This story was originally published by Red Savina Review in 2013.
Fish was making his way through the cold murky waters of Clear Lake when he saw an innocent minnow easier to take than forbidden fruit. When the hook set into his cheek, things meant to be began flowing. It would be easy to think nothing special could happen on an off season night in a small Iowa lake town, but that kind of assumption invites exception. After a fight, mostly for show, The Messenger took Fish off the hook, and The Witnesses, who to this point of the night had nothing worthy to say, began to speak.
“Is he big enough to keep?”
“It looks like an on-the-liner to me.”
“Yellow Bass have more meat in ’em then you’d think.”
“You gonna clean it?”
“I can’t feel my legs.”
They had raised enough doubt, it was apparent The Judge would have to decide, so The Messenger carried Fish on a hundred foot journey down the dock, up the deck stairs, and into the cabin.
Fish waited in The Messenger’s hand, in the dry air of the cabin, and listened to the conversation of life or death. It wasn’t quick or easy. In earlier times, The Judge had been respected, but lately there was unspoken concern for his capacity.
“What should I do with it?” The Messenger asked.
“Well, it’s not time for breakfast, is it?” The Judge got up from the couch to take a better look at Fish.
“So you want me to string it?”
“Where’s my drink?”
The Messenger handed him the drink and asked, “String it or not?”
“Jesus, calm down,” The Judge said and finished his drink. “Let me see it.”
After almost fumbling Fish on dropped words and meanings, it looked like there wouldn’t be any decision. The Messenger could have sat down and watched the game, hung out with Fish like a new friend, oblivious to the suffocation. The group was headed for failures like this without a ruling.
“Did he just tell Jesus to calm down?” a Witness asked no one.
“Maybe if it was still Friday,” the Judge said and handed Fish back to The Messenger and declared, “Let him go.”
“Did you see that?” The Messenger asked.
“What? I said let him go.”
“Who does he think he is, telling Jesus to calm down?” a Witness asked.
The Judge held a hand up to silence the Witness and had the look of a man finished with conversation.
“Hey, did you see the fish’s eyes?” The Messenger asked again.
The Judge sat back on the couch and said, “Just take him out already. I’m too tired to clean fish. Let them all go.”
The Messenger nodded like a man about to apologize. On the way out, he said, “His eyes bulged when you said it. He knew what you said.”
At the end of the dock, after they walked back through the midnight air, it appeared Fish had negotiated not only his own freedom, but the freedom of five brothers on a stringer, some who spent more than twenty-four hours in hopeless waters, but now were night swimming far from the bright yellow light of the cabin.
This wasn’t a departure, it was a moment of arrival. The fish carried up the dock wasn’t the same when he was released. He transformed from Fish to Hero. The news would spread quickly through the Yellow Bass population of Clear Lake. It wouldn’t be long before it passed to other breeds and waters. Organic stories like this always grow legs.
If it were left to the hibernating townees, humans would have had no sense of it. History takes the right kind of people. After the release, the Witnesses were still buzzing and, from the dock, imagined they could see Hero swimming into his legend.
“You shoulda seen him work.”
“I did see it, you damn fool.”
“Did you see that eye?”
“The peace of it all. That little fucker was like Gandhi.”
“I think we’re supposed to tell people or something.”
“No one had to die for our sins either.”
“I still can’t feel my legs.”