Catfish Jack’s Jar of Toes: Part 7 of 8
The last few weeks I have been telling you the story Samuel Clemens chronicled to me. It is about Jack and his friend, Crow, and how they were performing their act for the first time, near the town of Cairo along the Mississippi River.
Jack took to entertaining the eager crowd almost naturally. He may not have realized it beforehand, but to those who knew him, knew he was prone to telling a big one from time to time in the local bars. Only now he was getting paid to tell the same stories. Many times for the price of a drink, he told the story of the monster catfish. Jack really enjoyed it when kids stopped him on the street, and asked if he would tell them of the monster who lived in the river. He was new to the stage lights, but he had been down the storyteller road many times before.
Jack could see, from the crowd’s expression, they were believing every word of his story.
“I lowered my body deep inside the dark steel boiler of the sunken river steamer. Deep within, I could feel the rhythmic pulses of water within that cold place. From years of noodling catfish, I knew the pulsing water was from a great fish taking in oxygenated water across his gills.” Jack paused as if he pretended to shiver at the thought of the fish. He went on to explain to the crowd that he knew, sooner or later, the fish would bite upon his foot. It would try and hold him until he drowned. But Jack, the experienced noodler, also knew at that moment he had to quickly pull himself from the darkness, with the fish still holding his foot. By the time the fish realized what had happened, it would be too late and Jack would have him. He also realized, if he did not get control, there was a chance it could pull him down, into the depths of the boiler.
Jack walked around the stage until he saw a woman whose eyes were wide open as she listened to the story with fear. Jack knelt down near the lady and asked. “Do you want to know what happen next?” She stepped closer to her husband for protection as she shook her head, yes. Jack stood up quickly and began to explain how, at that point, things went very wrong. In the darkness there was not just one fish, but two, and before Jack could pull the first fish free of its lair, the second fish took hold of Jack’s other foot. Suddenly he realized how Jonah must have felt when he was being eaten by the great fish of the Bible.
People were inching closer to the stage as Jack continued his story. He then told them how, next, the fishes began pulling him down into the darkness. He could feel the air in his lungs running out. And if things were not bad enough, he felt the two fish begin to death roll, in an effort to twist off his legs and pull him downward into the gates of Hades. He knew he had only one chance, to grasp hold of the boiler’s edge, and pull with all his might – trying to free himself of the monsters. At first it was a losing battle. But suddenly he felt the fish stop twisting. At that point he knew it was all or nothing, in an attempt to escape. Upward he pulled, and suddenly the two fish gave one last twist; he felt sharp pains in both feet. But he was free. He explained how he wasted no time in pulling himself back into his boat. In just a moment, he looked down at his feet and saw the fish had taken most of his toes in the dark depths of the boiler.
At that point, Jack sat down in a chair and removed his right shoe, revealing one large toe and part of another, which he wiggled at the crowd. The crowd gasped in terror at the grotesque sight. Then, quickly, he removed his second shoe. Two twisted toes remained on his foot. The woman, who had pulled close to her husband, then fainted in terror and fell onto the sawdust floor. She was quickly revived with smelling salts and taken from the tent. Crow knew a woman being carried out would draw even bigger crowds. He could hear the sounds of coins filling his pockets. Jack waited, until the crowd was staring down at his twisted feet, before saying, “Would you all like to see my toes?” The crowd eagerly called out, “Yes, can we see them?” About then, Crow made his appearance on to the stage. He was carrying something covered under a black cloth. He sat it down on a table, near the front of the stage. On the backside of the table was a lantern. He placed the mystery item on the table, so the lantern would light it from behind. After he placed it, he stepped back. Jack, with his mangled feet still visible, walked to the table. He looked at the curious crowd, pausing to increase their eagerness to see what was under the cloth.
He looked around the room and slowly pointed his finger ominously over the crowd as he said, “Prepare yourselves for what you are about to see. Such a sight has never before been seen in our country. Not just our country, but the world.” Jack was a true showman, trained in smoke filled bars and honky-tonks of river towns. He felt right at home, entertaining the crowd with his story.
Jack grasped the black cloth and began removing it slowly. He glanced out at the crowd as they leaned closer still to the stage with anticipation. At just the right moment, he jerked the cloth free, revealing the glass jar containing the collection of toes. The lantern behind the jar illuminated the sight of toes floating inside. The jar magnified the size of the toes, making them appear large and swollen. Their movements inside the liquid gave them the appearance they were alive. The flickering lantern flames added to the effects. Inside the jar, the yellowish coloring of the formaldehyde gave it a sickening image. The crowd loved seeing the sight of Jack’s toes drifting around in the jar. Or at least they believed they were Jack’s toes.
At that moment, there was the sound of two women screaming in fear as they ran for the opening in the back of the tent. Jack then picked up the glass jar and slowly walked along the front of the stage, carefully showing the jar to those eager to see such a grisly sight. As he displayed the toes to the crowd, he continued his story of how he barely made it back into town. He even relived to the crowd how, even today, the creatures come to him in his sleep, tormenting his nightmares. He explained, “The only thing that got me through those first days was the thought of my dear mother telling me how Jonah survived his trial of faith from the great fish, and then went on to tell his story.”
“I knew at that point I must survive and carry on the message of Jonah. I also had to return to that dark cold place and capture those two monster fish. I wanted no more hapless fisherman to be dragged down to the gates of Hades, beneath the cold river waters. So I knew what I must do at that point, return to the darkness…”