What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond. These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors
Thursday, July 8, 2021
The #Midwessay: Gary Reddin, Fish Heads on a Fence Post
Fish Heads on a Fence Post
Drive too far into the country here in Oklahoma and you might come across a fence full of decaying fish heads. They might be hanging from barbed wire, nailed to a wooden post, or strung up in a tree like grotesque windchimes. To the outsider, it could be an altar to a dead god, a totem meant to ward off evil, or a display of savagery and sacrifice.
And perhaps that’s just as well. Because the truth, as it so often is here in the Midwest, is as clear as creek water.
I don’t remember the first time I saw catfish heads on a fence line, but I remember the first time I asked my dad about them. We were on a gravel road and I was watching the ghosts—my name for the trails of dust kicked up by the truck tires—when I saw a fence full of skulls. I had seen them before, but never like this. I counted 20, 30, maybe 40 heads strung up for nearly a mile. Most of them had dried out, but near the end they were fresh, still dripping.
Why do people hang fish heads out like that?
My dad had a way of answering questions that ensured you didn’t ask follow-ups. He preferred to drive with a tailwind of silence rather than against the headwinds of bonding.
Same reason you mount a deer head or stuff a good mallard, to show off.
Though I know he would have believed otherwise, his wasn’t the last word on these strange rural relics. In high school, driving through the backroads toward the Red River for the weekend with a group of friends, I confidently explained that the dried skulls on the fence we were passing were trophies on display.
No, people nail them to the post to skin them and leave the heads behind ‘cause no one eats the head.
My friends were not convinced of my father’s wisdom.
In college, I had a history professor who claimed the heads were a part of an old wives’ tale.
Hang a catfish upside down on a fence and you’ll bring rain, according to the folklore.
I didn’t have the heart, or let’s be honest, the confidence, to tell him that I’d only ever heard that about dead snakes.
And there are always other stories. Other fathers sitting in silence and other kids staring out the windows of a trucks, watching ghosts and counting skulls. They’ll come up with their own truths, and in turn correct others. Out here, the truth is just a series of corrections, like bends in a creek redirecting the water toward the ocean, or more likely, some cow pond full of shit.
Gary Reddin grew up among the cicada songs and tornado sirens of Southwest Oklahoma. His writing was born in that dissonance. He is the editor of The Oklahoma Review and 580 Monthly. His work has appeared in Stoneboat, The Hofstra Windmill, Marathon Lit Review, and elsewhere. He is a current MFA candidate at Lindenwood University.
Ancient mountains (now hills), ancient ocean beds (now plains and prairie), tornado alley, tablelands, highlands, cross timbers, caves, the Ozarks, cypress swamps and forest—we've got it all in Oklahoma, baby. This place favors writing about landscape—it's embedded in us in a way I suppose other writers feel. For me, why I write about Oklahoma, why I care about its history and future, the legacies it will and won't claim, has something to do with the sight of a flat blooming canola field straddling a wet red dirt road beneath striated grey and white clouds after a spring storm. And, that this place has been and is filled with a mix of people—displaced, wandering, outcasts who are still often overlooked. The late Barry Lopez (RIP; not an Oklahoman) wrote, "If we could speak more accurately, more evocatively, more familiarly, about the physical places we occupy, perhaps we could speak more penetratingly, more insightfully, more compassionately about the flaws in these various systems which, we regularly assert, we wish to address and make better." Each of the Oklahoma writers for this series speak to the physical place well, and each asks us to consider what that place (and its people) has to offer, or not. —Liz Blood, Oklahoma Coordinator