“When you were a tadpole, and I was a fish,
In the Paleozoic time,
And side by side in the ebbing tide
We sprawled through the ooze and slime.”
~ Langdon Smith, 1858-1918. A Toast to a Lady, April 1906.
You and I sat on the end of the dock. Our feet dangled in the shimmering green water. Minnows nibbled at our toes while we held bamboo fishing poles and waited. You were beautiful, your hair the color of sunlight, just turned twenty. I was a year older but you were smarter. You knew. I did not. And I still don’t.
When we threaded the night crawlers onto our hooks, you did it with a delicate, artistic smoothness. Invariably, I either stabbed my thumb or tore the worm in two. We fished near the surface and watched tiny sunfish nibble at the worms, too small to take the hook, biting off chunks and escaping. We hoped their big brothers would arrive.
“Do you know,” you said, “why they’re called sunfish?”
I wasn’t sure if you wanted an answer, but I gave you one. “Because they are mostly yellow.” Then I added, “They’re cousins to those disgusting carp.”
A big brother sunfish swam up to my bait. Its pectoral fins moved slowly keeping it steady should it decide to strike.
“Don’t move,” you whispered, “He’s going to take it.”
How did you know such things? The fish was so quick that, had there been no barb, he would’ve gotten away easily. The hook imbedded deep into its palate, and it jerked madly at the line trying to swim back deep into the lake. I yanked, and the fish popped from the water and bumped into your nose.
“Oops,” you said, then smiled and wiped slime onto your forearm.
I slid my hand down the head of the fish, holding it so the dorsal fin wouldn’t stab me.
“Where’s the sun?” you asked. “Usually, they’re sunny.”
I had no idea what you were talking about. We had fished together several times that summer, better spots than this, but this was your secret fishing hole, your special lake. Together, we had never been here before. You told me it would mark a “turning point” in our relationship. When you asked about the sun, as if I could give it to you, I joked. “Ha. Yeah. Sunfish are sunny, and carp are outhouses.”
I tried to twist the hook out of my sunfish. Blood and sticky slime oozed onto my hand. My fish’s mouth moved as if trying to speak. I didn’t hear anything. I’m not sure if you did or not. Finally, the hook ripped free and I dropped the fish. It flopped about on the dock and, since it was going to die anyway, I whacked its head with the butt end of my pole. You winced.
I unwound my line, tied on a bigger hook, and stabbed it through the dead fish’s underbelly, then threw it side-armed like I was skipping a stone. It landed with a splat and gradually sank, pulling my line taut.
“You won’t catch what you’re after with a dead fish.”
“And what am I after?”
You glanced at me, hair floating across your face. Were you going to tell me? I’ll never know.
A sunfish seemed to fly from the water of its own volition into your hand. It didn’t fly of course. That was just your skill in pulling it from the lake. There were glowing yellow afterimages pulsing light. You held it like a torch.
“See. This one is sunny.”
Amazed, but still trying to be nonchalant, I offered my advice. “You should use a bigger hook. With the sun for bait, you’re sure to catch a monster.”
You gently backed the hook out from the thin membrane of your brilliant fish’s lower jaw, and handed me your pole. “Not looking for monsters,” you said. “Are you?”
I was, but kept my mouth shut.
While you held your fish in the water to retain its glow, I rigged a big hook onto your line. You reluctantly handed me your sunny sunfish and I stabbed it through the back. The barb curved up next to the dorsal fin. The pierced area darkened, losing its glow, the darkness slowly expanding as if the whole fish would soon extinguish. You took the wounded fish with both hands and gently immersed it into the water, offering it to the lake where it hovered a moment, sensing freedom, then darted away, swimming deep while you unraveled your line, a taut connection to what lie below. “Hope he doesn’t die first,” you whispered with more sorrow than I thought appropriate.
A breeze stirred the lake and green wavelets rippled through the sun’s reflection. Our lines bowed in the wind, shimmering. We waited and the lapping of water against the wood dock made me uneasy. “Bet I catch one first,” I said. Suddenly, my line tightened. The bamboo pole bent toward the water and was about to break when I grabbed the line.
“This is it!” I shouted, pulling my line hand over hand, “This is the big one…”
It was big. A carp. Dirty orange, thick scales rotting off, the carp bouncing and flapping and beating its head maniacally on the dock. It was as long as my forearm, its round, obscene mouth moving in and out mechanically in rhythm with filmy rotating eyes. I held it down with my bare foot and ripped the hook from its throat.
You watched the breeze on the water. “Have you ever wondered,” you said, “why the authorities want you to love carp?” You gave your own answer. “Because carp survive in polluted water, that’s why. They’re not outhouses as you suggest; they are twenty-first century game fish.”
Your sociopolitical statements felt out of touch with the sudden inexplicable panic rising within me, from nowhere, which I was struggling to control. You stared at the lake, waiting. I tried to think about pleasant things: the cool breeze against our sunbaked bodies after a full day of fishing, the clean air away from the city.
The carp twitched, and squeaked, as if pleading, maybe a last gasp. “What should we do with it?” I asked, then added, to avoid another baffling answer, “You feel like having carp burgers for dinner?” Nothing. “How about carp eye pie?” You frowned. “Scale topping,” I said.
You suggested I get rid of it so I pressed my heel onto its head and listened to the skull crack. Yellow gunk squirted onto my foot. I picked the carp up by the tail fin and heaved it onto shore. It hit a cedar tree and thumped to the ground.
I was threading on another night crawler when you asked, “What’s that on your foot?”
“Carp guts. Why?”
“Better wash it off,” you said.
“Just wash it.”
“Let me finish worming my hook…”
“Your foot will turn blue, then black, then rot right off.”
“Right,” I said.
“That’s fine,” you said, “no foot, but what are you going to do when a fin grows back in its place and you become a carp.”
I always knew you were a little strange. Or, to use your phrase, you were “crazy loony.” You hadn’t said it yet, and that seemed odd because you never failed to let me know. You were a little crazy and I loved you for it. I fantasized about the evening, our bodies on the blanket in the tall, cool grass, the sky red, our nakedness – holding on to one another.
You avoided eye contact. You stared at the wavelets moving your line. Your hair was accentuated by the sunlight and moved like a thousand fishing lines in the wind. I didn’t believe you about the carp guts of course, but at the same time there didn’t seem any reason to take chances. I rinsed my foot in the lake.
Clouds slid in front of the sun and the wind chilled us. The clouds moved in slow swirls above the lake and waves splashed up against the dock. You gripped your pole, anticipating a big strike. I knew it would come because you knew how to anticipate such things.
The strike came, a hard steady pull. You braced yourself, bare heels on the dock pushing small splinters into your skin. It was a monstrous strike. It was too much for only you, so I helped you hold. Our arms were interlocked, hands staggered, gripping the pole.
“Don’t be afraid,” you said. “We’re doing fine.”
The bamboo pole splintered, and the wind came in hard gusts from the lake, waves splashing up at us. Then the line went slack. I was sure we’d lost it.
“Did we lose it?” I asked.
“No,” you cried, your yellow hair matted dark against your face, eyes squeezed tight.
What happened to your confidence? Your despair seemed unwarranted. We waited, mouths dry, eyes scanning the now white capping waves slapping at the dock one after another until, heaving high out of the turbulent water, one huge rolling wave surging from the lake over the dock and engulfing us. The splintered pole was ripped from my grasp, but I held onto your arm. I held us both onto the dock with my fingertips wedged between the wood planks. The water rushed around us back into the lake, compelling us to follow. But you still held on, the line again taut and the waves violent.
“Screw the fish,” I shouted, holding you as you leaned toward the lake. “Let’s get out of here.”
You looked at me, your pale blue eyes dreamy, and you kissed me passionately – a long sensuous kiss. Then you leaned away and your eyes had become translucent green encircled with red. You gazed at me and spoke calmly. “Let’s go back,” you said.
Back where. I knew you didn’t mean my small city apartment. I felt hatred for a longing I didn’t understand. I was glad you couldn’t see my tears but, in retrospect, wish you had.
“Don’t you see?” you said.
No, of course I didn’t. How could I? I was blind.
You ripped away the line away from the splintered bamboo, cutting your finger. You shoved your blood and determination into my face. “This,” you said, “This is the great grandfather of us all, all the crazy loony fish.”
The rain came fast and hard, unusually warm, almost hot, angling out of the dark sky. I stared into your reptilian eyes. You smiled, turned, stretched your long tongue in and out rapidly, slid off the dock and disappeared beneath the surface with the line wrapped around your hand, and the hot hard rain boiling the lake.
I stared at the turbulent lake where you had gone under and waited, but knew you were not coming back. I closed my eyes and dove in, afraid to open them underwater, but I had no choice. If I was going to find you, I needed to see. The water was clear, calm, little indication of the storm on the surface. I saw your silky legs… kicking like a frog’s as you swam deeper.
When I drifted alongside, you blew bubbles and smiled. A school of sunfish, radiating like miniature suns, encircled you. Suddenly, they darted away, except for a couple stragglers. One ate white skin floating and tethered to your cut finger. The other sunfish stopped near my face, so close we could see each other reflected in our round wondering eyes. I reached to touch but it swam away. In the blurry distance, I might have seen a monster. I’m not sure, nor will I ever be. A big dark shadow, swallowing my sunfish.
You were pulling on the line hand over hand, pulling us closer to the end, and we followed it deeper until we hit the muddy bottom, and the water clouded brown. Abruptly the line snapped and floated next to your puzzled dejected face. Your round unblinking eyes lustrous green and bulging red.
I felt something lurking nearby. Two huge eyes glowed green, like dock lights on a summer night, big lips, mouth yawing open, red gills shaped like a bow saw, blue tongue, and yellow needle teeth. The big hook was lodged in its throat with the luminescent end of our fishing line snaking from its mouth. I was terrified. He was a lurid fish, like never I’d seen.
You waved at me and your hands blended into the murky water and they became smooth, delicate fins, your yellow hair glowing, then with a quick quivering thrust of your tail fin, you swam into the mouth of the monstrous fish, past the needle teeth and red gills, slithering onto the blue tongue.
I felt drawn by a powerful current pulling me toward you and the gaping mouth of the monster fish. I waved my hands frantically wondering if they’d change like yours, but I was fighting the change, hovering in the current, questioning the power of my love for you, and your devotion to your ancestry. Was it mine? Ours? I kicked with frog-like legs away from the monster’s mouth as its eyelids closed over the green eyes and enormous lips pressed tight onto our fishing line. I tried yanking on the line until my hands bled, but nothing came free. The big fish nuzzled his snout into the mud and slept.
Now I eat refuse in the mud and I wait for your return. I will wait at the surface, on shore, on the dock, night after night, generation after generation, until you come back to me.