Yellow Bullhead · Kendall Lake

Ode to a Yellow Bullhead

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by Ted Lardner

What yellow, though!
Summer sunlight!
When it floods across
the end of the road,
under far rainclouds.
The downpour goes,
sluicing the grates
on the storm drains,
whooshing through
tunnels underground.
You live where rain
ends up at night, even
in daytime. Softly
on the bottom, down
in the dark, down
in quiet water. When
a child, I shined
a flashlight on you,
tangle of feelers—
barbels, whiskers—
what fell on you,
hanging in the air,
midnight, streamside,
a river we shared,
immense, patient,
folding away stars,
pocketing the ancient
light into its depth?
Red, alive in your eyes,
when that lost light
doubled back, fixing
on me, I shivered,
feeling seen, feeling
tasted. Did you talk?
Stridulate a secret
I needed, to survive
my life?

You go by
many names: yellow
cat, butter cat, creek
cat, yellow belly,
mud cat, hornpout;
Ameiurus natalis;
born of the family
Ictaluridae. In Texas
your cousins loved
the dark so much
they moved under-
ground, traded eyes,
the better to feel
as they navigated
the aquifers under
San Antonio by smell,
their way into the
mystery. One is
called Satan, the Widemouth
Blindcat. One is
called Phantom.
One, Toothless.
You have shovelheads,
Johnny cats and so,
so many madtoms,
their names flow over
a notebook page—
frecklebellies, piebalds,
Sciotos, Nooshos,
Ouchitas, saddled,
yellowfins, browns…

Like owls, active
at night, mostly;
social, you recognize
by smell, other yellow
bullheads; whiskers,
equally tongues, equally
hands. Fish that is cat,
your whole body,
a tongue: tastebuds
cover you all over;
you are inside-out;
you’re a metaphor.
Your soul, your body,
the same density
as the water; you swim,
you breathe, water
that buoys you,
water you swim in—
swim bladder, pale as
boneset flowers, like an ear
inside your middle,
absorbing vibrations:
thud of mule hooves,
on the towpath,
a runner’s stride,
traversing the stillness:
canal water: stillness
holds you: your fins,
namesake tail, patient,
fan the living current
over the eggs
in your nests. When
Creator bent this river
crooked—hard work—
sending it around,
corner after corner,
to loop back to
the source, to teach us
persistence, difficult
journeys, the work,
Creator got thirsty
and drank a little, sips
of the river, turning,
sip by sip, the water
in the river, sunlight
flavors, when yellow
seeps across fields
under coal seams
of thunderclouds.
Now from inside it,
on your tongue,
you hold the light
of the river, and wear
the sky, black on top,
yellow under, on your
body, tasting the river
so Creator can taste
the flow, the planet’s
wide whirl: even the
suds, from Peninsula,
laundry run-off, matter,
fabric softeners,
floral fragrances and
sewerage, misting
the rapids, coating
the sills of the crumbled
lock chamber.

You school your babies.
Hundreds, a ladleful,
in a blue floating ball. Quivering,
rolling, spherical,
a compass, spelling
directions home, suspended
in the lull. Underbed
of reflections—faces,
forms, dogs, deer,
they sway, shimmer,
indigo globes; a shadow,
a whim, an ink drop;
consciousness,
descending into itself,
passing its silence
through us like a waved
wand, or a miniature
eclipse, a shadow
convergence above the
velvet silt. They drift,
a collective, a sense organ;
some awareness seems to
pass from them, out,
that calls us to
remember, to feel our
way deeper
into quiet; that calls
us to climb, down, down,
out of the noise, the terrifying
light, to let go of the
separateness, the acid
air of which, lodged
so deeply in our
throats, has burned so long,
a hook, a fire, we forget
is even there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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