The Day of the Black Water




                        By Byron Walters


     For thirty years Jess Centers has made this journey to the river to fish and always in the month of April.  Once he had a mule to carry him to the river and his favorite fishing hole, he named the blue hole. And as with all things that walk this earth or crawl, swim or fly, the old mule laid down and died. It was an hourâ??s walk from his home in the head of the branch called Jim Crow Hollow.  No one knew about the blue hole, it was his little secret hideaway.  After reaching the river, it required another thirty minutes of negotiating thickets and undergrowth to reach the blue hole.  When the mule was alive, he would return from the river the same day.  Now he would leave early morning, stay the day and night and return home the next day with his catch of fish. 


It was a frosty early morning in April and Jess was up before daylight packing his food and supplies for the fishing trip. Sadie was by his side warning of the dangers of fishing by himself.  He pretended to listen to her ramblings and agreeing with every word that came from her tender heart and loving mouth.  Sadie had risen early and took it on herself to dig green worms for Jess to use as bait.  All year she had dumped table scraps and dish water on a mound of dirt and covered with it with straw mixed with cow dung; their own worm farm. The evening before and with the aid of flashlights they sneaked upon the unwary night crawlers that came from the deep ground, stretching their long bodies to absorb the wet from the damp grass and laughing out loud when a worm would slip through the fingers of Sadie and duck into its deep hole in the ground.  It seemed to Jess that the preparation to go fishing was much harder than fishing itself.  But he didnâ??t mind, this was his time of year.  He would go before the April showers set in and possibly causing the river to turn to a p-nut butter color.  After the frost left and the warm days of April would bring the old catfish from the bottom scavenging for food and he would be there ready and willing to assist them in their search.    


He only carried the necessary tools for survival, a warm blanket for the cold night, a coffee pot, a skillet, and a Prince Albert can full of lard and a pouch of corn meal for fish frying. The water he would get from the river, boil it over an open fire and enjoy his early morning coffee with biscuits and blackberry jam.  A pone of corn bread with apple sauce would satisfy his hunger at lunch and with any luck he would fry fish for supper. All supplies were packed in a backpack with care by the hands of Sadie. 


â??Did you pack some corn fritters for Saucer mouth?â??


â??Oh Jesus, I forgot!â??


A few years ago, Jess Centers was at the blue hole when he noticed a fish flopping helplessly in the water.  A closer look revealed a wound between the eyes of a seven or eight pound catfish.  Jess jumped in the water, brought the fish to the bank, retrieved some moonshine from his back pack, soaked a rag with the whiskey and proceeded to remove the bacterial like growth from the wound.  It looked as though someone had thrown a rock and wounded the fish between the eyes.  He returned the fish to the water and it swam off.  Every year since the fish would break water and visit the camp of Jess.  It had grown considerably over the last few years and Jess guessed it would weigh about fourteen pounds. The wound had left a raised scar between the eyes of the fish and was easy to identify.  He told Sadie about his experience and how large the fish had grown.   â??Why Sadie, see that saucer on the table, its old mouth is wider than that there saucer.â??  Thus Jess had given a name to the scarred catfish.


Jess would squeeze the corn fritters into a ball and feed the saucer mouth when it came begging.


It was breaking daylight, the frost was present and a cold chill was in the air when Jess started his trip.  Sadie watched the old man shuffle down the narrow path, his shoulders bent over, his gait slowed by the years and she remembered the first time she had seen Jess.  Tall, handsome, thick black wavy hair, the long gangling arms that would assist her over obstacles on the rocky road and the trouble she had keeping up with him as he walked her home from church and the subsequent proposal of marriage.


â??I promise you Sadie that I will care for you and provide your needs to the best of my abilities.  I will not idle myself with places that will divert my attention from you.  Although I make whiskey for medicine purposes, I myself do not partake in dram drinking for it confuses the mind and makes slaves of men who pursue the evil drink.  Only eighteen years of age, I am in want of twenty one years of age and the courts will recognize me of being legal and trustworthy of the farm left to me by the departure of my parents, because there was a foul up in the land grant given to my ancestors.   I promise my name will not be a part of nasty gossip or otherwise slandered by my peers or others that might judge my character as being unsavory. I promise to you that I will honor your wishes and will refuse to make demands that are against your nature or your God.  I do not take you as a personal responsibility but a partner that will share a life of hard work and a loving relationship.  All this I promise you Sadie, without evasion or mental reservation, if you will be my bride.â??

 Jess soon disappeared from sight, uneasy, she mumbled a prayer and went to the barn to gather eggs and milk the cow.  It was near hog killing time and while she was in the barn, she checked the large black cast iron pot for rendering the fat from the hogs.  She had turned it upside down so it would not hold water in the event the barn leaked.  She removed her apron and wiped the accumulation of webs and other debris from the pot.  Satisfied with the condition of the pot, she returned to her chores.


By the time Jess reached the river the sun was in full glory and the river was shining like diamonds scattered in a desert.  He was excited but tired from the long walk.  He found some soft river sand under a tree and rested.  He had another half hours walk through briar patches and thorn bushes before he reached his destination; his on private honey hole.  He checked the worm box, added some water from a nearby spring and walked on.  He knew if he didnâ??t keep the dirt moist, the worms would die and dry up.


The blue hole and campsite was as he left it last April.  The rocks that formed his campfire had not been disturbed.  It felt good to remove the weight from his shoulders and back.  After a few minutes of much needed rest, he went searching for firewood.  He was anxious for the evening to come, relaxing to the smell of burning wood and the delightful aroma of fishing frying over the open fire. Thinking about it renewed his strength.   He was eager for the day to begin.


Fire wood gathered, he went searching for cane poles.  He cut six that would land a twelve pounder, rigged the poles with line and sinkers and sat back and relaxed.  The first catch was close to five pounds.  He put it on a stringer, tied the end to a bush and went back to fishing. 


By evening time he had three stringers of fish.


The fire was going and the grease was hot as he gutted and skinned the first fish he had caught and gentle hands laid it in the hot grease.  He heard the sound of water splashing, it was his old friend Saucer mouth wanting his evening meal.  Saucer  gulped down three corn fritters before going under to stay.  â??See you in the morning, old friend.â??


After supper he prepared his bed, removed the fishing poles from the water, wrapped his blanket around his body, closed his eyes and listened to the night sounds and fell into a calm sleep.


Darkness chased the remaining daylight away and the cool clear night again produced a chilly frost. Early morning hours, he awoke, his body needing warmth from a frosty chill.  With reluctance he removed himself from the cozy nest of the blanket and added wood to the campfire.  Before seeking the confines of his blanket, he sat watching the fire reaching out for oxygen and the embers flying into the cold night air; his hands reaching out for the warmth of the fire and then his naked feet.  He became aware of a warm sensation that flowed through his body chasing the chill away; a wholesome contentment and somber appreciation of the natural order of things.  The fish, the birds, the frost, the starry heavens, the cool clean air, the purity of the river waters and all things large and small that make up natures bounty and even the soft sand in which he spread his blanket upon.  He bowed his head and gave thanks for all of this to the Grand Architect in Heaven.


He would fish until noon tomorrow and head back home.  One more stringer full and he would have enough or maybe more than he could carry.  The fish would not spoil on the trip home if he did not linger.


The cold morning, he prepared coffee and ate the biscuits and jam.  The sun was slow peeping through a thick layer of fog.  The fog had blocked his view of the river but he felt something was not right.  He didnâ??t hear the familiar sounds of fish jumping or birds singing.


As the sun slowly burned the fog from the river, he wasnâ??t prepared for the stench of death that was flowing down the river.  White bloated bellies of fish were everywhere.  The flies buzzing above the floating fish refusing to let the swift tide rob them of their rotting feast.  The water was a dirty black.  He heard a splashing close to the river bank; it was Saucer mouth trying to extricate himself from the poisoned water.  He rushed to help the sickened fish; the black water had robbed the life giving oxygen from the water.  He pulled the fish from the water and laid him on the bank.  He was dying from lack of oxygen.  Tears gushed from Jessâ??s eyes and he found himself suffering from lack of air to his lungs.  He then checked his catch, they were all dead.  He cut them loose and let them flow down the river.  He pulled Saucer from the bank, wrapped him in paper bags and set out for home.  He would see that his old friend would have a proper burial, free from the degradation of flies and insects.


The walk home was long, old Saucer mouth was heavy but he was determined to fetch him home.


It was late evening and Sadie was worried.  He should have been back by now and then she saw him coming.  He had something across his shoulders. He seemed to be carrying the worldâ??s tribulations on his stooping shoulders.


Jess sat down on the steps as he laid  Saucer down in the yard.  Sadie saw that he was crying.


â??Jess, what happened?â??


â??The fish, all dead, killed by the black water, no more fishing, Sadie, its over for me, they killed them all and Saucer Mouth dead, Sadie, thatâ??s him there, my old friend is dead.  I feel that a part of me is gone. I loved that old fish, I loved him Sadie and now heâ??s gone.â??


Soon after the catastrophe of the poisoned mine water, old Jess died.  Sadie devastated by the death of Jess, refused to the see the need for living, took her bed and died.  It was told that the old man never recovered from the loss of old Saucer mouth and the destruction of his Garden of Eden. 


Authors Notes:

This is a fictionalized story of an old man and his fishing trip.

In the early fifties, as a young boy I experienced the black water of death from washing the impurities from the black diamond (coal) and the toxic water swept away my playground at Carr Fork, a tributary of the North Fork of the Kentucky River.  One day I was walking the banks of the creek near my home and discovered two eighteen inch catfish trying to get out of the black water.  Unlike Jess I carried them home to save them not to bury them but the red sulphur well water I put them in could not save them.  Sadden by the death of the beautiful fish but more wounded by the complete destruction of own Myrtle Beach, my personal swimming hole, my blue hole, as Jess called it and the fun and adventure in my back yard.  Never again will I pinch the tails from a crawfish and roast it over a fire.  Never again will I set up camp along the creek and clean the scales from the Bluegill and smell the joys of dry wood burning and fish frying.  Never again will I make my camp by the creek bank and hear the pleasant croaking of bull frogs singing their mating songs and arguing with my friends of the size of the creature, because theyâ??re dead along with all the other animals and vertebrae that made their home in the once pure water of Carr Fork creek. For the first time in my young life, I learned hurt along with helplessness; I felt hatred to those that perpetrated this evil of all evils upon those many species of innocent life that made my life worth living along the creek bank and playground at Scuddy.

  With the gravity of loosing a loved one, I gave the catfish a Christian burial.  And like the fictitious Jess, nothing was ever the same again.





























































One thought on “The Day of the Black Water

  • May 26, 2009 at 10:18 am

    The creeks and streams we once knew are cesspools, and the fish unfit for consumption. Oh, but the memories: sitting at night on the creek bank above the drift; your daddy relaxing after a hard day’s work in the field, filling his pipe and urging you to be quiet so the fish would bite; the moon shining; bullfrogs bellowing; and the school of “newlights” beginning to bite. Never again will we be able to enjoy the fishing trips of youth because of our polluted rivers and streams. But this was a good, honest tale of a real fisherman–and what a shame that it ended as it did.

Leave a Reply