I sawed through bones of fish flopping on a broken oar. This happened in childhood as I grew bored aboard our pontoon. I’d turn to my surgical tent as Dad smoked cigars, laughed with friends, cast his line to shit-hued streams. There were endless hours of idle floating and fighting current. Nights on the river that formed our front yard.
We chained to trees that thought they could swim. Those slipped from the bank, newly unrooted, soon to be drowned. Brown leaves like dead fingers stuck from water waving for help. We ignored these pleas and fitted their torso with shackles. Trunk spines forced to bondage by our rusted boat. A vessel with a mad surgeon aboard.
We used crap fish we caught as cut bait. The ones none wanted to net or boil. Bottom feeding sack trash. My job was to hack apart these river bastards. Turn flesh to bait with my scalpel — an old knife caked in scales and blood. I spun this task into a fantasy born from boredom. When a carp or goldeye swallowed a hook they found themselves out of the water and in my OR. In the ecstasies of a young boy and his dull blade.
In times of excess I didn’t bother with the humane. Never brained a fish before digging into its body. A messy affair. Scales stuck to clothes and fingers as if scattered by magic. Soon these creatures dissolved into an incorporeal state. Sectors gone from top and bottom. Yellow guts dried on a wooden oar. A flesh puzzle undone. Fatty chunks were proffered to those still fishing. Were cast to catch more.
Despite the fun I had with our catch nothing equaled being on the water with my father. I only resorted to surgery when there were others with us — friends of his or one of my cousins. Only picked up the knife when none watched me or what I was doing. When I didn’t have my dad’s attention. With just us my interest was wholly in him. In this pastime we practiced together.
I’d wait for rod to bend, for Dad to be excited I hooked a fish. We’d hope it wasn’t a log or turtle. Both wanted a catfish with its barbs and whiskers. Its majestic smooth skin. The prize fish of this river. He’d help to land these bottom fed fighters, stating when to reel or slip out slack. We’d weigh my score then give it back. Dad’s hands guiding it to water.
With no bites we watched eagles swoop through sky or across the sun setting behind trees still green with summer. Heard fish jump from water for air, only glimpsing the rings their splash created. Slapped bugs and ate sandwiches.
In idle times Dad coated his beard in mosquito spray. Told stories of his father cutting blocks of ice from this very river to create cold storage. About how when he was growing up an odd man named Ozmond lived in a shack over river shore. This hermit paddled the state line to visit their farm for food or work. For a ride to town to drink booze.
Dad smoked cigars but only on the river. Licked their skin before lighting. Sometimes they were never burnt, only tongued and chewed for hours. I was not to mention this to my mom. This was our time and his secret. I didn’t mind. Just loved being with Dad for hours. He worked his farm all day almost every day. Gone by morning then only home late. So the river was our place to be together. Nothing there but him and I.
I breathed his smoke and felt adult. Like I was in on something known only to me and the person I loved most. Calm came from the scent. Smelling it now still transports me back to the boat. Back to where one night I held before me a head, eyes popped out, bones and fins clutching to a ghost shell. These pieces wanted to reconnect to the master brain that once controlled them. But I was their owner now. A kid at play. One lost in a land of few limits.
I crammed cigar butts into gills and gullets. Transitioned from surgeon to puppeteer. My hand guided corpses through air like a macabre ballerina. Spinning, spinning, ’til boredom took over. Its grip crashed my dancing toy into the bones of its antecedents.
The pontoon deck turned into a stage play. Pieces of fish made up the characters. Imagination filled the rest. Stories were formed then revised, crafted into slices of local color. These fish held court ’til Dad noticed my sick game. Made me throw the cigar-stuffed puppets overboard. A play with a climax but no conclusion.
I once watched a cousin whip fish against an iron post. He wanted to know 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 left in cattails with a crushed head and broken spine. Unable to reach water just feet away. Its last moments spent gasping 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 Dad scolded me I didn’t put weight to my actions beyond the shame of castigation. From disappointing my father for taking it too far.
Some mornings I’d walk to the pontoon and watch carp feed off bugs on the water. Greedy slurps of wings and calories ’til none remained. A feeding frenzy fattening the fish I used to make bait. The cycle of life. I knew these were living things yet couldn’t register the impact of all that implied. Couldn’t know the difference between killing and cruelty. That it was cruelty at all. To me they were just meat. Just puppets to be played with.
I don’t eat fish so never swallowed what we caught. No taste for bones and brain, skin and whiskers. But after each excursion the bastard scent stuck to my hands for days. Impossible to wash out. I couldn’t help but put fingers to nose and sniff, the smell eliciting no shame at all. Just thoughts of my dad and our time on the river.
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