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
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
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
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
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