I’m out in the skiff, catching mullets for me Mam and Pap, when that boat like a raft sneaks onto me, but I’m not seeing it because just then the sun comes up, making all that water gold, and on all the islands, those palms and live oaks, they shine like green fire.
It’s behind the islands, that boat. And I’m not hearing its Evinrude.
Sister egret flaps over, looking in me eye, and pelicans glide in a line, wingtips just riffling that golden water, and there’s brother dolphin’s fin knifing, after those mullets, too, making them jump, so they leave golden circles.
Now the good times end, only I don’t know it yet.
Dawn’s when no Outsider boats go down the river, making their noise and smell, so now’s when I catch our day’s mullets. Only crab boats churn out to the Gulf to winch traps all day, and shrimp boats churn back in, after netting all night, and I nod to them, and they nod to me. They don’t care about us Swampers, except sometimes at night their young might like to come out and yell and bother. But even them, who got raised up on this river, whose paps go out every day crabbing and shrimping, even they can’t find us, in all these islands, and they get lost, and they’re afraid of our whompus. So we’ve lived good here, until now.
At first I think it’s just a shrimper coming in, and I pay it no care, any more than the big manatee swimming calm under my skiff, out toward the Gulf, gives it heed. That boat goes behind islands and I don’t see it, and sometimes its engine turns off and I don’t hear it drone, and I forget about it, and think about mam osprey telling pap osprey, bring me a mullet to this nest, up in this dead oak. And I’m seeing a great blue heron sneak, sneak around the island, her long spear beak pointed down. But then, from behind the island, that boat floats out silent, and it’s not a shrimp boat, and I’ve been bullfrog stupid, letting it come on me like this.
I’ve got the reading. Uncle Zeb taught me, being our reader in these times, but we’ll need a new reader, for when he’s too old one day coming, who can go ashore to tend the flea market stall, along Route 19 there, and peddle our smoked mullet to get dollars to buy what we need from on shore, and then it needs to be the reader who does the buying. So I’ll be the next reader for us Swampers, and I already can, which is why I know what’s written on the side of that boat that’s just a raft on two metal pontoons, one of those Evinrudes in back: “Captain Tip Barstow’s Hapacoochi River Wildlife Tours.”
He’s a big one, Captain Tip Barstow, sitting at the wheel, with a black beard and angry brown eyes and a voice too loud. I take him in, along with the people sitting up front of him, seven, mostly grayheads, with binoculars around their necks. I hear him gator-croak at them, saying, up in that Sabal palm’s a black-crowned night heron, see? And — look! — swimming over there, to your left, a water moccasin! And here’s a rare sighting for you, over in that skiff by the island? That’s your blond-headed Swamper kid — they usually keep to themselves, hidden away on these islands, so seeing one’s a special treat, but hold your nose.
That’s what he says. And all those eyes in that boat turn to see me. And up goes some binoculars, to see me close.
Only one in that boat isn’t a grayhead, come down out of the snow, and she’s tall and skinny, with red hair, wearing big silver-rimmed spectacles, and I hear her ask Captain Tip Barstow, where does that boy live, and why is he wearing rags?
Captain Tip Barstow laughs, mean, and says rags are what savages wear — they’ve lived on these swamp islands since colony days, and others rowed out to hide when Yankee bluecoats came burning, and by now they’re all half lizard.
But where does he go to school, that lady asks. And Captain Tip Barstow makes a snort, saying they don’t teach fish gutting in school, or shack thatching, or cabbage-palm cooking, or hide smoking, so why would any Swamper go to school?
I start to row away in my skiff, to go around the island where they can’t see, and then make for our own island. But I turn and see Captain Tip Barstow’s mouth tight mean, and he roars that engine and tears around the island the other way, coming at me from the front now, blocking me, and my skiff’s rocking in his waves.