Small Pond

acques’ father was leaning against the side of the boat parallel with the rod, the two shapes forming a quotation mark against the blue of the water. Looking back towards the shore, Jacques felt like they were drifting away, leaving for good. Several miles behind them, the harbour walls and the breakwater jutted out from the east side of the island like pincers. The steep incline of the coast was peppered with old masonry, and the slopes down to the sea were home to low, flat structures, houses and shops. People moved like Rorschach blots along the waterfront.

Jacques was still threading the fishing line along his rod, watching his father’s face – its salt-beaten creases and shallow scars – for signs of life. Peter’s gaze was, as usual, fixed on the waters slapping the wooden hull of his boat. “No fish on today?”

“Nah,” Peter replied.

Terse was an understatement. “You ever catch anything out here?”

Hrmpf. Small fish, like. Caught a couple of ten-pound conger eels last week, though.”

Jacques twisted the fibre through the eye of the fishhook and tied it in a knot. He should have known what kind of knot. He didn’t. Delving into the bucket of bait behind them, he pinned a thrashing ragworm to the end of the hook and cast off. The line broke the water’s surface and the sinker plopped into the Channel.

It had been a long time since he had been out fishing with his father. He didn’t remember (and perhaps never really learned) any of the things Peter had taught him back then: the sailors’ knots, the best places to dig for bait, how to choose the float or weight to attach to the end of his line. The only vivid memory was that of trailing his hand across the surface of the water as they left the harbour, of watching the spray whiten then jump into the air.

“Probably some bass around, this time of year.” Peter stirred and pulled out a packet of old cigarettes and a lighter. Leaning against the side of the boat, he lit one against the wind.

Jacques had been fascinated by his father since childhood. The physical world seemed to part when Peter stepped through it. And they had always communicated as though through radar, measuring the distance between themselves rather than their closeness. In two weeks, when Jacques left the island, this distance would increase exponentially.

“Why fish, if there’s nothing out here?” Jacques asked.

Peter turned back to the waters and held his cigarette by his side. “Just enjoy it, Jacky. Relax.”

Jacques said: “I’ll try.” He watched the ash drift from the end of his father’s cigarette before being snatched up by the breeze.

The slow boat to Provincetown, MA. Photo copyright EEJ

Breathing in a lungful of salty-familiar air, he recalled the beaches of Angia, a neibouring island, where he and Peter had spent childhood summers. Jacques used to dig in the sand while his father cast his line into the sea, both of them enjoying Angia’s light sands in near silence.

But as he turned toward the Channel, they felt a curl of water slap the side of the boat. Jacques barely stayed upright. In a movement smooth and yet slow, Peter had slotted his cigarette between his lips and placed a hand around his fishing rod. Jacques’, on the other hand, had fallen back on board and bounced dully against the deck.

“C’mon Jacky,” Peter said, his vowels muffled around the Benson & Hedges in his mouth. A reproach. Peter picked up the rod and reeled it taut, then set it back against the side of the boat.

“There,” the old man said. “Didn’t you– ”

“Dad,” Jacques pointed behind him. Peter’s rod was winding out, the fishing line arcing against the sun.

Grabbing the rod and placing a hand over the spool, Peter slowed the unravelling. Jacques leaned over the side of the boat and saw the line glint, rise, and move towards them. Slowly, it began to wrap itself around the hull.

Peter muttered: “Clever bugger.” Whatever was on the other end of the line was underneath them.

Pulling against the rod, sinews pressed against the cotton of Peter’s shirt, lines of faded muscle that Jacques had never noticed before. With each jerk of the rod, the salty indentations on his father’s face grew a little deeper and more familiar.

Up, up, up the line went, flat against the little wooden boat. Peter was straining his boots against the lip of the deck; Jacques stepped over to him and steadied the end of the rod against the wooden slats. Almost incomprehensible, Peter blurted the words “Thanks… Jacky.”

With enough slack now in the line, Peter turned the reel once, twice, three times, and with a final tug, lifted the thing out of the water. It writhed and beat its fins from side-to-side as they pulled it on board, and with a final switch of its tail, it slapped a burst of sea water up into the air.

“Get the net,” Peter stammered. Jacques grabbed it from the back of the boat and held it out. As the fish was lowered into it and placed on deck, it flailed with dull thumps against the wood.

On the trip back to the harbour, Peter told him: “A rainbow trout. Unusual for this far into the Channel.” It was no leviathan. Maybe ten inches long and six or seven pounds. But then neither was Peter anymore.

Jacques peered over the back of the boat and watched the trails of white foam forming parallel lines behind them, leading back to where they had been. Up ahead, the harbour was punctuated irregularly by sailboat masts, mirrored in turn by the church spires that peppered the coast. It was a home, of sorts. But soon, Jacques thought, he would be leaving for good.

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  1. Karen

     /  March 21, 2011

    A beautiful story! One could feel the waves and smell the fish.

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