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Are Those Feathers Real? – J. T. Townley

Jun 11, 2021 | Fiction | 1 comment

And when I look up, this cruddy green Skeeter putters into view in a cloud of gray exhaust. From here, I make out five or six rednecks, and that little bass boat can’t be more than a twelve-footer. Me and my buddies start making bets on how long it will stay afloat. We were on the golf course for eighteen before we brought my boat out here for more cold beer, so our guesses are all over the place:  six minutes, thirty seconds, already sinking.
Meanwhile, the rednecks have traversed the cove. They seem to be headed straight for us.  Usually, we’d be rafted up with six or seven other boats, but it’s the middle of the week, so we’re out here solo. Granted, we all stay in shape with weights and Crossfit and cycling, but rednecks are unpredictable.  I go for another cold beer, wandering starboard toward the bow. James and Tommy catch on and follow close behind me. We pull three cold ones out of the ice and crack them open, staring those rednecks down the whole time. As they close in, old Evinrude spewing exhaust, I realize we may be in for trouble.
Other than correcting their course not ten feet before impact, they don’t pay us the least bit of attention. Or they pretend not to. But isn’t that the way when you’re eaten up with jealousy? Because how could they not be? Just look at those mullets and greasy trucker caps, mustaches and stained wifebeaters, not to mention that boat of theirs. They’ve got feathers painted on the bow like flames on a hotrod. “Fuckin tweekers,” says James. The guy at the helm has the head of a dog, plus, he’s got these tats that extend over his shoulders onto his pale, skinny arms. We can’t make them out until those rednecks slide past: “Are those feathers real?” yells Tommy. We laugh and high-five without taking our eyes off them. They don’t even give us the finger.

*

What kind of god am I?
I am the hummingbird and the ocelot.
I am the eagle and the jaguar.
I am the butterfly and the puma.
What kind of god are you?

*

Them yuppie sumbitches cut loose with the taunts and insults soon’s we’re within earshot, but we don’t pay no mind. It’s always the same thing with them cocky good-for-nothings, all high-and-mighty when they ain’t got the first clue how to frame a screened-in porch, gut a deer, or replace a piston on a 454 big block. Think they’re hot shit but can’t even change the oil on them high-dollar pickups they got. Worthless. Sumbitches all but mess their drawers when they see us coming, too, never mind all that iron they pump. I get a kick outta that. That’s why I veer straight for ‘em soon’s we get across the cove. Give ‘em a little shiver of mortality, let ‘em know who’s boss.
We make a slow, menacing lap around their fancy-schmancy cabin cruiser, too, in case we ain’t already got their undivided attention. Sumbitches are three sheets to the wind, shirtless and sunburned. “How long you reckon they been out here?” Pete wonders, but don’t nobody take up the speculations. What difference does it make? “Fuckin college boys,” says Gator, though they gotta be pushing fifty. We shake our heads, spit into the brown murk, wonder how they live so high off the hog.
We almost come full circle when Dewayne says, “Monte,” and nods at the water off our port side. Ain’t ten seconds before I spot him. I kill the motor. Exhaust hangs in the air like fog. The yuppies are still wary of us intruding on their garden party, but that ain’t neither here nor there. We got bidness to tend to. I peel off my shirt, then slip over the gunwale into the warm lake.
Rumor is we got gators in these waters, but I ain’t never laid eyes on a single solitary one. But you want a cottonmouth, I can get you a cottonmouth. Just spit, and you’ll hit one dead in the eye (that ain’t recommended, by the by). We harvest them things like, well, cotton from a field. We got nets for that job, just scoop ‘em up and dump ‘em into old Styrofoam ice chests. This here’s sumpin else altogether. We’re hunting Q., the Mighty One, the Serpent-God. That’s part of the reason for the feathers: let him know we’re with the good guys.
Dumbass yuppies got all hands on deck now, flexing and bowing up like everything under the wide blue sky belongs to nobody but them, and don’t we know we’re trespassing on private property? Which is complete horseshit. We got as much right as anybody to be out here—maybe even more, since we was all born and bred around these parts, unlike them transplants from Austin or Houston or goddamn California. Now, it’s true, we ain’t gone to all the trouble of procuring a fishing license, above-board and legal-like. Then again, it ain’t fish we’re after.

*

I am the evening star, and I am the morning star.
I am death and resurrection.
I am the wind and every direction from which it blows.

*

Next thing I know, the tweeker’s in the water, hanging onto his boat with one arm. He’s cut the engine, but that thing’s still drifting at a pretty good clip. These white trash guys are totally unpredictable, shifty and unreliable. One minute, they’re cackling and living it up, the next, they’re burying a bone-handled blade in your gut.  Me and my buddies don’t take our eyes off them for a second.
Then I spot the snake. It’s so huge, I can’t even see the whole thing at once. But it has a head big as a baby’s, and the body trailing it looks thick as one of my legs. It bobs among the waves lapping against my Prestige forty-six footer, but we can’t make it out clearly enough to ballpark its length. It’s the biggest cottonhead rattlemoccasin I’ve ever laid eyes on. Hands down. I gaze and blink, silent, trying to get my head around what I’m seeing. Same with my buddies. The size is one thing, and really, that thing is a beast, like something out of the Amazon, but in the dazzle of sunlight, I think it has—what? “Are y’all seeing this?” I finally mutter, gazing at my buddies. Tommy and James stare on in pickled silence. Then Geoff mutters, “Does that thing have feathers?”
That shakes me out of my trance. “Snake,” I holler, pointing. The rednecks don’t respond, so I pad to the foredeck and try again. “There’s a huge snake in the water.” I point some more. “It’s swimming straight at you.” That redneck’s still dangling from the side of his cruddy boat by one arm like a monkey from a tree. He doesn’t say a word. I can tell he’s watching that watermouth coppersnake slither at him through the chop. Now my buddies start shouting, “Snake, snake, snake,” “That thing’s poisonous,” “Get outta the water.”
But the tweeker pays us no mind, dangling there in the muddy lake like he’s out for a swim on a hot summer’s day. And, dadgum, if it’s not hot. I keep having to backhand sweat out of my eyes. I wonder if maybe the sun’s getting to me? I mean, that snake is colossal. It has feathers. And, seriously, is this bunch of rednecks actually using their buddy as bait?

*

I am the resplendent quetzal and the rattlesnake, the crow and macaw and spider monkey.
I am the wisest of men, the knower of knowns.
Xolotl, my brother, O dog-headed one, when will thou show thyself?

*

I tell you what, them yuppies don’t know what hit ‘em. I got that big serpent in my sights, and they’re screaming and carrying on like a buncha prissy schoolgirls. The big’n makes the biggest fuss, pointing and hollering, all in a tizzy. Like they ain’t never seen a cottonmouth before. If that’s the truth, they ain’t been looking, I guarn-damn-tee you that one.
Hell, them sunburned sumbitches are probably afraid of their own shadows, but we don’t waste no time on ‘em. Why would we? We come out here to do what we do, and we’re doing it. Now, this here’s Q., the Mighty One, the Serpent of Precious Feathers. Still, where I come from, a snake’s a snake.
Soon they’re all yelling and stomping and pointing, and I can’t help but wonder why they’re going to all the trouble. If we met on the street, them stuck-up sumbitches wouldn’t give me the time of day. Like as not they’d call the cops. Been known to happen. So, why’re they making a stink over one snake?
I get a good bead on that badboy, so I know how fast he’s coming and when he’s gonna strike. Call it a sixth sense. You been doing this long as I have, you either get wise or get dead. That’s the way she goes. When I know what’s what, I take a lazy glance at their honcho and flash him my winningest smile: watch and learn, pretty boy.
Now Dewayne says, “Monte,” and just in the licka time. The Mighty One ain’t slowing down none, flashing toward me like a hot streak of lightning. I’m hanging onto the boat with my one hand, while the other’s hidden underwater. Soon’s that giant comes at me, I reach up out of the brown murk and grab him just behind the head, right where the feathers grow. Body’s so thick, I’m lucky to get a good grip on him. He’s got his mouth wide open, ready to bury his fangs in my flesh. It would appear he ain’t noticed my own feathers. “Oh, no, you don’t,” I say, holding that sumbitch up like a golden trophy. Then I kiss him smack on the head. Pete, Gator, and the rest of the boys snicker. When I glance over, them yuppies are jaw-dropped, all the pink drained outta their faces. I stare right at them, snake wriggling and lurching in my grasp: “What y’all got to say now?”

*

I am the sunlight and the water, the sky and the trees.
I am the Mighty One, the Serpent of Precious Feathers.
Why, Xolotl, my brother, O dog-headed one, dost thou betray me?

*

Then the tweeker grabs that cottonhead rattlemocassin and lifts it out of the water. Me and my buddies just stand there, jaws dropped, in complete shock. How’d he do that? Why? Nine times out of ten, he misses and gets bitten. And then what? Would his tweeker pals rush him to the hospital? Would they suck the poison out on the spot? Would they let him die a slow, agonizing death, his cries of pain carrying across the open water? There’s no telling. Good thing he doesn’t miss.
Now he goes and does something even more insane. While the watermouth coppersnake continues struggling to strike, that redneck kisses it right on the head. Me and my buddies completely lose it, cheering and whistling and hollering, slapping high fives, and spilling cold beer all over ourselves. “Holy smoke,” says James. “Did you see that?” says Tommy. I shake cobwebs out of my head and say, “Did that really just happen?”
Only that’s not the end of anything. By now that massive snake has coiled itself around the redneck’s arm, so he’s in a world of hurt. How will he free himself? Maybe his tweeker buddies could haul him up into the boat, but then they’d have a gigantic poisonous snake in there with them. If he releases the snake, it’ll bite him, no question. Yet if he lets go of the boat, he’ll probably drown—and maybe get himself snake-bitten, to boot. He’s got his ass in a sling, alright. Me and my buddies can’t look away.
Now, out of nowhere, the crazy SOB starts singing. “In the sweet by and by,” he croons, “we shall meet on that beautiful shore.” Looks to be serenading the snake. The hymn must calm it down some, too, as it folds away its fangs and shuts its mouth. Buzzards circle overhead, casting menacing shadows on the choppy water. How much weirder can this whole thing get?
Before we know what’s happening, the tweeker hauls back and zings that snake fifty yards across the water like he’s Tom Brady at the Super Bowl. Gapemouthed, me and my buddies follow the snake’s arc across the cloudless sky. When it splashes into the water, we turn back to the dog-faced redneck. He’s grinning big as Texas.
You’d think we might flip out again, but we’re awed into silence. As the tweeker clambers back into the boat, I try to make my mouth work. It’s a struggle. My tongue’s fat, my throat’s dry, and now I’m the one with cottonmouth—and no wonder after so much cold beer on a hot August afternoon. That redneck’s already at the helm, feather tattoos wet and glistening in the sunshine, when I manage to say, “You know what you are?” He smirks. “You’re a—” “Badass mofo,” he says, puffing out his chest. “And don’t y’all never forget it.” Then he fires up the Evinrude, hammers down the throttle, and they plane off across the cove, leaving us sloshing in their wake.

__

Editor's Note

Bodies and their movements noted with an almost pathological clarity, a casual, conversational tone set in the plethora of interrogative sentences, as if to intentionally dodge the inherent authority of the very act of stating draws the reader to this narrative. We not only see the people but also piercing flashes of who they could have been. This is one of those stories that stays.
J. T. Townley

J. T. Townley

J.T. Townley has published in Harvard ReviewThe Kenyon Review, The Three penny Review, and many other magazines and journals. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize (three times) and the Best of the Net Award. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from the University of Oxford. To learn more, visit jttownley.com.

1 Comment

  1. DOD

    I have heard a tale very similar to this in my day. The person rendering the tale swore it was true!

    Reply

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