On the north fork of the Cowpasture twenty inches of devil dog swam in wicked esses between my knees and startled me for a risky instant. I almost toppled over in that swift river, as they resemble some infernal creature—mean, even lethal—though in truth whether you say grampus, snot otter or hellbender, they’re harmless to all but crawdaddies and inchlings. Anglers long believed those salamanders wolfed game fish, so pegged any hooked samples to trees, warning sportsmen the catch nearby would be meager.
In fact, benders prosper in pristine streams as species indicators, their decline a warning of trouble to follow. Where they nest, vigorous fish typically thrive. Slick-skinned due to mucous, the ugly swimmers breathe through their hides and have been residents for centuries. My granny said you can keep a live bender in a bucket at bunkside all night, and they will save you from witch mischief like night sweats, wet dreams. That memory whips my mind back to the business at hand—swift current, light’s shimmer, the reviving breeze,
deft brookies flashing, as scent drifts sweet from the lofty tulip poplar trees.
R. T. Smith was the long-time editor of Shenandoah. His sixth book of stories, Doves in Flight, published in 2017, and his 14th book of poems, Summoning Shades, was just published by Mercer University Press. Smith has work forthcoming in Five Points, Southern Review, and Southern Humanities Review. He lives on Timber Ridge in Rockbridge County, Virginia.