My father knew so much about fishing. He knew about all the best ponds and how to read their placid, scummy surfaces; he knew about when to use a bobber and when to use a worm and when to use an iridescent lure. He knew about how you had to keep real quiet so as not to scare the fish away. He even knew how to take out a hook—how to cup one broad palm around the writhing, scaly body and reach down into its mouth, careful not to get poked by those sharp little teeth. Every line he cast fell right where he wanted it. Or if it was a windy day and it fell somewhere to the right or the left of where he intended he pointed his pole in the opposite direction and pulled the lure to where it should have been. If he had to he’d cast again after licking a forefinger and holding it up to the wind. My dad must’ve known everything there was to know about fishing.
My father’s house sits on a five-acre square of land cut out of a hay field at the corner of Highway 81 south of Kahoka and a gravel road connecting 81 to Route H. The remaining hay field wraps around our yard on the two sides not bordered by roads. Another field forms an L around two sides of the hay field—this one alternately corn and soybeans. Beyond it to the south, a tree-lined creek separates our family’s farm from the next. To the east, a fence separates field from rolling pasture. Inside the elbow of the corn/bean field is a wooded mound apparently plopped down as out of a mashed potato scoop, with the inside all hollowed out for the gravy. This is the pond where my father used to take my little brother and me fishing.
By late spring, the hay—“cheat,” my father called it, a mix of native weeds and the timothy and orchard grass my grandpa had sown with clover some years back—would be midway up the shin as we packed our fishing poles and a dusty brown tackle box into the back of Dad’s pickup and drove out across the field to the northwest corner of the pond and up the hill onto the bank. Berry trees and tall grasses stood to our right while sticker bushes and reeds bordered the pond to our left. The dip to the water softened as the stickers and low trees thinned out, and Matt and I followed our father down to the water’s edge. The grass here was ankle high and itchy in summer, when we opted for cargo shorts and low socks. Dad set the tackle box down on grass so tough it wouldn’t yield to the weight of the box, causing it to sit at an angle. He slid the latch and opened the top, pulling the top shelf up and away with it to reveal the tray shelf below.
These two shelves held lures of all shapes and sizes—little green, bug-eyed ones with synthetic feathers for tails to conceal the hooks; fat fish-shaped ones with wide open mouths, red and white, with a little ring in their wooden throats to tie the line to; big brown ones with black spots and yellow eyes, with double hooks dangling from their white bellies—as well as a few red and white bobbers and some plain single-barbed hooks. The belly of the tackle box, below the plastic tray, held little weights for practicing casting in the backyard, a packet of long brown gummy worms, and a yellow nylon rope with a stake at the end for leashing our catch at the edge of the water.
But Dad also had a tall, white cottage cheese container with holes poked in the lid. While Matt and I had pulled our covers over our heads for a few extra minutes in our dark beds, while we had rubbed our eyes and stumbled to our dressers for fishin’ clothes, while we had thumped down the stairs to the kitchen for powdered doughnuts and Hostess cakes for breakfast, Dad had been at work with a rusty old posthole digger. He had walked out to the open half of the barn in our backyard and found the posthole digger leaning against a wall by our old International 504 tractor, and he had taken it out to the edge of the yard and stomped it down into the pliant earth. He had pressed it down with his big, calloused hands, gripping from the rounded ends of two weathered wooden handles, and he had pulled those handles apart to clamp together the rusty jaws of the posthole digger around whatever soil specimen they could bring up. He had opened them back up to deposit the dark soil in a heap beside the hole. With bare fingers, he had plucked those creatures from their little holes and dropped them into the clean white bottom of that cottage cheese container, which my mother might well have taken out of the dishwasher that very morning. We set the butt caps of our poles on the ground, clamping our knees around the thin guides as Dad handed us each a squirming worm. I fought with mine, holding it close to the barb of my hook while it wrapped its body around my forefinger, unwinding it with my other hand in order to press the side of its body into the point of the hook. The worm rolled away between my loose fingers, slipping down toward my second knuckle, and I finally wrested it clumsily onto the hook, but it only tore open, spilling dirt onto my shoe. And it was still squirming. I finally complained to my dad, who was already helping Matt with his worm and chuckled for me to hold on. So I held onto my worm, now both resentful and a bit grossed out by the little guy. Matt bounded down to the water, then stopped and turned back toward my father and me, waiting while Dad deftly pierced the worm on my hook, then looped it around and pierced it again for good measure.
We watched carefully as Dad swept his pole around behind him with his left hand, then whipped it in an arc over the water, his line and hook and little squirming worm—“Every squirmy little wormy in the messy mud,” I sang in my head, “was made to praise the Lord”—sailing across the morning sky and then dropping slowly, like cobwebs swept from a tree floating over a field, into the water with the tiniest plink. Then we set about trying to emulate this motion. Matt’s spasmodic first attempt landed his hook in the tree behind us, and I laughed at him as my own line crossed over my dad’s and plopped down into a mess of algae at the edge of the pond. Dad patiently reeled in his line, and I reeled in mine, having lost my worm already. Then we both stood back as Dad instructed Matt to slowly reel in his line, pulling the thin branch of the low tree gradually with it until it flew out onto the grass and the tree sprang back to its place with a swishing of leaves. Matt tried his cast again and this time it landed perfectly near the center of the pond. Dad put another worm on my hook before casting another perfect line. I landed my new worm about a foot and a half offshore before reeling in and finally depositing it out near Matt’s and Dad’s.
Dad stood tall and content in the silence to our right while Matt and I concentrated on catching a fish. We stared at the ripples emanating from the spot where our nearly invisible lines descended into the murky water. We’d shucked our jackets as the air had begun to warm. White clouds drifted lazily through a blue sky as I counted slowly to myself, keeping a careful rhythm with the crank of my reel, stopping now and then when I imagined that my lure was in a good place, allowing it to drop slowly into some submarine town meeting or aquatic supermarket for bottom-dwellers. I ran my thumb over the smooth plastic pedal like a worry stone, then started turning it again, watching the ripples draw nearer and nearer until my line was dragging a slender leaf through the algae at the edge of the water. And then I threw it out again.
After a couple of casts, Dad replaced our hooks with lures of our choosing, and we tried our luck with those. “Must not be bitin’ today,” he said finally. “Think I’ll go on down a bit.” And he walked up the bank and around some trees until we couldn’t see him anymore. Then, he reappeared a little ways down in a small opening on the south bank. I watched him cast a line out toward the center of the pond, imagined that there must be more fish there.
I started reeling faster, so fast I knew that no fish would want anything to do with my lure, then I walked on up the bank and around the corner to where my dad was. As I came upon his new spot I saw trees arched over a well-worn chute down toward the water. This was a place where cows had come down to drink, I thought. I stepped down onto the narrow path—it was steep. I planted each foot firmly on the way down and found a place beside my father. We stood there together, neither of us speaking, while we cast a couple of lines, and then Dad said that there didn’t seem to be any fish here either, and he moved on down the bank to the next spot. Soon, I noticed that Matt had disappeared from our first spot too, and presently he came up behind me.
But I didn’t want to fish with Matt; I wanted to fish with my dad. I loved my little brother and our time together, but there was plenty of it. My dad, on the other hand, was gone before I woke in the morning and was late for supper in the evening, and it was a rare Saturday that he took us out to the pond rather than waking up early and going in to work. On those mornings, he moved ethereally through the orange glow of the rising sun while I lay in bed, hoping that the repeated opening and closing of doors was anything but another departure. On this promised morning, my hopes had been met. I reeled in my line and ascended the steep path to the top of the bank, then followed it on around the south side of the pond.
The bank was wide and fairly clear where we had driven up the side of the hill with our father, and it remained so all along the west side. It narrowed once we got around the south side of the pond, which sat even higher up from the field. As I walked along the bank I noticed to my right, among the trees and sticker bushes and tall grasses that rose up on the steep hillside, a long stack of logs stretching a couple of yards from the base of one tree and standing waist-high on me at the highest part. Where did all this come from, and what was it for? I couldn’t imagine how it all could have been transported to this brushy hillside. I kept to the top of the bank, looking at the woodpile from every easily accessible angle, before continuing on around the corner of the pond.
On the east bank, the reeds along the water’s edge thickened into a forest of cattails that occupied the first several feet of the water’s surface so that from the bank you couldn’t even see the other side of the pond. I could just make out where Dad had waded through them in his tall green boots and stood with his fishing pole pointed toward the clouds over the opposite bank. I took a step toward the water, toward the cattails. The grass at my feet was taller here, and the toes of my tennis shoes sank into the mud a little so that water came rushing into the cavity of my footprint. I took a step back. I didn’t want to go into the water. I watched it swishing around the thick stalks of the cattails. I watched their thick brown tops swaying around my view of my father. I watched the little black minnows coursing through the swirling brown water and imagined snakes among them a little farther out.
“Hey, Dad,” I called to him, and, without turning around, he called back, “Shh! You’ll scare the fish.” Then, “What is it?” I asked him about the pile of wood on the side of the hill, and he told me that it was firewood my grandpa had brought for my older brother, Brian, who used to camp out by the pond with his friend Derrick. Then he returned to his silence, and I to my silent stance, watching him, occasionally stepping forward to build another little pool with my foot.
After a while, I figured I probably wasn’t going to wade out to where Dad was and that he probably wasn’t going to move to a new spot anytime soon. I figured that was maybe why he had chosen that spot in the first place, because I wouldn’t follow him. So I walked back around the south side of the pond, back toward where Matt was, and I saw him coming toward me with his fishing pole. I said, “Check out this wood pile,” and dropped my pole at the top of the bank and walked down through the tall grass toward the base of the pile, which still retained some mystery and adventure for me. I stepped onto the uneven stack of logs, jerking my body one way and the other to keep my balance. I climbed up to the top and walked over to the tree. Long thorns stuck out of the trunk—brown as bark at the base and reddish at their points—and I backed carefully away from them, stood in the center of the log pile, facing south.
Around the end of the tree line bordering the bean field I could see another hay field that stretched on and on, framed in different places by other tree lines, over low ridges and sweeping hillsides and miniature valleys. I could see all the hay that was ankle high or knee high or, like our hay, mid-shin level. The taller stuff was moving slightly in a low breeze that swept over it all. I couldn’t believe there was so much back there; it went on forever, a whole world awaiting discovery. My exploration of the woodpile was trivial compared with the expanse that lay beckoning before me. The secret of this sprawling, golden land, which had lain tucked behind the trees all my life without my knowing, was so much more than my father could whisper to me between the cattails; it was something I had to see, to love, to traverse, the faint summer breeze stirring in my fluffy brown hair.
I heard Matt’s shoes on the logs behind me—he was making his way up the pile too, having left his pole beside mine on the ground. We walked up and down the pile together, back and forth across the logs, delighting in the way they moved underfoot, content just to test our balance. Then, Dad came around the corner of the cattail forest and said, “There’s prob’ly a lot of snakes live in there,” and then, “Yep, that’s prob’ly a snake house.” Matt was down right away, looking at me as if to say, “I told you it was a bad idea,” and I scrambled down quickly after, being utterly terrified of snakes.
That night, I looked out my bedroom window toward the pond, toward the side of the pond where I knew the Snake House stood against the thorny tree. I imagined I saw a small fire burning on the high bank. I imagined I saw a blue tent beside the fire. I imagined Brian in that tent. I imagined him lying there and hearing the crackle of the fire and the snakes in the grass. I imagined the dark of night on the bank of that pond, far away from the long fluorescent light that stayed on all night over the double basin sink in our kitchen. I imagined the stars and wondered whether their light would glow against the thin fabric of the tent or whether the nylon dome would blot out all light. I wondered if he could see his hand in front of his face. I wondered if he could see Derrick lying beside him. I wondered if they kicked each other in the night and woke in fear.
I had never been really camping before. What my parents called camping involved a camper with a stove and a bathroom and a table that folded into a bed for Matt and me to share. It involved mosquito repellant and sand volleyball and playgrounds where discarded Ziploc bags collected in the shallow sand pit beneath the jungle gym. It involved staring out over some dingy river from lawn chairs in the parking lot. I wanted to camp like Brian camped. I wanted to know the world that he knew, the world my father knew.
I must have really gone on about it, and my parents must have finally forced my older brother to take me camping. He and Dad set up the blue tent in our backyard, next to our playhouse over the sandbox. After supper we carried our sleeping bags out there along with some pillows and flashlights and unzipped the door and spread everything out inside.
“You can come back inside if you want to,” my mom told me, and she turned on the back porch light as I leapt out the back door onto the deck. Brian was already a shadow in the night, his footsteps whispering over our lawn a few yards ahead. “Are you crazy?” I said, “Of course I’m gonna stay out here all night.” And then I kissed her goodnight on the cheek and sprinted after my brother.
But in the dark dome of the tent, while Brian turned his long body away from me and attempted to sleep, my eyes rolled all around the domed nylon walls, imagining shadows, imagining sounds. “Brian,” I said, “what do we do if there’s a bear? You think we can git to the house before it gits us?” And Brian said, “There’s no bears around here, Andy.” And I said, “Oh.”
Then I said, “What about wolves?” And Brian said, “No wolves, either. Just go to sleep.” And his dark hair rustled against the feather pillow. “I know,” I said. “I mean coyotes. You know there’s coyotes out here. I saw one once!”
It was true. We used to hear them in the yard late spring, early summer, and Matt and I would run to the big glass paneled patio door to peer out into the dark for a glimpse of one. We had seen plenty of white-tailed deer cut across the yard from the highway, but almost never a coyote. Then, one night, my father called us to the door and pointed out to the shadows behind the barn. “See ‘im?” he said. And in the shadows, I did see a skinny, ragged dog-like figure sitting there as if watching us. “Oh’p, now he’s gone,” said Dad, and I was sure I had seen it stand up uninterestedly and turn to walk away, keeping close to the back of the barn. I was sure I had seen it, and I even more sure when I recounted it to Brian.
“Coyotes ain’t gonna bother us,” Brian assured me, repeating the adage I already knew so well: “They’re more afraid of you than you are of them.” And he yawned for emphasis. “Now go to sleep.” And since he was so disinclined to conversation, I did just that.
I awoke in early, melon-hued light to the sound of a ten-gallon paint bucket swinging from its handle. The plastic grip spun against the metal handle, which creaked, rusty against its plastic hinges. I tried to make out my father’s footsteps as he carried the bucket to the tree-shaded pen where his two adult Brittany spaniels, Misty and Betsy, leapt against the fence and scratched at the dirt. I was cold, and the wind railed against the side of the tent. I pulled my sleeping bag tighter around my shoulders. I pulled it over my head. I listened to the dog food spilling into the dish. I listened to the back door sliding open, and I heard it slam shut. I might have dropped off for a couple of minutes of lucid dreaming. In the daylight, no coyotes would come for us. In the morning, all we had was the cold.
I emerged again from my sleeping bag, gasping in the frigid air. I looked to my brother, who had turned over in his sleep, and his mouth hung open against his pillow. He was snoring. “Hey, Brian,” I whispered, but he didn’t so much as twitch at the sound of his name. “Hey, Brian,” I said again, timidly. Nothing. I was thinking of milk and cookies and Saturday morning cartoons on the floor of Brian’s bedroom, where Matt and I would spread out our blankets in front of his dresser and take down the remote to the small, black RCA television. I was thinking of putting on my thick green slipper socks with the rubbery traction circles on the bottom, and pulling my beloved Garfield quilt around me. I was thinking of seeing if Matt was awake, if he wanted to set up our Hotwheels racetrack.
But I was also thinking of what an awful camper I must be, of how Brian would call me a wuss for getting cold. I figured that this outing was a test to see if I was a good enough camper to build a fire by the pond with my best friend and sleep under the stars. I figured that if I went inside prematurely, then I would fail as a camper. So I pulled my sleeping bag back over my head and tried to go back to sleep. Then I heard the ding—ding—ding my father’s pickup made when the door was open with the key in the ignition. I heard the diesel growl of it coming to life with white puffs of exhaust. I heard the tires crunching over gravel as he turned down the drive and out into the road. I heard him roar away down the highway. Right here I had been for all the mysterious movements of my father in the morning and I had not so much as poked my head out of the tent. And now he was gone.
I thought of my mother in the glow of the fluorescent light over our kitchen sink glancing out the window at our sleeping tent. This land held none of her blood, and our pond held none of her previous catches. She always heated water on the stove for a bath when we were camping instead of walking to the shower house like my brothers and my dad and me. She would understand if I came inside now. This was the boring part of camping, the waking up with nothing to do and no one to play with. The realizing that you were only in your own back yard. I shimmied out of my sleeping bag, unzipped the tent door, and stepped out into the dew-drenched grass. Right away my feet were blocks of ice. I hurriedly zipped the flap shut and high-stepped across the lawn to the deck and in the back door. Finding no one about, I crept upstairs and went to bed.
Dad took us fishing several times over that summer and for several summers to come, but most of my visits to the pond were made on foot, alone or with my little brother or my best friend or accompanied by that summer’s babysitter. Sometimes we brought picnics. Mostly I walked around and around the pond, counting the ripples or watching for jumping fish so that I could tell my dad when he got home that night that I had seen a fish and it would be a good day to go fishing. But he would sit down on the bench under the window and take off his boots and say that it was getting dark and maybe we would go next week.
The last time I walked to the pond, the summer of my ninth birthday, it was with Matt and our babysitter Christina Carter, a fifteen-year-old girl who watched Ricki Lake and Jerry Springer and valued long walks down our gravel road, because she said it was good exercise for us instead of sitting inside the house all day. We were all walking along the bank of the pond when Christina pointed down at the grass to our right and said, “Ew, what’s that?” I looked down, and a papery gray tube lay twisted in the grass like a wrapper to something that had blown out of the barn while Dad was painting doors and windows on sawhorses in the open side. I bent down and peered at it, slowly discerning a striped and pixelated pattern.
“It’s a snake skin!” I cried, recoiling. I looked ahead to where our old path no longer lay. Tough grasses had grown halfway to the branches of low trees, and the long arms of sticker bushes had meshed into an apparently impenetrable net stretched across the berm. Over time, the bank around the pond had grown up thick with sticker bushes. Each time we had gone back it had been harder to get through, and we had come out with a few more spikes and cockleburs sticking out of us. It had grown up too with hollow, knee-high grasses – and with poison ivy. The cattails on the west side of the pond extended farther out into the water, and a mossy green carpet of algae had spread over the surface. When Dad had finally seen the pond again, he’d introduced strange chemicals and algae-eating fish to try and clear it up. But nothing worked. It occurred to me then that this wasn’t our pond at all anymore. Our pond had been taken over by snakes. We had been away too long. We had grown apart.
I cast a final look across the overgrown waterside, the swampy green mush that now constituted our pond, then turned back to Matt and Christina. “C’mon guys,” I said, trudging toward them through the thick grasses, “let’s get outta here.” And we walked back to the house.
Andy Harper holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska Omaha and is currently pursuing a PhD at Southern Illinois University. His work has appeared in Jenny, Hippocampus Magazine, the museum of americana: a literary review, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, and Prairie Gold: An Anthology of the American Heartland. He currently lives in Carbondale, Illinois, where he studies American literature and teaches college composition.
Karen Cappotto lives in Provincetown, MA, where she maintains her painting and design studios. Her work has appeared in House Beautiful, Elle Decor, This Old House, The Washington Post, and Provincetown Arts. Karen studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Boston College, and Manchester College at Oxford University.