Every time I close my eyes I see that damn fish.
"When you live on a lake with fish in it, you fish. It's that simple," my grandfather explained to me as he expertly impaled the mayfly on the brass hook.
I liked the simple way he said things: "You get up with the sun, you go to bed with the sun. If the Good Lord had meant for you to be carrying on till all hours, He'd of given you eyes like an owl." (I'd sit out in the dark by myself to try and exercise my eyes like muscles) "Corn in the spring? Why the heck would I want to eat that?" (To this day I can't eat corn on the cob unless I bought it from a roadside stand). My grandfather spoke like a stop sign: Simple, obvious words with no room for doubt.
We sat there in the purple light of a half hour after sunset, five and sixty-five, him drinking coffee and me trying to fidget my way to warmth. "Stop squirming. Your dad used to squirm like that. Drove me crazy and drives all the fish away."
"When is he coming back?" All I could remember of my father was a pair of shoes and rolling down a hill with him and the smell of fresh cut grass. They'd seemed so impossibly huge. The shoes. About two years before I had dug them out of a box in the attic. They were leather with leather laces and soles worn thin. Not as big as I'd remembered but still big enough that I could slip them on over my shoes before clomping downstairs. I had thought my mom would laugh but she had shouted, snatched them off my feet and raced upstairs. She didn't come down for the rest of the night. My grandfather had told me that she wasn't mad, at least not at me. I'd asked him the same question and he'd told me the same thing.
"Tom, your daddy isn't coming back." Just that, nothing more.
In frustration I reeled my line in and cast as far as I could. At seven, that wasn't far. My grandfather looked at me like he was about to say something when we heard the echoing smack of a fish jumping.
My grandfather's face jumped a little and he looked around in the way he does so often these days. Uncertain and just a bit scared. "Getting dark, Tom. Reel in and let's call it a night."
Some kids ride their bike, some hike, some listen to music. I fished at night. As a kid, you need somewhere to go where no adults can tell you what they know about what you're trying to puzzle out. My grandfather would yell at me when he caught me at it and I couldn't see the big deal. I never caught anything, just sat there at the end of the dock. Cast. Sit. Think. Reel. Sit. Cast. Think.
"What do you want to go fishing at night for? If the Good Lord..."
"Hoo--whooh," he never laughed at that. He even went so far when I was twelve as to buy 20 chickens, build a coop out of scrap lumber and give me the chore of feeding them every morning "Before the sun's up!". I just fed them on my way back in from fishing.
Cast. Sit. Think. I wondered sometimes if my father had drowned fishing at night but I'd asked my mom and grandfather and they'd said no. Gone, not coming back, no details. Not ever. I tried to wrap my thirteen-year-old brain some thing, place or deed so awful that there would be no details about it -- CIA or aliens were my two current leaders.
Cast. Sit. The shock of the fish hitting my line was so great that I almost fell off the bench. The line raced across the water, a spider's thread cracking ripples across the mirror of the water. I let a little line out, giving myself a few moments to come to grips with the situation. Big fish. My grandfather's voice supplied the strategy: "If they want to run, let them."
It seems hours I played that fish. It seemed that it played with me too. The line it was on was in no way strong enough to hold against a determined charge. Time and again it would run to the end of the line only to turn aside in response to my desperate tugs. Finally, it tired and I began to pull it nearer. At 20 feet, my heart stopped as I first saw its silver-green power flashing by the half moonlight. Reel. Wait. Reel. Release. Wait. Reel. 10 feet and I saw a trout so big I'd have to keep it, show my grandfather and hoot like an owl in triumph. Reel.
The flash of my grandfather's knife was a silver blur as it parted my line. I whirled on him, amazed and followed his eyes back to the trout. It floated there for a moment and, with a turn and a flick of the tail, was gone. "Not that fish," my grandfather said. He turned and headed back to the house.
I followed him, heaping his own words on him as I danced around him. "Fishing's like taking a leak (for chrissakes), you cast the rod, you bait the hook, you land the fish without any man's help!" He said nothing till he stopped on the porch and turned, looking deep into me. "Promise me Tom, not that fish."
All that night I tossed my way through dreams of that fish grown impossibly huge. Pulling me from the dock and into the cool depths of the lake.
The next morning was warm but I went up to the attic anyway. Through the morning the temperature climbed as I dug through piles of boxes and the wasps went about their business. I found the box with the shoes. In among the photos and postcards and letters and rocks was a leather book. Nothing on the cover which was well-worn and cracked a bit but otherwise plain leather. I opened it and started reading. After a long, hot while I stopped and went downstairs. My mom was working in town, selling t-shirts and rubber hatchets with our town's name on them to tourists. My grandfather was sitting at the table, drinking coffee and reading. I shook the book at him, demanding "What the hell is this?"
He looked at me for a long time, closed his book and began. "Your dad wasn't a happy man, Tom. He had a lot of big dreams that never seemed to work out." I knew some of the stories. The Reversible Hat. I'd learned a lot more reading his journal. The Real Estate Buy (bad wells). The letters from the banks. The house gone. The ignominy of a grown man having to move four hours north with his wife and baby boy to live in his father's house and even though Dad is great I wish to hell something would go right for a change.
"Your mother and I tried to give him room, time, whatever he needed but it wasn't enough." The drinking. The quitting drinking. The drinking again. And then...
"It was that fish." He'd seen the fish one night while lying on the dock and brooding, more tired than drunk. He'd had dreams and woke up the next morning, quit drinking and got a job selling insurance on commission for the three county area. That night, and every summer night for three years he'd fished.
"He couldn't let it go." He wrote that he'd become convinced that the fish meant something. Even when they had enough money to move out he'd refused. Made excuses. And fished.
"I was with him when he caught it the first time." 'It was like the shock you get from a brush against an ungrounded appliance,' my father wrote. 'Running through my arm and into my chest. Dad was there, going on about something when it took the line. I must have played it for an hour, neither of us speaking. We saw it once, just before it broke the line. It was like looking at a mountain, that same sense of awe in the face of something so vastly larger than yourself.'
"Things got much worse after that." He had written that very night a long account of the whole process. The loss after the line snapped. Wanting a drink and finding it all thrown out. And then the dreams. Pages and pages of them, night after night. Like mine.
"He'd hardly even speak to us." My father's writings deteriorated into confused stream of conciousness dream accounts sprinkled amidst terse fishing logs:
7/7: Light mist. 8 hours.
7/8: Windy, rainy. 5 hours. One bite.
"In the end, we gave up trying." Here my grandfather stopped and stared down into the depths of his coffee for an answer to an unanswerable question. He found nothing there and raised his eyes. "We just don't know Tom. His pole was there in the morning, so was his car. They dragged every inch of the lake." His eyes held mine tightly. "We just don't know." And then his eyes clutched me tighter, desperately. "Tom, you let that fish alone."
I kept my promise to my grandfather until one heavy August night when I awoke from a dream of cold, black depths. Silently I dressed and slipped out of the house. I collected my fishing gear and walked to the dock. The moon was absent and there was not a breath of wind, making the lake a soft, black mirror in which I could see every star. I baited my hook and cast. Scarcely had it hit the water when there was a powerful strike on the line. I begin to reel, but there was no resistance. Faster I turned the handle, ripples of cold washing through my arms.
The eye that broke the surface was blacker than the surrounding water. In its depths I could see answers to all my questions, even those I had yet to ask. The trout (laker I think, though I've never been sure) held perfectly still as I removed the hook. I set down my rod and prepared to enter the lake.
To this day I have never figured out where I would have gone or what I would become if I had left this dock that night. The possiblities still tease me on these summer nights when I wake from half formed dreams of impossibly smooth bodies sliding through a coolness beyond words. I'll walk down to the dock, rod left on the porch, and sit gazing into the black water, thinking.
What stopped me I cannot say. Maybe the hot fires that burn in a boy of seventeen. Maybe the love of an old man.
|This story is based on Glenn's painting Trout of Darkness. More precisely, upon the title. Thanks to Glenn for letting me use it. You can see more of his work (and music!) at: GlennWolff.com.|