“My mother is a fish.”
-William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

I seined the Luxapalila for bait
with my father
each May. We netted frantic, silver minnows
and scooped them into buckets
by the dozens.

I liked to stick my hands
into the mass of life.
I liked to feel the cool, slick jump
of the tiny fish,
their firm flesh struggling
against the moment. Their mouths
opened and closed, opened
shocked at the big god of death
with blonde hair, a sunburn,
and dark eyes.

I liked the sharp prick of those fins.
I liked the needle points of blood
that turned the water pink around my fingers.

Harvest, nightfall,
we dumped survivors into coolers
alongside cups of fat liver
that smelled like iron,
alongside red worms with no faces,
alongside catalpa worms
that were curled brown
but still oozing green
onto everything.

Surreptitious grabs, I’d snatch
a few here and there when he wasn’t looking
to play savior, let them loose again
and watch them swim away.
My father’d yell some shame, and then
we’d lift  the net using thick branches we’d cut
straight, or close enough. They’d serve
until one snapped
into two,
and I prayed it wouldn’t be mine.

Snakeheads broke the water sometimes
but usually later in the day.
They surfaced
and trailed tension triangles.
We froze to let them pass,
with only an inch or two between
our bodies and the watery wriggle.

If the light allowed,
if the cooler was full,
we walked to the lake
and hooked food with food,
played at luck and patience.
We always seemed to have one or two bodies
to cut and bleed for dinner those nights.

My mother joined us
on the river
the last summer she was alive.
She talked too much,
took up too much space. Lost
her breath and caught dark looks
from the old man holding his pole.
She looked to me, then,
in some kind of conspiracy. A game,
but he was still mad at her
for dying. And so was I.

She smelled like medicine
and covered her bald head with cloth
so that it wouldn’t burn
and peel-away.

I remember the catfish she caught
near nightfall—
a monster of a thing with whiskers,
full of spikes,
covered in hooked scars.

She lifted it up, a victory,
huffed breath she barely had,
lifted it up for the picture. And it
barely moved, resigned I thought,
or maybe biding time.
But then
she let me squat at the edge
and let it loose, let it go
after all
back down below to wait
for another hook, a net,
or some other kind of mercy.