The Catfish Sisters

by Lisa M. Bradley

Mississippi, 1874

  1. Blood in the Water

The Catfish Sisters, those blue
barbeled twins, that sleek school of two
who learned the ways of Big River at its birth
and knew the water as they knew each other—
intimately, tasting with the whole of their
sneaky, scale-less bodies—those queer kin
who sometimes surfaced in full moonlight
and stepped ashore as young women,

well one year, when Big River’s northern banks
slept under snow and its denizens sank
low under the frozen slab where water still
rolled dark and sluggish as a fall-fattened bear—
a ritual both regular and right—these Sisters
swam south, dreaming of that realm where
autumn holds, where water oaks still weep
golden leaves and cicadas grieve summer’s retreat,
where cargo-toting steamboats leaf Big River
with lamplight medallions and the plash
of paddleboats moonwoven with steam whistle and horn
soothe the shore like Big River’s very own hush and snore.

But near that Louisiana bend
that shoots north into a thin-fin curve
before turning toward the sea again,
a strong scent invaded the Sisters’ dream—
not the expected brine of their beloved birdfoot delta,
but a loathsome effluvium assailed the Sisters’ ultra-
sensitive skin. Downstream, something more
foul than sediment rucked up by bridge-building
or boat traffic, but not so caustic as
the chromium salts cast off from
leather-working tan-yards, but neither as
sweetly rich as slaughterhouse runoff…
instead human blood corrupted Big River—
not so unusual since the war, but here
in a quantity too great to ignore.
Speeding up, seeking the poison’s source,
the Sisters met a wave of River Folk
fleeing in the opposite direction,
but none would stop to answer any question. 
So the Sisters swam on, bounding ‘round the thin-fin
curve, and plunged south into tragedy.

Oh the death throes roiling the waters!
The gauntlet of bleeding, thrashing bodies!
Sick with the flavors of blood and terror
flooding through their fishy flesh,
singeing their synapses,
the Sisters came face to face with 
a gamut of human shapes,
all ages and sizes, that seemed to have but one thing
in common: the dark color of their
dead or disfigured skin.
Whatever had stricken them,
the Sisters surmised,
was not aquatic, and those who still survived…
could they be saved?
Already, the panicked turbulence waned;
soon the victims’ endurance too must fade.
So thinking, the Sisters rushed to catch
on their backs a sinking child with braids.
They pushed the small form to the surface,
praying to hear some cough or struggle for
smoke-sharpened air,
but the child breathed no more nor moved,
except where the water played with their hair.

Big River carried them all several miles
as the Sisters streaked from one body to the next,
exalting when they guided a person, still breathing,
to shore, grieving as eelgrass claimed many more.
Finally only a young man, weakly treading water,
remained. One Sister slid under each arm,
and, large as the Sisters were (the biggest
blue catfish the man had ever seen),
they easily lifted his chin above the waves.
A lucky thing! Otherwise, his alarmed gasp
might’ve been his very last.

The young man, just old enough to bear
a beard, favored one arm and when they
shifted it, they must have unknit
a healing wound, for blood bloomed 
from his shoulder. The Sisters, exhausted,
overcome by the surfeit of blood
surrounding them,
succumbed as if to a spell:
skin filtering but untasting;
eyes open but unseeing;
barbels touching but unfeeling.
And who knows how long they might’ve drifted
in that odd half-life,
had the man not sagged unconscious
and starting slipping from their backs.

Now, close as the Catfish Sisters
always swam alongside one another,
they did not, as some legends swore,
share a rib, but perhaps they shared a mind,
for as one they seemed to decide,
“Damned if we can wait for night,
simply to be hidden from human sight.
And what does it matter if this area is 
country or town? The man’s fought too hard
for us to let him drown.” Thus,
they lifted him again and propelled him toward
a stand of scouring rush and, with mighty effort,
heedless of who might see the shift,
they grew legs to climb the riverbank
and arms to haul him clear.

2. The Sole Survivor 

The man woke with a start,
bleary eyes darting about
the small camp hidden among black gum trees
and curtained by purple woodbine.
As he tried to rise from his leaf litter bed,
a wrenching pain reminded him
of his wound. He cried out, but his throat,
raw from purging river water, emitted
only a strangled vowel. Nevertheless
the sound summoned from the shadows
his saviors, who came forth shushing
to ensure he didn’t lose the poultice
of yarrow and plantain plugging his shoulder.
He recoiled, clutching his bloody shirt,
draped over him like a sheet,
when the weak campfire
revealed his nurses to be two women
so white under mismatched attire, 
they looked nearly blue and at first,
he was too terrified to speak.

The Sisters asked simple questions
in several tongues, ‘til finally
the man calmed and croaked out
his name and hometown.
Tendrils of the Sisters’ blue-black hair
drifted about their faces, as if lifted by
the breeze of Jacob’s breath as he told how
his people in V____burg had been attacked
by white folks who couldn’t accept
a black man as sheriff.
The Sisters blinked their wide-set,
pale button eyes, perplexed 
by the notion of a sheriff 
and the punishment of many
for the actions of one.
Jacob closed his eyes a moment,
suppressing pain and impatience,
before explaining.
“They go by the name White-Liners 
but it’s the selfsame Klan.
They’re beside themselves now
that black folks are voting, same as them,
and worse—as they see it—winning.
They’re shamed by the mere idea
of a black man holding power over them.
You think they cotton to the reality
of Mr. Peter Crosby, Sheriff?
They won’t abide the election. 
They can’t even stand the sight
of black folk who don’t suffer
every single second of their lives.”

Seeing a glint of grim understanding 
now kindled in the Sisters’ eyes,
Jacob wondered who these soft-jawed,
drift-haired women were,
that he had to connect every dot.
“The war,” began one Sister,
“is not over?” said the other.
Jacob snorted. “Not in Mississippi.
Maybe on paper, maybe up north,
but the South simply declared 
a new enemy: Reconstruction.”
With the blood he’d lost,
Jacob had lost all memory too
of being saved by twin giant catfish,
but just now he remembered
the general wisdom of keeping his mouth shut
around white women.
Then again there was that bit in the Bible:
“for some have entertained angels unawares.”
And there was surely something strange,
about these too white, too quiet ladies—like all
the languages they knew
and the recent events they did not.

So, fiery, Jacob forged ahead. He said,
“These angry white people, so many!
Some from other counties, some from other states,
they came to grab us off the streets.
They dragged us from our homes and beds,
our very own businesses!
Some of us escaped. The rest, well, we got
the same as ever.” He pointed at his shoulder.
“Lynched, whipped, shot. 
The White-Liners were on the rampage
for ten days. Only when Governor Ames 
sent General Grant our way with reinforcements
did their madness fade. And only because
how were they, the good citizens of V____burg,
to explain all those corpses?
They wanted blood, but not the blame. So
to hide their shame, they set torches
to our side of town: ‘Shop Fire Sparks Tragedy’
the papers said. Those of us too stubborn
for death? Too far to drag to the flames?
We got tossed in Old Man River.”

“In what?” asked the Sisters,
and seeing their shared look
of consternation, spooked by
their query in unison,
Jacob quickly replied,
“The Mississippi,”
and the Sisters nodded, satisfied
with the Anishinaabe title.
But by now Jacob had remembered
the book of Ezekiel and just why
angels might appear in disguise.
And as he’d told his tale, the grim
enlightenment in the women’s eyes
had blazed to full-fledged wrath.
Not, he thought, directed at him, 
but on his behalf, or perhaps that
of all V____burg’s victims.
Not being the target of their ire
made it no easier to endure, especially
when the Sisters paced ‘round the fire,
one clockwise, one widdershins,
their pallid skin slickening
despite the cold and bits of blue-black hair waving 
about their faces like the barbels
they actually were (unbeknownst to him).
Although his aches were as an anchor,
Jacob struggled from his low bed and begged
to be released. Of course, he was neither
prisoner nor captive, but the Sisters had history
with humans and chose not to hinder
his sudden hurry. They merely handed him
more yarrow, advising he search for a healer
who’d once lived in Dewberry Hollow,
for even if she’d long since gone to rest,
surely she’d have trained an apprentice.
Jacob thanked the Sisters profusely
but his every drop of sweat, each pained breath,
radiated primal fear, so the Sisters
nodded only once, then mercifully 
turned their backs on him.

Once his footsteps faded, the Sisters
doused the campfire 
and slipped away like smoke. 
Much as they itched and wished
to shed their stolen
clothesline attire,
they remained dressed, lest they court 
even more danger hiding
in nude human form near the shore.
Amid trees shaggy
with cold-withered creeper,
they watched for the right moment
to run for Big River.
Sun was halfway through its daily stroll,
and though few humans staked claim
to this stretch of Big River,
those who did moved nimbly among
their rugged nests and nature.
There the Sisters waited
and over the hours, betwixt the two,
a plot wordlessly emerged.

3. A Great Debate

The River Folk were disturbed
by the Catfish Sisters’ explanation
for why Big River had turned
into a mass grave. “Surely there must be
blight or famine,” a walleye hypothesized.
“Some incredible strain for the humans
to turn on their own kind?”
“Alas, no,” the Sisters said.
A long-nosed gar pointed out,
“If they were truly starving,
wouldn’t they eat one another?”
Agreement rippled through the Folk,
many of whom had already fed
on the dead, believing, “If we let
them go to waste, we’re just as bad
as the human race.” Next a paddlefish spoke 
for the lamprey on his back,
“But it’s ridiculous! You, Sisters,
have walked among the Grounded
and told us how wide their realm stretches,
how high it soars. There must be room enough
for all the Grounded. Why must humans be
so absurd?” A mudbug, recently molted,
unearthed herself to blurt,
“Didn’t they just have a war about this?
I thought they’d gotten sorted.”
“Hear, hear!” rang from all quarters.

The Catfish Sisters rattled
their pectoral fins for order.
“It’s unwise to ponder
human behavior longer
than strictly necessary,
lest we too fall out of harmony.
Kin, we cannot trust V____burg humans
not to poison Big River with hate again.
Nor do we believe they should benefit
from this sacred source they’ve profaned.
We should punish this port city 
by moving Big River away.”

The River Folk gaped in awed silence
at the suggestion of a course correction,
all except for a late-migrating eel, who
finished her feast of glass shrimp and said,
with mucilaginous sneer,
“If I remember right, the humans tried 
to divert Big River just so, years ago,
and you fought them tooth and scale.”
She slithered away, ignoring a carp’s retort:
“That was different! We won’t be moved
by war!”
A spectaclecase mussel, roused
from hibernation by the great debate,
took up the old chant: 
“Grant! Cannot! Canal Us!”
but most Folk were undeterred
from debate. A softshell turtle 
paddled up to say,
“We worked awfully hard to preserve
Big River’s thin-fin curve, even when
currents and sediments seemed content
to take the shorter route. Now
you want us to do the reverse?”

The Sisters said, “Then we could not bow
to human force. They were using
Big River to move their munitions.
We couldn’t allow them to turn
the river itself into a weapon.
But did you know, V____burg
was a problem even then?
Grant’s Canal was intended to bypass
the town’s cannons. Were it not
for their warlike ways, we wouldn’t be
in this position not once, but twice!” 
Timidly, a waterdog remarked,
“But up north, Big River sleeps.
To shift course without consulting all
may be unwise.”
“Indeed,” agreed a pumpkinseed sunfish, 
drawn from weedy shallows by 
the fervor of debate.
“If Big River moves, how many 
will you leave gasping,
flapping, in a shrinking puddle
in your righteous wake?”

“It needn’t be a sudden shift,” opined
a river redhorse, his kind
increasingly rare. “And some of us
can’t survive much more poison. Really,
it isn’t fair.”
Two sturgeons sucking leeches from
the river floor were asked for
the wisdom of their years. The elder of the
languid century fish solemnly said,
“Big River’s power flows south.
None up north will care
about a slight deviation unless
we cause flooding upriver, 
and we can avoid that with sufficient 
preparation.” The second sturgeon added,
“Even if we all consent here,
we must alert those downstream,
lest we behave as irresponsibly
as those wretched human beings.”

Moved by the Folk’s sagacity and fears,
the Catfish Sisters declared, “We hear
and understand you.” With no need to confer,
one Sister said, “One of us will swim south
with our proposal. The other will stay here
to address your concerns.”
The other Sister said, “Come spring,
we will reunite here, before
heading north to announce our plan.”
At this stunning declaration,
the River Folk gasped so vastly,
sucking in so much water,
that Big River’s surface dropped several inches.
The Catfish Sisters, those interlocked twins,
would willingly split for this cause?
The legendary shifter Sisters would endure
seasons apart?
Shocked, fearful of what such separation might portend,
the Folk assured the Sisters they needn’t take
such drastic measures. Rather,
they vowed to rally their neighbors
and achieve accord,
to prepare and surge into action
the moment they received the final word.

So it was that the Catfish Sisters
spent the little fall left 
and winter, too, working toward the sea,
telling Jacob’s story to all
and entreating their southern kin to agree:
a detour ‘round that devil town of V____burg
was downright necessary.
They reasoned. They argued.
They wheedled and cajoled.
Truth be told, they spent half their time
two-legged to secure
some delicacy or bauble
they might use to sway
reluctant members of the fold.

Meanwhile, otters and raccoons,
incensed by the suggested territorial changes,
hired their own advocate to reach
Big River’s southernmost ranges.
This surly, yellow-crowned night heron
harangued the Sisters throughout
the birdfoot delta, decrying the course shift.
Fortunately, few southerners seemed persuaded
by his claims of great injustice.
Could clipping such a minor meander,
they asked, really make much difference? 
The southerners, blessed with an abundance
of waterways and shorelines, assumed the
riparians could always migrate.
Besides, the southerners said,
it wasn’t their concern what occurred
miles upriver. They probably wouldn’t even
notice, what with the commotion of Gulf 
commerce and travel. In any case,
one afternoon the riparians’ advocate
so annoyed an algae-masked alligator,
hitherto hanging in the water 
like an invisible anchor,
that she launched herself into the reeds
and devoured the bloviating heron,
and thereafter
the Sisters met little resistance
to their plan.

4. The HEAVE-HO

The Catfish Sisters, those blue-
veined spinsters, that strange school of two
who knew the Mississippi’s curves like kin,
like the fish-belly fair skin on the backs
of their twin’s hands,
they returned in spring, 
their skirts hitched up to their ankles
and their feet squelching
in the muddy creek that would soon be
the new route of the venerable Big River
and alongside the maidens in their
mismatched, clothesline-snatched finery
snapping turtles marched over ground,
helping carve a sharper path through the swamp,
and the usually solitary creatures amassed
in such a swarm that their clashing shells 
beat a military drum
and startled the shy map turtles,
resting in their likewise migration,
off their logs and into the boggy shallows.
From the red-winged blackbirds, 
the Sisters learned
that the skunks and weasels, 
though complaining bitterly the whole time, 
had for now vacated the surrounding woods,
lest they be drowned 
when Big River flexed and turned.

As they splashed along the path
that would soon be home, the Sisters encountered
dreamy-eyed beavers, eating water lilies
and envisioning new empires;
waterlogged chipmunks rushing from burrow
to burrow with babies in tow,
trying to outrun the rising water table;
and consortiums of squirrels debating
which trees were most likely to survive
the coming upheaval.
Farther out, skipjack, small and fast,
carved out the creekbed without fear of
falling prey to the minks and muskrats
who’d already established their dens 
within sight and scent of the shore.
The Sisters so admired the sleek swiftness 
of the skipjack, they morphed
into mermaid form, discarding hateful
human dress behind them on the bank
to dive deeper into the current,
where they discovered
the fish Folk had transported
their young to nurseries upriver.
Heartened that the Folk here
had committed so clearly 
to turning the tide on V____burg,
the Sisters hastened to the headwaters
to make proper obeisance to the northern Folk.
Although eager to make their case 
for the erasure of old coastlines
and the bold calligraphy of new,
even the Sisters were surprised by
how short and smooth their persuasion proved,
thanks to messages sent ahead
by the century-old sturgeons.
With the bite of ice ever
in their blood, the northern Folk were as
ferocious for justice (some might say revenge)
as the southern Folk had been laissez-faire
(some might say lazy).
The representative chosen to speak
for the northerners
was a ten-foot yellow alligator gar
with scales like bone armor.
Certain snowmelts, he explained, his voice
whistling between a double row
of jagged upper teeth,
were being held in strategic reserve,
and at a specific moon phase,
those frigid waters would be unleashed
to aid those downriver
in accomplishing the course change.

Finally came the night 
the Mississippi River would slough
those wretched banks
in favor of a fresh path.
A few lonesome boats gently rocked,
docked at a pier south of V____burg.
On one, a hitched horse wove
back and forth on her front legs,
lips flapping fretfully 
at the eerie currents. A week before
more ships had frequented those shores
but even humans can read 
nature’s broader signs and had progressed
from whisper and worry
to open conjecture
about the wax and wane of the river.
They had plans and, indeed,
would’ve had time to wean
were the river’s shift natural, 
not part of a retaliatory scheme.

The purple wartyback clams began
a cheerleading chant— 
“We’ll be loud,
We’ll be clear,
We don’t want 
hate dumped here!”—
as the Folk gathered
before the creek that soon
would supersede the thin-fin curve.
At the Sisters’ signal,
the Folk knit themselves fin to fin,
claw to shell, and in
a single chimeric mass
surged forward, shoving a wall
of water fast
before them into the channel.
Turf was torn asunder,
bushes twirled away like tops,
and banks crumpled like shot horses.
A volley of small Folk
were flung with such force
they swirled out the other end
of the channel and emerged
southerners.
Once the wave winked out of sight,
the mid-river Folk hurried
back to the starting point, led by
the Catfish Sisters, in mermaid form,
by walleye and sauger, sturgeon and alligator gar—
ancient creatures, mighty and strong,
but also so deeply bonded to Big River,
the tides kept time as much 
with the pumping of their cold hearts
as with the moon’s ebb and flow.
Indeed the currents sought
to mirror their movements,
so when again the Folk gathered as one
and plunged into the channel,
Big River sprang after them, 
tearing new coastline
as easily as a petticoat hem,
ripping up trees by their roots,
and tossing boats like toys.
Trapped on one such boat,
the bay mare fought
her hitching post, hoofs
hammering the deck as she
squealed and snapped at the air,
moonlight glaring off
the whites of her wild eyes.
Again small Folk were flung free 
of the river-moving chimera, 
but now the channel had widened
so the yellow perch and bigmouth buffalo
whirled over the flooded wetland
rather than being shunted south.

Back at the starting line,
the purple wartybacks continued to rally:
“Heave-Ho, Heave-Ho,
the port at V____burg’s got to go!”
Again the prime movers regrouped,
their bodies aching from wielding
so much raw power, their nerves jittery
from the icemelt revenge supplied
by the northern Folk. 
The Catfish Sisters sought to encourage their kin.
“Onward, brave siblings!
If you could take the halfling form we do,
you’d see for yourselves the change
we’ve already wrought. 
But feel, dear family. Surely you can feel
the difference in Big River. How the water
wants the shorter path, how the currents yearn 
to rake new beds.
Take a moment to restore yourselves
but do not stop. Not until Big River is safe
and OURS again.” 
While slipping among their brethren
with this exhortation,
the Sisters learned of the horse
trapped upon a boat.
Horrified, they hurried to find the creature, 
hoping to spare her some misery.
By the time they found her,
froth had spread from the mare’s mouth
to ring her muzzle beneath flared nostrils.
Panic her blinders, she swung her head
from side to side,
her ears pinned back tight, and
the way she squealed and reared,
the Sisters couldn’t believe
neither tether nor post had snapped yet.
They didn’t dare take human shape 
and board the boat, more shipwreck now
than ship, to free the maddened beast.
Pitiful as her terror was to witness,
they decided it best to wait 
until the boat capsized and swept
the horse underwater with it.

One Sister went in search
of a razor-edged mussel shell; 
the other rushed to tell 
the chimera’s prime movers 
they must continue to push without them.
The clams cried out,
“No more massacres! 
Big River must be pure!”
and the very next surge of River Folk
toppled the boat.
The mare plunged into the water 
and at once began bucking 
and twisting, turning
her belly to the moon in panic.
The Sisters took on fully human forms,
hoping to placate the horse.
One gathered her courage and mounted
the helpless beast. She wrapped her arms tight
around that terror-corded neck and hugged 
with all her might, head to toes.
Meanwhile, a great nebula
of churned water, rucked-up silt, and roiling bubbles
near-blinded the other Sister.
She forded the cloud with hands before her,
reaching for the rope that threatened
to drag them all down with the sinking boat.
The second she seized it, 
she set to sawing with her mussel shell,
and when that was not fast enough,
she snarled and grew such 
fearsome jagged teeth, the alligator gar
would’ve gnashed with envy.
With two savage bites,
she snapped through the stubborn rope,
setting the mare free. 
Who knows how long the poor beast
might’ve struggled still, lost
in that black looking-glass realm
had the Sister on her back
not gripped her mane
and guided her to the star-splotched surface?
But once oriented, the mare swam 
to the warbly light and from there 
ploughed a marshy shore to safety. 

One Sister slid from the horse’s back
and the other hauled herself ashore
and they clasped one another, panting in relief,
their heartbeats so loud in their human ears
that it took some time for them to hear
the cheers of their own Folk:
Big River had changed course.
They looked around and saw that it was true.
The thin-fin curve was now a mere stream
petering out from an oxbow lake,
and the creek that the Folk had made a channel
was now the One Way. 
No longer would the people of V____burg
pollute Big River with their hate;
no longer would Big River serve
those it reviled.
The Sisters embraced in celebration 
but it would be hours yet
before they joined their comrades’ revelry.
For though the majority of Folk 
had joined their cause, the Sisters
remained mindful of the quiet,
overlooked few, and so the Catfish Sisters,
those blue-barbeled twins, that sleek
school of two, still had work to do.

5. Coda

Over a hundred years later,
long after the people of V____burg 
twisted another, smaller river
to do their bidding,
folks in that port city still tell
of the night the Mississippi River
jumped its banks.
Some whisper of the two women
spied at dawn the next day. 
Their awkward silhouettes—
akimbo and strange, as if 
straining at the confines of their clothing, or
aching from the effort of standing upright—
shimmered on the shore of the oxbow lake,
all that remained of the once mighty
Mississippi River bend. The stories say
those women, alike as twins, 
Sisters most certainly,
they had blue-black hair that shone as if wet, 
but tendrils of it waved in the air, 
on the breeze you might’ve thought,
except there wasn’t wind enough that morn
to riffle the surface of the lake or tickle
a butterfly’s wings.
Depending on who’s telling the tale
maybe they’ll mention the women’s ill-
fitting muddy dresses, the bunched-up necklines
like those ladies never learned 
how to manage buttons,
or the obscene hemlines, like they didn’t know
ankle from calf.
Or maybe those telling the stories
will be too polite for such details 
and they’ll focus instead on the buckets 
on the ladies’ arms and how they scoured 
the puddled shore, collecting flopping fishes
and weak mudbugs. They’ll say 
it didn’t seem like such a bad idea, 
to make a silver lining supper from 
that unfortunate turn of the tide,
but then again, 
the way Great-Great Granpappy always told it
(or Grand Aunt Ginny, or Old Doc Walcott),
there was something odd,
lumpy,
about those women’s profiles,
and they seemed to croon 
at their catch, 
as if greeting old friends,
and no one could say 
just where they’d come from,
or who their people were,
so none of the V____burg citizens dared
join the ladies,
Sisters, some said, 
twins, swore others,
after all.

© Copyright Lisa M. Bradley

A queer Latina living in Iowa, Lisa M. Bradley writes everything from novels to haiku, usually with a speculative slant. Her work has appeared on the LeVar Burton Reads podcast and in Uncanny, Strange Horizons, Fireside Fiction, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, among other venues. Her first collection is The Haunted Girl; her debut novel is Exile. Recently she co-edited, with R.B. Lemberg, the Ursula Le Guin tribute anthology, Climbing Lightly Through Forests. On Twitter, she’s @cafenowhere. Read more at www.lisambradley.com .


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