A Few Notes on the Remarkable Sighting of the Bishop-Fish of Smith Mountain Lake

by R. L. Futrell September 15, 2006
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The man at the bait shop says it’s down there. Says it’s ours for the taking, with a nod and wink. Says:

Mind you well what you wish for, boys.

He gives us a hand-drawn map (his father’s father’s, or so he says) and sends us out the door, crossing himself in the manner of a man with long-lost faith, a residue of religiosity – like maybe it’s his old lady with the heart for godly living, but not him.

We’d seen the pictures on the wall: men with catfish stretched out longways across their hairy arms; bass as big and fat as sea turtles; fuzzy Polaroids of a misty lake at dawn, something dark in the water.

Legend has a way, I guess, of making one see what might or might not be there. A matter of faith, some say: the Virgin Mary on your breakfast toast; tears of blood from the copper eyes of Padre Pio da Pietreici at the little church downtown; a creature with the body of a fish and the torso of a man, the shaved head of a Capuchin monk and a voice like birdsong, singing:

The wretchedness of man, equal only to the mercy of God.

We’re out there for eight hours straight. Twenty-five yards from the lip of the dam, floating on a wall of water, hurling our empties at the rocky shore as if to raise the ire of the lake itself, thinking maybe if we drank enough she’d offer up her secrets.

Randy is the only one to see it, towards sunset, the scales of its back shining like a rainbow as it breaks the surface.

There it is! he shouts. There it goddam is!

Sam and I are casting on the other side and digging in the cooler for another beer. We snap around, nearly tipping over, our eyes adjusting to the light – the sun’s reflection on the muddy water mesmerizing all of us.

See the ripples, Randy says. It was right there. Hand to God.

Somewhere deep beneath us we can hear the churning of the turbines, the slow electric whirr as they gathered speed. Warning lights flash on the dam, bells are ringing. There’s someone in a hard-hat on the metal crosswalk yelling through a megaphone:

Get behind the buoys! Two hundred yards!

They say a fishing boat caught one with a net one time, off the coast of Germany, in the Baltic Sea. For three days it refused to speak or eat and died before they got it home. And once the King of Poland had one captured in a tank. How one got here in this man-made lake is anybody’s guess.

We’ll come back tomorrow, Randy says. He’s down there. I seen him.

“Men of Renown” they’ll call us, looking at our pictures in the bait shop; the Sons of God come calling on the daughters of men; the number of our years on earth a mystery; able to call down fire on the weak and feeble-minded; an endless spool of 50-pound-test, spun from gold that never tangles.

One Styrofoam cup among them, they’ll say, that never ceased to squirm with bait.

About the Author:

R. L. Futrell has published fiction and poetry in various journals such as Virginia Adversaria, Zone 3, Harpur Palate, The Cresset Review, Flights!, Poetry Motel, Square Lake, The Tar Wolf Review, and 88: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts. He is currently at work on a collection of short fiction and a novel. He resides with his wife and children in Xenia, Ohio and teaches creative writing courses at Cedarville University.