What did the fish say when he swam into the wall?
You would never mistake my father for an outdoorsman. This isn’t to take anything away from him since everyone has their own personal interests but he’s never been the type to grab a gun or a fishing line and head out into the woods at 4am to kill something. Likewise, I wasn’t raised in a home that had guns or knives or camouflaged hats and orange vests. Our home never had a skinned deer strung upside down in the garage or a set of tools that were made specifically for sawing through bone.
As I grew up I knew of my cousins or close friends disappearing into the wilderness with their fathers and uncles and coming back with photographs of them holding some animal’s head propped up, its tongue lolling stupidly out of the side of its mouth; blood trickling down it’s chin, it’s eyes as black and vacant as outer space. The deer looks like he’s trying to be funny, striking an immature pose. Or maybe he’s drunk and his human buddy is supporting him. Or maybe there’s an arrow through his heart and he’s dead.
There are photos of guys in ice tents and alongside riverbanks and streams, holding up fish that are large and equally helpless looking. Their eyes gaze blindly about while their mouths gasp helplessly for oxygen as they, essentially, drown on air. A bunch of fish on a bright green rope, each of them stitched to the next, hanging from their jaws, gravity pulling against their slimy bodies. My friends point to these photos and say, “My dad caught a 12lb fish,” and I say, “He looks afraid,” and they say, “Fish don’t feel nothing. They’re stupid creatures.”
But still… I can’t help but wonder.
My friends invite me to go hunting. “You gotta kill something,” they say and I just shrug. The idea of entering the forest appeals to me, of finding my prey, of stalking it silently. I love the idea of lifting up a gun and expelling my breath as I line it up in my sights. My finger on the trigger and then… and then… and then… I simply have no desire to follow through. I just want to enjoy the hunt without pulling the trigger on the kill.
When I say as much my friends say, “It’s just a stupid deer,” but, as I gaze at the photographs magnetized to their refrigerator, I can’t help but wonder if that look on their face isn’t stupidity, but fear.
Late last December / early January I decided that I wouldn’t do a simple New Year’s Resolution. I wouldn’t be losing any weight or quitting a bad habit or picking up a good one. I wasn’t going to hit the gym or be more punctual. I had my sights aimed higher. The clock struck midnight and I stood up and shouted, nay, declared, in my most noble and regal voice, “Let it be known forthwith that the year of our Lord, two-thousand and fourteen shall hereby be known as The Year of the Yes.”
I place my chalice of wine down as my family gazes at me with fruit log crumbs falling from their mouths as I explain, “It’s The Year of the Yes. I’m doing anything anyone asks me to do,” and someone says, “Like that movie Yes, Man with Jim Carey?” and I say, “Uh, yeah, sort of like that,” and someone else says, “You’re going to do anything?” and I say, “Well, not, I mean, not anything but most things. I mean, there is a very strong possibility I will do something if someone were to ask me to do it,” and then someone else says, “So, it’s like The Year of the Probably-Maybe?” and I say, “It’s the Year of the Most-Likely but that doesn’t sound nearly as smooth.”
Everyone mumbles agreement, takes a sip of their egg nog and the year rolls on.
Four months later, in the Spring, I find myself camped at the bottom of a large ravine, two hours out of cell phone reception with not a soul for miles and miles about. Myself and a few friends have taken it upon ourselves to disappear into the wilds for three days and, you know, it’s The Year of the Yes, so of course I’m here.
We pack as light as possible but, even between five guys, our packs are still 70lbs. Tents, sleeping bags, water, food, black and white television, Macintosh laptop with external hard drives, stereo system with 5.1 surround sound, Xbox 360 and various other necessary supplies. It adds up quick.
On our second night we throw our fishing lines in the water with bait and a prayer and wait… and wait… and wait… Overhead the sun passes through the sky like a lazy comet and, as our shadows grow longer, our hope grows darker. Nothing is biting, nothing is jumping, nothing is even splashing. For all we know there are no fish…
Then it happens, Andy gets a bite and screams. His hat falls off his head as he struggles to bring it in. The creature thrashes against the fishing line as it’s pulled up, up, up out of the water and into the air. The four of us stand in a crescent around our brethren and gaze onward as he navigates the hook from the greasy mouth. He says, “Rainbow Trout,” and I say, “How do you know?” and everyone, including the fish, turn to look at me as though I’ve just asked how you know if something is a giraffe.
Andy shoves a stake through the mouth of the fish, pulls a rope behind it and makes him into the world’s grossest keychain. He tosses him in the water and I watch as the fish lolls lazily about in the shallows, still alive. I say, “When do we kill it?” and Andy says, “Later. After we’re done.”
Hours pass and slowly, everyone catches one fish. One fish for each man.
Because I don’t really fish.
I stand along the bank and I stare at the four fish tied together. I look at their eyes and I try to wonder what they’re thinking. I wonder if they really are stupid. I wonder if they have any feelings. I wonder if they’re afraid. I wonder if they know. Anything.
Andy pulls them out of the river and says, “Alright boys, I ain’t cleaning these all myself. We’re each taking one,” and, since there are four fish and five men, and because I lack experience, I easily and obviously count myself out. As the sun sets, the shadows don’t disappear so much as they envelop us completely. Flashlights, lanterns and head lamps get clicked on and I watch as each of the first three men clean their fish, preparing them to be laid inside tacos that night.
To my right, one fish rests on a log and, even in the darkness I can see that he’s still struggling to survive. He’s still fighting and trying and hoping and wanting to be put back in the water. Call a fish stupid all you want. When it’s sitting on land with a hook pulled through it’s lip, attached to a string and unable to move, it knows something is wrong.
Andy looks up at me and says, “Your turn, Brookbank,” and I say, “Ha. Nah…nah, I’m solid. I don’t really – I don’t really have any desire to, y’know, whatever. Cut a fish. Clean a fish. Scrub-a-dub-dub it. Throw it back for all I care. Or clean it yourself.”
Andy looks at me and says, “Cool. Hey, next time I see your wife, I’m going to tell her that everyone cleaned a fish except you because you were afraid to dirty your pedicure,” and I say, “Pedicure is your toes. You mean manicure. Unless you’re talking a total mani / pedi then–” but he cuts me off, “Whatever! You know what I mean. I’ll tell your wife you were a weenie!” and I shrug and say, “Eh, nothing new there. She’ll probably believe you.”
He slowly sets down his knife and points the flashlight in my face. I smile and stare back. “What you got? Nothing you can say is going to make me touch and kill and clean a fish. I don’t care.” And now I can’t see his face because the flashlight is blinding me. I hold up my hand and try to cover it up but it doesn’t help. The other three guys look on.
Andy says, “This is The Year of the Yes… and I’m inviting you to clean a fish with me.”
I swallow hard and smile, knowing that he has me. Me and my stupid resolution-thing. Me and my stupid big mouth telling everyone about how I’m going to just go all willy-nilly-whatever. I hold out my hand and Andy shouts and Eric stands up to grab the fish.
They bring it to me and say, “Grab it here, like this, and it won’t thrash away… you got it,” and then the fish is in my hands and I’m squeezing it in my fist and it’s staring into the distance and then it’s staring at me and then I’m laying it on a cutting board that we’ve fashioned out of a chopped log. I press it flat on it’s side, applying pressure against it’s, what, midriff? Chest? Torso? And then someone presses a machete into my right hand.
Andy says, “You can use a filet knife and that might be easier–” but I say, “No…” because truly I imagine slipping and accidentally scraping off its face, leaving it alive and screaming.
I lift up the machete and someone in my ear whispers, “Year of the Yes.” And then someone else whispers it and then Andy says, “Hang on, I want to take a photo.” I pull the machete up, into the air and think, “You are 31 years old. You’ve never killed an animal. Today you earn your Caveman Badge.” Andy says, “Pull the trigger,” and I stare into the eye of the fish and say, “Sorry, friend,” and bring the blade down as fast as I can.
There is a flash as the camera goes off and the blade lands with a hard and sharp thunk into the wood and the head of the creature pops off the cutting board and lands in the dirt. Blood spurts from the wound and the its smooth body gives a quick flap before going still. Eric says, “You did it!” and someone laughs and shouts, “Year of the Yes!” as I stare at the headless animal in front of me who was just here but now is sort of not. Andy says, “Now the fins,” and I cut into them, pulling them off and throwing them into the fire. I slice the fish from tip to tail, yank out it’s guts one at a time and scrub its interior with water until my hands are caked with grime and filth and scales and death and I feel, strangely and wildly, intoxicatingly alive.
Andy slaps me on the back and says, “Datta boy!” and I set the filet knife down, scratching an itch on my face with the back of my forearm. I did it. I took life. It was here with us and I extinguished it.
I pick up the head, caked in dirt and dust and stare at it. The eyes stare back at me and I still don’t see stupidity.
I still see only fear.
I ask Andy to send me the photo.