Hellbender

Cryptobranchus alleganiensis

 
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. SmithR. 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.
 
Read poetry by R. T. Smith previously appearing in Terrain.org: Letter to America, one poem, two poems, three poems, and three poems.

Header photo of hellbender by Dave Herasimtschuk, courtesy Freshwaters Illustrated and U.S. Department of Agriculture via Fickr.

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