Dad and his brothers were fine story-tellers. Uncle Glenn told me how the bunch of them caught Catfish in the river near their house. Uncle Gerald, the youngest of the brothers, loved that fish, named it Blue, and taught it tricks. Uncle Gerald even trained that fish to walk on dry land and roll over and beg like a dog. Grandma wanted to cook that Catfish up for dinner, but Uncle Gerald cried so hard, she didn’t have the heart to do it. He kept Blue around in a bucket of river water for a few day, and then one morning the pail was empty: the fish got so good at walking on dry land, it up and walked back to the river. Anytime Uncle Glenn told that story, Uncle Gerald would nod in agreement, and one of the six brothers would say, “Yup, that Blue was the smartest fish I ever saw.” Six sets of blue eyes sparkled like stars and six lips pulled up in the corner in almost the exact, same way. Aunt Barbara just looked down at her folded hands and shook her head, then the corner of her lip started to twitch up too. My uncles were darned good story-tellers, and they never let on which parts were true and which were tall tales.
I caught myself a pet fish when I was a little girl. As near as I can tell, this story is all true. Still, I was a very little girl, almost before memories had language. I caught that fish on the one and only time I remember ice-fishing outside a cabin at a lake I barely recall.
Mom bundled me up in woolen snow pants, coat, hat and mittens. She pushed and prodded to help me with my red rubber boots; I stamped down hard to push the last couple inches of my heel my boot. In a few short years, I’d be helping Little Kids the same way Mom helped me then, but of course I didn’t know anything about Little Kids back then; I just knew I hated those boots. I loved going outside enough to get through the boot business, and especially if I was going fishing with Dad and his friend Hal K, who ran a Boy Scout camp in the summertime. Maybe, just maybe that where the lake was where we went ice fishing.
Hal K. was the only man I could call by his first name instead of just Mr. K, which felt a little bit funny, ’cause any other man I called Mr. Something-or-other, or Uncle Somebody. Mostly I avoided calling Hal K. anything at all; it just felt too weird. Hal K. had dark hair and a mustache and he wore glasses. When he laughed it came from way down deep in his guts and came out like joyous thunder, bursting out of him so hard it kicked his head back.
Dad gave me a fishing line. “Just hold the line still, and wait for a tug,” he said.
“I got one,” I pulled up the line. Nothing.
“You must be patient and still,” Dad said. “Those fish can hear you up here. They can hear every move you make through the ice.”
I stood there, still as still can be. No tugs.
“Look down there,” Dad said, his eyes glinting from the sun shining off the snow. “I see a fish getting ready to bite.” I searched down through the ice.
“Do you see it?” he said. I nodded uh-huh, I did, which was sort of a lie, ’cause I could see how much Dad wanted me to see the fish. That was before I went to catechism and found out about sin, so it didn’t count. You have to know something is a sin before it counts against going to heaven.
If there was a fish down there nosing around my line, for sure I was going to stay as still as a statue, ’cause any minute that fish would bite, and I wasn’t going to scare it away. Hal K. and Dad pulled up fish after fish. There’s something about the smell of fish and ice and lake water that gets put inside a memory and just sticks there forever. Anytime I remembered ice fishing my nose hairs start to vibrate from the memory of all those smells mixed together.
“Time to go,” Dad said.
“No, please. The fish is just about ready to bite.” I said, even though my toes felt about like they were ready to crack right off my feet and the wind was kicking up so my whole face stopped feeling anything. I never found out that most people ice fished in a nice warm shanty with a thermos full of hot drinks. We just stood out there on the bare ice. Finally, finally a four inch perch decided to take the bait.
“Too bad we have to throw it back,” Dad said. “That fish is way too little to eat. After all that waiting for nothing? No way. I wanted to keep my fish. I mean I wanted to keep my fish. I had a name for him and everything: Slippery.
Slippery went back to the cabin in a pail. All the fish caught by Dad and Hal K. got fried up for supper. Not Slippery. I kept an eye on Slippery until I fell asleep. He liked me and tried to say thank you for rescuing him from the cold. Of course, he could only gulp a little at the top of the pail, and look at me with wide open eyes, but I knew what he was thinking. Anyways, it’s hard to talk under water. I knew that from when I got lost at the lake in the summertime, and I fell down in the water and just blew a bunch of bubbles when I tried shout out.
The next morning, Slippery was gone. Dad said he thought he heard the door open and close in the middle of the night, and maybe Slippery missed his Mom and Dad and headed back to the lake. Mom said, “I did feel a draft in the middle of the night.” Then she wrapped both her hands around her coffee cup and stared like she was looking for something in the bottom of the cup.
I ran to the window and looked out at the lake. No sign of Slippery. He did seem as smart as Blue, the fish Uncle Gerald taught to roll over and beg. Maybe Slippery knew how to open doors.
Perhaps Blue and Slippery were smart fish; stranger things are discovered every day. Maybe somebody helped them out of the pail and just kept mum about it. If anybody knows for sure, nobody is telling. Life needs a little mystery. Don’t you think?