There was an old man on a raft. So far as anyone knew, he was always on the raft. Every year he would pole his way up the Mississippi, and then as winter set in, he would lazily drift back down. Every year, his peregrination took from Chicago to New Orleans and back again. And no one knew why.
People often wondered how he survived. He was never seen to be fishing, and no one could remember ever meeting him on land. So how did he get food? Did he drink the brown Mississippi water? The constant flow of urban effluent from the American Heartland? There were people who wouldn't eat the fish that came out of the muddy water, let alone drink the water itself. And yet he survived.
He always wore that same white outfit. Like some southern plantation owner, always crisp, and always clean despite his obvious living at lower than the poverty line. Some called him the River Ghost. For though his skin was as tanned as any Indian's, his hair was as white as the linen suit he wore. It was as if the sun bleached his hair even as it toughened his skin. He had no beard, but wore an extravagant mustache. Somehow, he managed to take care of himself, and shave, and clean, but like his food and water, no one knew when or how. Surely he didn't paddle along all night long? No one has the strength to fight the mighty Mississippi all night every night. But still, he makes his round trip every year. And no one knows for sure who he is.
Karl Edwards sat at the end of his pier, a line and a pole out in the current. He was bottom fishing, since the speed of the water would whisk away anything he tried to float on the surface. Besides, a big catfish would feed his family for the night, but the sun was dropping behind the trees, and it was almost time to give up, fix a meal of whatever he could find. He knew he had some potatoes at home, but little else. Life was rough along this part of the river. Not everyone could afford to live in a big place like Saint Louis or New Orleans, though those two metroplexes had their own poor sections too, he knew.
He was about to give up when he saw a ghost. It poled its way out of the dimming light, heading North. An old man in a white linen suit so crisp and clean that it glared as if it was lit by a spotlight aimed only at the little raft. the old man worked his way upstream with hardly any effort at all, despite how swollen the river was from the recent rains that had flooded out the fields not far off. Karl's own pier was nearly underwater.
Of course, Karl had heard about the River Ghost, but thought it was nothing but imagination, a story told as a means to whistle in the dark past a graveyard. He was a myth, a legend, and yet here he was, drawing up even with Karl, exactly as the stories all describe.
"Hallooo!" shouted the man in white.
Karl was nonplussed. In all of the stories, none of them mentioned him speaking to anyone. Obviously, then, this wasn't the River Ghost, Karl reasoned, but some gentleman lost on the river as night fell.
"Halloo to you." Karl shouted.
The old man waved, smiled, and then began to steer his raft toward Karl. The raft bumped up against the pier just as night fully fell. Karl helped the old man off the raft onto the more solid, if only in appearance, pier.
"Why thank you, young man." The River Ghost said as he straightened his pants, and shirt, re-adjusted the blue silk bowtie around his neck.
"You're welcome, sir." It never hurt to be polite, Karl's father had always told him. No matter the situation, people respond better to politeness than rudeness. His father used to be a plantation owner, before times got rough.
"It's a beautiful night out here." The old man said.
"You know, son, I could really go for a good mess of fried catfish right now. Nothin' better than hearin the river at night while you eat a good old catfish in the moonlight, is there?"
Karl didn't know what to say.
"Speakin' of which, son, you better grab that pole of yours before he drags it away."
For a moment, Karl didn't know what the old man was talking about. then he heard the pole he'd set down scraping across the boards, a little at a time, and he knew a cat had grabbed his bait. He made a grab for the pole. As if it had heard him coming, it began to pick up speed as it clattered toward the end of the pier, but Karl caught it just before it went over the edge into the dark water. Karl pulled at the line. It was a big one. bigger than any he had ever caught, and when he was little his father had taken him out and they brought back ten pounders. they hadn't eaten like that in years. There just weren't many really big catfish to bring in.
This one fought him. It was as if it wasn't just a catfish, but maybe a cougar fish, or a lion fish. More than once, Karl felt certain that it would drag him into the water. For every inch Karl took in of the line, the cat would drag out two. Karl was getting tired, but he knew that if he let go now, he would go hungry, and so would his wife and their son back in the cabin. After a long time, Karl, fatigued, tired, and all around worn out, was just at the limit of his endurance. He was ready to cut the line, and go home. the sun had completely vanished in the West anyway. The River Ghost stepped up beside him.
"You look tired, son. Let me help."
The man Karl only knew as River Ghost was half Karl's size, and so he was reluctant to give up the pole and line, even though a moment earlier he had been ready to abandon the fight. He was aure the slight old man would be dragged off his feet into the muddy water in an instant. But the old man smiled and held out his hands, and the weariness fell upon Karl, and he handed the pole over.
The old man tugged once on the line, and the fish flew up out of the water and onto the pier.
It was a huge catfish. Larger than any Karl had ever seen. Surely it would have won him money in a magazine if he had a way to take the pictures and send them in. For a moment, he considered hanging onto it as it flipped and flopped and lay gasping on the wooden deck. It was almost as long as Karl was tall.
"You better catch it, son. Before it decides to flop back into the water. I'd hate to think you spent all that energy just to watch it get away."
His surprise broken, Karl leaped onto the thing, wary of it's spines. A fish that big could cut a man open if it wanted to without even a moment's thought. But as he closed his hands around the fishes head, searching for the open gills to pick it up, the catfish seemed to admit defeat, and stopped fighting.
Karl turned to invite the gentleman to dinner. After all, he now had enough for three families. and it would only be fair, since the old man had helped him catch it. But as he looked down the pier, the old man was gone. There was no sign of him, not even the gentle bumping of his raft against the pier.
The big catfish was a hit at home. His family had been going hungry for so long that the beast looked like a feast to them. A beast of a feast, as his son put it. Karl was happy to see the smile in his son's eyes. Whoever the old man in the white suit was, Karl wished he had been able to thank him.
There was something unusual about the catfish. Every night they were able to eat from it, but in the morning, there never seemed to be much less of it. It never went rotten, it never smelled the little cabin up, except of course when it was fried each night. Catfish and tater's isn't much of a meal for you and I, but for someone who can't afford much, it was a beast of a feast, and no mistake.
Months later, it was cooler. The catfish was finally almost gone, down to just a bit of the tail. Though it would likely feed them for many more nights, this unusual catfish, Karl knew, was soon to run out. It was time to try to catch another one.
He sat at the end of the pier, just as he had done that night in the humid air of summer. He had baited his hook with some of the first catfish, as it was the only meat they had. Even the crawdads had run out, and he couldn't one of them as bait. But though he waited all day long, occasionally pulling his line in, and making sure the bait was still there, he caught nothing.
The sun was setting again. It was time to give up. When Karl looked out on the water, and saw the same little raft, and the same old man in the same white suit. the old man waved, and without waiting for a response, began to turn his raft toward the pier.
"Good to see you son." The old man said as he reached the dry wood.
"You too. I never got to properly thank you for the fish."
"Think nothin' of it. I do what I can to help. I see you are back to fishing again. Has the other one run out yet?"
"No, not yet, though I don't understand why. As big as it was, it was only the one fish after all."
"Then why are you out here with your pole again?"
"Because, it has been dwindling, sir, and I do not think there is enough left for more than tonight's meal."
"I see." The old man mused. "So I suppose having me over for dinner is out of the question?"
"Sir, I'm sorry, but there is barely enough, and my wife, she thinks you are a ghost. She would never let you eat with us."
"The way I see it, you still owe me a good catfish dinner. Maybe your wife would be less likely to think of me as a ghost if I were to eat with you tonight. Show me your cabin, and I'll do my best to persuade her that I am no ghost. Or at least, if I am, I don't know it."
Joanna cooked the fish again, just as she had for the last several months.
"Fish again?" Tommy moaned.
"You hush up, now, Tommy." She said. "You should be thankful we have that much. Remember when all we could have was tater stew?"
"What do you have to say then?"
"Now go set the table, your poppa's gonna be home soon. I just hope he brought more catfish."
When Karl arrived with the old gentleman in tow, Joanna was not happy. There was little enough fish left for them, let alone for a guest. So she did the only thing she could think of, and fried up the tail of the fish. It was all they had left.
The old man ate the tail without a single complaint. In fact, he ate with such gusto, they were all of them amazed.
"Miss Joanna, this is the best catfish I ever did taste." The old man said. "You sure are an amazin' cook."
"Well thank you, sir. It's only a shame we have nothing left. We'll be going back to taters now."
"No ma'am I won't allow it. A cook like yourself, using the poorest ingredients to make such a fantastic meal deserves more."
"Fancy talkin is all well and good, sir." Karl said. "But when it comes down to it, it doesn't put food on the table. We have nothing left."
"I tell you what." River Ghost answered. "You just keep on like you've been doin'. And I promise you that every time you go to that river you'll pull out a different kind of fish for the lady to cook up any way she sees fit."
"More fine words, but you'll forgive us if we don't believe you. Words is words, after all. Nothing more."
"I agree. And faith ain't won easy. But you gave me the last of the food you had, and you deserve somethin' in exchange. So I give you my word, you'll never go hungry again."
"So you're giving us your word that Karl will always catch fish for me to eat? No matter the season?" Joanna arched her eyebrows. Karl knew this was because she didn't believe the old man. He'd seen that look plenty enough whenever he'd had to resort to lyin' himself.
"No matter the season, no matter the weather."
"And all this just because I gave you a piece of tough old catfish tail?"
"That was the tail? Madame, you are a finer cook than I thought. It tasted as pure ambrosia. Of course, since you mention it, I do have two conditions."
"And those are?" Karl asked.
"First, you offer me more of your delicious cookin' whenever I pass this way."
"Easy enough done."
"And second, you never tell anyone about me. No one knows who I am, and that's the way I like it."
After the old man left, humming a tune to himself, Joanna and Karl looked at each.
"That wasn't no ghost." Joana said.
"No ma'am." Karl agreed. "Just a crazy old man who's been out in the sun too long."
"Still," she sighed. "Wouldn't it be nice if what he said were true? No more tater stew. Ever. A different fish every night. We could open a restaurant. Start makin' some of our own money."
"Well, you keep dreamin'. Maybe one day we'll make it."
The next day Karl went down to his pier, baited his hook with the last pickings of the catfish, and dropped it into the water. Moments later, another catfish grabbed the hook, and jumped out of the water onto the pier. It wasn't as big as the first, but it was still impressive.
And so it went. Every day, Karl went to the river and within five minutes, he was back with another fish. They ate catfish, and massive bluegill. Redear and Bass. Sun fish, and blue fish. And never a gar or a carp, which are too hard to cook and clean.
Soon, people from nearby began to hear about the fisherman who only needed to put hook to water to have the fish jump onto his pier. One or two at first, and then each day a dozen or more would come to their shack to see what Joanna had cooked up. And though times were tough, everyone paid what they could, and the three of them soon started to make enough money to buy new clothes and a new fishing pole, and things were really starting to look up for them.
Every once in a while, the River Ghost would pole up to the pier, and he would eat for free, because Karl and Joanna were happy that the old man had made life so much better for them.
A year passed, and Joanna's cooking was the most famous all along the river. Folks would come down from as far as Saint Louis to taste her food, and they always had something excellent to say.
But Joanna was getting tired. For a year she had cooked three times a day for everyone who wanted something new and tasty, and she was worn out. Even Tommy was tired, for it was his job to clean the dirty dishes, which he did well enough, but a boy his age should be out playing, and cleaning p after other folks.
One night Joanna curled up next to Karl in their new bed, the one that replaced the old one that put cricks in their backs every morning, the one that showed just how well off they were these days.
"Karl," she said. "I don't want you to think I'm lazy or anything. But I miss the days when I was just cooking for the three of us."
"I know what you mean." He answered. "But would you give up all of this? The new bed, the new roof? Tommy's new clothes?"
"No. I'm just tired. Now that everyone knows about my cookin' and your fishin' we never have a moment to be ourselves. Even Tommy should be out playin' and instead he's washing all our dishes every day. It ain't right."
"I know, but I don't know what we can do about it."
A week later, a younger man came into the place and sat down. To Karl, he looked familiar, but he couldn't place the face. They sat him at the cleanest table they had, and served him a pile of catfish, since that was what Karl had caught that morning. As easy as always.
"That's some excellent catfish, sir." The young man said as Tommy cleared away his plates. "Where did you find such an animal?"
"That's my little secret," answered Karl.
"Why don't you tell me? I won't share it with anyone."
"Well, I caught it in the river."
"Is that so?" The young man smiled with a twinkle in his eyes. "I've been fishin' this river for years, and I never caught anything tasted half that good. And I never caught a sunfish out of that river, either."
"Well, that's where I got it."
"You sure you didn't have any help?"
"Nope, just me and my fishing pole."
The young man looked around the place. It was empty. It was the time between lunch and dinner, and there would be few people in for a few hours.
"You sure you aren't hiding some sort of secret?"
"Well..." Karl hesitated.
"I knew it!" the young man slapped the tabletop. "What's your secret?"
"I promised I wouldn't tell."
"I'm sure you did. but your wife is in the back cooking, and your son is the back cleaning, and there's no one else around. I promise you I won't spill it to no one. How do you catch these wonderful fish?"
Karl looked around the room himself. He had promised not to tell anyone, but in the end, the place was empty, and he had been carrying that secret for a year now, and it burned at him to tell someone. At least a complete stranger would be gone and probably never come back, so what harm was there?
"Well, you might not believe this, but I'm friends with the River Ghost. He's the one that gives me the fish. He told me one day that I would always catch fish in the river in return for feeding him a bit of catfish tail."
From the back, there came a clatter as Tommy dropped some dishes. Karl turned to look, and when he did, and then turned back to the young man, he was gone. In his place sat the old man, the River Ghost.
"You promised me, you'd never tell anyone where fish came from or who I was."
Karl was to surprised to speak. He'd been tricked. How, he wasn't sure, but tricked nonetheless.
"So from now on, the only fish you'll pull out of the river will feed you and your family, but there'll never be enough to feed anyone else again."
"But we'll be made poor again. We'll have to sell all of this." Karl gestured to indicate the entire place they had built over the past year.
"Possibly, unless you sell all of this. I'm sure you'll make enough to get by."
The old man stood, and walked out the back and down to the river where his raft bumped against the pier. They never saw him again.
They had to sell the restaurant they had built up. They made enough money to live well enough for the rest of their years, but never as comfortably as they had during the best times of that fateful year. In the end, they couldn't complain, though. Someone else was running the restaurant, but they still got to eat free whenever they wanted. Joanna didn't have to work so hard, and Tommy was able to go out and play with kids his age.
It was true that they couldn't buy nice things so often any more, but they kept their bellies full, and that's all that really counts.