Sweat trickled from hairlines to eyebrows as Mama loaded poles into Ty Ty’s 1950 cream-colored Ford. I’d given my aunt the nickname when I was first learning to talk. The two syllables were a cottonmouth rendition of her given name Vashti, one she shared with the wicked queen in the Book of Esther. The women salivated over thoughts of catching big mouth bass and red-breasted bream at their sister Ruth’s pond.
Janis and I loved our aunts but hated fishing. We were particularly dismayed whenever it was Ty Ty’s turn to chauffeur like she did on that day. She never drove more than forty miles per hour and slowed to twenty when she reached over the steering wheel to squish bothersome gnats against the windshield.
Aunt Ruth’s pond was out of sight and just beyond hollering distance of her white clapboard farmhouse. To get to it, one had to drive through a series of fenced-in pastures. My job was to open and close the gates—a task that required being on the lookout for Buster, Uncle Roger’s infamous bull.
That Saturday, when we pulled into the yard, Aunt Ruth was waiting outside, tackle box in hand. She threaded a reel through the back window, already rolled half-way down to accommodate gear we’d brought, and slid into the front seat. Ty Ty missed most of the holes in the rutted path that led past the barn and through several fields where cows grazed. My aunt stopped at each gate for me to hop out, unlatch the metal hook securing it in place, and swing it open for the car to pass. A few times, as I closed a gate, I jumped on to catch a ride.
The minute we were at the pond, the three sisters scouted its perimeter. Searching for spawning fish beds, Mama said. She swore you could smell them, but I never could identify the distinctive odor that signaled where to sink one’s line.
Janis and I raced for the spillway below the dam—our escape from the sweltering south Georgia heat. There, wading in cool water and chasing minnows, we would soon be forgotten because, for these women, fishing was a form of Zen. The sisters fanned out until each found her special spot on the bank. Then, with little conversation because talk scared away fish, they would cast, reel in black worms, and watch corks bob until sunset.
That afternoon, however, before Janis and I could get our toes wet, we heard Aunt Ruth warn in a clipped voice just loud enough for everyone to hear. “Buster’s coming. Head for the car but don’t scream or run. You’ll excite him.”
I looked at Janis and held a finger to my lips before reaching for my sandals. She grabbed her tennis shoes, and we scrambled barefoot back up the bank. Across the dam stood Aunt Ruth, her eyes glued on a 1,500-pound Hereford that Uncle Roger said was the meanest bull he’d ever owned. She knew better than to turn her back on that bovine. As the animal meandered toward the water, Mama dropped her favorite Zebco reel and cut a path to meet us. She clutched an arm on either side and power walked us to the car. When Aunt Ruth saw we were safe, she joined us.
“Where’s Vashti?” she asked.
Mama gulped and pointed toward a willow at the pond’s edge. We all turned to see Ty Ty, in front of the tree suspended in motion. Her eyes wide as targets. Her cane pole grasped like a javelin as if she planned to hurl it. The bull, pawing the ground, snorting, blocking her route to safety.
We jumped into the car, locked the doors, and began blowing the horn to divert Buster’s attention. Spying a way out for her sister, Aunt Ruth hollered, “The boat. The boat’s tied to the tree, Vashti. For God’s sake, get in the boat and push off.”
Like a freeze frame restarted, Ty Ty jettisoned the pole and leaped into the vessel floating a few feet away. She grabbed a paddle under the front seat and propelled herself, with the car keys in her pocket, to the middle of the pond. Thwarted, the bull circled our prison, peering into the now-closed windows as we crouched on the floorboard. When the bull moved away from the car to graze, Aunt Ruth straightened her glasses and rolled the front window down an inch.
“Vashti,” she called with calmness none of us felt. “Are you okay?”
“I am, but my pants are wet,” Ty Ty replied. “How long do you think Buster’ll stay?”
“He’ll get bored pretty soon,” Aunt Ruth assured her.
The bull, however, was in no hurry to leave. With the temperature in the nineties, the car baked us like an oven. Within an hour, our shorts and halter tops were wringing wet. Each time we cracked a window for air or Ty Ty edged the boat closer to shore, Buster would lift his head and stare in our direction. Mid-afternoon, after sniffing the bait Aunt Ruth had abandoned, he lay down in front of the vehicle and took a short nap.
Around dusk, hunger got the best of our captor. Buster lumbered off to his dinner of hay. After he left, Ty Ty paddled to the bank, picked up the tackle and pole she’d dropped, and hurried over to the car. There Janis and I sat with all four doors open wide, fanning ourselves, while Aunt Ruth retrieved her cricket box and Mama rescued her reel.
The sisters returned to the car with their salvaged items and deposited them in the trunk.
“Here, Eloise,” Ty Ty said slamming the lid and tossing Mama the keys. “I’ve had enough excitement for one afternoon. You can drive us home.”
“I wish I had a picture of you jumping in that boat, Vashti,” Aunt Ruth teased as she climbed into the back seat beside Janis and me.
“What about our locking the car doors, Ruth?” Mama reminded her, “to make sure Buster couldn’t get in. That was pretty foolish.”
“I’m just glad Karen and I weren’t skinny dipping,” Janis chimed as Mama cranked the car and shifted it into drive.
As we rode back to Aunt Ruth’s house to dine on leftovers and celebrate our reprieve, we began to laugh about the afternoon’s adventure. Each had her own version of a fish story that featured a bull, and no one pointed a finger at me.