by Howard Smead
From the seclusion of the southwestern bank, you could see through the hazy narrows to the lower quadrant of the serpentine lake.
Here stumps and beaver marshes dotted the shallows. Here the land leveled through dead fall and heavy underbrush. Here unless you hiked through it, the snake's tail was accessible only via the rare fisherman’s flat-bottomed johnboat.
Which explained why Ed fished this solitary corner; he could sneak in and out.
"It's sort of my private world," he told Michael as they traipsed through the woods with their sleek black rods and Tupperware container of glossy earthworms. "There's lots of fish down here in the morning. When the sun comes up they start feeding."
"How big are they?"
"Pike can get like thirty inches. They’re supposed to be twenty-six before you can keep them. Bass aren't as big, but they fight a lot. You'll know it if you hook one. They all like these worms me and Uncle Roger raised."
At water’s edge, Ed rested his rod and the container of worms on the soft earth and toed off his sneakers and socks. He unsnapped his jeans and pulled them off, followed by his underpants.
Michael turned his gaze onto the uncomfortable darkness of the far bank. "What are you doing?" he asked.
"Uncle Roger showed me this," Ed explained. He pulled his jeans back on and slipped back into his sneakers. "This way we'll have dry underwear when we get done fishing. He’s always got neat ideas. You should do it."
While Michael had to acknowledge his envy for the outdoorsy life Ed lived with his uncle, even that could never assuage his hatred for them. It was a hatred so strong he struggled continually to conceal it. For this deception, he hoped, ensured his survival.
Ed pinched out a fat night crawler, flipping desperately between his thumb and forefinger as though it knew what was about to happen. He stretched it like a rubber band until it snapped apart. Each half writhed in what struck Michael as silent screams.
Disengaging his hook, Ed laced his piece of worm and handed the other piece to Michael. "Come on," he said. Stuffing the box of worms into the top of his jeans, he waded out into the lake. "The bottom's solid here. Ain't squishy like some other places."
Michael followed him into the water. Aching cold rushed into his sneakers, seeming to crush every bone in his feet. He kept moving, determined not to show pain, or to think about ruining his high tops.
He made his way up beside Ed, knee deep, facing the broad plane of water. "Here's the release," Ed showed him. "Hold it down with your thumb and let it off as you cast. It’s like throwing a baseball." Ed drew his arm back and snapped the rod over his head. The struggling worm arced a compact twenty feet out over the water and with a muted pop dipped beneath the surface.
Michael tried it. He whipped an overhand fast ball, thumbed the release and looked down to see the worm dangling from the end of the rod in front of him.
Glancing at Ed, busy with his own rig, "Just practicing," he mumbled in case Ed noticed. He tried again, releasing a hair sooner. And this time maybe not so hard. Away it spun. Not as far, but cool the way it sailed so gently.
"Reel it in a little, you'll feel the line take," Ed explained. Michael didn't care that he'd been watching all along. His second cast was good enough. He reduced the line until he heard the drag catch and he was ready for business.
The moment the sinker broke water on Ed’s third cast, activity erupted as though a bell had sounded somewhere beneath the placid surface. Ed cocked his rod. "A fighter," he commented, and Michael suddenly understood what it meant to bob and weave. The taut line danced away, charged and feigned until a fish with high fins and blue spots appeared, still defending itself the only way it knew.
Ed cleared the line and grabbed hold, neatly sliding his hands over the fins. "It's a blue gill," he said, the pointed hook dangling from its jaw. Ed popped it clean. From his back pocket he took a length of cord holding a series of hasps. He freed one and ran it through the gill and out the mouth. Looping the stringer around his leg, he dropped the attached fish back into the water.
Michael felt a sullen tug, a dead neutral insistence that startled him. He mimicked the way Ed retraced his rod perpendicular to the water, in almost a reverse cast. The line went slack then sprang alive. He shortened its length. Whatever was on there showed blind determination to be on its way. "Not if I can help it!" Michael exclaimed.
"Don't bring it too fast. Ease it along."
"It's a fighter," Michael said, whooping with delight when the fish surfaced.
“You got yourself a perch.” About a third smaller than the blue gill, with some orange in its fins blending into yellow along the sides. “Good show. ” Ed said, mimicking Uncle Roger.
Michael grabbed for it. The dorsal fin pricked him and he drew back. "Slide your hand down over the fins," Ed instructed. "This one swallowed the hook. Better let me do it." The bait was lodged so far down the gullet only the tiniest tip of worm peeped out at them.
The two boys were nose to nose over the gasping perch. Ed maneuvered the hook out, along with one of the perch's eyes. The worm was still on the hook. He flicked the eye away and attached the perch to the stringer.
“This is a cool place,” Michael enthused. (Well, it was. He couldn’t help his thoughts.)
"My mom brought me up here. Something happened and she left. But Uncle Roger found me right away and he's been real good to me ever since."
“He found you?”
"Where's your mother now?"
"Uncle Roger said by the time he tracked her down she had gotten sick and died." Ed produced a new night crawler, impatiently forcing the entire slippery thing onto his hook. Got a strike right away. "The fish are really hitting," he said. "I told you this was a good spot. Uncle Roger's a great guy. We always do stuff like this together."
"Then he's not really your uncle?"
"He says I should always think of him that way and everything will be okay."
Michael snagged vegetation. It came up green and dangling. He got a new worm from Ed, broke it in two, handed one half to Ed, set his own, and recast.
"How long have you been here with him?"
"About three years. He's a great guy," Ed said, his voice falling. "We always do things together."
"Where are we anyway? Feels like we're up in the mountains?"
"I guess we are sort of. Uncle Roger calls it the Panhandle. I'm not sure what he means though."
"Is this West Virginia?"
“I’m not real sure. Uncle Roger and me drive to Cumberland a lot to get stuff. It’s in Maryland. Takes all day."
"What town are we close to now?"
The question brought a guilty look to Ed’s face. "I'm not supposed to tell you things like that. Uncle Roger said that you and him have to talk first."
Something about the troubled way Michael hung his head drew more. "I guess I didn't really like him either at first. But after a while, I started liking him. He's my friend. Everything he does is for me, to help me grow up able to meet the challenges of being a man in today's complex society." Ed rattled it off just as he'd heard it explained to him time and again.
“You oughta just leave.”
Ed shook his head as though surprised by the idea. “…maybe I don’t want to.”
“Why does Uncle Roger keep coming in and singing to me at night?”
Michael barely got the words out before Ed’s dark eyes seemed to explode. Unnerved by Ed’s vicious glare, he started working a group of stumps, their heads peeking cautiously above the water fifty feet away. This flash of attitude confused him. Ed was acting like he wanted to be friends. Then all of a sudden he gives such a feral look.
"Is he ever going to let me go home?"
Ed moved away into deeper water.
Michael thought about those pictures Uncle Roger took of him. Maybe, as Uncle Roger assured him, that unpleasant business didn’t mean anything. Still, he couldn’t wish it away no matter how hard he tried. He could try to get away. Although he knew if he did, they’d just catch him and make him pay for it again.
"What did you say the name of this place was?" he asked A fish struck and he switched his attention to it, as though he didn't care about an answer.
For the next hour they followed the sun, eventually reaching the opposite shallows. By then they’d become impatient with the quality of their catch. Too many indiscriminately hungry perch. Both scored; Ed about a third more.
As the haze burned off, they waded ashore and set about cleaning their catch. The stringer was so full Ed had already switched off the small fry.
Michael sat on the ground and opened his high tops into the sun to dry. The long soggy tongues reminded him of the gasping fish, bewildered by the alien environment. Ed removed his jeans and stretched them over some bushes. Sliding into his underpants, "Come on," he said, "let's skin these before we go back."
Retrieving his Swiss Army Knife from his jeans, he started with the largest blue gill, loosening a tab of flank skin with the tip of the blade and pulling it off like sunburn. With the fish still struggling, he sliced laterally behind the gill along the dorsal fin around and back up toward the head. Completing the circuit, he cut below the flesh and removed the five-inch fillet.
After duplicating the process on the other side, Ed tossed the blue gill into the lake. "Look at that thing still trying to swim with all its meat cut off."
The naked fish yawed and rolled onto its side wanly trying to cope, even as it disappeared beneath the green surface. "You ever think about leaving here?" Michael asked.
When Michael said nothing, Ed added, "Where would I go to?"
"I don't know. Depends on where we are now.”
"This is my home."
"What about where you were born, family and all?"
"This is all I got. I got no place to go. Besides, it's not so bad once you get used to it. "
"Uncle Roger give you that knife?"
"He gives me all kinds of stuff."
"Can I try it?"
Ed handed him the knife. "Watch the fins, they’re like sticker bushes."
Michael wiped the blade across the skin of his bare thigh. "I can use this knife as good as you any day."
©Howard Smead 2007