Chasing bream across the north shore of Grande
Avoille Cove, to little avail, the boat drifted
upon a wide but short canal cut into the bank.
The loggers likely left it there, before 1930,
when nearly all the old growth cypress in
Louisiana was felled. Grande Avoille Cove was a
pivotal point for the deforestation of St. Mary
Parish, and the many thousands of logs which were
floated out of that small bay of Grande Lake staggers
It was late in the day, and the sun was over my
left shoulder as the boat brought me to the mouth
of that canal, probably used to stash logs awaiting
transport to the mills which once dotted the parish
from one end to the other. It was covered by a thick
canopy of new-growth cypress along with European
and Asian invaders. Though I knew the canal was no
more than fifty yards deep, I could see only darkness
in its depths. I made a few half-hearted casts into
the mouth of the canal with my four-weight, but the
size eight black wooly bugger went unmolested. The
boat touched stem to a sunken log and waited there
for me to push it free.
But the darkness at the end of that canal held my
attention. Late in the day like this, when skies
are clear, the Atchafalaya River basin turns golden
and green, quiet, breezeless and still. Here and
there, egrets rest on ancient, worm-ridden logs,
peck at bugs in rotting stumps. A water moccasin
coils within a patch of irises, and far, far behind
me, I hear the splash of a largemouth. Down there,
at the end of that dark canal, another world exists.
A world of twilight, where the margins of the present
and past, the dividers separating this world from
the next and that which has come before, are feeble,
thin. When this was a giant system of interconnected
lakes, before the levee was built, and farther back
still when there was no one here but Chitimacha, this
was a metropolis. White clamshell, evidence of a
thriving culture from which I am descended, peeks
unblinkingly like disturbed bones from layers of
fallen cypress needles. Down at the end of that
short canal, in the blackness, I can almost see
the way it was. Lodged there against a log, the
bow of the boat held firm, I can almost see all
my relations since before there was time.
It looks like a tunnel, a cave, a passage. With
a push of my paddle, the boat is freed, and I
negotiate around the log, then point the bow into
the canal. With the deft accuracy of a man searching
for erudition, I fade from the sunlit world into
the darkness of the ages. I can still see in here,
and above me, the canopy of mingling limbs are
like lovers, locked in death's embrace. Not a peek
of light comes from above, but the glow of the cove
is behind me now. The boat drifts a moment then
settles quietly, almost in reverence. That part of
me which stubbornly insists upon being a twenty-first
century man removes the woolly bugger from the leader
of my line, replacing it with a black rubber spider.
The part of me that exists in the here-and-now plays
out a little slack and carefully sends a roll cast
to the back corner of that dim canal's termination.
It saddens me that people who lived their lives in
the light of day, who frolicked and played and worked
and hunted or fished under the full face of the sun
now lurk in shadows at the back end of shallow canals.
That people who touched Creation by keeping an eternal
flame burning not far from here should be cloaked in
darkness after the end of their days. Most of all
that I should drift into a world of distant forebears
and feel I should roll cast to a corner of their
resting-place to make sense of the world.
I glance behind me, and the waters of the cove are
bright. Ahead of me, the foam spider is motionless,
neglected. Past the end of the little canal, I peer
into darkness and a shadow, a patch of darkness
blacker than the rest, darts away behind the thicket.
I think of Neka sama, the "new devil," which moved
across these swamps from west to east each year,
whistling and making a sound as if pounding on a
hollow log with a tree branch. Does Neka sama
still haunt the darkness at the end of that canal,
afraid of the light and illumination of disbelief?
A beast once so feared children were huddled close
to the breast when the whistling and pounding was
heard far off. Now a prisoner. It may lurk in here,
looking out at the bright cove beyond, hear and
watch the speeding, noisy boats, recoiling from
the noxious fumes of two-cycle engines. It may
snarl softly at fishermen who pass by it, casting
into the canal's mouth, uncertain why they are
suddenly so uneasy and quicken their trolling
motors to pass.
When a people fade into the darkness at the back
end of shallow canals, they take their monsters
I move the spider to the opposite corner with a
careful twitch sideways. The ripples of its fall
expand outward, touching darkness. There are no
fish here. The darkness is all I may catch, and
the soft, fluid motions within it, final breaths
drawn from behind curtains, like fingers tapping
on a drum which once resounded over swamps and
marshes, grassy prairies and cypress forests. I
draw in the line and back the boat out slowly.
The shadows recede from me, and the sunlight
basks over the stern of the boat first, moves
amidships and finally floods me with warmth.
No breeze could penetrate the thicket behind
that canal from the northwest. No wind could
find its way through the dense growth. But it
came nonetheless, pushing the boat just a
little more, fondling my hair, tugging at my
clothes. Then I was back on Grande Avoille Cove,
and the air was still, that exhalation from the
back end of the canal abbreviated and done. There
were whispers on the breeze, inaudible but my
perceptions were keen to them.
Perhaps that's why the black back ends of shallow
canals on Grande Avoille Cove fascinate me so. I
am no oracle, no seer. Just a wayward son who came
home in the nick of time. Perhaps there's no one
left who desires to see.
It is nearing sunset. I start the engine and idle
out of Grande Avoille Cove slowly, the prop kicking
up mud from the shallow bottom. Instead of turning
east for home, I guide the boat west, down the rest
of the borrow pit that was dug to build the levee.
Less than a tenth of a mile and the pit opens up
into Lake Fausse Point, Sheti, Lake of the Chitimachas.
The surface is smooth as crystal, holding silent
secrets. I throttle up a bit, not too fast, but
circle the lake once, breathing in the dusk. I let
the oranges and greens and saturated silvers sink
deep within me. The depth finder shows me that I
am moving through barely two feet of water; this
lake once ran half a dozen feet deep in its shallow
spots. But the levee has changed all that, filled
it up with sediment, like darkness under a cypress
canopy. I dare not slow down or I'll be idling out
of the lake as well. On the other side of that
levee is Grand Lake, and once all that separated
it from Lake Fausse Point were two islands, Big Pass
and Little Pass. The levee linked and absorbed these.
Round Island lies to the north, across the levee, as
does Buffalo Cove, perhaps the most beautiful spot
in all the river basin.
My circumference of the lake complete, I return
to the borrow pit channel and make my way home.
I pass by Grande Avoille Cove on my way, and it
seems translucent, fading. I think perhaps it
might vanish during the night, only returning
at dawn. Farther down, I turn south at the
levee's lock system, installed to vent the
overflow of water should the Atchafalaya threaten
to tear down the stinging violation of the levee.
On south, under the bridge, I turn west again and
find my way home. It's nearly dark. Back on Grande
Avoille Cove, if it's still even there, I imagine
the canal is completely cloaked now. Perhaps the
entire cove is covered by darkness. Are ancestors
dancing there, wraiths on the surface of the water,
lifting themselves through the trees and into the
stars just twinkling on high?
We once occupied these waters and lands from east
to west, from the gulf to the junction of the two
great rivers, but now we are spread thin across
time and space, hidden from the sun in the back
ends of dark canals. ~ Roger