The rains would be coming in less than an hour. The pain in his lower back and trick knee told him so. The shrimp were giving pretty good with the cold front bearing down and dusk settling on the brackish waters and slues of Bayou Dularge. Rudy Chassion opened his thermos and drained the last drop of coffee from the silver bottle. He readied himself for another pull. This was no time to rest. As soon as the front pushed through the shrimp would quit running for the night. An egret lifted from the marsh along the edge of the canal where his barge was anchored. It flew slowly around the floating structure, reminding Rudy of a buzzard circling a carcass, before landing on the far end of his boat. A shiver raised goose bumps on his neck and arms as the wind whipped violently, jolting the trawler.
Rudy buttoned his faded denim jacket and cranked the wench, raising the nets that had been filling as the current brought in shrimp from the gulf. His mind slipped into thoughts of Leslie as his arms turned round and round, over and over, pulling in what the bayou grudgingly relinquished. He thought about how beautiful she was the morning his nightmare began. How sweet her neck had tasted against his lips as he kissed her goodbye for the last time. How lovely her laugh had sounded in his ears when she tilted her head to one side and giggled. How soft her black hair had felt against his face when she had followed after him with the thermos he had forgotten, giving him another playful nudge, nose to nose, before he jumped into his pickup truck.
Jump in the bayou. The water’s fine. He swung around to see who had spoken. There was nobody there. Of course there was nobody there! His shrimping partner was back at the dock with a couple of ice chests from the late afternoon catch. They were hoping to sell a mess before dark since the weekend was coming up. He continued twirling the crank until the papillon nets had cleared the picking box. He was certain he had heard something. Rudy dumped the contents of the nets into the trough, released the nets back into the water, and began separating the trash fish from the shrimp. As always, his mind drifted to the nightmare...to Leslie. He remembered that dreadful evening at Arceneaux’s Landing. When he docked, he discovered his brother waiting there with his head bowed, eyes focused on the shells beneath his feet. Rudy had waved with enthusiasm since his brother hadn’t been on the water since they were kids, when going on the water meant recreation, not work. He remembered seeing tears roll down his brother’s face as he tossed him the line. He saw himself listening, shaking his head in disbelief, collapsing to the wooden dock as his brother wrapped his arms around him. He remembered screaming, but all he recalled hearing was the sound of the black water slapping against the dock, over and over and over again.
Jump in the bayou. The water’s fine. This time he slung a handful of shrimp as he whirled around at the sound of...of...of what? There was nothing there. Nobody. Nothing except that white egret, crested in black, which looked at him curiously.
"So you want me to jump into this here bayou," Rudy spoke to the bird. "You think that’s what I should do, huh?" The egret shuffled its feet and fluttered its wings slightly in response. "You talking to me, bird? I’ll cut you up for gumbo, yeah."
Rudy wondered how many men that egret had tried to coax into the murky waters of Bayou Dularge. He wondered what was down there...below...on the bottom. He wondered about the myriad lonely guys in rusty barges, having traveled this same canal, who may have thought these same thoughts. Perhaps even now, far below the mud beneath the marsh, slept the bones of some loveless man who had listened to the egret.
"I pull on these nets over and over and over and over, and they are always empty," Rudy mumbled aloud, perhaps to the bird. "Even when they are filled with shrimp...still empty! Or with trash fish...sometimes crab...occasionally, a soft-shelled crab that will get me three dollars each on shore...empty! Full of treasure or trash they are always empty. Just like my heart. No matter how full. These nets can’t give me back my Leslie."
Jump in the bayou. The water’s fine. Rudy sprang to the edge of the barge and reached down into his Carolina skiff where his hands dug for the boat paddle. When he found it, he lurched towards the egret, swinging the paddle with all his might. The bird lifted from its perch and heckled Rudy with a hollow shriek as it drifted to a crab buoy nearby. Rudy lost his balance from the force of his swing and plunged into the cold, dark waters of the bayou. As he twisted awkwardly beneath the water, struggling to rise to the surface, his foot tangled in the nets. The nets would not give enough for him to make the surface. The more he struggled the worse he became entangled. He felt himself beginning to panic when his right arm slammed into the anchor rope which was attached to the front of the barge. Rudy pulled himself to the surface and clung to the edge of the boat.
"Looky what you done did, bird!" Rudy sputtered before gasping for another breath of air. He laughed at his predicament. "You wicked bird. You the one oughta be feeding crabs at the bottom of this canal." How stupid of him! In fact, everything about his life seemed stupid. How meaningless this all seemed. Shrimping day after day after day, staying on the bayou as much as he could to keep busy in hopes of escaping the nightmare, if only for a moment. He was just another shrimp, caught in the nets of despair, of loneliness, being dragged onto the ship of discontent like the other luckless bottom-feeders and trash fish that lurk in the waters of life. Must his nightmare always be the same? Does it always have to be the same teardrops, spilling from his brother’s jaded eyes? Must these tortured ears always hear the same pronouncement?
"Hey, bird. Where you at? You leaving me too?" Rudy tried to lift himself higher so he could crawl onto the barge, but the nets just wouldn’t give enough. "One thing, bird...This water ain’t so bad, after all. Where you at, bird?" The cold water was draining his strength quickly. Breathing was difficult as he tried again to pull himself up. The nets were just too heavy.
The rain began to fall upon Bayou Dularge as Rudy heard the sound of a boat motor rising and falling down the bayou. He saw lights appearing and disappearing behind the waves. He recognized the sound as the flat-bottom boat his crabber buddies used to check their traps. They would be coming by to check on the night’s catch, just like they did every evening. He figured they would be there in less than twenty minutes. The nets were getting heavier as they began to fill with shrimp and fish. Rudy tightened his grip. He was confident he could hang on until they arrived to cut him lose from the nets. If that was what he wanted.
"Nothing but another shrimp caught in these empty nets," Rudy laughed, but his laughter sounded to him like the shriek of the egret. He listened for the sound of the flat-bottom boat. He was getting very tired and his fingers were growing numb. He wondered what they’d think if they pulled up, and he wasn’t on deck. They’d see his skiff and know he was there somewhere. They’d see the nets down. It would occur to them to check the nets. They’d be heavy. Real heavy. So they’d bring them up. "What a surprise we’d have for them, huh bird!" He called out to the egret. He wondered what his brother would think. His family. They would assume it was an accident. It was an accident! "That’s pretty smart, bird! Sounds like a plan, don’t it?"
The weight of the shrimp filling the nets pulled on his leg. He felt like he was being sucked to the bottom of the bayou. He shifted to secure a better grip. The rain splashed upon his brow as he heard the voices of the crabbers in the flat-bottom boat just a few hundred yards away. His thoughts returned to Leslie. Her neck, her hair, her nudge. "I love you, Leslie," he whispered. Rudy rehearsed that day again, one last time, as he listened to the sound of the black water slapping against the barge over and over and over again.