Fishing With Dad
“PISCATOR: Then I may tell you that a black snail, with his belly slit to show his white, or a piece of soft cheese, will usually do as well…
PISCATOR: God keep you all, gentlemen, and send you meet this day with another bitch-otter, and kill her merrily, and all her young ones too.
PISCATOR: And upon all that are lovers of virtue, and dare trust in his providence, and be quiet, and go a-angling.”
– Izaak Walton, The Compleat Angler
A girl’s father is a mystery to her; her mother, too familiar. Hannah threads another finger onto the hook. So dressed, it resembles a hairy, porcine prawn with a fingernail – split down to the pale half-moon rising from the quick – for a head. In her left hand, Hannah grips a sturdy baitcaster with a firm cork butt and fiberglass tip. Secreted in her pocket is a vacuumsealed sachet of big, hunchbacked hooks – the kind with barbed spines and eyelets large enough to accommodate a half-bloodknot tied in heavy braid line and snugged up tight against the aluminium. They are the kind of hooks that, when laid out flat upon the palm of an upturned hand, seem too big for a fish to swallow. But they manage it, fish – being hungry, they manage it. The greater the hunger, the bigger the mouth – and the less prepared the stomach to receive the lesson.
On the far side of the lake, a flight of Super Hornets taken off from a distant base trails across the bluemost quarter of the sky in close formation. Hannah stands calf-deep in the lake. The water is completely still, surface tension unbroken by rocks or logs or the stirring of fish. It is an affront to the day that the water-ski crowd should remain at home; that their boats should be left to stand in driveways, smooth hulls distempered by accusatory blooms of rust. But they do, and they are.
The lake is neither freshwater nor salt, but a singly artesian species of brackish. Hannah winds the slack braid onto her reel and lifts the bail, pressing the line to the butt with her thumb as she tilts the rodtip back over her shoulder. With a deft flick she levers the bait out into the lake and watches as a forty-foot span of line unspools behind it, hanging for a moment above the water in a perfect, shallow arch. The finger breaks the taut surface of the lake with a pinkish splash and sinks out of sight. The dayglo orange crown of a polystyrene float marks the spot with a gaudy sense of occasion.
Sand and sedge encircle the lake on all quarters. Nothing interrupts the soft line of the horizon beyond the far shore, save for a few shallowrooted pockets of saltbush and varicose teatree. Come sunset and the falling dark, these shrubs will scent the last licks of the day’s breeze with their camphorous airs. In the heat of the afternoon, they are a passive presence.
Way off in the distance, a stray jet slams into the floor of the desert. The tightly parceled sounds of the crash – thudding impact; sheetmetal shorn from a fuselage rent and buckled; the roaring yawn of av. gas igniting – are condensed by their passage across the stillness of the lake into a single, muted crack.
Two men armed with threepronged spears of lightweight aluminium wade through the sand of the foreshore at Hannah’s back, each bearing a small Esky full of ice and beer. The tallest of the pair calls out to Hannah from the water’s edge.
‘Another cowboy up in flames,’ he says.
‘Best and brightest,’ adds his mate.
‘But it’ll never happen to me,’ says the first.
‘It sure as shit happened to him.’
‘He’s punched-out in style.’
‘Fuck off,’ Hannah says. ‘You’ll startle the fish.’
The spearfishers carry on along the foreshore until they are lost to sight behind a sandy slope.
Hannah watches the float and shifts her weight from leg to leg, feeling each of her feet sink by turn into the sediment of the lakebed. Nothing bites. She retrieves her line, beating so furiously at the reel as she winds that the sodden braid shakes off the water like a dog just come away from a rotary sprinkler, until the finger – pale and wrinkled – emerges from the lake trailing a dripping mantle of bottle-green algae. The swivel, too, has collected a spray of waterweed. A pair of jets roars overhead. Fearful engines tear at the stillness of the day as the aircraft nose toward a slow-turning screw of smoke on the far horizon.
Hannah pries a blade from the handle of her pocketknife and cuts into the finger with a firm, lateral stroke. She splits the digit along its waterlogged length, prying it open and separating it from the tenacious barbs of the hook. The fascia tears and the muscles tear and the bone is exposed to the desert sun like the stone of an avocado. The finger freed, Hannah hefts it out into the waiting lake and stoops to retrieve fresh bait from her bucket.
The bait-bucket bobs beside her at the level of her calves, rimmed with a drying gum of bloody putrefaction that is now more black than crimson. Hannah has tethered the bucket to her leg with a length of fancy ribbon pilfered from her mother’s drawer. Neither she nor her mother is a stranger to bloodied ribbon.
Hannah selects an ear from atop the soupy mess at bottom of the bucket. The lobe has been severed. She pierces the cartilage in three places as she threads the ear onto the hook, curling it, so that it comes to resemble a screw of sliced radish plucked from some abysmal salad. Hannah adjusts the drag on her reel, sets the line, and propels her baited hook out into the lake.
She cocks a nostril and glances again at the bucket. It floats at an angle of forty-five degrees to the lakebed and gives out a comforting, meaty scent. Unlike the bags of frozen prawns and squid and pilchards that are so often sold by coastal service stations from out of deep, purpose-built chest-freezers, the bounty of Hannah’s bucket is neither clean nor contained. The admixture of bone and meat, viscera and clotting blood recalls those icewater reservoirs stocked with butchered mackerel – throats cut, flesh pulpy – that are to be found on the decks of deepsea charter boats. Hannah’s father once caught a trophy-brace of dusky flathead with just such bait.
Fishing with bait.
‘Bait-fishing is for peasants and the simple-minded,’ The Uncle always said. ‘They just lob a worm out into the water and sit on their arses and drink beer. Where’s the sport in that?’
In a distant time of icecream smiles and abraded elbows, The Uncle had come to visit Hannah and her parents every autumn, setting up camp in their home for weeks at a time and driving up into the hills before sunrise each day to harry the lean rainbows and browns and sleek little brook trout that schooled in the streams and still ponds of the river valleys with a flimsy three-weight flyrod and lures fashioned from cotton and fibre to resemble small-fry and mayfly spinners and caddis larvae; tiny effigies of feather and fur with names that were more evocation than title: Claret & Mallard, Zulu, Hare’s Ear, The Butcher; and The Uncle like some skeletal model from a Hardy Brothers catalogue covershot in his olivedrab waders and a pale green vest festooned with gleaming metallic implements like the campaign medals of some polite Old World war and a tweed cap of the kind that none but flyfishers wear; returning always from the course sunburned and empty-handed and sated at the conclusion of the day’s fishing. His was an elegant, futile sport. For The Uncle, the beauty of fishing with flies lay in the graceful arc of a buoyant, salmon-coloured floatline unfurling overhead, curling and uncurling, once, twice, before reaching out into the waiting wend of the stream and depositing the terminal fly with impossible gentleness upon the surfacewater meniscus. He never caught anything. Which, as he often said, was beside the point. But then The Uncle had crossed Hannah’s mother and had not returned to fish the district since.
He was not an elegant man, Hannah’s father. He pronounced sushi to rhyme with bushy and always ate like a P.O.W, however badly he had mangled the menu in the ordering. A tireless labourer when not at home, he received praise as a possum might the sound of a chainsaw, and regarded the worst of his wife’s excesses in similar fashion.
The ear does not appeal to so much as an eel or yabbie. Hannah retrieves it slowly from the lakebed, unties the ribbon from her ankle, and lifts the bucket from the water. She wades ashore and props her rod against a chalkgreen saltbush. A smooth, flat pebble marks the point at which her lunch lies buried on the shoreline, kept cool and safe from birds and foxes and crawling insects. She works to uncover it from beneath the damp sand with bare, bloodrich hands. Locating the plastic snaplock bag, Hannah recovers her sandwich and sits crosslegged on the bank to eat.
When she is done with her lunch, she stands to retrieve her rod from its resting place upon the bank. The tackle has become entangled in the saltbush. Hannah reefs at the line until a branch tears free of the shrub, her float and hook and swivel still fouled up in it. She casts the rod onto the sand at her feet, uproots the remaining corpus of the saltbush with violence enough to throw an arcing spray of grit and gravel onto the surface of the water behind her, and sets to thrashing the plant against a rock until it is all but stripped of foliage and the rock is streaked with green.
Hannah collapses, winded, and falls to gasping on the shoreline; draws the breath of ages to her as a native perch just hauled from out the chill, silent deeps of some remote and lily-padded pondage.
The taller of the spearfishers draws into view along the foreshore. He limps, laughing soundlessly and leaning into his spear with every forward step. The shorter of the pair trails behind him, his own spear laid across his shoulders with an Esky swinging from either end, like some beer-sodden travesty of Lady Justice. The limping spearfisher comes to a stop on the bank.
‘I’ve gone and speared me foot,’ he says.
‘’e’s stirred up all the silt, the silly prick, so the water’s got too murky for ’im to see what ’e’s pokin’ at,’ says the wounded man’s companion.
‘But it’ll never happen to me,’ Hannah says.
The spearfishers trail off into the waste of saltbush and sand behind her.
On the far side of the lake, Hannah spies a plume of dust rising from the desert earth. A colossal engine screws dirt and stone and scrub up into the waiting vacancy of the superheated sky. It’s too big to be a Landcruiser; too fast for a tractor. A thunderous explosion summons another pair of jets from the base.
Dusk falls. Hannah retrieves her line from the water and bends to retrieve fresh bait from the bucket. She feels something hard and metallic in the soft, cold chum. Retrieving a section of forearm, she discovers her father’s Longines wristwatch still pushed up hard against the carpals. She removes the watch from the arm, rinses it, and deposits it in her trouser pocket. It was coming to her, anyway.
Hannah carves a chunk of flesh from the arm, baits her hook, and casts out into the lake once again. Her mother will be waiting for her, propped up at the kitchen table in a pall of resentment and smoke. Hannah hears the splash of her bait but does not see it land. She has barely gathered up the slack before the line pulls taut and the rodtip is bent down sharply toward the black mass of the lake. Line unspools and the reel screams and screams, startling the dingoes that have begun to gather on the bank.