Report to a Bowfin



There are places in literature where fish talk, or give up the gold coin. I think it’s even in the Bible, it’s a literary tradition. The fish in one of my lakes talk, or rather make strange noises that can sound like someone talking. I have heard them at night under the edge of the ice in early spring when winterkill pike float bloated in shadows from the full moon. Maybe I should make my report to them, the situation as described to the dogfish; maybe they would know what to do with this. “Fish,” I might say, “I know you have waited a very long time for me to bring this news back but…” Maybe the fish would listen.

In the evening I walk to the lake and am visited by winterkill.  Dead pike resting at the outlet.  The bowfin slips past beneath the spring ice worthless and unwanted.  He comes to breathe.  I stop and collect my thoughts, exhale and try to sound factual.  I make my report.

“Bowfin, it is every word now.”  Across the water the fogdrift covers the black ice.  (One last look in the galley before we get into the raft, the salt and pepper cans are floating against the cook’s bunk, there’s the book I was reading.)  “Let me know if you can hear me, did I see your eyes shift a little?  Do you remember the freshwater clams I found on this beach when I was a child?  Now I cannot find the sand.  I let my farm go fallow and the weeds there have turned onto prairie grass but that amounted to nothing.”  (Look, there’s the skipper’s hat, his shirt-pocket notes.  Everything floats in the first moments.)  Wait, stay, it’s no one but me, my neighbors have all gone into town to borrow money to buy seed and fertilizer.  Eyespot, spawning and breathing from under your cold ceiling, you may have noticed the new weeds, can you feel that wind?  (The tip of the bow floated for most of the day.  Just before dark, a line of black scoters, flying from the direction of the wreck, came to us low and between the waves.)  Up here where there is sound, it is blowing through the red pines I planted those years ago.  I wanted to ask you what happened to the muskrats.  (It will be difficult to describe for you the exact shade of blue the sea acquires in the moments just after sunset.  It is deeper than the sky, mixed with sun yellow and green that is certainly derived from the very grass I remember in the little fields.)

“Ugly, simple, beautiful fish, for fifteen million years you have paced your weedy library, hoping to see to the meadow.  It is possible to excuse you for not remembering the way trees stand and move with the wind, the empty places where the elms once stood.  There were two giants in the back forty, standing in clearings they held with their shade, there are no maples to get a scratch hold in the understory in the low end of the farm.  They died, the lace that once was the ends of their branches dried and fell and for a few years they held onto blunt clubs as they rotted, then only a trunk which finally blew over from a wind similar to the one blowing now.  I thought I had learned to live without the elms, but other things are leaving now.

“Fish, I have remained true to poetry and still I have failed.  They have another war, they say it is for my freedom.  In a way it has taken some of it from me, I find I cannot say the word “Hero” the exact way I am supposed to.  This wind.  I should tell you about the sea, it moves before the wind like a hillside covered with those young red pine.  Beautiful bowfin, it is your soft face that I imagine is looking my direction.  You are leaving.  Did I see the hint of a nod?  I see the black circle when you turn.  Do not imagine I lack gratitude, or will not love what is left.”

The fish turns and for the briefest moment, the eyespot seems to look, and then he is gone.  I am left to wonder if he was really ever there.  Some crows come from the woods across the road to the west.  They burst into cawing when they discover me sitting on the gravel.  Always this cold wind, I can’t seem to get used to how fast it gets dark around here.  Now I am walking out against the evening, the light in the west makes it difficult to see and the soft white bellies of the dead pike float in the dark water, proud as moonlight.