A View From Eagle Rock Mountain

by Krista McGruder

The lake was still and the old man in the slim fishing boat—a fire red bass boat—hung his line into the water. Burow was not an avid bass fisherman; he preferred to fish for trout. But decades back the Army Corp of Engineers had dammed Roaring River to create Eagle Rock Lake, named after the pointed mountain rising high above the water. All the schools of river trout had died behind the dam after its closed gates prevented the fish from swimming to shallow water to spawn. Burow had been young then, so much younger that he’d only a bait business and no wife or children.

As a child, Burow had fished the river for trout with his homemade rod whenever his mother needed something for dinner, his bare feet picking a path from their three-room house through the mountain fog on that hour’s downhill walk to the water. When they had been very hungry, or when the weather was too cold, he’d run trotlines from the riverbank. It had not been illegal then to catch as many fish as they could eat with those baited lures tied to tree branches. Even now, as an old man, he would not cut any bobbers he found strung from bushes beside the lake. They were set by poor people—mostly women and children without men—living a mile or more from the water and afraid to risk trespassing on vacation properties to cast a legal fishing line.

The creation of the lake had reversed the geographical fortunes of the poor. In the time before the lake, the more fortunate children lived on flat stretches of land close to the river. The farming and grazing was easier in that well-loamed soil, but harder to acquire for those without fathers or money. As a boy, Burow had lived above the river because the rocky and steep ground was cheaper to own and pay taxes on.

During the Depression, the Army Corp of Engineers had pronounced the valley eminent domain. The federal government paid the weeping and angry lowland families to abandon their houses and rows of corn. Farmland that had been cleared of stones and trees became the lakebed, resting underneath millions of gallons of water and the reflections of fisherman who came in their fiberglass boats.

* * *

The old man knew the vacation people called him Burl because no one understood his pronunciation when he introduced himself as Burow, the bait salesman. Neither could they imagine he bore the same name as a pack animal. Nor could they know his mother had named him for Officer Burrough, who had led her father in the Confederate Army, but lacking familiarity with the alphabet, had done her best with the letters she knew. Burow’s mother struggled with more than her son’s name—the baby arrived in the world only two months after his grandfather and father had been killed, shot as poachers. She would not lose her son to the woods and decided they would survive by eating fish.

It was Burow’s mother who taught him to make lures from the metal scraps his father had left in a box beside the tree stump they used for chopping wood. She heated the blacksmith’s leavings on stones in a fire, then wrapped her hands in wet rags and quickly shaped the glowing metal into a curve. After the new hooks cooled in the ashes, she gripped a round rock in her right hand and the new lure in her left. By slamming the rounded rock against the edges of the lure, she formed the sharp points that would sink into fish gills.

When Burow’s hands were strong enough to bend the metal, he made his own lures, always taking care to mind his long blonde hair as he leaned close to the fire. His mother would not cut his hair, telling him that in the Bible story it brought bad luck—that a man’s power was in his hair, that to lose it was to relinquish the strength he would need to hunt and fish for food.

The pounding rocks they used to shape lures were old Kickapoo Indian grindstones Burow found beside the river. Used by the Kickapoo to grind their harvested corn, the spherical stones had been easy to find when Burow was a boy but were now lost way down beneath the lake.

* * *

Burow history: The Kickapoo had inhabited the river valley a century before Burow was born. The tribe called their hunting grounds Eagle Rock, for the giant birds that flew above their heads. Burow’s mother had told him that the Kickapoo viewed the birds as omens, good or bad, depending on their circling paths and the sounds they made in the air. Burow knew how strange and large the birds’ shadows must have looked to the Indians, like the shadows from low-flying planes shuttling tourists to the lakeshore resorts.

Kickapoo men fashioned wooden spears tipped with flint arrowheads to impale freshwater trout, after the manner of eagles that speared fish with their beaks. When the river slowed because of a freeze and the great birds were hungry, the Kickapoo left fish heads by the banks. The eagles’ talons curled around the silver fish heads, their beaks pierced the skin and then the birds flew, shrieking, toward their elevated nests.

The Indians left remainders from their kills because they believed the eagles to be their departed kinsmen’s spirits. If a young Kickapoo found a white feather by the water or underneath a tree where a bird had nested, the parents re-named the child, a secret appellation to provide strength in the hunt or in childbirth. Parents carved these secret names into flat stones their children would keep hidden, as treasures, because to reveal the name was to lose the eagle’s advantage of enhanced vision and long life. The practice of bestowing secret names stopped when the eagle population dwindled and the settlers’ population increased. The last generation of Kickapoo to arrive at adulthood had no secret names to reveal; they had only learned to read and write English in their missionary schools.

The old man had learned all he knew of the Kickapoo from his mother’s memories of what her own father had told her. Burow was now eighty-nine, but not old enough to have known anyone who was alive when the Kickapoo had been relocated before the War Between the States. On the land reserved for the Kickapoo in Oklahoma Territory, there were no rivers to fish. What was it like, he sometimes imagined, for a people who’d lived life along one river to suddenly find themselves forced to a place totally unsuited to everything they’d every known.

* * *

Despite his store-bought lures and durable fishing line, Burow was having little luck finding bass because the lake was so still. Nearing another cove, he killed his high horsepower engine to avoid spooking any fish feeding nearby. Still, after an hour of fishing, nothing was biting.

The hooks he had made from his father’s scrap metal had lasted for years, but most were lost long ago to large mouth bass that snapped the lines he cast. In his old age, he used stainless steel store-bought hooks with masses calibrated by a machine. He fumbled with the store lures, finding it hard to thread the small openings, but knew he lost fewer of them. Not only was the metal of a greater thickness, the hooks were sharper, more precise and more likely to sink into the gills of a fish disposed to fight. What Burow had lost in strength since his youth he had compensated for with equipment and when he used the factory-made hooks he rarely left the lake with fewer than he had set out with.

It was May, tornado season, and as he fished the sky color began to change to green, a familiar color to the locals who knew to watch for funnel clouds in the hot and rainless horizon. Burow suspected the bass knew something he didn’t about the advancing weather and had found deeper water. The wind and the waves began to pick up and he was discouraged. At four o’clock that afternoon, he decided to run his boat back to dock. He cranked his reel and then felt the line pull slightly, and then go loose.

Nothing tugged again, but he heard a slapping sound against the boat’s fiberglass hull. A fish—be it crappie or bass—would take the lure and swim. When Burow looked down, he was not surprised to see his lure hooked through the jaw of a cottonmouth water moccasin, a common disadvantage of the store-bought equipment. The lure’s additional tensile strength pierced tires, sunken canoes and often, the thick skin of poisonous snakes.

The maddened reptile struck the boat with its exposed fangs. It was in a water moccasin’s nature to attack the source of the hook and Burow kept a small knife ready for these occasions. A wave rolled under the boat; the cottonmouth, buoyed by the higher waterline, threw its body upward. He needed to cut the line, before another high wave dropped the snake into his lap.

Burow let more line out of his reel and crawled to the bow of the boat to retrieve his stainless steel tackle box, a gift from his daughter and his wife on his fiftieth birthday. It had a smart design, with a hinged upper tray divided into different-sized sections for different lures. As the waves jumped and tossed around his spinnerbaits, flybaits and dwindling stock of homemade lures, he lifted the upper tray up and out to reveal the knife and a pistol. He pulled the knife out, sliced the line at the front end of his rod. The snake hit the boat a final time and then swam into the shadows of the trees hanging over the cove, the strong hook embedded in its jaw.

A year or two earlier, Burow would have shot the reptile for its hide, but it had become difficult to hold his hand steady. Worse than that, he had developed a dislike for the loud noise of the gun’s discharge and the smell of blood. The harvesting of animals and their hides had become less enjoyable, too. It cost too much energy to pry open a trap clamped on a fox’s leg or to skin a squirrel. He replaced the knife inside the box and flipped the latch, sealing the lid. If it rained later in the afternoon, he wouldn’t lose his lures to rust.

Switching on his trolling motor, he guided his boat into the cove. Vacation kids swam in the lake, skinny-dipping and splashing each other off the sides of their parents’ expensive pontoon boats. Where there was one snake, there was probably a nest of them. If he saw more snakes, he would tell the Lake Warden to mark off the area with buoys, to warn of the danger. There had been no such threat to bathers or fishermen when he had been a boy. The river water had been too cold, too shallow. The snakes flourished only after Roaring River was dammed, when trees shaded the still water and hid the reptiles from the eyes of the few eagles left on the mountain.

The auxiliary engine groaned, pushing the boat toward the bank. He would take a quick look before he covered the three miles back to dock. There were plenty of exposed tree roots growing in tangles at the shoreline, a comfortable home for cottonmouth breeding and nesting. Burow’s eyesight was still good and despite the dimming light and dark water, he saw several spots of yellow sliding across the water, ten feet from the boat. He would call the Lake Warden, tell him to get the buoys out before the summer season started. There was no need to risk sending vacation people into nests of baby poison snakes.

Burow turned his boat slowly, to avoid scraping the hull across the jagged wood jutting from the water, remains of trees loggers had felled decades before, in advance of the flood from the dam. The water rose against the boat, hard, and the wind blew hot. Still, he saw no signs of funnel clouds forming in the sky. He trolled away from the tree stumps and looked at his electronic gauge, which flickered between twenty and thirty feet deep. A powerful undertow was working below his boat, a current strong enough to drag a swimmer along the lake bottom. There were always people who miscalculated how quickly the undertow developed, even in shallow water, when the winds started. Lake patrol found remains of bodies at the end of each summer, flattened against the dam’s sluices.

That was when he saw the naked man, balanced on two hands like the way apes moved, crouched beside the edge of the water. Burow watched him grab willow branches and weeds to pull himself to the top of the embankment, where he stood straight, shading his eyes and pointing. The man was tall, with long black hair, and screamed in a language Burow could not understand.

Burow looked at the expanse of deep water and the clouds blocking the sun above his head. The wind slapped his face and he laid his rod in the bottom of the boat. He knew he should troll back toward the bank, before the snakes and the wind could get to the stranger.

* * *

Burow history: There had always been stories about crazy people around the lake. Burow had been learning to catch lake bass when he heard about a woman from the state capital who scalped herself. A conservation ranger found the rich lady, dead inside her parked roadster, with a fistful of dried blood and blond hair in one hand and several fishhooks in the other. Word around the dock was her son had been killed a month earlier in the battle at Coral Sea, and that her husband, a state senator, had forced the teenager to enlist. A kid who sold bait to the tourists insisted he had done business with the dead woman. No one knew whether to believe the kid’s claim that the woman had bought twelve of his sharpest fish hooks, for fifty cents each. Burow heard the story and was shocked at how badly the woman had been cheated. It was then that he started his business, selling hooks for ten cents each and turning a profit.

Burow heard more stories the summer the lake opened to fisherman and boaters. He sold night crawlers and June bugs to the vacationers and the locals and all of them had tales. There was rumor of five-year old twins who disappeared from their father’s boat, despite his claim he never heard a splash. The father told the county sheriff’s office, “When I looked back, to clear the space behind me for a cast, my boys were gone.” The man was never arrested but people said he hanged himself from an oak tree behind his house in the city. Another story said a fifteen-year old girl and her mother had gone missing from their cabin beside the lake. The two were assumed to have been overpowered by the current, until the next summer, when a local trapper found two female bodies in a tangle of weeds on the shore. The medical examiner announced the state of decay prevented anyone from knowing whether the women had drowned or been killed, and then thrown in the water.

Burow listened to men with strange accents and shiny shoes tell these stories from under the brims of their hats as he searched his coffee cans for the proper amount of bait. He nodded his thanks when they paid him with silver dollar pieces and let him keep the change. The men went out with Burow’s baited hooks in the mornings and returned in the afternoons with their stories: An Indian had been seen striding, in breechcloth and moccasins, carrying an eagle feather and a dead black woman over his shoulder; a man with a beard was diving in the caves that had been covered with water when the dam went in, looking for the gold his grandfather had buried on the old farmland; a teenage boy who was afraid to go to war had fallen from the dam but because his body was not found, the draft board pronounced him a deserter ‘until such time as a death certificate could be produced.’ Burow kept his head low and wondered what his mother and wife would do if he were drafted, if they would take in laundry or find work at hotels.

The stories of the lake continued during the next summers. Burow heard them all, because through some point of chance, he was not called to the war effort. His customer base grew larger, due to the superior reputation of his metal hooks and long worms. Copies of the local newspaper rarely mentioned the strange circumstances of deaths on the lake. America was at war and people concerned themselves more with reports of troop casualties and monstrous activities in Germany than rumors of unlucky tourists who never found a way out of Eagle Rock.

* * *

The lake rocked and jumped and the wind blew so hard that Burow’s rod—an expensive gift from his lawyer granddaughter—flew out of the hull and become entangled in a willow branch over the head of the man standing on the bank. The stranger was dark-skinned, and his body had the kind of large and defined muscles Burow had only seen in pictures of male movie stars. The thick hair that swirled around the man’s face reminded the old man of his youth. His own long blonde hair had never gone gray; it had fallen from his scalp years earlier and disappeared, leaving his head bare.

“You ok there?” Burow did not know what else to shout. The wind strengthened and the branches of the large sycamore trees lapped parallel with the ground. This was no place to be caught in a storm and Burow did not have a radio or mobile telephone to call on the man’s behalf.

“My boat’s sunk.” The man understood English, but his accent was strong and of a sort Burow had not heard before. The man’s fingers wrapped around pieces of his long hair, twisting the strands. Burow looked to the waves splashing over his stern. If he stayed in the cove, he risked having snakes in the boat, or flooding his engine.

“Can’t help you, mister. I can only offer you a ride to the dock.” Although the man crouched only a few yards away, Burow strained his voice to be heard above the rising weather.

“A tree made a hole in my boat. Who cut the trees?” The man pointed to the stumps that disappeared when a high wave smashed the bank. “My boat is down there.”

It seemed unlikely to Burow that the man had sunk a boat and swum to shore without being attacked by a cottonmouth. More likely, the guy had wandered from his campsite, drunk or stoned out of his gourd. Burow hollered, “So, do you want a ride?”

“Yes, yes,” the stranger yelled. “I will swim to you.”

The man lowered himself, backwards, down the bank, until he hung from a willow branch above the water.

“You just aim over here, to my boat. I’ll help you in.” There was no need to spook the man by mentioning the snakes.

Burow leaned toward the tackle box, this time, to remove the loaded Buck Mark field pistol from the lower tray. The gun was for a snake—or, in curious situations like this one, for a person. He did not take time to fasten the tricky lock on the tackle box and hoped the lid would hold well enough to keep out the rain. Wrapping the pistol in the red handkerchief he used to shine up his lures, he hid the bundle under the steering console.

The man released his grip on the willow branch and depth gauge flickered between thirty and forty-two feet; the water was getting rougher. Despite the high waves, the man swam toward Burow smoothly, covering the distance in a minute. Burow worried he would not have the strength to help, but the man lifted himself easily into the boat. His dark hair dripped with water and he crouched, his arms folded across his torso. The sky turned a darker green and a single cylindrical cloud dropped from the horizon. Burow tossed a yellow rain slicker that smelled of fish to the passenger.

“What’s your name mister?” Burow asked as he turned the ignition key. The engine could do seventy miles per hour on flat water but the lake was so choppy he would need to go slow or risk flipping on a wave.

“Lightning hit me and the tree made a hole in my boat. That was three days ago.” The stranger held his face in his hands and made no move to cover himself with the slicker. There were deep scratches down the sides of his arms and his shoulders, as though his flesh had been raked by claws. His toes were green and looked infected; he was missing all ten toenails. The man hunched over and held his stomach, as if he was protecting himself.

“You better cover up, mister. I got to get us back to dock, it’s about to blow.” Burow pointed toward the cloud dropping in front of them and opened the throttle on the boat. He figured at a safe speed of thirty miles per hour, he could be at the dock in eight minutes. There was not much chance the twister would hold off that long. He had been fortunate, before, to never be caught in a full-blown tornado. When the sky turned green, he had always retreated to his bait shop by the dock. When his wife, Helen, had been alive, he had even taken to their house, where she was sure to have fresh water and canned vegetables waiting in the cellar.

“I was there for three days. I walked. I couldn’t find anyone.” The man clasped his hands together. “No one except the birds and the deer and the snakes!” The stranger stood and the motion of the waves caused him to lurch forward, toward the driver’s seat. Burow concentrated on keeping the wheel steady, even as his right hand reached underneath the console, to touch the red handkerchief.

The man waved his arms and Burow saw a water moccasin, a small one, with its fangs clamped on the man’s lower left arm. The passenger in his boat did not scream, but swung his arm back and forth, like he was rocking a baby in a cradle and sang in a strange language, something sounding like a gospel song.

Burow’s heart beat more quickly and the sounds of the wind and the water cut into his ears. He unfolded the handkerchief to grasp the gun. The pistol was wet from the spray and he was trembling more than usual; it fell from his hand and slid across the bottom of the boat. The man swayed with the snake, waving his left arm and singing.

The boat bounced upward each time it hit a wave and the wind was so strong Burow doubted he could maintain control of the wheel. The large cloud mass parted over his head to reveal a setting sun and a gray funnel cloud dropping onto the water. Bright light breaking through the storm hurt his eyes; he blinked and saw the stranger’s right hand, the one free of the snake, reach for the pistol.

The man pointed the gun at the storm; he waved his left arm around his head, the snake still attached. Burow heard the stranger scream when the tackle box was lifted from the hull, into the air. The lid flew open and lures flew from the compartments. One hook lodged in the stranger’s ear and another, in his neck. The man tried to wipe the blood dripping from his head with his snake arm. The tail of the reptile curled around the stranger’s throat.

Burow hoped to drive the boat under the cloud before it hit the water. It was impossible to turn the boat around, to try and outrun a tornado. Better to go under it, past the center of the storm to reach the shore. If necessary, he would take his chances in the water, until the twister tired of the lake.

The snake looked like a slender flag, flying stiff in the wind, with the man’s arm acting as flagpole. The stranger moaned.

“Shoot the goddamn snake, you idiot!” Burow did not know if his passenger understood the words. “We’ve got a tornado coming our way!” The old man realized how small and ridiculous the problem of the storm was to the stranger with lures and a snake cutting into his flesh. The man’s dark body bounced each time the boat hit a wave and Burow ducked lower behind the wheel, hoping the gun wouldn’t fire.

“You need to get down! Get down in the bottom of the boat!” The gray mass of wind in front of Burow sounded like a train. He opened the throttle even more and hoped his grip on the wheel would hold. Inside his chest, his lungs squeezed as if someone had punched him and a sharp pressure traveled through his ears and his head. The passenger’s legs lifted high in the air, as if the man was a gymnast performing a trick, and rolled toward the spinning cloud. The rain slicker passed over Burow’s head and disappeared.

When the pain left his ears, the sun shone in front of him and the sound of the train had stopped. Burow thought he might have become deaf. Then he heard his engine, churning against the water. He slowed the boat and glanced behind, at the retreating gray cloud and the tangle of tree branches and debris floating in the air. The stranger and the slicker were gone, the tackle box was too; but his pistol lay below a few inches of water in the bow. The dock came into sight and there were two lake patrol officers, waiting in a souped-up bass boat that could travel faster than his own.

* * *

Burow history: The eagles that lived on the mountain when Burow was a boy were a bastard breed. The birds had become dependent on Kickapoo fish kills during the winter. Relocation of the tribe forced the pure-blooded birds to find other food: berries and bugs and in the worst times, after the fashion of vultures, the dead flesh of deer and settlers. In time, the eagles mated with the vultures and hawks and when the lake was created, the species had been changed. The state’s conservation officials insisted that kind of inter-breeding was scientifically impossible, but Burow had seen the mixed birds circle the docks in the mornings, searching for discarded bait from bass fisherman.

One of these birds waited for Burow, beside the old chopping block for wood, after the young lake patrol officer escorted him home. The white-headed creature flapped its wings and rose in the air, with one of the old man’s spools of fishing line clutched in its talons. Perhaps, Burow thought, the mixed-breed bird was flying to the mountain to build a nest. So he emptied his coffee can of the worms and bugs he had not been able to use as bait that day, with the hope the bird would return and find food for its young.

* * *

The pale, blonde patrol officer gave Burow a dry blanket and a ride to the house he had once shared with his mother and then his wife. Burow explained to the college graduate how he had encountered a naked man in the events prior to the storm, and that the man claimed to have been lost for three days.

“Well, Burow, we appreciate you telling us this,” the officer smiled as he drank coffee at the kitchen table. “But we’ve had no reports of missing boats or men in the vicinity. You sure this guy wasn’t a tourist, pulling your leg?”

Burow remembered how he had not believed the stranger’s story; he thought over the scratches covering the muscular body and the way the snake had hung from the man’s arm.

“Well, he may have been pulling my leg, but I’ll tell you this: he had a cottonmouth clamped on his left arm and it didn’t bother him none, he stood there and sung to it. He’d have been through a whole lot to get to that point.” Burow felt drowsy. The officer nodded in response and smiled, a little smile the old man had seen on the faces of tourists when they bought bait.

“You get some rest, Burow. I’ll put in a report.” The blonde-haired young officer rose from his seat and tipped his hat. “Not many men your age who could outrun a storm like that.” The officer walked through Burow’s front door and closed it, gently, as if he was leaving a child’s room for the night.

Burow sipped his coffee and thought of the naked man’s accent and words and long brown hair. He hoped he would be on the lake, during the summer, to tell the story to tourists who came for the spooks and the legends that had covered the valley, after the trout were gone.

Krista McGruder‘s work has appeared in The Best of Carve Magzine Volume III, The North American Review and storySouth, among others. A book of short stories titled Beulah Land is forthcoming from The Toby Press in 2003. She attends the New School’s fiction MFA program.