“I can see it now.”
The voice of the man on the radio was very familiar to the boy, even though he had never met the man. He spoke loudly, always just below a yell, and he used a lot of words that the boy didn’t understand. He spoke with an energy that made the boy feel nervous, like there lurked some danger around the next bend in the road, just out of sight. Papa seemed to like him though. He always listened to him in the car on these long rides.
“I can see it. A nation of coddled, man-children. Of course, I’m not supposed to say that. Pretty soon, you won’t even be allowed to say ‘men’ anymore, I guess it’s become such a bad word now. Listen folks, I can see their game plan. I’ve been telling you since the beginning, I can see where this thing is headed. These so-called progressives are willing to sink this great country to further their agenda of getting rid of men. You’ve heard it, I’ve talked about it on this program before. That’s what they say, ‘Kill All Men’, isn’t it?”
The man on the radio laughed, but his voice still held that anxious energy that made it sound as if there was nothing funny at all. The boy looked towards Papa, but as usual his face was perfectly still, only his eyes moving slightly to scan the sides of the road.
“If they keep saying it, shouldn’t we start believing them? We have to believe that this is what they actually want: the end of men. Well you want to know what I think? I think that it’s men that built this country. Men that made it great. And if we ever want it to go back to the way it was, we need men to start acting like men…”
The boy leaned his head against the window and listened, letting his forehead rattle against the glass as he watched the trees roll by, and thought about how the man sounded so little like how the forest looked.
"What are the worms for?" The boy asked, leaning his head and shoulders fully into the bucket as he grasped with tiny, pale fingers toward the fat worms that wriggled at the bottom. The bucket began to tip under his weight and threatened to spill onto the rain-slick dock.
"I told you already. They're bait," Papa said, frustration leaking out around the stub of the cigarette hanging in its familiar spot just left of the centre point off his bottom lip. He picked the boy up by the back of his weathered yellow life jacket and set him down out of arm's reach of the bucket.
"And I told you they're not for playing with."
Usually, when they got on the boat, Papa would just tell the boy to sit and be quiet, and so that’s exactly what he would do. He never paid much attention to what Papa was doing. Instead, the boy liked to try to find animals in the forest along the shore, or, when his eyes grew tired of straining into the dark belly of the forest, he would lay down on the sticky plastic seats of the bench seat at the back of the boat and stare up at the sky, drawing his own animals in the clouds. In the evenings, he would watch as the stars started to peek their way into existence. Sometimes, when the clouds hid all their animals, he would lean out over the water, the lip of the boat pressing the lifejacket into his chest with a reassuring hardness, and he would stare into the dark water of the lake. Once he thought he saw a turtle, but mostly he just saw his own reflection bobbing rhythmically in the black abyss. He didn’t like the way he looked that way, stuck in that reflective darkness. Something about the water made him uncomfortable. It looked to him like a sky without stars.
Once they had loaded all their supplies and were out on the water, the boy snuck back to the bucket while Papa’s attention was focused on driving the boat. He peeked over the edge and inside, watching the worms as they flopped and rolled over one another. They reminded him of his old dog Juniper’s tail. Of spaghetti noodles and a fireman’s hose. He reached down, willing his fingertips towards the worms. He held his breath against the crisp late afternoon air, not letting his exhale cloud his vision, praying for a chance at just one worm. Each time he thought he had one, the rocking of the boat would slosh the contents of the bucket, sending the worms just out of reach.
The roar of the motor cut short, and Papa walked with a heavy step back for the bucket. He flicked the stub of his cigarette into the lake, a new one plucked from his breast pocket and lit before the first had hit the water.
"Here boy, quit playing. It's time you learned to catch your dinner."
The boy watched as Papa, with an enviable ease, bent and plucked a worm out of the bucket. It spun and wriggled in the air as the man held it up in front of the boy's wide eyes. Deftly, Papa brought forth his other hand and pierced the worm with a fishing hook, procured from some horrific nowhere, turning it over and passing it twice through the worm's slimy flesh. The worm twisted violently against the hook, and the boy began to cry.
"Here,” Papa said. “This one's yours."
The way back to the dock was much quieter. Papa stared out over the water, moving only to drink from his beer or make small adjustments to the wheel. The engine gave its high droning whine, accompanied by the clatter of empty cans that had rolled to the back of the boat and now danced around the boy’s feet. The boy sat in the middle of the bench, his fingers fiddling with the strap on his tattered lifejacket. He had so many questions that it made his head feel heavy but he knew not to interrupt Papa when he was in one of his statue moods.
The boy looked again towards the bucket. The water inside sloshed with the movements of the boat and the tails of the fish looked like wilting flowers as they hung over the lip of the bucket. The boy didn’t know if there were still worms in the bucket, but he didn’t dare go look. He didn’t know if worms knew how to swim. Another question. More weight.
When they reached the dock, Papa got out and tied up the boat, his hands moving in violent, practiced movements. He leaned in, reached past the boy and grabbed the bucket and its bouquet of dead fish before stepping back further onto the dock. He looked in at the boy, who’d only just managed to undo the buckle of his life jacket and stow it under the seat like he’d been taught.
“C’mon. Let’s go.”
Papa turned and began to walk away.
The boy climbed up onto the seat and held onto the side of the boat. Papa usually helped him out of the boat. He would hold his hand as he stepped out of the boat, or grab him by the loop on the back of his life jacket and hoist him over. For some reason, today was different and the boy couldn’t understand why.
Looking down, the boy watched the boat push and pull against the ropes as it rocked in the waves of the bay. As it did, the gap between the boat and the dock narrowed and widened. Narrowed and widened. The boy tried to find the rhythm of the pattern to find when to step, but it felt like whenever he started to move the gap widened again, taunting him.
“I said ‘Let’s go’,” Papa said, his voice stern. Like the man on the radio, Papa never yelled. Instead his voice simply gained a hardened quality. The boy knew Papa did not like to repeat himself.
He looked again at the impossibly black waters between the boat and the dock. He felt his eyes beginning to sting and a hard, uncomfortable lump growing in his throat. He wanted to cry again but he knew that would only make things worse. He swallowed hard and when the boat next seemed to be rocking in towards the dock he tried to quickly step forward. The boat slid traitorously backwards as he pushed off, sliding away from the dock until it held taut against the ropes the man had tied. As a result, the boy didn’t move forward nearly as much as he’d expected, instead stumbling as he tried to step off the boat. The shin of his right leg scraped against the side of the dock and his knees clattered hard against the surface. He looked up towards Papa, who stood at the front of the docks, his face barely visible as the sun set over the trees behind him. He held the boy’s gaze for a second before he turned around, wordless, and began to walk back to the truck.
The boy pushed himself up into a stand. His leg stung really badly and his palms felt sharp and warm. His eyes were moist and he had to keep blinking away would-be tears. Silently, he followed the man and climbed into the back seat of the truck. The whole ride home, the boy stared out the window and watched the darkening sky, imagining he had fallen into the water and was still trapped under the dock, sinking.
The next morning, while Papa was still late in bed sleeping, the boy lay awake in the cabin as the sun and the sounds of birds poured in through the open window. The rain of the night before appeared to have ended. He waited as patiently as he could for Papa to wake, but as the rhythmic snoring from the adjacent room went on unabated, the siren’s call of the outdoors became too much for the boy to ignore. Quietly, he slipped out of bed, pulled on the clothes he had worn yesterday, and snuck out of his room.
In the common room, the sound of the snoring was even louder. Still, the boy tip-toed across the room, stepping carefully around the minefield of discarded cans that dotted the floor until he reached the back door. With practiced patience, he twisted the handle and pulled the door open slowly, left ear cocked to the sound of the snoring.
Standing in the open doorway, the boy surveyed the mud and weed-covered patch behind the cabin. The patch was small and uncared for, littered with forgotten tools and full of undesirable plants that prickled and stung, but the boy hadn’t yet fully learned the language of criticism and so he simply liked what he saw. In that untamed backyard he saw potential, and discovery. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flurry of movement in a tree on the fringe of the yard. Maybe a squirrel? The crisp air hit his lungs and began to fill his body until it felt like he’d inflated like a balloon, until his feet lifted from the ground and he became untethered, dancing in the gentlest of breezes, carried on the whims of the wind off of the back step and out into the yard.
The door clattered hard against the frame behind him. In his excitement, he’d forgotten to close the door quietly, had stupidly run off, letting it slam shut. He stood frozen at the bottom of the stairs, one foot on the bottom step, the other on the dirt of the yard, listening for the sounds of Papa stirring inside the cabin. Even the animals of the forest froze and fell silent. Together with the boy they waited together in this haunted purgatory until the boldest among them, a grasshopper tucked away in the shade of the cabin, gave a probing chirp and broke the spell. The boy gently took his foot off the bottom stair and took a step out into the yard. Then another. By the third, his heart had already begun to forget the incident and he turned again towards freedom.
He was beginning to walk across the large patch of mud that made up most of the eastern side of the yard when a movement underfoot caught his attention. There, just where he had been about to step, was a worm, wriggling in the soft, wet soil. The boy squatted down, bringing his face low to the ground to watch the worm as it pulled itself free of the soil. The worm moved along on the ground but didn’t seem to have any particular plan or direction. The boy wasn’t even certain which side was the head, or whether it actually had two heads - one on each side. He watched as it moved first in one direction and then the exact opposite, growing and shrinking as it stretched its body across and through the damp earth.
The boy had been so engrossed in the movement of the worm that he never heard Papa open the back door and descend the stairs. Papa’s shadow now loomed over him and the worm, making the mud appear even darker. With one big hand, Papa reached down and scooped up the worm and a little bit of the soil before carrying it over to the fishing bucket which sat next to the back door.
“That’ll catch us a big one.”
Late that afternoon, when they went out to the boat for the day’s fishing trip, the boy’s life jacket was nowhere to be found.
“Goddamnit, where is your brain sometimes? I told you to keep it tied to the boat.”
Papa made the boy look for it on the floors of the other boats of the marina in case it had been blown away by the wind. The whole time, Papa stood by his boat, growing more frustrated with each cigarette he burned through. Finally, as the boy was beginning to search in the brush that lined the shore, his father called him back, scolding him for being careless. By the time they were on the boat and out at Papa’s preferred fishing location, the sun was already mostly hidden behind the trees and Papa seemed completely disinterested in resuming the prior day’s fishing lessons.
The boy didn’t mind. He wanted to avoid thinking about what Papa was doing on the other end of the boat. He tried laying out on the back bench to look up at the clouds, but he found himself frequently looking back at the bucket as Papa took worm after worm, attaching them to his hook and casting them into the water. The boy winced each time he heard the hook hit the water. Overhead, the animals in the clouds remained indifferent and it made the boy want to cry.
The boy turned over onto his stomach and leaned over the edge of the boat, turning his back so that he couldn’t see the bucket any longer. Instead, he looked out over the edge of the boat into the murky waters below. There, as always floated the ghostly visage of his face. The boy watched as the face distorted with the rocking of the water, saw it contort further as his face pulled into grimace, watched it ripple as his tears fell and collided with his reflection. He thought about the worm and its two heads and he thought about how he was like a worm, how he wished he was a worm, because then he could play in the dirt and no one would stop him, but he couldn’t because wasn’t a worm, he was a boy, a boy that didn’t know how to do anything right, a boy with two heads and no brain.
As he wracked himself with the practiced silent tears of a boy who had learned never to draw attention to himself, he felt so upset at the face in the water that he struck out at his reflection. The momentum of the swing was too heavy though, and he felt his body slip forward off the edge of the boat and into the water. He fell perfectly straight, like a diver, hand outstretched, so that barely a splash came through as he crashed through his own reflection.
He kicked and flailed against the water as he fell slowly down into the growing darkness. He felt something brush against his arm and he scrambled for it, felt for it with his hands. A long, thin string, whirring up between his fingertips as he fell. He felt a sharp pinch in his palm as the end of the string came rushing up to meet it. In what little light penetrated this depth, the boy looked at his left palm and saw a hook pierced into the flesh of his palm and there, on the opposite end of the hook, dangled a worm.
The hook in his hand pulled hard, jerking his arm violently. As he continued to descend, the light all but lost in the water around him, the boy brought up his free hand and grabbed the worm, twisting it and delicately removing it from the hook. He balled his hand into a loose fist to provide a safe spot for the worm. He felt his palm tickle as the worm twisted and rolled. Finally he stopped sinking, the force pulling him up equaling the one pulling him down, suspending him here in the full darkness of a sea without stars. But still he held his right hand loose, forming a perfect cage, because he did not know if worms knew how to swim.
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Great writing and beautiful prose. Your descriptions and character actions were engrossing. The opening intrigued my curiosity to read on. Thanks for sharing.
There’s a ton of fantastic description going on here. My favorite is: “ As it did, the gap between the boat and the dock narrowed and widened. Narrowed and widened. The boy tried to find the rhythm of the pattern to find when to step, but it felt like whenever he started to move the gap widened again, taunting him.” …because that’s pretty much my daily life. I still live among many people who listen to aggressive talk radio, so that really hit me, too. Very nice.