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From the “Catfisher’s Prayer Book:” Big Henry

I sat in my dinky old rowboat, the one with the green paint peeling off, the lettering “Pine Crest Day Camp” barely visible. My fishing pole was propped against the side of the boat as I reached in my pocket and plucked out a peppermint my grandfather had given me earlier that day. The glare of the sun on the candy wrapper made me squint and as I shut my eyes I thought back to the story Granddad had told all us kids just that morning.

“Story! Story! Story!” Suzie screamed impatiently as her tiny fists pummeled Grandad’s knee. At two, my little sister was a constant annoyance because she had to have everything immediately. At ten, I was a man and knew the value in being still and waiting. ‘Course I probably learned that ‘cause Grandad taught me that the first time he took me fishing. But, the screeching didn’t seem to upset Grandad. He just leaned back in his rocker and scratched his whiskered chin and appeared to think. “A story? Well, now, I don’t know if I know of a story.” The gleam in his eye gave him away and my brothers and sisters and cousins all stopped their playing and squabbling and studied him for a moment before running across the yard and settling onto the porch at the foot of Grandad’s rocking chair. “I suppose I could tell you about Big Henry, but, nah, you’d never believe it.” A chorus of “I’d believe it!” rang out and that was enough to get Grandad started.

“Well, let’s see, the first time I encountered Big Henry I was about your size,” Grandad poked me in the chest. “I was out on Lake Wheeler with the Nicholsons. We lived next door to the Nicholsons. Nice folks. Mr. Nicholson was some kind of salesman and traveled a lot and Mrs. Nicholson always had fresh baked cookies. They didn’t have any kids of their own, but they always welcomed the neighborhood kids and loved ‘em just like we were their own.” Some of us started shuffling our feet, getting restless; we already knew all about the Nicholsons. “Anyway,” Grandad continued, “this one Saturday Mr. and Mrs. Nicholson decided to take their boat out and asked me if I wanted to come along. I sure did love being on the water, and I sure did love the Nicholsons, and I especially loved Mrs. Nicholson’s homemade cookies.” Grandad closed his eyes and a slow smile spread across his face as he remembered the taste of those cookies. A few seconds later his eyelids fluttered open and he resumed his story. “An hour later we were out on Lake Wheeler and Mr. Nicholson was showing me how to bait my line and instructing me on when and how to toss it in the water to get a fish to bite. He even joked that if I was really good I might snag me Big Henry.” All us kids took a collective breath and leaned closer. “’Big Henry?’ I asked. ‘Who’s Big Henry?’ ‘Who’s Big Henry?!’ Mr. Nicholson repeated like he’d never heard such a dumb question. But, he went right on and answered me without even pausing for breath. ‘Why, Big Henry’s the biggest catfish in these here waters. Folks say he’s a good sixty pounds.’ I laughed, knowing Mr. Nicholson was just telling me a fish story. I sure hadn’t seen or heard about anybody catching a sixty pound catfish. But, Mr. Nicholson just smiled. A few hours later, we were hot and tired and about ready to head in when I begged to throw the line just one more time. It hit the water with a satisfying plop and almost immediately I hooked a fish. A big one. One so big I couldn’t get it in by myself. Mr. Nicholson came over and helped me reel it in. After a few minutes of struggling I stood there, gaping, while I stared at the fish in the bottom of the boat. A catfish. A catfish as big as I was. Mr. Nicholson clapped me on the back and said, ‘Well, son, you done caught Big Henry!’ I nodded, still too stunned to speak. Mr. Nicholson unhooked him and said, ‘Let’s throw him back now.’ I quickly found my voice. ‘Throw him back? Throw him back? Gee whiz, I’m not throwing him back!’ Mr. Nicholson bent down on one knee and said, ‘Do you know that feeling of pride and joy you have right now from catching Big Henry?’ I bobbed my head slowly. ‘Well, you see, if we throw him back, not only will he continue to grow, but you’ll be giving someone else a chance to have that same feeling.’ As much as I still longed to keep Big Henry, a part of me wanted to have a chance to catch him again so I slid him into the water and promised him I’d be back.”

Grandad paused and the screen door creaked open as Granny came out with a tray of lemonade and a stack of glasses. After we all got a glassful and Granny had bustled off into the house we settled back down. “Well, Grandad,” one of my cousins asked, “did you ever see him again?” “Yeah, did you get a chance to catch Big Henry after that?” another one piped up. “Did I? Did I ever! Let me tell you…” Grandad answered.

“I went fishing on Lake Wheeler, Holt Reservoir, and down by the dam every chance I got. But, I didn’t see Big Henry again. I was beginning to think I had imagined the whole afternoon when one day, while in my twenties, I saw a large, dark shadow glide by and I knew – I just knew – it was Big Henry. I stuck a piece of Skipjack on my circle hook and tossed my line overboard. In less than a minute I had a bite and I could tell by the way he was pulling, I’d snagged Big Henry. He put up a hard fight, and although he’s powerful, catfish that size don’t have much endurance, so I had him in the boat in ten minutes. And sure enough, just as Mr. Nicholson had promised, Big Henry had grown. He was now almost 100 pounds. As I stood there exulting in my prize catch I remembered a little boy over a decade earlier, chest puffed out in pride, joy filling his heart over landing Big Henry; and I knew what I had to do. I reached down and hauled Big Henry up. I looked him in the eye and told him once more that I’d be back.”

We were sitting in shock that Grandad would have released Big Henry again. Grandad nodded and said, “Yep. In fact, I’ve caught Big Henry now so many times I’ve lost count. But, I always let him go because there’s a little boy out there who needs to catch him a lot more than I do. Although it won’t do him much good, since Big Henry probably weighs close to 200 pounds by now.” The slamming of the screen door made us all jump. Granny came stomping out on the porch, shaking her finger at Grandad. “Damon Toney, you ought to be ashamed of yourself, telling these kids about Big Henry. You know they’re gonna’ believe you and you’re just telling them fish stories again.” Granny shook her head and clumped back in the house. Grandad just smiled.

My peppermint was nearly gone and I opened my eyes and breathed out feeling the fresh, minty tingle. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a dark shadow. I turned and watched as a very large, very slow something swam right past my boat. It couldn’t have been Big Henry, because Big Henry was just a story. Right?

~ from a lady friend named Misty