
All the way back to his grandparents’ house, the boy studied the bucket of fish, marveling at all the red bellies, yellow bellies, bluegills, and bass while trying to determine which ones he caught. When they arrived home, he raced inside to show everyone all the fish and point out the ones he hooked. A fine fish fry was held for supper and the boy tried to be sure to eat a couple he caught.
All the adults but his grandfather did a lot of talking at the dinner table, but the boy paid little attention. He relived the exciting adventures with the crow and the fishing and wondered when he would be big enough to get his own rod and reel, as well as a bb gun.
Before too late that evening, as his family was getting in the car to head home, the aunt called the six-year-old to his grandfather’s truck. When he arrived, the old man took his hand and put the two rattles in it. The boy blinked and looked up with a surprised smile.
“Thank you, Papa.”
The old man nodded, smiled, and patted his head as he walked back to the house.
“Oh, now won’t you have something to share in school tomorrow for show and tell.” His aunt laughed.
After embracing his aunt and grandmother goodbye, he ran to the car to show off his new prizes. His parents persuaded him to give one to his brother, and both boys proceeded to shake the rattles much of the drive home, a development not entirely comforting to everyone in the car.