The Fisherman's Child
The summer after his breakdown, the father spent his time fishing in the creek near a clear part of the morass. He caught whiskered catfish and hickory shad, grass carp and redfin pike. His daughter would follow him and sit crouched near the bank where he sat, watching the fishing pole's tip with avid interest.
His son liked to stay at home and play with blocks, but the father felt sure, deep down in his bones, that when he got a little older, the boy would be as interested in fishing as his father.
The daughter was scraggly, weed-thin; she loved the outdoors and knew every tree in the bayou and the hollows where moss and orchids grew. When her grandfather came to visit, he took her with him, patiently threading worms onto the hook for her and cleaning the tiny perch she caught, producing doll-sized filets.
"She'll be a good little fisherwoman one day," the grandfather said to the father. "Already is, tell the truth."
The father grunted. He was slicing up squid tendrils to bait hooks with, putting the strands on ice in the freezer.
The grandfather took a long look at him and fingered his arms uneasily. Skin cancers rode the elderly man's forearms, and over them he wore sleeves from a rumpled windbreaker cut off at the shoulder. "How are things going?" he asked.
The father shrugged. "Same old, same old. I'm depressed every morning, but I get through the day all right. Is that what you want to hear?"
The grandfather's lips twisted in an unhappy smile. "Just . . . checking, son. Just checking on you."
Before he left, the grandfather bought the girl what he called a decent little fishing rig: gear ratio of 4.7:1, anti-reverse, and a power handle. When the father went fishing, she'd go twenty feet downstream and cast and reel in, cast and reel in for as long as he did. He put his fish in the creel; she stooped to the river and let hers escape back into the black waters.
They had found a renovated Colonial mansion. His wife loved the old place. She spent her days on the Internet and at the library chasing down history that might have something to do with it. The children inhabited an upstairs wing; the boy was five and the girl was ten.
It was odd living in the old bayou, where two rivers met and spawned a pond bordering a mossy morass. Aside from the family, the inhabitants were a witch and a half-dozen alligators, black-scaled and prone to floating up beside a canoe, eying it.
With steady patience, he carved scallops into one end of a piece of broom handle, making a Lucky 13 lure. "Listen," his wife said, hunched over her laptop at the table. "They say there has always been a witch in the morass, and the pond's got a name of its own, isn't that a hoot? It's Starlight Pool."
He murmured an acknowledgement, lost in the world of slow carving, getting the piece ready for the yellow and green paint. The wine glass sitting on the table beside him rippled as he took a drink. In the back room, the TV played something old in black and white while the children watched. He set the lure down and went into the kitchen to get some water.
On the screen, the movie father spoke to the movie daughter as he set forth on a journey. She smiled, asking him for a rose. Glancing at the clock riding like a floating moon above the crumb-ridden stove, the real father went back to his flies and the steady raindrops of his wife's fingers on the keys.
"There are all sorts of local monsters," she said. "And the cemetery, you know the one down by the corner, it has ghost lights that float about the gravestones on the fifteenth of every month."
"Ghost lights?" He imagined baiting a hook with a worm of light, casting it out into dark water, and seeing it sink, glowing, into the blackness, like a little star.
His daughter stood in the doorway watching them. She came over to his wife and leaned against her.
"What are you looking up?" she said.
The wife stroked the child's fine wispy hair. "The history of where we live," she said. "Who we are and where we live."
His wife said, "I found a legend on the Internet of a fish living in Starlight Pond—a huge catfish, seven hundred, eight hundred pounds they estimate. Old Abner, they call it."
He scoffed. "I would have seen it a long time ago," he said. "I spend enough time sitting on the banks there."
"I've seen it," his daughter said from the doorway.
She came in from the kitchen, holding a plastic jug.
"That's my Gatorade," he said.
"Can't I have just a little?"
"A glassful," he said, and watched her pour, eyes measuring.
She put the jug away before drinking the glass. "I've seen the catfish," she said. "It's as big as a cow."
"When have you seen it?" he said, surprised.
"In the evenings, when I watch the water, it comes to the surface. It's an albino."
"Right," the wife said. "That's what the Internet article says."
"Why were you watching the water?" he asked the daughter.
She flushed. "I like to see where the fish come at different times."
He nodded but said nothing more despite her hopeful air. Truth be told, he found it annoying when she cultivated a fellow fisherman's attitudes. She was young and didn't know much. It was tiresome explaining it all to her.
"Fish that big takes thick line," the grandfather said. "What kinda catfish did they say it was?"
"Didn't say. Blue, maybe?"
The grandfather worried at a thumbnail with his teeth, eyes thoughtful. "Thick line and I don't think you can go too heavy with bait, really." He paused, looking at his son. "You know, that fish ain't been around this long because no one's tried to catch it, right? Not with a name and all," he said.
The father shrugged. "I've got a mind to do it, and plenty of time."
"Don't set that little girl on it. Fish'd drag her in the water and eat her up, right fair."
"Wasn't planning on it," he said, biting off each word with angry relish.
His wife was working upstairs, installing ghost magnets as she hooked up a parapsychology kit she'd bought off eBay, trying to determine the house's EMF readings and thus corroborate whether or not it was haunted from having been a station on the Underground Railroad. If it had been, she wanted to buy it to turn into a bed and breakfast. He thought maybe fishermen might like to use it in order to fish the Starlight Pool.
In the kitchen, his son drew pictures with thick crayons, blue and green and black lines interlaced like netting.
"What are you drawing?" he asked.
"Water," his son said.
"You want to come out fishing with me this week?" he said. "We'll take peanut butter sandwiches."
His son considered a yellow crayon, then put it back and chose red instead. "No," he said.
"It'll be fun, champ, whaddya say?"
His son only shook his head, weaving crimson into the other colors.
The father walked looking for bait fish, carrying a yellow plastic bucket and a hand net. He followed along the swamp paths on a winding trail that barely stayed dry, bordered by lady fern and cardinal flowers, and came across the witch's shack. Two huge fallen swamp oaks sheltered it, the branches twisting out over the roof. A crow sat on the highest branch and stared down at him, cawing balefully.
"Anyone here?" he shouted. "Just passing through!"
The door opened with cold-molasses speed. He found himself transfixed, watching the rectangle of darkness appear and then be eclipsed by the wideness of the witch in a gunny sack dress and rags, eyes wide and rolling, fixed on him.
"You gonna be the one?" she demanded, and crossed the clearing in three swift strides to end up next to him, peering into his face like an insistent fly. She shook her head, disappointed. "No, you ain't gonna be the one to catch Abner."
"Hey, I might," he said, stung by her scorn.
"Gonna take a sacrifice and a whole lot of wanting to catch him. You ain't wanted for nothing in your life. You don't understand an ache lighting up your soul and showing you all the sore spots that just one special thing would heal."
"I've wanted things before."
"This ain't about seeing Annie Peeks' panties in recess," she said.
"I want good things for my family," he said stubbornly. "I want my son to go fishing with me."
She looked at him so hard he felt the trail of her eyes like bruises. "Yeah," she said. "You want that. You poor damn soul."
"You're a crazy woman," he said. "Living out with the tadpoles and the leeches." He stepped away, shifting the bucket's weight from one hand to another. Around him, the marsh seemed a heat shimmer mixed with the croaking of frogs and the witch's heavy, harsh breathing. Somewhere in the distance a bullfrog began its steady drum.
The witch studied his face. She was a fat woman, dirt collecting in the creases and folds of her flesh, with black hair braided tight, three blue feathers stuck in the braid's end.
She grumped out something wordless and turned to waddle back into her shack.
"Crazy bitch," the father said, but he was careful to say it sotto voce, so the witch couldn't hear. The door slammed behind her.
He looked around the clearing. Although he hadn't perceived it from afar, once in it, he could now see how the trash was knit together, the heap of old tools sheltering beneath a rusted plow's protective wing. Old rags covered a stool like a shaggy pelt, making it resemble a dreadlocked hedgehog. Pools of oily black water encroached on the edges, still and ominous. He splashed through one, continuing on his way.
"Don't let the kids play in the swamp," he told his wife.
She looked up from the keyboard.
"But I found a identifying indigenous plants and insects," she said. "I sent them out to gather leaves and flowers. Look, see, this page lets you fill it in with the vegetation you've found. Right now it's all black and white, but each time you find a new flower, it colors it in. Isn't that cool?"
He went downstairs and stared out the kitchen window. The children were picking around the edges of the yard. Each carried a brown paper bag. His son picked indiscriminately, thrusting handfuls of grass into the sack. His daughter picked like a connoisseur, considering each leaf before putting it away.
On the abandoned TV, a fishing show droned. A rotund man in a plaid shirt held a bass up to the camera and kissed it on the lips before dropping it back into the glassy water.
He thought about the witch and what it would take to abandon everything and go into the swamp. The idea appealed to him. He would live on the banks and eat fish he'd caught every night. In the fall, he would smoke the fish, building a rack from fallen hickory branches that would add their own flavor to the meat. In the spring, he would dig up . . . what, he wasn't sure, but he vaguely remembered hearing that cattails were edible.
They'd moved to this out of the way place, caught between swamp, pool, and river, to give him time to think and recuperate from the attack that had driven him from his job six months ago. He'd found himself in the classroom, screaming at the college students that they didn't care, while behind him on the screen a fish's skeleton, coracoid and scapula, cleithrum and supracleithrum, wavered with the projector's flickering.
He couldn't explain everything that had made him snap. Some had been the vacuous faces, the interminable grind knowing none of them cared for more than the grade at the semester's end. He wanted students thirsty for knowledge, yearning for wisdom, squirreling away facts in their mental pockets like treasures. He wanted someone to think it all mattered.
On the show, the fisherman was demonstrating depth finders. Reaching for the remote, he switched the channel off. He'd rather fish from the bank than in a boat. Exploring a new pond's edges was like assessing a new land, figuring out its border populations, where the fish came and went, where they hung, motionless except for the current's nudge.
He could tell when his wife wanted him to do something. Like any woman, he thought, she spent more time tiptoeing around the subject and seeing if he was ready to talk about it than any man would have taken to say it direct.
"I read an article about parenting," she said. "And it talked about father-daughter bonding. Why don't you take her fishing?"
"Yeah, sure," he said, tone noncommittal.
She looked up from the screen at him. He thought with pleasure that he had married a beautiful woman, who would be beautiful for years and years, and smart as well. Here she'd chosen him from all the men she could have had. In college, he had been only one of the flock pursuing her, not the wealthiest, not the handsomest, and he hesitated to say the smartest (although he thought it sometimes). He felt blessed by her choice and often unworthy.
"Look," she said, choosing her words. "I'm not asking you to pay lip service to the notion. I'm asking you to go down right now, say to her 'I'm going fishing, want to come along?' and take her with you. I don't think you have any idea what that would mean to her."
Which wasn't true. He'd glimpsed the yearning in his daughter's face and it frightened him. He had no idea what to say to her, to this miniature woman who had come without invitation into his life and altered it. With his son, he'd become reconciled to the notion of children; he'd daydreamed about playing baseball and teaching him how to spit or open a woman's car door for her. But a daughter was something different.
He didn't think it unusual—surely other fathers must feel the same. Like calls to like, and he could plot out his son's path through life: the soccer games, high school football, on to college and successful career. With his daughter though, when he tried to envision her path, he glimpsed her floating surrounded by the men who would want her. Making choices he could not fathom, could never fathom.
"You love her, don't you?" his wife said, and he felt a surge of outrage.
"Of course I love her! How could you even ask such a thing?"
"I need to go think," he said, and stamped downstairs, past the table where his children sat, his son reading The Golden Book of Easter Bunnies and his daughter drawing pictures of fish, fish coiling and undulating, fins rubbing together, leaping from the water, winged fish flying free.
He felt her eyes like a sad and persistent tug on his back as he went out the door.
"What sort of sacrifice?" he said to the witch.
He'd found her on her knees digging fat finger-shaped roots in the musty earth. She wore a scarf wrapped around her head and examined each pallid vegetable as it emerged. A mixture of roots and oval fungi, each shaded light brown with murky green overtones, half-filled the basket near her.
"You said Abner couldn't be caught without some sort of sacrifice. What sort of sacrifice?"
She eased back on her heels to eye him with a sly grin. "It don't ask nothing you can't bear to part with," she said. "A little dream, a little blood, a little love."
"What specifically?" he said, wondering if all witches spoke in riddles and puzzles.
"You think you're willing to make it?"
He spoke without thinking. "Of course, if it's nothing I can't bear to part with. But I want to know what it is."
She tapped the side of her nose with a finger, smiling at him in a way she might have thought seductive.
"All you gotta do is say it," she said. "Say 'I want to catch Abner with all my heart and soul.'"
He repeated the words, feeling like a foolish parrot, and waited, but she stooped again to her digging.
"That's it?" he said.
She spoke to the ground without looking at him. "Foolish man, do you expect me to be taking blood so you can sign some contract? Go ready your bait; go test your line. In two days, when the moon is full and riding on the midnight water, cast right where it glimmers."
"What bait should I use?"
She rose as unexpectedly as an unseen snake striking. "Snips and snails and puppy dog tails for all I care! Use what you like. It won't matter."
He recoiled from her words and moved away. "You're crazy, you know that?"
"Crazy, crazy, lazy and crazy," she crooned to him. "Maybe someday you'll be just as crazy, but try hard as you like and you won't be as lazy."
He kept backing away, watching her as she pulled a long root from the ground and detached the worm coiled around it.
This is bullshit, he thought.
It was hard finding the way through the marsh back to the house. The ground seemed solid until he stepped on it, and then he'd feel it oozing out beneath his feet. By the time he got back, mud slimed him from above the knee to the feet and thorns had combed marks along his arms and face.
Inside, his wife made him shed his clothes and stand in the shower before she applied iodine to the deepest scratches. The children stood in the doorway watching her paint his wounds.
"Did you fight a bear?" his son asked, and it made him laugh.
"No, son. Just had a little tangle with some bushes, that's all."
"Were you looking for Abner?" his daughter said.
"Looking for a way to catch him," he said and winked at her. "It'll take quite a fisherman to do it."
All the next day he saw her studying the pond's surface, crouching on her heels to obtain a worm's eye view, wading in the shallows to catch crawdads lurking beneath flat stones, studying the waterweed's sway. He grinned to himself at his dreams, imagining a night when he would drag the catfish home, staggering under the weight as his children danced around him celebrating his prowess. His son's eyes would spark; he'd realize the sport's pleasure and beg for his own fishing tackle.
This was what being a man was all about—harkening back to the caveman days, going out and hunting for his family, providing food. Hairy and hungry, giving the woman the fresh meat to cook. He grinned widely, and whistled on his way to the bait and tackle store, picking up hundred pound line and large hooks, barbed and gleaming like bronze.
He lay awake until midnight, watching the moon crawl from one side of the window to the other. All around him were the house's sounds: stealthy creaks and sighs, the foundation's groan as it settled. Odd how listening set your imagination whirling; over the hours, he thought all sorts of sounds, like someone creeping along the stairs, or the back door's click.
When the huu-huu of an owl came from somewhere outside as that predator launched itself into the darkness, he knew it was almost time and slipped from the bed. On the pond's bank he baited the hook with a massive night crawler as thick around as his little finger, shading from brown to glutinous beige, writhing and wiggling. He attached only enough weight to let the worm drift along in the current, as though it had washed in from the swamp or a drainage ditch.
The moon netted the pool's black surface with a web of light, as fine as cat's whiskers. He crouched on the bank and watched the light, until he saw the glimmer and cast.
A fisherman can feel what's happening to the hook, a crab's delicate and tentative tap as it nibbles at the bait, the water's pull as it moves, the weight's drag across a muddy bottom. Every sense stretches out, delicate and nuanced. When the fish hit like a storm, he almost lurched into the water.
He'd played big fish before but this one seemed hampered by its own weight, unable to pull and weave. He let the line play out, then reeled it in, play and reel, play and reel, each time bringing the fish in closer until its massive bulk was a few feet away, barely visible in the darkness. He'd brought a gaff; clutching the rod in one hand, he raised the metal hook, ready to kill the catfish.
And as the steel curve shone in a surge of moonlight, he saw the weight dragging the fish down, the hook already planted in its jaw, the filament tangles binding his drowned daughter to the catfish as though she clutched it, the broken rod still in her hand. And the sorrow that caught him then, the guilt, the shame, bowed him heavier than lifting the small body did, once he had snipped it free, into his arms to carry it into the house. Behind him on the bank lay the ghostly catfish, its whiskers still twitching, mortally wounded. Its fin flapped once, twice, scattering dark water in a shower of droplets. Far away the owl called again.
Cat Rambo's work has appeared in such places as Asimov's, Weird Tales, and Strange Horizons. Her collaboration with Jeff VanderMeer, The Surgeon's Tale and Other Stories, is available from Amazon.com, and next year an anthology of her work will appear from Paper Golem Press. She is the co-editor of Fantasy Magazine.
copyright © 2008, Cat Rambo
BECCA DE LA ROSA
—The Baby is Safe
—The Fisherman's Child
—Faith, Hidden in the Hands of the Blind
—A Comic History of Bullets
—To Recover from Lightning, Etc.
A. ROSS ECKLER