After we hit the dog, we kept driving.
The Bahamians call them “pot cake” dogs, named after the leftover rice stuck to the bottom. The rice they fed to the pot cakes of Long Island. The rice I scraped out with a fork over the trash can at our rental beach house.
The pot cakes were everywhere, poking their triangular rust colored heads out of the bush, trotting down the middle of Queen’s Highway, the single road that planked 80 miles north-to-south on the tropical island only four miles wide, like nonchalant gamers playing chicken, running alongside our rental jeep, trying to herd us, and then tilting their heads at us while we stood outside the liquor store chugging one Kalik passed between the four of us like college kids before we decided on a case.
The indigenous pot cakes were just as much part of the island as the sterling silver bonefish that swam in schools of ten to forty in the flats that we came to hook, the goats that weaved between backyards with ropes around their necks dragging like freed nooses, the tough conch pulled out of pink shells with the claw of a hammer or the point of a knife by a black local hand with ceremonial precision.
After we hit the dog, we kept driving, wondering if we should go back.
Uniformed in Sims, Eddie Bauer, Columbia now ground with salt from the day before, and the day before that, the four of us all felt the thump, like we were rolling over the neck of a downed tree. I turned, like on a merry-go-round, and saw. The light copper body of a pot cake sprawled across the foot of the dirt driveway, not mangled like I had expected but positioned in such a way you would think it was basking in the early light. Another pot cake stood over it, trying to figure, like us, what had happened, except we knew, but we still had to ask questions, and we still had to answer:
“What the fuck was that?”
“One of those dogs.”
“Is he dead?”
“He wasn’t moving.”
“Was I really going that fast?”
After we hit the dog, we kept driving, wondering if we should go back, but then we turned off of Queen’s Highway, met up with the Atlantic Ocean, parked, and choked the engine.
It was one of the last days of our fishing trip. It was almost 6:00 a.m. The sun had just winked over the bush to wake the island, and we were flying to meet the tide that had gone out.
We got out of the jeep and stood in a huddle repeating the same question and answer: “What do we do?” . . . “I don’t know.” We all stared in the direction of the house as if waiting for the residents to find us and not us them. Only the Atlantic rolled over and over in response and reminded us that low tide lasted only four hours.
We didn’t know if the dog belonged to the locals living in the house at the other end of the driveway, or if it too was one of another, of another, of another of the packs that spotted Long Island.
We didn’t know if anyone lived in the house. Most houses had been abandoned. They had not outlived the 155 mph winds of hurricane Joaquin that tore through just two and a half months earlier. The scalped houses still wore blue tarps.
We didn’t know if anyone would be awake.
We didn’t know what to say.
We didn’t go back.
We assembled our fly rods.
Out in the flats now, basketball-size sea turtles floated like buoys, fluttered kicked, and then torpedo shot when they discovered us standing in their thoughts. They would return once again not giving in, a morning workout that wouldn’t be interrupted. The tide which had started at our ankles, now licked at our knees, even when standing statue still, I could be heard in the blue, and today, I felt louder than ever.
I thought about the pot cake. I pictured his companion sniffing the body. I thought about why we didn’t go back. Then, I thought about the family that lived there. And, finally, I thought about the locals that we had already met on our trip.
The father was either a roofer, a business owner, or a diver.
Maybe he was one of the many vertical lines of men we saw walking the road every morning, heading to the damaged houses with nothing but a plastic bag slung over his shoulder. With no harness, each of them would dance with gravity every time they bent to nail in a shingle or wipe the sun off their foreheads.
Or, maybe he was the owner of the five stool hut bar in Salt Pond: short, lighter skinned than most of the men, and sealed with a baseball cap. He cooked us fresh grouper burgers, topped a salad with Hidden Valley dressing, and gave us a choice of Coke, Guinness, Bud, or Kilak. As we ate, we watched his son, who we learned was on Christmas break, weeding the backyard with a machete that was longer than his own arm. Popping open another can, he asked us if we liked caves and pointed to the floor boards beneath his Nike sandals. “After lunch, I give you a tour.”
Before the bill, he took us across Queens’s Highway where, next to a mechanic shop, an overgrown path curved back toward his hut. He pointed into the thickening darkness until we greeted the cave. “This is where we hid from the hurricane,” he said. With a Coke in one hand, his son jumped, from rock to rock until he disappeared.
Or, maybe he was the 40 year old diver, Bert, from Stella Maris Resort who took us out snorkeling. When I confessed to him that it was my first time (meaning I was afraid of sharks), he peeled off his screen printed resort shirt and jumped into the reef in his white Hanes tank and mesh shorts. He rolled in the water like manatee and crawled like a crab along the bottom. “You can do that,” he said, when he emerged, and I believed him. He showed me. I dove. I forgot all about the sharks. “I could swim before I could walk,” he said.
Around 9:00 a.m., the water had risen past our hips now as we continued to flick our homemade flies into the short channel. Unlike the others, I had yet to pull anything out of the Atlantic, except for pink Bic razors, a purple double C bra, single dose packets of Front Line, plastic forks and spoons (never a knife), and a left foot Air Jordan that had washed ashore—all unwanted treasures that did not make it into my suitcase alongside the sand dollars, brain coral, and the conch the size of my head.
My amber shrimp had a staring competition with needlefish. These fish, some no longer or thicker than drinking straws, others thicker like flutes, can shoot out of the water like sea arrows at 37 mph, a quick symphony that you could never look quick enough to see nor hear. They floated just below the surface in blue iridescent packs and didn’t seem to scare easily. However, the straightness is deceiving, for when snagged and strung out of the water, it horseshoed into a predator, showcased its alligator jaws, and bit. These lines were living darts with moving bullseyes and posed more threat than the occasional yellow shark that cruised by us.
I knew why we hadn’t gone back.
At first, I thought it was close to the same reason we don’t follow strangers, we don’t dive into the ocean, but then, while wading in the clear channel fed by the Atlantic, the only movement connecting our two continents, a needlefish looked past my fake shrimp and at me, and I knew that the reason was even closer to what happens after we think we are no longer strangers, when we think we are not separate from the ocean, when we walk into a cave and think we see no darkness, when I grow tired, and the tip of my rod descends into the water and only appears bent.
Jodie Mortag, a true Wisconsinite, having labored numerous summers in the mozzarella factory where her parents met, received her MFA from Wichita State University. Mortag is an assistant professor of writing at Lakeland University. Her work appears in North Dakota Quarterly, Fourteen Hills, Barnstorm, Metal Scratches, Fractions, and Stoneboat.