Lake Fausse Point, Louisiana

May 17th, 2003

People of the Lake
By Roger Emile Stouff

We emerged from the channel into the lake proper early on a Saturday morning. I was still yawning, but full of anticipation of a great day of fishing, the two of us. Dad sat at the engine, guiding the boat across the water, and I sat forward, holding the bowline.

A mist, a quilt of illusion, covered the lake and it seemed we were moving through a thin layer of cloud rather than water, but the sun peeking over the cypress trees was already burning it away. Dad brought the boat into a deep cove and stopped the engine, letting us drift toward the trees while we switched seats.

I was maybe seven, eight. I could bait my own hook by that time, something I was very proud of. I had a difficult time, still, casting it into the water and not into the trees, but I kept trying. There were oatmeal crème pies in the little ice chest, and drinks. I always had to bring oatmeal crème pies fishing, it was a prerequisite.

We fished all day, he and I, in that little wooden boat he had built two years before I was born. He built it light enough to pick up and put in the back of his truck because he couldn't afford a trailer back then. When I was about five years old, my grandpa had a conniption when he found out dad was taking "that baby" out on the lake in a boat with a quarter-inch bottom. Dad laminated another layer of plywood to the bottom and sides of the boat, fiberglassed both, robbed the piggy bank and bought a trailer.

Nick Stouff was not into sports, so consequently neither was I. We spent all our best times on that lake, the one our ancestors called sheti, in that old boat which wasn't so old at the time. Whenever I think of him, I think of that old boat first and foremost.

That day, he was particularly attentive to the weather. "Got to watch it out here," he said a million times to me. A billion times. "That lake will rise up on its hind legs and eat boats." But it would never hurt a Chitimacha, he said. That was an ancestral promise.

That day, though, a summer squall formed north of the lake, so quickly and so mysteriously that it took him completely by surprise. We were fishing on the north side of the lake, in the trees, and he couldn't see the horizon to note the approaching storm. Within brief moments after he said, "Pick up, it's time to go," the wind had reached out for us, the sun had hidden behind black clouds, and the lake was coiling upon itself to strike, like a serpent.

The old Mercury fired up on command, and he pointed the bow toward the channel which would lead us safely home. But we were far across the lake, and the water was a lunatic genie freed from a thousand years of imprisonment. We catapulted into the fray, making for the channel.

I had donned my life jacket at his order, and clung tightly to the bowline with one hand and the seat with the other. The boat, only twelve feet long and with low sides, flung itself into the storm. At the crest of every growing wave, it slammed down into the valley between them hard, jarring me, but there was little spray over the rails. Then it would climb the next, and as I looked southward, toward the channel, my heart sank at the number of waves between here and there, and the ferocity with which they were growing.

The lake raged that day. If I live to be a hundred years old, I'll never forget the fury with which it raged, as if it were saying: "Never forget that I am the master. I was here before your grandfathers ever touched these lands. I have been dammed, re-directed and your levee cuts through my heart, but never, ever forget, with one breath of my wind, one fall of my waves, I can send you far, far beneath me."

I looked back only once. Dad clutched the starboard sprayrail with his right hand and the tiller arm of the motor with the other. All his knuckles were white. His face was a mask of intense concentration, and the muscles in the arm that guided the motor were tight springs wound to the hilt as he grappled between the sheer exertion of keeping the boat from flipping or being deluged with water, and the delicacy and finesse of guiding it along the specific course he demanded.

Looking at him like that, I saw fear on my father's face for the first and only time in my life. I could hear that warning in my head above the roar of the wind and the crash of the waves and the steady scream of the outboard: "That lake will rise up on its hind legs and eat boats." And it was doing just that.

Halfway across the lake, the waves had swollen so massively that, in the valleys between them, we could only see walls of water surrounding us. Dad would gun the Mercury then, climb the slope of a wave at full-throttle, and just at the crest before the boat slammed down, he'd pull the throttle back and let it follow the downslope of the swell as gently as possible...then, at the bottom, he'd repeat the entire process.

The rain had come by then, drenching us. Sometimes, no matter how dad tried, the lake refused to be predicted, and it would throw up a wave out of symmetry, alter its shape just a tad, and the boat would crash into it: I heard the sound of creaking frames, tackle boxes and fishing poles and paddles leaping across the inner deck, my bones rattled inside me with the impact.

We were coming up the slope of one swell, the Mercury screaming like a banshee, when suddenly a huge log emerged from the green-black water. Dad wrenched the motor around, which sent the boat climbing the slope sideways, and it crested the wave that way, and I was sure we would capsize then, but he slowed the engine back to idle for just a split second — just enough to let the bow swing back forward, then spun the throttle to full as hard as he could, and the boat righted itself at once. The log passed so near to us I could have reached out and touched it. It was half as big as the boat, and would have come straight through the hull if we had hit it.

Then, all at once, the channel was there.

The waves subsided somewhat at the mouth, but he kept pushing forward, until we were deeper within the channel, and at last the water had settled to a moderate chop. I glanced behind, and he was glancing behind as well, and out the mouth of the channel, the lake was rising, rising up on its hind legs, raging in the throes of chaos.

And as Sheti continued its fury, I knew the promise had been kept. Like a parent after scolding a child, it whispered gently: "I will never harm your people. I may remind you of my power, but I will never harm Sheti imasha..."

We got home that day, tired, frightened, but unharmed. At the house, he dismissed me to go inside, get out of the rain, warm myself — he would take care of things. I walked to the house, but stopped short of the front door and went back to the boatshed where he had just put the boat.

I found another sponge and dry rag, and began helping remove all water from inside the boat. New words were in my mind now, words he had also repeated to me a million times: "Take care of her, and she'll always get you home." And we didn't say a word, he and I, while we cleaned and dried that wooden boat in the shed that day.

We didn't talk about taking care of things, or lakes that rise up on their hind legs, or promises. Especially promises. For there had been three promises kept that day, I realized so many, many years later. The promise of taking care of things, and they'll be there for you. The promise of that ancestral lake to my people.

And most of all, the promise that if we remember, if we store them in that special place close to our bones, no modern trinket can replace true treasure. ~ Roger


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