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The Fish's Tale

Updated on January 2, 2014

The Fish’s Tale

By Laura Summerville Reed

I was seven. It was summer. The sun was bright and I was baitin’ a hook. It was a rare family vacation. I’d been sent ahead by my father, equipped with a cane pole and a few squirming earthworms burrowed in the bottom of a cast-off Armour Star lard bucket. He was still Daddy to me then. Give me seven more summers and he’d become simply Robert Otis, the man who fathered me.

Somewhere in the distant future from when this story takes place, on a similar sunny day he died a sudden, tragic death. I hadn't factored ‘sudden’, ’tragic’ or ‘death’ into the equation when deciding how to handle my relationship with Robert Otis.

I expected him to grow old, and once again fatherly, then we would talk of my childhood memories. He would return jumbled pages of my mind to their proper order, and splash faded black and white photos of long forgotten faces with color and energy. My children could know him as a grandfather, not just as, “their mother’s dad.” It didn't work out the way I'd planned.

But I was baitin’ a hook so I will leave that tragic summer day for now, and get back to this one. Robert Otis had set up a meager campsite close to a rocky shore on Kentucky Lake. It’s in a beautiful area known as Land Between the Lakes, not far from where I spent all the days of my childhood in Western Kentucky. There was a small pier nearby that I'd already scoped out; looked about right for catching the big one. I grew up in the country. I grew up swimming in creeks, climbing trees, and catching frogs, however, this would be my first and last adventure at fishing.

I sat cross-legged on the weathered, wooden pier with the knobby cane pole resting on a knobbier, skinned knee. I positioned the hook just so between my thumb and index finger. I realized the importance of not skipping this pre-planning step, for although I was a novice at fishing, I was quite familiar with the curling, spiraling, looping, twisting, turning, contorting little protests of earthworms when removed from their element. Even today, I stop to rescue the poor creatures that I find stranded and drying to death on the concrete and asphalt surfaces that we've paved their dark, moist subterranean world with.

I peered into the old Armour Star bucket, rooted around with fingers that had as much grime under the nails going in as they did coming out, and chose an especially plump one to help me land my prize, (while I have an affinity for earthworms, even as a seven year old I fully understood their place in the food chain.) Onto the hook the fleshy, contorting, ringed little fellow went, then into the water he and my hook went, already knotted with a festive little red and white bobber.

I watched. I waited. Fishing is tricky. Fish are sneaky. By age seven I’d spent my fair share of time underwater and I knew there were many times when one could see up, and out of the water when people cannot see down, and into the water. If one was stealthy, one might swim up and scare the begeezus out of some unsuspecting soul. I doubted the fish wanted to scare me, but I was quite certain they were down there plotting ways to steal the plump little morsel of wriggling worm at the end of my line.

Then I saw it! The bobber was bobbing, “Damn!” I thought, “What an ingenious name!” Then I didn't see it! It was gone, pulled underwater by a steady tug on my pole, and I tugged back – HARD! I pulled a fish right up and out of the water. Oh! It was a prize indeed. A beautiful pale, grey thing, with scales that glistened in the sun and fins and eyes on either side of its flat head, and gills, too! It was indeed the real deal!

I pounded my bare feet into the hard gravel, running as fast as I could manage with the pole held all akimbo in one hand and the line with the beautiful fish swinging wildly in the other. I was in my element! When school was out at the end of May I had no need for shoes again (except on Sundays), until September, so my feet were well conditioned for running over this rugged, wilderness, ‘eat what you catch, catch what you eat or go hungry’ terrain of family campsites. What a glorious freedom when one is so tough in the sole and yet, still tender in the soul.

As I ran, I wondered what technique my mother would use to cook my prize catch. I didn't even like the taste of fish but I’d certainly be having the first slab of this monster! My father saw me coming and greeted me with his always generous, toothy smile that revisits me in every photograph I see of myself. He was 6’3” tall, and he carried himself with a step and a swing that seemed as if he’d just taken his arms from around some pretty girl he’d been kissing on the dance floor. He loved to dance. A friend once laughingly declared, “Robert Otis is all arms and legs, he’s the only man I've ever danced with that could look me in the eyes and kick me in the ass at the same time!”

“Whatcha got there, Punkin’ Head?” He asked as he walked toward me. Nearly breathless with excitement, I replied, “A FISH!”, look what I caught! I baited the hook just like you told me! And put it in the water and caught it, I caught a FISH!” Without missing a step, we began to head back toward the water. I was still in charge of the cane pole, trying to match his long stride, and Robert Otis was now deftly working the hook loose from the poor, gasping creature’s mouth, as I followed beside. Somewhere along the way it occurred to me we had nothing to put my leviathan in once the hook was free. As we neared the water’s edge, I asked about this, and by way of reply he simply showed me where he intended to place my prize specimen.

PLUNK! – Back in the water my whopper went- MY FISH! - the one that had not been clever enough to evade even this neophyte’s skills had somehow tricked my father into letting him go. I just stood there, staring at a spot on the surface of the glassy, brown water that my fish had disappeared beneath, wondering what charms he'd employed against Robert Otis to make him do such a thing. I knew fish could be sneaky in water, but I had no idea they were such crafty landlubbers, as well. Other than having an entire bucket of earthworms left to play with, I could now find little joy in my day of fishing. I looked up at my father. He seemed perfectly sane, in control of his faculties, no symptoms of illness apparent, not even a glazed look in his eyes, so I ventured the question, “ Why'd you throw my fish back, Daddy?” “It was too small, Punkin’ Head. That one’s got some more growing to do, just like you.” While a sad, little “Oh” was all I could muster without bursting into tears, I took cold comfort in knowing that damned fish would forever be a laughing stock and the butt of all jokes because at that very moment, he was down there in those murky depths telling all his fishy friends of his harrowing abduction, near death, and return by giant aliens from outer space, and all he'd have as proof of his big fish tale was a fat lip!

So began and ended my adventures in fishing.

©LSR 2010


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