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The River of Ghosts
Tammy DiGristine

 

I do believe in ghosts. I have seen them. I have been amongst them. I have heard them. I still hear them. I am haunted by them.

We walked in silence through the maze of twists and turns of water and reeds. We were going a-fishing and both of us were lost in our own thoughts.

The river has a way of doing that to a person. We were heading for the mound, where we would start actually fishing, where the little water was. The big water of the river is too deep to cross on foot. So many channels, so many branches, so many hidden waters... so many hiding places for a ghost… or two.

The mound loomed high above us. In Florida, high is relative. It is such a flat expanse of land, the marsh through which we walk. There are places where you can stand and look around for miles and not see a thing that would lead you to believe humans had been here. Reeds that are head high and cypress trees and cattails make up the predominant flora. There are snakes and alligators, otters, bobcats, panthers, wild dogs, wild boars and several other animals. There is plenty for someone to live off of right there on the river. There is enough to sustain a whole tribe of people.

We walk on. Years of knowing, of exploring, of walking these waters allows us to know the best way there. We know where the shallow waters are, where the best places to cross are, where the muck is too deep to walk through, how to get to our destination. Each turn takes us deeper and deeper into another world, another time.

When finally we reach the mound, we are so far lost in our own thoughts, that we hardly hear the chattering of the old Indian tribe that called this river home hundreds of years ago.It comes in the wind that blows near the mound. It is a wind like no other wind anywhere else on the river, or anywhere else on the earth. It has been called the Seminole wind, but these were not the Seminoles. The wind is warm even on cold days, and cuts through a person's skin and gets right down to their soul. It is not a burial mound, but a living ground. The wind catches me by surprise as it always does, and I look up sharply to see where the voices are coming from. There is nobody there.

I am always taken aback when I arrive at the mound. I can never remember getting there, and yet know that I remember something, because I always remember the way. It is disorienting to say the least. My eyes turn immediately to the ground at the edge of the mound. They are searching for pieces of the past. There, lying in the dirt, I find one. I reach down and pick up the piece of broken clay pottery and hold it in my hands. I wipe the dirt from it and rub it and like magic, hear the voices again, only louder. I quickly turn my head to the small woods on the mound, and catch a glimpse of them, if only for a second.

They are primitive people. They are simple. They wear no clothing and know nothing wrong with that. Their dark skin is beautiful to behold. Children run around laughing and playing while two women work hard cleaning fish. Another woman over there is making pottery. Perhaps it is the same piece I am holding in my hand. The men are harvesting fish from the river around the mound. Then the vision is gone, as quickly as it came. I shake it off. We are here. This is where we fish. I lay the piece of pottery down where I found it. I take nothing from this place.

There is a place along the water's edge near the mound that I see the Old One. It is always when I am fishing. I cast my fly to a place here or there that looks as if it would hold a fish and as my fly lands upon the water, it distorts the reflection of the Old One. I look up to see him, but he is never there. He is but a reflection... perhaps a reflection of times past. I wonder more about him than any of the other ghosts I see on the river.

The water around the mound is fished and then we go on around the corner some more. Again my mind is lost to the river. As I round the next corner, a white man in an old wooden canoe is paddling swiftly by. I catch him out of the corner of my eye. I look up to see him better, but he is already gone. I wonder how long he has been gone. We fish and we walk. Each corner we round takes us to another place, another time, another world. There are no words passed between us and I wonder what ghosts my friend is seeing.

We get to the corner with the big wooden cross on it. I never fail to tense up before we round the bend to see it. I know that at first glance, I will see them there, burying her. I am thankful that I only see it for a second. It is a sad scene that I can hardly bear. I wonder who she was, how she died, and why they buried her on this particular bend of the river. The river only holds clues, it does not give up the answers.

The abandoned shack another mile or two upriver is a bit happier. There I see only children... and they are happy and laughing. The shack is not much to look at now, but when you are able to see it as it was when the kids built it many years ago, it is a piece of glorious construction. I occasionally hear the banging of hammers, the laughter of the boys. I wonder if any of them are still alive. Somehow I think so. There are not yet enough voices to go with all of the ghosts I see. I glance at my friend. I am greeted not with the vision of the old man he is today, but with his own ghost, the ghost that I see in him every time we are on that river together, the ghost of how he was when he was just a kid... and wonder if some of those kids are not his friends, and if they are waiting for him. I wonder if my friend sees the ghosts. Surely he does. His eyes say that he does. It is not something that we have ever spoken about. I wonder if they call to him.

Sometimes we ride in the boat through the channels and around the many corners through the reeds at breakneck speed, trying to catch glimpses of the River People before they know they are being seen and disappear. We ride and I throw my head back as the wind blows through my hair and I laugh loudly and from deep within. I can do that there. It is where I feel free enough. We round a corner and there is another boat. This one does not disappear. It is really there. The men in it look at me with my wild eyes and their faces show curiosity, fear, and arousal. Perhaps they wonder if I am really there, too. Around the next corner though, is a hardened man who is pulling in his lines of buttercats. He sees us and disappears into thin air. I envy him those buttercats.

The water we ride through in his boat is deep and black. The fish we pull from its waters are also black. The bass that would normally be bright and colorful in other waters is as black as night when pulled from the River of Ghosts. The bluegill, though bigger than any others I have ever seen, are as black as death. The deep dark waters of the river hold more than the fish. They hold secrets. An alligator slides silently into the water... a creature out of time itself.

We race on. Through the reeds and cypress trees and around the corners we go, led only by memory and instinct and the powers of the river that draw us in. We go onward. There is the old abandoned fish house, only it is not abandoned at first sight. The docks are still there and new and there is smoke coming from the woodstove in the kitchen where dinner is being prepared. There are several boats pulled up to the docks and tied off, a few which have actual motors. As we finish the turn towards the place, it changes. It is now just an old abandoned wooden structure with several sunken docks out front.

We ride and we stop and we fish and we see and we hear. We wonder. What do they think of our shiny boat and graphite flyrods? Do they hear my laugh carry across the boundaries of time and space? Why do they stay? In a hundred years, will someone come walking through and see a woman in a big yellow boat riding through, her head back and the wind blowing through her hair? Will they hear her laugh? Will they wonder? Will it haunt their souls as it does mine?