Sawing through the bones of a fish still flopping on a broken oar, I often thought of how I could make this game more playful. On childhood fishing trips I’d grow restless aboard our pontoon as my dad smoked cigars, laughed with friends, cast a line into the shit hued currents of the Red River. We were always chained to trees that climbed into the river thinking they could swim but found themselves capable of little more than to lay and wait to drown. Browning leaves like fingers on limbs stuck out of water as if waving for help, their trunk spines forever held in bondage by our rusted boat. A vessel with a mad surgeon on deck.
After a couple hours of idle floating, pounding against the current in search of new trees to tie upon, maybe catching a fish or two myself, I sometimes wound up at the front of the pontoon. We used various “lower” fish we caught as cut bait. The ones few wanted to net or boil, those regarded as trash species. My job was to hack apart these river bastards, but a couple times I spun this task into a fantasy born from boredom. When a carp or mooneye snacked on a frog’s head or curled worm, they inevitably found themselves in my surgical tent, given to the ecstasies of a ten year old boy and his dull blade.
In those times of excess I didn’t bother with the humane things, never ending the fish’s life before digging into its body, finding dozens of scales on my clothes and fingers as if scattered by magic. I’d slap mosquitoes and wind up with fish bits on my face. The river creature slowly died, quickly dissolving into an incorporeal state: laying there with sections missing from top and bottom, an incomplete flesh puzzle, its thick yellow guts oozing. These fatty chunks of meat were given to those still fishing. Soon the cut bait fish, who’d given it all for us, had hooks driven through his bits — cast out to be bit upon by my future patients.
But despite the bizarre fun I had with our catch, nothing compared to the feeling stirred from being on the water with my dad. I only resorted to my games when there were others with us — friends of his mostly, sometimes a few cousins. Only picked up the knife when no one was really paying attention to me or what I was doing. Even though there was only a couple times at most where I did these shitty things that went beyond what was considered normal for cutting up bait, I wish they hadn’t happened. When it was just us two my interest was wholly in him and this pastime we practiced together.
I always sat there patiently, waiting for my rod to bend, for my dad to become excited I’d caught something. Hoping it wasn’t a log or turtle. He’d help pull it in, letting me know when to reel and how to give slack. We’d weigh my fish and he’d show me how to gently release it back into the water. Only ever kept or cut what was needed for bait or supper.
Sometimes we watched bald eagles swoop through sky or the sun setting behind thick trees still green with summer life. In those idle times he’d coat his beard in mosquito spray and tell stories about his dad cutting ice off this very river. About how when he was growing up there was a crazy man named Ozmond who lived in a shack near the water and always paddled across to visit their farm for food or work or company. Later he’d let me drive the pontoon, and I’d laugh, feeling its power, watching the wind whip the hair of my father as he gave me thumbs up.
My dad smoked these cigars that came in a box whenever we were out floating. He licked their brown skin up and down before lighting. Sometimes they were never burnt, but instead tongued and chewed for hours. I was told not to mention this to my mom. This was man-time down on the river, a body of water visible from our kitchen. If I could have my indulgences, so could he. But more than any of my diversions, I just loved getting to be around my dad for hours at a time. He worked hard all day almost every day, and these trips were greatly cherished, despite what I did on my hazy surgical altar.
That smoky haze always wound toward me. I breathed it in and somehow felt more like an adult. Like I was in on something known only to me and the person I loved most in the world. Calm was elicited from the scent of his Old Dutch’s enveloping me and my clothes. Smelling one still transports me back to the boat. Back to where I held before me a head, eyes popped out, bones and fins clutching to a ghost shell — wanting to reconnect to the master brain that once controlled them. But I was their caretaker now. A kid at play, lost in a land of few limits.
A time or two I crammed cigar butts into their gullets or gills. Transitioned from surgeon to puppeteer. My hand guided them through the air like a macabre ballerina, lost in elegance, spinning, spinning, until boredom gnawed. With the fuel of imagination run dry, my dancing jet crash-landed among the bone wreckage of its antecedents.
Stories too were often created, revised, crafted into slices of local color that contemplated subsurface existence. Exhalations of imagined cigar smoke were used to great dramatic effect. These fish were all gifted monologists, and they’d hold court at length until my dad noticed the sickness of my game, making me throw it all overboard.
I’d seen a cousin of mine, who later in life used a shotgun on a man he didn’t care for, whip fish against our boat’s iron docking post, testing how loud their bones cracked. How far his mound could be to still pitch a killing strike. If his aim was off, the animal was often left in the weeds, the high cattails, with a crushed head, broken spine, unable to roll itself to life saving water just feet away. Gasping, gasping, suffocating in the endless air.
Shitty fish died. Not fried in pans or fed to cats out of tin dishes. Just died. They existed to be found at the reaches of our young impulses. Even after my dad scolded me for taking things way too far, I didn’t put any weight or thought to my actions beyond the shame felt from his castigation.
Sometimes I’d walk down to the pontoon in the morning and watch sucker carp feed off bugs floating on the surface, their open mouths slurping down wings and calories until nothing remained. I knew these were living things, yet at the same time didn’t register the impact of all that implied. It just wasn’t a point of view in my life at the time — that we could be culpable for this cruelty, or that it was cruelty at all.
I didn’t like to eat what we caught despite my sister’s preference for grinding up whole catfish — bones and brain, skin and whiskers — into health shakes. But after each fishing trip the bastard scent stuck to my hands for days. Impossible to wash out. I couldn’t help but to put my fingers to my nose and sniff, the smell eliciting no thoughts at all.