This One Time, 26

This one time I was sitting in a old wooden boat that wouldn’t have been allowed to do time as a dinghy where I used to work, not that there was any ocean within a thousand miles of here. It was witch’s-navel cold, only we didn’t used to say “navel”, and nowadays I’d still be yelled at for being insensitive to witches. I’m married to one, though, so I’d like to think that gives me special permission.

Straight out of a failed attempt at college, I went to work in the Merchant Marines as an unlicensed seaman on one of the oldest vessels in the deep sea fleet. After events on deck in the South Atlantic, I maneuvered to get a position as an oiler belowdecks, and then another event happened, and I decided I’d had enough of salt altogether. Then there was what happened on Lake Michigan, and after that, though I still love boats and the water, I’m not really comfortable anywhere where I can’t see both shores, if you take my meaning. And now I’m running out of puddles to stand in.

That’s a pretty sketchy summary of twenty years of my life, but the wife says I have to cut back on the swearing for the sake of the kids. That’s all you get without the casual and studied blasphemies, picturesque obscenities, graphic depictions of grotesqueries, spurious and uncalled-for anatomical references, and odes to indelicate bodily functions and various modes of sexual congress centering on the element of surprise.

This puddle I was sitting in was famous for striped bass, though, and there was no line to handle today that was thicker than 20-pound test. The cold air was still, so I didn’t feel it if I didn’t move. The lake was frozen in time instead of temperature. It was like I was sitting on glass. I could see the Milky Way reflected in the lake, even though the sun, not quite awake yet herself, was making the sky turn a funny color in the east. In this little cup in the mountains, true sunrise wouldn’t be for another hour. A sliver of a moon was enough to see bridal veils blowing off peaks at the horizon, distant snow mixing seamlessly with the dusting of stars.

I had a line in the water. The only ripples on the lake radiated from that and bounced off the hull. The other end of the line had a shiny lure and a couple of cheater hooks. Behind me in the boat was a couple of buckets, each already preloaded with a pinch of lake. I was here on business, that business being bass on the grill tomorrow night for the podlings. I wasn’t leaving without at least three big ones or four small ones, and I had all day.

Surrounded on all sides by mountains, I was doing well to not be sitting in a puddle of bad memories. I caught myself listening for the sound of gulls, though, and shivering at their absence.

I was dragging the lure through a little muck. Bass aren’t bottom-feeders, but they’re known to nibble on things that are. I was dressing the lure a bit when it snagged a bit on something. Not surprising, seeing as this lake was built by beavers sometime in the past hundred years. There’s a whole forest down there. I’m puttering about fifty feet above where its top branches would have been. Most of the soggy trees would have had the good form to rot by now, but you never know.

I tugged the lure free. A moment later there was a kind of hissing, like what you hear when you spill pop on a table. All around the boat I could no longer see the stars reflected, but I thought maybe it was the growing light. Looking farther out, I could see that wasn’t it. A fog rose, and as far as I could tell, it rose around me.

There was a very familiar smell to the air. Forgive the weak description, but under my current linguistic restrictions, the best I can say is “something fishy.” It’s a little more accurate to say that it smelt like the underside of a cod left to bake on a tropical deck for a couple of days. And it smelled like salt.

That’s not a good sign, the salt thing. Maybe it was just in my head.

As far as the ocean is concerned, it’s a well-known fact we know more about the surface of Mars than we know about the deeps. So basically it was a 500-tonne cliche that built a wall of icebergs to trap us off of Tierra Del Fuego and, when we slipped out of it, raced around before us and powerdove to drag us down in its whirlpool wake. A cliche whose eye I looked into from the controls of a deck crane, shifting our load to lift an ice-cut gash in the hull out of the chop on the starboard side.

The storm, complete with waterspouts, that chased us across Lake Michigan had the same smell. The clouds were the same color as an angry sea, and the rain that came down with it smelled of rancid fish oil and diesel fumes, and normal soap wouldn’t shift the smell from your hair and clothes. And the puddles of it, forgive me, wriggled. When that was over, we burned every last stitch and shaved every last follicle and slathered every last place we could reach with depilatory lotions. When people asked us what the hell happened, we all blamed it on space aliens. Everyone just assumed a huge prank gone wrong, and mysteriously we were all okay with that.

So I was feeling a bit nervous.

Things that live in the water have strange and involved lifecycles sometimes involving both salt and fresh water, rivers and streams and shallows and deeps. Scoop a bucket of plankton and krill and fry — and good luck to you putting each thing you find under a microscope and guessing what beast it’ll be as a grown-up, whether it’ll anchor to the bottom and wave dainty little fans around or coat itself in armor and grow claws or mile-long tentacles with built-in forks and knives and hooks. Some fish grow to the size of their tank, and I really can’t think of a tank larger than the Pacific.

And then some right motherless scum I sailed with put the idea in my head that maybe the largest beast in the ocean might be a larval stage for something that will eventually take to the stars and scoop up planets in its maw. Maybe the worst of the lot is still krill right now, biding its time. Or buried frozen as spores in the ice caps. Or swimming in some kippered sailor’s bloodstream.

And then the surface of the lake rose up where I was, maybe a foot or two. The water rushed away from me and dropped me to the bottom of a wide, flat bubble that stank of peat and silt and sulphurous muck, and a huge quantity of freezing lake rained into the boat. Water came into the boat wave after wave, and it kept coming for what felt like an eternity. Early on, I fell off the seat into the bottom and cowered until the rocking steadied some.

When I could stand, the boat was two-thirds full of water. I waffled on grabbing for a bucket or an oar, and eventually decided on a bucket since the boat would move faster if it were emptier. I bailed five or ten times, working around some angry flopping things that were sharing the boat with me, and then grabbed the oars and went to work.

Later, shivering to keep the ice from setting up, as I hauled the boat onto the trailer and pulled the bilge-plug for it to drain, I noticed that I had rowed back with a number of fine bass flopping about in the boat with me. I rescued three I would consider large and four somewhat smaller ones, and set free any number of smaller fish of many different kinds, scooping them into a bucket to tip back out into the lake by the ramp.

Out on the lake, wallowing in the fog, something huge slapped the surface of the water twice. And the ground shook like with the vibration of a huge diesel motor. I took that as a sign that it was time to leave. So I did.


January 26, 2011 · by xalieri · Posted in This One Time  


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