Bayou Luminescence 


Tommy lifted the pole so smoothly that only five drops dimpled the water's surface. He glanced at Jake, hoping his older brother had noticed his skill, but Jake stared at a pelican on a cypress knee, bird and its reflection shimmering in the summer heat.

"That way." Jake pointed at an inlet. "We'll check the last crab trap, head home."

Tommy threw his nine-year-old weight sideways, turning the boat. When they reached the plastic trap marker, he looked down. Something big, gray, and mean-looking circled the trap in the murky water. "What's that?"

"Hold the boat still." Jake grabbed the dip net. He leaned over, slipped the net under the creature, and brought it up thrashing. It writhed out of the net and fell into the boat, grazing his knee.

Jake was almost twelve, but he yelped like a puppy. "It shocked me. Don't touch it."

"Shove it in the weird bucket." Tommy reached past the crab and shrimp containers for the plastic bucket they used to hold any strange new creatures moving into the bayou.

On their way home, Tommy worried about another strange creature. "You think Trixie'll really try hitchhiking to Baton Rouge?"

Jake poled a moment. "Naw. She's just feeling sorry for herself cause she's stuck out here and tomorrow's her fifteenth birthday. You get her a present?"

"Busted up some oyster shells and glued the pearly stuff around a picture frame."

"Nice, but it won't make her happy." In a whiny voice, Jake mocked their sister. "I want my WiFi. Want my TV. Want my sewing machine so I can make my clothes tighter. Well, suck it up, sis! Water's rising and the electricity's gone."

"That's mean, Jake. Did you get her anything?"

"Not yet. I just wish she'd stop complaining. I can't do anything about any of it. Baton Rouge's so full of refugees, Mom and Dad are living in one room. Dad said he could lie on the bed and touch the kitchen table without stretching. They don't have room for Trixie."

Tommy sighed.

Back home, they showed the ugly, blunt-nosed, beady-eyed critter to Pawpaw.

"Merde!" he said. "Looks like an electric eel. How'd it get up here from South America?" Then he shrugged; animals were on the move everywhere, gobbling plastic trash, mutating, trying to survive. "Throw it in the slime eel pond."

They dumped it in the small pond of slime eels—hagfish really. Immediately the slime eels oozed quarts of their gel-like goo that repelled attackers. Then the electric eel loosed some volts and the pond of gel lit up, colors barely visible in the sunlight.

"Whoa!" Jake said.

"Net that thing," Pawpaw said, "and throw it back in the water."

"Put it down Trixie's neck," Jake said. "That'd stop her complaining."

Pawpaw grabbed his arm. "Be patient, boy." He paused, then said, "Your sister's old enough to understand the future, but she's way too young to accept it."

Jake pulled away. He got the electric eel back in the weird bucket and started for the water's edge but stopped and turned. "Pawpaw, can I keep it for a coupla days?"

His grandfather gave him a long, hard look, waved a whatever hand, and headed back inside for a nap.

Later, Jake called Tommy out to the tool shed. They whispered a few minutes, grabbed shovels, and started digging in the spongy ground, well above the ever-rising waterline. 


The next evening, PawPaw, Jake, and Tommy gathered around the table loaded with etouffé, rice, and mirlitons baked with cheese. PawPaw hollered for Trixie to come on to her birthday party.

She emerged from her room wearing a dress the others hadn't seen. "How do you like my birthday dress? Took forever to alter it by hand."

After supper, PawPaw brought out the slightly dry birthday cake. Trixie actually smiled at the surprise. On their last trip to the grocery store, Pawpaw had sent Trixie to the thrift store to "buy yourself something pretty" while they bought the cake in secret.

While they ate, Jake tried to cheer her up. "All the high school kids in Houma'll be sick of each other by the time school starts—maybe in October this year. You'll be the exciting new person."

"Yeah, if the school bus route isn't under water." Trixie said.

After dessert, they lingered at the table. Jake kept an eye on the darkening sky. Tommy worked on a map he was making of partly flooded houses that might be worth scavenging. Talk turned to when Mom and Dad might get real jobs instead of pick-up work so they could afford a bigger place and everyone could move to Baton Rouge.

"You too, PawPaw," Tommy said, not wanting his grandfather to feel deserted.

Pawpaw leaned back. "You know those cypress beams hanging in the shed? Two ole boys coming by next week, see if we can raise this house up another three feet. Have a place ya'll can come back to if you don't like city life that much."

Jake snickered at that possibility, then checked the sky once more. He got up. "I'll go get my present ready. You'll like it, Trixie. You're always wanting more light than a kerosene lantern."

 Tommy scooted out to the porch to watch Jake take plywood off the letter-shaped trenches they had dug, trenches now full of salt water and slime eels. When Jake yelled, "I'm ready," Tommy called PawPaw and Trixie.

Jake's dark silhouette tipped a bucket and something dropped out. Threads of multicolored light snaked out and thickened into streams in the small, connected trenches. The electric eel shocked, the slime eels oozed, and the goo lit up like liquid neon.

Trixie giggled with gratification at the lighted letters: HAPY B-DAY.

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