In my experience, talking fish can be real assholes.
My daughter, Maggie, and I had been in St. Thomas for three days. I’d finally had enough sitting around the hotel pool, sipping ridiculously-colored drinks with tiny paper umbrellas. I figured there must be a decent fishing hole around here someplace.
My daughter barely looked up from the paperback she was reading poolside in one of the chaise lounge chairs. “Really, Dad? Creature of habit much?”
I shrugged, squinting against the sun’s glare off the turquoise water. I felt like a fish out of water. Being the oldest person at the resort by a couple of decades didn’t help.
When my wife died, and Maggie’s husband left her the same week, I suggested we spend more time together. Maggie thought we should get away.
Two birds with one stone, she said.
In my mind’s eye, I envisioned the sturdy wooden cabin in the north woods where we used to go with her mom when Maggie was little. It never occurred to me that she’d book flights to some tropical island first thing the next morning.
“Just an old dog, I guess. Wanna come along?”
Maggie lowered her sunglasses and looked up at me incredulously. She waved one hand vaguely around the pool deck, encompassing the tanned men and women in skimpy bathing suits, sunning themselves nearby. “In case you haven’t noticed, there’s not too much of this in Michigan. Our return flight is in two days. If you want to fish, I’ll go with you when we get back.”
I nodded, not having expected a different answer. I wandered back through the brightly colored lobby, stopping briefly to ask a bellhop where I could find a bait shop. We chatted for a bit. It turned out he and his wife just had their first child, a little girl.
He eventually offered me a couple of old rods and directions to what he called the “secret cove” that only the locals knew how to find.
Once I was fully armed, I ventured forth from the resort. It took a good thirty minutes of trudging down twisting roads and overgrown dirt trails, but I ended up at a crystal-clear lake, surrounded by palm trees and emerald green tropical foliage. I found a tiny spit of rock that stuck out in the lake a few extra feet, positioned my folding stool, and cast my line to the middle of the water.
Two hours later, my scalp was starting to itch and burn due to my lack of fishing hat, my back ached, and my cooler was still empty of everything except ice. I suspected the guy at the hotel had been pulling my leg by sending me here. Then I felt a tug on my line.
It was a battle. The fish fought about as hard as I’ve ever felt one struggle. I nursed it in, careful not to let it wriggle free. I worried this might be the only bite I was going to get.
When I finally pulled it up, my shoulders slumped. I wish I could say it was a beauty, long as my leg. Nobody believes an old fisherman anyway. It looked like a skinny catfish, opalescent scales shimmering in the sun. It spun and thrashed on the end of my line.
I surveyed it disdainfully. If I had a cooler full of fish already, I’d have thrown it back as too small. As it was, I couldn’t bear the look on Maggie’s face if I returned to the resort empty-handed. I kicked open the lid of the cooler and reached for the fish to pull out the hook.
I almost dropped the rod. My head spun around like an owl’s to see if someone had snuck up on me. The area around the lake was empty of everything but vegetation. I tentatively looked up at the cloudless sky.
“Yeah, down here, buddy.”
I eyed the fish. Sheepishly, I asked, “Did...Did you just say something?”
“Did I stutter?” asked the fish.
A fish was sassing me. I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or cry. I tried to remember the symptoms of sunstroke.
Well, when in Rome. Or St. Thomas, I suppose. “You can talk?”
The fish swung gently on the end of my line, its mouth gaping open and closed as it talked. “Well, I ain’t gonna sing. Look, can we move this along? I’m not too comfortable hanging around up here.”
I racked my brain for something to say. The only thing that came to mind was a fairy tale I used to read Maggie when she was little. It had a mess of talking animals, although I didn’t remember a fish. “Don’t you have to grant me a wish now?”
“What do a look like, a genie?”
My arms had started to shake. I propped the end of the rod on the ground. “You know, you’re not making much of a case for being put back in the lake.”
The fish sighed. It was a disturbingly human sound. “Sorry, you’re right. I’m not exactly having a good day.”
“Well, how would you like to come back with me? I’ll buy a nice tank, fish food, the works.”
“A tank?” it said dismissively. “It would be like living in a broom closet.”
“How would you know? In fact, how do you even know what a broom closet is?”
“I have a fertile imagination. Anyway, I’m running out of air here. My gills are drying out.”
I rubbed my face with the hand that wasn’t holding the rod upright and tried to gather my thoughts. “Fine, tell me how you can talk. Are you--” I groped for the right word. “Enchanted?”
“Like I’m a princess under a curse or something? Pucker up and find out.”
I wrinkled my nose. “Honestly, I’ll do it if it would help you. I’m not in the market for a princess, though.”
The fish flipped its tail dismissively. “Eh, it’s a moot point. I’m just a fish.” It paused. “You’d have done it?”
I shrugged, then nodded.
“Okay,” it said, “here’s the deal: I don’t know why I can talk. I’m pretty happy in this lake, and I just want to go back. I don’t have anything to offer you, but I’m asking. Please put me back.”
“Do all the fish in here talk?”
“Beats me. Underwater it’s all ‘blub, blub, blub.’ These guys could all be reciting Shakespeare for all I know.”
The fish was struggling less on the line. Its voice was also more breathy. It could talk a good game, but its time was running out. I’d have to let it go. “No one’s going to believe this,” I muttered.
“That’s it!” said the fish. “That’s what I can offer. Come back tomorrow and bring a friend. I’ll back your story. Does that work?”
I nodded and grinned. “You’ve got yourself a deal, Mr. Fish. I’ll be here bright and early with my daughter Maggie.”
Working quickly, I pulled out the hook (the fish hissed as the barb came out of its cheek but didn’t say anything). It dropped into the water and vanished with a splash. I waited a few moments to see if it would come back up to no avail. It seemed there wasn’t much else to be said.
I looked down at my half-full bait box and empty cooler. It was clear that I wasn’t going to get any more fishing done.
I gathered my tackle box and headed back to the resort with a spring in my step. I was already thinking about how to get Maggie to come with me in the morning. She’d assume I’d gone round the bend if I told her what had happened, so I’d just have to bring her and wait for the fish to come out and do its thing. It would blow her mind.
Maggie, of course, had precisely as much interest in coming along as I expected. I woke her up with a soft tap on her door just after sunrise. She was wearing a khaki-colored terrycloth bathrobe with the hotel’s emblem embroidered on the front. Her hair was mussed from her pillow. She took one look at my fishing vest and waders and let out a long sigh. “Dad, I’ve got one day left here. You must be joking.”
I told her it would be a chance for us to be together. I painted a picture of how beautiful the fishing spot was. Finally, I gave her the puppy dog eyes that hadn’t worked on anyone since my late wife.
“Ugh.” She crossed her arms. “You know what? Fine. I saw that cooler yesterday. Just admit you need the best fisherman in the family to help you out.”
“You know I do, Sweetie.”
She huffed a laugh. “Give me 10 minutes.”
Just about 45 minutes later, the two of us left the hotel. My heart rate sped up when the trail started to look unfamiliar. Had I imagined the whole thing? But no, I’d simply overshot the turn onto the dirt path. We doubled back and made it down to the pond without incident.
Maggie surveyed the water and gave a low whistle. “You’re right; it’s as pretty as a postcard.”
I grinned. “Told you so.” I baited my loaner rod’s hook and the spare I’d brought along for her.
I watched the lake eagerly, feeling like a kid on Christmas morning. I tried to guess what Maggie’s reaction would be to a talking fish but simply lacked the imagination.
When the water remained still as glass, I figured that maybe we had to catch the fish first. Maggie and I cast off, and I settled onto my stool, almost vibrating with excitement.
An hour later, I was no longer vibrating. The day was looking like a hot one, and sweat was beading on my forehead. Maggie was getting that frustrated look on her face that I knew so well from her mother. We hadn’t had a single bite.
She reeled in her line and looked at me. “Okay, Dad, we gave it a shot. Hell, you gave it two shots. The guy at the hotel was just screwing with you. There’s nothing in this lake.”
I ruefully nodded. As much as I wanted to comfort myself with some silver lining about this experience bringing me closer to Maggie, I was pretty sure I’d only pissed her off. The talking fish was nowhere to be seen. Or heard.
“Fine, fine. Let’s pack up,” I said, admitting defeat. Maggie had already begun putting away her gear.
As we trudged away from the lake, I heard a voice behind me. “So long, suckers!” followed by a splash.
I spun around in time to see a few ripples spreading from the middle of the lake.
“Did you say something?” asked Maggie.
I sighed. “No, I guess not.”
As I said, talking fish can be real assholes.