Lake Fausse Point, Louisiana

September 20th, 2003

Back End of the Canal
By Roger Emile Stouff

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 the imagination.

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 with them.

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


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