Fishing by Bud Smith

In the grey half-lit predawn, Henry crept quietly through the lake house, boards creaking anyway. With the toe of his moccasin, he nudged open the door to the guest room where his grand-daughter slept. He knelt beside her bed, softly singing, “Wake up, lil Suzie, wake up. Wake up, lil Suzie, wake up.”

“Why you call me Suzie?” Sky asked without opening her eyes.

“Cuz, why not? Anything’s possible. Maybe you’re Suzie and just don’t know it.”

He kissed her forehead, releasing a sharp electric zap. They both flinched.

“I’m getting up,” she said, as he left, humming.

There was cinnamon-raisin bread in the toaster, a glass of apple juice beside a steaming bowl of oatmeal on the kitchen table. Staring at Henry’s half complete crossword puzzle kept Sky’s attention while she ate the toast but not the oatmeal. When she tried on his reading glasses, everything looked fuzzy.

Facts: grandma died the month before, but she did not have ashes in a copper urn on a mantle somewhere like her other grandma. Mount Mercy and Tull Lake were haunted places, but the spirits did not bother Sky. Also: one of grandpa’s eyes was still on a beach in France. Normandy, she thought, where they make fake eyes. The cellar was full of wondrous objects, Sky was not permitted to go down there alone. It was too dangerous.

Outside, Henry tossed their fishing gear in the back of his beat up Chevy pickup. He smoked a cigar and hummed the theme to the Andy Griffith show because he couldn’t whistle very good.

She’d come to Tull Lake to cheer up him.

Dad said, “Go fishing with grandpa, it’ll take his mind off things.”

Sky put on play clothes and black rubber galoshes instead of her pink velcro sneakers. When she walked onto the porch, grandpa grinned, “There’s my girl, I can almost recognize her through those sleep seeds clogging up her eyes.”

“Sun’s not even up, grandpa.”

“Rainbow Trout eat early. But a warning, me and grandma never caught a single fish on this lake. You sure you wanna waste your time?” Henry said.

“Bet we catch them all.”

“Not likely.”

“Why?”

“Life has many unfair rules.”

They drove together down a steep gravel road, high weeds and puddles that frogs and snakes loved.

Sky watched his gnarled paws eating up the steering wheel. He was dressed in solid denim. His wild silver hair shook in the wind. She kept staring at his fake eye, a hunk of odd green jewel. Sometimes, finding him snoozing on the couch, beneath many taxidermied animal heads, all varieties. Sky could see the jewel glowing behind his closed lid. And she swore once (she’d seen him slightly levitating in his sleep.)

In the truck, Henry caught her staring at him, “Gotcha!”

She shrieked, but it became a laugh.

“How’d that happen?” Sky asked, pointing at the eye.

He said, “Nazis. They took it from me. S’ok, I got some of their things too.”

“Like what?”

“Oh, things.”

They crashed through a deep mud puddle, the truck diving down, then blasting up. “Odds! Ends!” He shouted, tapping the eye, “This here… I took this out of a secret chamber in Belgium, many miles into the darkness beneath a mountain. Great terrors I saw down there.”

Sky nodded.

“What kinda jewel?”

“Rarest form of Alexandrite,” he said.

“You can see?”

“Not what you do. Other things sometimes. Not to scare you, but I can see grandma sitting between us.”

“Hi grandma,” Sky said, kissing the air.

“Boat” (image via Flickr user Nikolaos Petropoulos)

They floated clockwise on the lake for three hours, dragon flies darting around the boat, but daring not touch the flat glass of the water, that’d cause a ripple to spread out into some small apocalypse. Strange white frogs, the size of silver dollars croaked occasionally from atop lily pads, but not moving, even when touched ever so gently with a paddle stroke. The frogs would fan out and sink into the inky blackness like parachuters leaping out of an airplane. Occasionally, Sky’d plop pebbles into the still surface to entertain herself, but otherwise the canyon in which the duo occupied was void of any sound whatsoever except for the muted slosh of the oars or the automatic sigh of their own happy lungs.

Henry claimed his grand-daddy had carved the rickety boat that they were on now, and that he used to take him out on it “forty years ago if you can believe it, little one.”

They caught no fish.

After, they drive back towards the promise of ham sandwiches and root beer floats. The weather report came on the AM dial, “Sssssh,” Henry said. “Listen. Hear that? Thunderstorms tonight. This’ll be fun, fun, fun.”

Sky was frightened. Lightning might hit the house, burning it down, charring her in the ruined flames.

Henry came up from the cellar after supper with a small metal box, and set it on the kitchen table. “See that, I found that in a hidden chamber, 1942. Norway, high in the mountains, up past the great blue warhead clouds. Secret place. Very terrible place.”

“Like Dracula’s house?”

“Worse than Dracula’s house, but I had friends with machine guns, you see. They were helping me.” He traced the intricate carvings of the lid with his finger, “This was buried so deep in the rocks you’d think it is older than the Earth.”

Henry flicked the clasp, the lid popped open—spring loaded like a reverse perfect mousetrap. “It’s a neat mechanism, and it’s magic. You believe in magic, right?”

Sky shrugged. So much had gone wrong lately, how could she?

“You will,” grandpa said, winking his one eye. The Alexandrite glimmered in his socket.

There was a large field behind the house. He set the small lead box in the vibrant grass.

The storm was close. The leaves on the fat oaks were showing their undersides: all white and veiny lie a lizard’s belly. The wind picked up. The grass became even more hyper-green, extra nitrogen in the air. Clothes on the line caught the breeze, harnessing it kite-like, hovering, suddenly alive.

He gripped Sky’s hand, boosting her onto his broad shoulders, his focus on the dark clouds gathering overhead in a frenzy. The weathervane spun endlessly.

“OK!” he shouted, “Cross your fingers we got some pink lightning! That’s the best!”

Thunder rumbled. Their dogs howled like feral maniacs, reduced back to wolf form. Thick drops of murderous rain pelted down, hurting Sky’s head, breaking branches off the trees above them.

Then, Kerrr-KRACK! A bolt of lightning screamed down, severing particles, destroying ions—zapping directly into the into the metal box.

The lid slammed shut. The box sizzled.

The storm immediately dissipated.

“Look at that! First shot!” He let Sky down, and he ran over to the box, “I’m getting good!” Carefully he lifted the lid with a stick, the thing white hot. The stick started smoking, catching fire.

He placed the lightning box down in the bed of his truck while Sky watched it hop around, twitching. She couldn’t help but think of Ghostbusters. As if the box was a trap with Nanna’s ghost. She’d like to open it and hug Nanna’s knees. The box hummed. The box buzzed, something inside clinked around destructively, trying to break loose.

"Metal box" (image via Flickr user quimby)

“Metal box” (image via Flickr user quimby)

The next day, Henry woke Sky again.”Wake up, little Suzie, wake up…”

They went back to Tull Lake. Henry put the lead box into the rickety wooden boat and tied a fishing string to the release mechanism. From the banks, they pushed the boat farther out onto the lake, while they stood safely on the dry shore.

When the boat drifted near the approximate center of the lake, Henry took his eye out, rolling it in his large mitts.

He told Sky, “All right, yank the fishing line.”

Without hesitation, she did. The lid sprung open, the water became alive with searing electricity—waves created in every direction. Air bubbles exploded up from the depths. Fish began to float to the surface of the dark water, fifty of them, dead.

“That’s not fair!”

He handed Sky his jewel eye, and she looks down into the center of it, watching a swirling movement inside it that hypnotized her.

“Fair” Henry said. “What is?”

A white frog hopped from a lily pad, swimming unharmed across the lake. She caught the frog with her hands.

“Take him home with you, he’ll be your pet.”

“I will.”

They gathered the floating fish from the edge of the lake, as the wind shifted off Mount Mercy, and a cloud above them started to look like a rose.

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Bud Smith grew up in New Jersey, and currently lives in Washington Heights, NYC with a metric ton of vinyl records that he bought at Englishtown flea market for a dollar. He is the author of the short story collection Or Something Like That (2012), and Lightning Box (Kleft Jaw Press, 2013); he hosts the interview program The Unknown Show; edits at Jmww and Red Fez; works heavy construction in power plants and refineries. Currently, he’s probably watching My Cousin Vinny.