I thought I knew what I was fishing for…a youthful sense of awe, an unknowing anticipation, the excitement I felt as a child while standing on the banks of Lake Contrary with my Grandpa. Wonder, I wanted to feel wonder again.
I baited the hook of my rusty Zebco the way Grandpa had shown me – with a good-old night crawler. I couldn’t remember exactly what Grandpa’s secret was, but recalled something special about Velveeta beyond mac and cheese, so I smeared the worm with a dab for good measure. Looking to the little guy on the hook I felt bad for him, but shrugged it off. Rediscovering my inner child would take a little sacrifice.
I swung my fishing pole over my shoulder and whipped the tip toward the water like I had as a child. As the worm and bobber flew through the air, I could hear my Grandpa’s raspy voice, “Good cast, Boy.” I felt proud, and then a bit sad as I realized I was still alone on that cool bank. Sitting in the damp weeds, I stared at the bobber that floated effortlessly between Heaven and Earth. There I waited, my mind drifting with the bobber.
I never knew Grandpa’s voice. He lost his vocal cords to cancer when I was a baby. It didn’t matter to me, but I always wondered how he might sound. I imagined a hearty, well-rounded voice, and a laugh that could set you back in your chair. He had about ten good years after the surgery, but the sickness eventually returned. A stubborn man, Grandpa never gave up his fight for life, even as he got weaker and became bedridden. He spent the rest of his days in the hospital where he continued to hang on…and on.
The bobber shot into the water. I felt a certain familiar tingle and heard a thunderous voice behind me laugh. “Set the hook,” he hollered. “Don’t let him get away.”
With a jerk of the rod, I jumped to my feet, reeling. The fish at the end of the line raced from side to side, and then went under. “Is it gone?” I yelled. “Where did it go?”
“He’s making a run for it. Looks like you have a fighter on your hands. You’ll have to take up the slack. You can do it, Boy!”
As fast as I could, I ran up the bank. The line tightened, and with great pride I pulled my prize to shore. “A trout,” I called as I held it up and swung around, only to see the tall weeds bending in the wind. I looked somberly to the fish. He dangled helplessly at the end of the line, old and tired, but alive, a fighter, still hanging on.
Thoreau said, “Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” I knew I wasn’t after fish. I just wanted to feel like a child again, to remember if only for a moment the thrill of a surprise and a brush with the unknown. Instead, the memories of my grandpa brought me back to the doubt within, the dark waters of the lake, the distant and unknowable afterlife.
Gently, I held the fish, removed the hook from his throat, and set him in the water. He rested in the shallows for a moment, and then weakly pulled himself toward the deep. As I watched him fade away, I sat on the bank and wondered where he would go, if he would be okay. I wondered. I wondered.
Mike Orton is a retired teacher currently living in Arizona. Perched on a mountaintop not so far from the Grand Canyon, he enjoys writing shorts, novels and screenplays. Most recently, his Short screenplay “Half an Inch” won First Place at the Phoenix Film Festival. Mike is a member of SLO NightWriters, for writers at all levels in all genres. Find them online at slonightwriters.org.