It's Just a Fish
The large fish is very uneasy. Swimming deep, deep in the pooled part of Dead Creek River, the part where his fry, his walleye babies, are disporting in the early morning light.
Is this a typical fish family? No. They are - well - different. The big fish indifferent to codes and cultures of generic fish -- even his own genetic family. The mother of his fry took off. Soon after spawning. He hung around. Literally. Chasing off possible predators who wanted to swoop and eat - gawk - his babies-to-be. They are still a group of seven healthy fry. His fry. He is their parent and, as such, guards them fiercely.
He saw both his parents be hooked. Pulled up, up, up -- and taken away. Gone. Not dead. They must be of course. But he never saw or knew of their deaths, experientially. What he did see, what he did and still does know, is that at two separate times, two handsome healthy vital fish were taken from him. From this wonderful world of water and weather and sand and grasses and reeds and stoney ledges and waterfalls. And that was - well - worse. In many ways worse. Most assuredly, most certainly worse. A bloodless life lesson. You can be taken Nothing to stop it. Nothing can help you. And both his parents were so taken. No demonstrating how to avoid it No teachings of a means or a measure of self-protection, and certainly nothing of the possibility of escape.
Well, he's learned, of course. He's watched. Observed. Seen many takings and seen also the few escapes. Even seen one or two releases, live releases, but he resents the power represented by that. Power of life over death. He has studied ways to avoid and escape. He knows them all now. The artful dodging and - yes - sheer luck. He has good luck along with the wiles and ways necessary to ensure survival. His growth, reaching his size and weight, is proof of these competencies.
Of course he has no word for Death. He has words for nothing. Doesn't need language of that kind. Body language does very well. The language of fish. What else speaks to a fish, in the world of fish? The elements. Rain. Sun. Cold. Warmth. Shallows. Depths. Presence of other fish. Predators. These elements speak, loud and clear.
No, he has no word for Death. Or for anything else. He is a fish after all. But he has heard spoken words. When his father was whipped up up and away and gone. Not too long after that, his mother -- yanked out of sight and gone. Despite clever strong tail lashing, evasive to-ing and fro-ing, all to no end. His father whipped up and away, his mother played and pulled and then - yanked. Out. No longer in this world of water and fish. Both gone. The bottom line? Fish disappear from the water world. Accompanied by the noises made by those two-legged beings who so readily invade his world. Those who catch and hook and net his kind. Bringing death. Cessation of life. He has taken against those huge, noise-making, fish-hunting beings. And along with that, he has developed a kind of steady steely dislike of other fish. For always losing or so often losing the fight against the noise-making fish takers. In a human world he would be deemed anti-social.
If the fish had that word, he would use it. Spit it. At all fish. For betraying trust. For his parents being helpless and leaving him helpless. If he has a low level hatred of the two legged noisy creatures, he has nothing for other fish. Except for these, his small fry.
Note: Known as small fry because they are, de facto, small, are usually netted or scooped up and then - uh - fried. Their taste is
fine. In the chill of early morning, fried up with maybe a shake of cornmeal coating, to make them crispy. Odor of lard
melting in a spit-hot fry pan. Hiss of small fry as they hit the hot grease in the bottom of that spit-hot fry pan. Nothing else
like it. After the first stretch and yawn, first pee, first mug of campfire coffee, along with a freshly caught and crisply
fried mess of small fry. ---- Breakfast, in a word.
No, the large fish has no use for other fish. For his own fry he has love. Which is why he guards them so carefully. One exception is a grudging admiration, even a vague liking, for a very large very old catfish who lies in the bottom sludge of Dead Creek River. Female. Vicious. Savvy. Survivor-smart. Wise. Has to be to have reached her size. She is gigantic. Silent predator who feeds on those artless fish who happen by where she waits. He admires that. Swims down to check that she is still there, rather as a human visits a monument to human cleverness and ingenuity.
Right now he is worried. Worried because he is curious. It makes him jumpy. Literally. He has been leaping, to look. And he is leaping as often as seems acceptable for the continued safety and wellbeing of his small fry. As he continues to leap and look in an effort to satisfy his rising curiosity, it bothers that he doesn't know what it is that is calling to him. Summoning him, almost. Driving him to expose himself and thereby putting his babies at risk. Even, he realizes, letting himself be drawn closer to banks and beaches than is normal. He is usually careful, keeping his fry in deep water. What differs so from the norm, from what is regular and natural to this pooled depth, this river, his home, that permits him to lose or forget his learned smarts?
A last leap here in the shallower waters and then down to check the fry before driving them back, back away from where he has wandered. Only there are no fry. They are gone. His swim now becomes desperate. Back and forth, first at one depth and then at another. First in a glide, then a dive, then up into a leap again. Searching, searching. Again, a leap. And this time, in the mili-second he can glimpse - between cutting through water to leap high and falling back again - something catches his eye. He glimpses something he recognizes. It is a net. A fishing net. Dripping water and filled with his fry. Close to shore. Held by a boy, standing in the water. A small fry, he thinks. He leaps again and sees a tall human, a man, standing next to the boy.
Dropping down and swimming rapidly he brings himself close to them. Staying hidden beneath a cover of reeds and muddy shale, watching in helpless fury. The man, the father, is walking the boy, his son, through a process of emptying the fry into a creel, then swishing the net through the water several times, to rinse it clean. Once done and net stowed, the father turns his young son away from the water and walks further up the dirt beach and then further still, man and son heading upwards, towards the tree line, carrying the creel. The only thing the fish can think to do is to try to divert this man, this fisherman, by showing him a fish well worth catching. Swirling back into an area of some depth, the fish began breaching -- again and again. Smacking back down noisily.
And his ploy succeeds. The man turns, halting the boy by putting a staying hand on his shoulder, then turns him, and brings him back to water's edge, where they both watch, seeing a very large fish seemingly dementedly leaping and splashing, over and over. Gesturing to the boy, the man directs him to reach the net from the man's backpack. Re-opening the creel, the boy is directed to pour the small fry, still flipping and flashing in the light of the rising sun, back into the net. Further directed by his father's words and gestures, the boy props the net securely, first wedging its handle deep into a rise of wet dirt at the water's edge, then adjusting its tilt so that the contents of the net scoop are fully submerged, its rim just visible above the water line. The father approves.
Then he, the fisherman, begins rapidly assembling rod and reel and preparing a tied-fly, all to try for the fish now circling just under the surface of the deeper lake water. With animated gestures and words, the fisherman directs the boy to wait and watch, guard the fry, as he himself disappears beyond the tree line before returning to pull on waders and firmly secure a hat on his head, its brim offering shade, augmented by a pair of snap-on sunglasses. Ready now, he retreives his rod and steps out from the shore, continuing slow sliding steps until he stands middling deep and ready to cast.
The fish is circling, flipping its tail to smack and splash, occasionally rising to thrust its snout just above the waterline. The fisherman is distracted briefly by the boy, who is whispering intensely, asking why his father wants to catch a crazy fish. The man, who has swiveled to look over his shoulder at his son, whispers back that the fish is large and besides will make a great mounted trophy. They can, he says, always remember this first fishing trip of the boy, telling and retelling the story. Adding, because it will make for a better story, that the first move in the story is that made by the boy, his son, netting the small fry. The boy grins, nodding energetically.
The fisherman pivots back, searching to find the large fish, now further out and leaping first from here and then a few seconds later from there, confusing the matter of just where to cast. The fish has decided if this is to be war, he will put up a magnificent fight. How, given the chance, he can save his fry he has no idea. Now it's all a matter of saving face. His face. On behalf of his young. At least, he determines, they will never be breakfast for these humans.
He flips, he flashes, he flirts. He is over here, then over there. He is close in, he is way out. The man however is also good. He holds his cast, waiting for the fish to tire. Waiting the fish out. And the fish is becoming weary. His leaps are not so high, his flips and splashes not so loud.
The man turns abruptly as his son calls out sharply. Raising his rod and high stepping back to join his son, he sees the rim of the net bobbing violently up and down, up and down. Just as he reaches his son and then reaches for the net itself, the handle pulls free, rising high up as the rim dips down under, disappearing beneath the water, the handle quickly following after. In that fleet second, the whole thing has gone under and disappeared. Gone.
The man sets his rod down and squats to comfort his son, who is now weeping and protesting loudly, face red, tears popping. The noise is incredible. The fish takes a break from previous jinking and jaunting, jumping and smacking back down. He is close to exhaustion, and feels thoroughly defeated. He is bruised, maybe even injured, feeble now. His fry are gone. He has nothing to show for it. For any of it. Despairingly he thinks again of the enmity he harbors in his heart against these all-powerful prey, who are two-legged, of the land, not of the water, but who can so effectively and efficiently catch and kill his kind. Too often as trophies. He reels from disgust and despair. Not even giving fish the honor of being eaten, as all fish eats their prey.
Just then the water edges in around him in a way that is both strange and unnatural. What now? The fish hasn't the strength to do more than make a shallow dive. Coming back, he re-surfaces to find he is facing four of his seven fry, the four swimming furiously up and around him, gliding close enough to brush and touch his skin. He can do nothing but circle around them, rejoicing, reining them in so he can herd them far away from what has been happening, keeping them close. Before he can even start, the waters closest to him roil up, from deep deep down. Up up up rises the gigantic catfish. Grinning. Making her own majestic circles, again and again and again, around and about both fish and fry. As if to celebrate the survival of four even in the face of the loss of three. And as if to establish her part in this remarkable return to him of his babies. When she completes a last circling swim, the catfish glides very close to the fish, looming over him, driving his small fry to take shelter against his sides, so close they touch. She moves in such a way that, as she passes the fish, the tips of her tail brush him before she departs, driving down and down and down, to settle once more in the muddy bottom. The fish calms his fry. And himself. Slowly they spend the day, slowly and together, wandering, ending back in the deep pool part of the river, eating and fanning each other in moments of quiet. Later, when all is still and the moon risen to cast white shimmers over and into the waters, the fry are below, grouped close to the catfish. Safe there. A place he never dared let them near before. Now he knows she will guard them to keep them safe.
He cannot help himself. He returns to where he lost and then so remarkably recovered his family. Losing part in the process, but still. He breaches to look shoreward where he sees flickering lights that grow and wane. A breeze ruffles the surface waters and the fish turns to dive, heading back to fry and friend. He feels a fast flush of caring fill him - for his life, for his small fry, for the giantess catfish. Who (was it possible) rescued his fry? Tugging at the netting, pulling it free, using her tremendous strength and weight? He doesn't know. Will never know. Which he now somehow finds acceptable.
Above the shoreline, inside the trees, is a dell where the tent stands, flickering campfire aided by candles the boy set out are casting its shadow ten times its size. Then too, there is another remarkable thing here. A handsome tawny cat, yawning now, mouth wide, followed by a purring sound, loud, buzzing, full of contentment. The cat claims the boy and settles down with him.
It's Just a Fish