Today we are at The Little Pond, Daddy and I. Before last week, I had not been fishing in probably 20 years and now here I am headed back to the dark water. (Other than myself, no one in my family feels the need to name locations and inanimate objects, thus The Little Pond. Last week we were at The Big Pond.)
There are a number of reasons why it has been so long since I’ve gone fishing. Some of them are the standard reasons we give for neglect; others I won’t admit. And while those things were holding me, the game has changed. You don’t ride down the road with the window cracked and your cane pole whipping in the hot breeze anymore. In the 21st century, one fishes with a telescopic fiberglass contraption that is handy and efficient, but not nearly as romantic. The sight of the long line of cane poles leaning against the eaves of Mr. Newton’s sport shop on Savannah Avenue were always the harbinger of summer for me and, bouncing down the field road toward the pond this morning, I miss it.
Turning off the road into the yard of the pond house that will always be Mama’s, a tiny fawn springs toward the branch. He is smaller than Owen, so new that the white spots nearly cover his tiny body, leaving only small streaks of soft brown. I am entranced, Daddy is bothered. He knows that fawn will grow and prosper by eating his cotton plants.
Last week we fished with crickets; this week the bait will be worms. The cricket farm a couple of counties over has burned and there is no telling when crickets will be available again. For the foreseeable future, the more expensive worms will be the delicacy dangling from our hooks.
Once in the water it doesn’t feel like 20 years. The heat on my legs, the rock rock rock of the boat, the sound of the paddle behind me moving from one side to the other as Daddy guides us to the spot where he thinks the fish may be bedding. And, most importantly, Daddy himself. His solidity, his certainty, his soft reminders.
It was Daddy who taught me how to fish. How to bait my own hook, how to take fish off my line. And, in a way that my 8-year-old self could not understand, how to live. Move slowly through the water. Talk only when you have to. Be gentle with what you catch. Keep only what you can use.
When I was about 4, not yet tall enough to see the top of the kitchen counter, I stood on a stool and watched Daddy at the kitchen sink cleaning his catch from that day. Scales flew through the air like snowflakes with every flick of his brown wrist. The slices into the bellies of the bream were straight and smooth and I gazed in wonder I did not understand as he scooped out a spoonful of gelatinous roe and said, “These are eggs.”
I was not afraid of the knife. I was not afraid of the thin red lines of blood that ran to the drain. I was not afraid of the occasional sudden fish flop onto the linoleum tile. I was interested and curious and safe.
He reached into the next fish. With the tip of his pocket knife and thumb, he grasped a wad of entrails, and went to drop them into the pile in the sink that represented his day’s work when something caught his eye. “Look,” he said, pulling a tiny blob of fish flesh away from the rest. It was dull red and about half the size of a thimble. It was the fish’s heart. And it was still beating.
The two of us were very quiet for a few seconds and in those few seconds the image settled into my memory, dug a den and burrowed in. Over the ensuing 60 years, it has inserted itself into my consciousness over and over — light coming through the kitchen window, the earthy musty smell of fish, the tickle of a fish scale on my cheek.
Today, though, it returns with more. Today the image has a voiceover, a recitation of everything I’ve ever learned from fishing: Move slowly through the water. Talk only when you have to. Be gentle with what you catch. Keep only what you can use.
And never ever ever forget that, even outside the body, the heart beats on.