The Best Fish
by Marjorie McAtee
Marjorie McAtee writes poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Blotter and The Album; forthcoming work is scheduled to appear in Attribute Magazine and Western North Carolina Woman in February 2009. You can read her blog at http://wakinginthelake.blogspot.com.
My mother taught me to fish the same way she learned: with a supple length of sapling wood, a bit of string, and a fishhook.
"When I was your age, we couldn't afford fishhooks," my mother explained as she showed me how to tie the fisherman's knot. "I had to use a bent safety pin. The fish kept slipping off." I tried to imagine why this made the bent safety pin more practical than investing in a fish hook or two, but I couldn't.
"Your Grandma Hinkle," my mother went on, "didn't have any fishhooks either. She carved her own out of slivers of wood."
"Did she show you how to do that?" I asked. My mother didn't answer. Grandma Hinkle was my mother's grandmother, a woman whose legend loomed large in my mind. Grandma Hinkle made her own bras, complete with special, built-in pouches ("High-pockets," my aunts called them) to hold her money, snuff and personal effects; Grandma Hinkle knew the uses of every plant, root, fungus and lichen in the forest; Grandma Hinkle carried a walking stick that was as thick as her wrist and longer than she was tall. She used it to kill snakes, my mother said.
"Grandma Hinkle was the best fisherman I ever met," my mother said. I wasn't surprised. Grandma Hinkle was the best at everything.
My mother finished tying the complicated knot. She sat back on her heels to examine her handiwork.
"Will I have enough string?" I asked. The length of string she'd given me was, in fact, quite short.
"Sure," my mother said. "The best fish like to hide under rocks, anyway." My mother reached into the bait-box (which was a tin can) and handed me a worm. "You have to spear your own worms," she said.
I was more than happy to spear my own worms; at seven, I rather enjoyed spearing worms. I found it a bit difficult, however, when the worm was six inches long and kept writhing in what I assume was a sort of invertebrate panic.
"Give it here," my mother said. She slapped the night crawler down on the rock and whipped out her trusty pocket knife.
No one ever saw my mother opening her knife. One minute it was in her pocket; the next it was open in her hand.
My mother had a penchant for overly-serious knives and this one, like many of them, had a blade that curved like an eagle's talon with jagged, irregular serrations. My mother used it to slice the night crawler into several sections; the sections flopped and spasmed on the rock as strange fluids and weird organs oozed out of them. I chose one and struggled to pierce its hide with the hook; this worm was surprisingly difficult to spear.
"Make sure you see the barb come through the other side," my mother said.
Once I'd done this my mother said, "Remember to fold it over and spear it again, so it doesn't fall off." I did. The insides of the worm bulged out at the ends but it still managed to twitch on the hook.
"Now," my mother said. Normally she followed the word "now" with a complete sentence, but this time she just stood there, looking down first to the rod and reel in her own hand, and then to the green, stripped sapling in mine.
Finally, she found words. "One of these days, I'll teach you how to cast," she said, "but for now, just drop your hook into the water there."
My mother pointed at a deep, dark pool just off the edge of the rock on which we sat. It was a large rock that jutted several feet out into the water; the river itself was shallow and murky, sometimes green, sometimes brown, hardly ever clear except at the edges. Just upstream was Wentz Ford, where, according to my mother and the Upshur County Commission, early pioneers had crossed the Buckhannon River to settle the opposite bank.
Downstream, the river curved away between leafy green trees that lined its banks like bookends. People had houses all up and down the riverbank, but from here you couldn't see them; if not for the occasional growl of a pickup truck passing by, unseen, on the dirt road, you would have thought yourself alone in total wilderness.
I dropped my hook into the water and sat, gazing at the trees. I was as restless as any other child; but I loved looking at the trees, at the way their leaves waved in the kind wind; I loved looking at the water, slipping by in almost total silence, on its way to parts unknown. Even as a child, I loved to contemplate rivers, railroad tracks and roads--I knew they led to places that I hadn't seen, places that I couldn't wait to go to.
My mother used a yellow jig to fish in the murky water. "The fish can see this," she explained.
My mother caught a lot of fish, but she never seemed happy with any of them.
"Look at this," she said as she pulled her first catch out of the water. Her thin lips narrowed in disgust. "Another fuckin' crappie." My mother swore as a matter of principal and wasn't shy to do it in front of me. I knew I'd get a spanking if I repeated certain words.
The fish dangled lazily in the air at the end of my mother's line; it didn't seem to have much fight at all. Its gills flapped slowly.
"It's swallowed the hook," my mother said. She showed me how the line disappeared into the depths of the fish's gullet. "That's why it's not putting up a fight. It's damn near dead already." My mother sighed and shook her head. "If I had a choice, I'd throw it back," she said. "I hate eating these damn things. They taste like shit. Oh well." My mother shrugged, and when she shrugged, her eyebrows twitched along with her shoulders. I watched as she lay the fish down on the rock; it flopped once, then lay still.
My mother held the fish down with her booted foot, and yanked out the hook, guts and all.
"Well," my mother said, "at least we won't run out of bait." She pulled out her overly-serious knife and hacked the now-dead fish into tiny pieces.
The next fish my mother caught was another crappie. This one hadn't swallowed the hook; it jerked violently, fighting for breath, as my mother pulled it out of the water.
"Look," my mother said, as she prepared to remove the fish from the line, "I want to you see this."
"You see these spines along its back?"
I nodded. A row of long, nasty-looking spines protruded from the crappie's dorsal fin.
"These have poison in them," my mother said. My eyes grew round. She laughed.
"Don't worry," she said, "it won't kill you. But you will get a nasty infection. It happened to your aunt Martha once, cause she wasn't careful. You have to grab it like this." My mother slipped her hand like a glove over the crappie's head, flattening the spines beneath her palm in one smooth, careful stroke. She pulled the hook out of its lip and tossed it back into the river; it hit the water with a smack and disappeared.
We sat there for the rest of the afternoon. My mother caught several fish, mostly crappies, none big enough to keep. Only one got her attention; a slim, silvery fish not quite as long as my seven-year-old hand.
"Look," she said, before she threw it back. "A rainbow trout!" She showed me the row of colorful scales on its flank. "I've never seen one of these in this river before."
"Trout prefer cold, clear mountain lakes," I said. My mother cocked her head at me. "They tell you that in school?" she asked. I nodded. My mother shook her head. "You can't believe everything your teacher tells you," she said. "They're lying to you, more often than not." She threw the tiny, beautiful fish back and cast her line again.
I was feeling fidgety. We'd been sitting there for hours. I was seven years old; I wanted to get up and do something. So, naturally, I was excited when I saw, coming from upstream, two men in a boat.
"Look! Look! A boat!" I shouted. I stood up and pointed. "I want a boat! Let's get a boat, Mommy!"
"Boats make me sick," my mother said.
The men in the boat waved. My mother waved back, nonchalantly; I waved back with my whole arm.
The men paddled over and said, "Catch anything?"
"Not really," my mother said. "Bunch of fuckin' crappies."
The man who had spoken looked at my mother and then looked at me, and then looked at my mother again.
"We've had some luck upstream," the other man said. He held up a string of fine, fat bass.
"Those are nice-lookin' fish," my mother conceded.
"Say, if I were you, I'd check your line, son," the first man said. I frowned.
"I'm a girl," I said. I glared at my mother. Everyone always mistook me for a boy, and it was her fault. She kept my hair cut short and wouldn't let me wear a dress.
The man raised his eyebrows. "And what a pretty little girl you are," he said.
The other man nodded. He nodded so hard I thought his head might fall off. "I think you've got a fish, honey," he said.
I looked at my line. At some point, it had gone taught, and I hadn't noticed. My sapling-pole was too thick to bend.
I pulled on the pole and it was much heavier than I expected. To my surprise, the pole pulled back, and nearly flew out of my hands. My mother snatched it and, with a mighty yank, pulled an enormous small-mouth bass out of the water. It was clearly enraged.
"That's a damn big fish!" said the man in the boat. His friend nodded again, and this time nearly lost his hat.
My mother's chest swelled and her eyes grew misty. I watched her swallow, hard, a few times.
"See?" she said. "I told you the best fish like to hide under rocks." And then she clapped me on the back, as a father would a son.
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