When I was young, my grandparents T.B. and Mattie Daves — Papa and Nana to me — had a vacation cottage on Hollingers Island by the western shore of Mobile Bay. After school was out, I spent my summer months there, roaming barefoot and free. The shallow Bay waters and shoreline marshes were ideal for all kinds of fishing, but particularly for the kind I came to love most — fishing at night with net and gig.
For years, I had longed to go out night fishing, but my grandparents weren’t convinced that I was quite big enough or strong enough or experienced enough to handle a gig without stabbing myself in the foot. Finally, when I turned 8 in 1947, I was deemed ready. For me, it was both a rite of passage and a near mystical experience.
On an evening with a full moon rising over the Bay, three of us waded into the water, Papa holding the kerosene lamp, his longtime friend and handyman Robert Barnes carrying the gigs and cast net, and I dragging a galvanized washtub tied to my waist.
Papa was slender and fit for a man of 57, an age that seemed incredibly ancient to me. I had no idea how old Robert was. He had worked for my grandparents for as long as I could remember, and he was an expert weaver of cast nets and ghost stories.
That night, we turned southward along the shore away from the pier, wading through knee-deep water at the marsh’s edge. Bullbats swooped and flitted through the air, catching insects and emitting their hoarse, frog-like cries. The lights of several other floundering parties were visible along the shore. The Bay was very quiet, though, and sounds carried for long distances across the flat, shallow water -— a heron’s solitary croak from the marsh grass or muffled shouts and laughter from children playing tag by the beach.
Soon, a host of different fish of all sizes and shapes began to swarm around us, attracted to our light — catfish, pufferfish, croakers and countless minnows. Long, silvery needlefish darted past, hunting prey, while we studied the sandy bottom searching for circular imprints, signs of buried flounder.
As we were making our way around a wide section of marsh, Robert said quietly, “Watch out.”
We had blundered into the middle of a swarm of stingrays. When I saw the flat, barbed fish all around us, I froze for an instant, but Robert urged me to keep moving and reminded me to drag my feet across the bottom instead of lifting them, making sure I wouldn’t step on a stingray. A large black one glided directly in front of me, its fins at least 3 feet wide. I could see the sharp barbs imbedded in its thin, whip-like tail. But Robert and Papa showed no fear, so I couldn’t either and kept walking.
The farther out we walked, the quieter it became. The playing children were eventually all called in to bed, and I wished all of my friends could have seen me then, staying out late with the adults.
Over our heads, the sky arched like a vast, velvety black bowl dusted with stars. Once, I caught a glimpse of something bright reflected in the water and looked up to see it streak overhead through the darkness, passing across the night sky like a faint trail of sparks — a meteor, I supposed. But when I tried to point it out to Robert and Papa, the light in the sky had already gone.
Papa gazed across the Bay. “Your grandma and I used to dance the merengue on the pier at the Grand Hotel.” I liked the word “merengue.” It sounded to me like the meringue in Nana’s lemon meringue pie.
Robert pointed at something on the bottom caught in the light. At first, I couldn’t see anything. The flat, sand-colored flounders were hard to spot. Then I noticed a faint shape, a circular outline barely visible in the sand.
We crept closer. Robert held out a gig to Papa. He took it but stood still for a moment. Then Papa turned and passed the gig to me. I knew this was my chance to prove myself. Gripping it tightly, I took a step nearer, and as the fish stirred and began to swim away, I hastily plunged the gig, trying to strike the top of the flat head, but I got nervous and threw the gig to the left of the fish. I felt miserable, knowing that I had let Papa down.
But before I could dwell very long on my failure, Robert speared the moving flounder neatly between the eyes and flipped it into the washtub where it thrashed briefly and then lay still, staring up at us with its dark little eyes. Then Robert nudged me and pointed toward another circular imprint in the sand. Taking the gig, I eased closer, telling myself not to be nervous or rushed. As the flounder took off, I thrust toward its head, and this time my gig found its mark. When I pulled the flounder out of the water, I saw that it was a big one. I could tell from their faces that Robert and Papa were pleased with me. I had passed the test.
“Looks like a nice fat one, ” Papa said. “Gonna taste delicious when your grandma cooks it.” Before long, we found another flounder, and I gigged it, too.
At that instant, a school of mullet flashed past us on the edge of our light, and Robert quickly passed the cast net to Papa, who spread it across his right arm and gripped one corner in his teeth, and then in one effortless motion flung it far out toward the school so that the net billowed open to a full circle and splashed loudly in the water. When he and Robert dragged it back, the net was packed with a squirming mass of mullet. As they emptied the fish into the washtub, Robert said, “Ain’t lost your touch. No sir, not one bit.”
Until that night, I’d never thought of Papa as anything except old; yet when he threw his cast net, he appeared to have shed years. I could almost imagine him and Nana together at the Grand Hotel, dancing the merengue. Robert handed the net to me to carry.
“Your grandpa ever tell you ‘bout his magic trick?”
“Makin’ fish jump right into his boat.”
I slung the net over my shoulder, wondering about Papa’s magic trick and knowing that letting me carry the cast net was their way of saying I’d done all right tonight. I felt a surge of pride, and I wanted to leap up and shout, but I kept quiet as we headed home.
When our beach came into view, Robert whispered, “Uh-oh.” A figure was standing out on the end of our pier.
“What do you boys think you’ve been doin’?” Nana’s tone of voice suggested that we were all in big trouble. Her Cairn Terrier, Quentin, was beside her, peering out at us.
“What’re you doin’ up?” called out Papa. “Look at you two, ” she said to them, “teaching the boy your bad habits. Pretty soon he’ll be just like you old rascals.”
When I lifted the washtub up on the pier, Quentin scurried over and sniffed at the flounders. Nana couldn’t conceal the fact that she was impressed with our catch. “Well, hurry up. Get inside all of you, ” she said. “I made some oyster soup.” Later that night, I was too agitated to sleep, so I slipped out of the house and sat on the front porch steps. Quentin came up beside me and nuzzled my hand with his cold nose until I scratched his head. His fur smelled of earth, like he’d been digging in the woods.
I looked out at the still waters, amazed at how fast things could change. One day, I was only a kid following Robert as he mowed the lawn and then the next day I was staying out late with the men. I had been night fishing. It was as if I had stepped through a door into another place — I knew I was different — and it made me feel shaky and dizzy, like the world was speeding up. I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or be scared.
I glanced up through the pines at the night sky, and at that moment saw something that made me hold my breath. Little streaks of light were falling down the sky — a shower of meteors was flashing by overhead, and in an instant they had vanished. You had to have looked quickly to see them at all.
Tommy Atkins, a Murphy High alumnus, spent much of his childhood on Hollingers Island. A published playwright and author, his novels include “The Blue Man, ” “Spirit of the Jaguar” and “The Bay Road.” He and his wife Mary Ellen now live in Florida.