Fishing. Writing’s like fishing. Everything’s like fishing. That’s what I’m doing right now, dropping a line to see what bites, might be a sprat, might be a shark, probably won’t be a giant squid. But who knows, anything’s possible.
I’m just writing, and not judging, letting it come out how it likes. It doesn’t belong to me anyway. Sending my brain, the one that decides what might be good or bad, sending her off, letting her go do something else. I just drop the line without thinking or caring or wanting.
I don’t know what the bait is. What the sinker is. I do know that sometimes I catch a big fish. That’s the kind I wanna catch. And sometimes I catch a little thing that wants to be thrown back alive, to grow up big and strong, maybe get caught again another day.
The first time I went fishing Mum would take us. She is a great Mum. She always wants to have adventures, even if they are smelly and dangerous. Maybe especially if they are.
We would lie on the wharf, down in the city, with our lines, twine curled round and round an ice cream stick, with a sinker and a hook tied on. Bait it up with smelly old fish, I’m not sure, maybe a piece of bread, talk about how they put worms on in American cartoons, want a worm, and she would explain how it was different. We would lie on our stomachs on the warm slats of wood, peering down through the cracks watching our line drop and swing and bang against the seaweedy posts, settle down amongst a starfish and slimy rocks and an old plastic bag. Sometimes a faded coke can. And fish might come round for a sniff. Little, tiny ones.
“Wait,” she’d say. “Wait till it bites, then pull it up, catch it.”
Sometimes we would catch one, pull it up, wriggling violent on the end of the string, us screaming and squealing and all doing it together until the spotty was there on the deck with us, flapping shiny half circles, twisting and fighting. I can see its little teeth open wide, drowning in air, teeth made from the white fleshy bone of its mouth, gasping, dying.
We all felt bad then, but Mum was teaching us about life, about living and dying and catching things. It would die, or we would throw it back mostly. If we had gashed it – caught it on its side or its fin with the hook – then it might be dead anyway, depending on how it was hurt, and maybe we couldn’t save it. Then we took it home and fed it to the cat. We asked if we could eat it ourselves for dinner first. She explained that it wasn’t big enough, how you needed to fillet it, cut it open and take its guts out, take the scales and fins and tail off. Then you could eat what was left, and in this case it wouldn’t be much more than a teaspoon. We nodded, wiser. Held her hands, one on either side.
One time someone got the hook caught in the side of their finger. We heard a story about someone getting one caught in their eyebrow when swinging the line back. Asked to hear it over and over. Maybe acted it out. It felt so real I think I was there, but it was just a story.
“How terrible,” we said, mouths open, incredulous. “What if it got him in the eye?”
Maybe she made it up to make us careful. That was the way she taught us – with stories.
She loved the sea, she read us “The Man Whose Mother Was A Pirate”, about a kid, who as he grew up realized that his mother was a feared and reckless pirate. She read it lots to us, even if we didn’t ask for it. Her cure for most things is still a good hard walk round the ocean. Up the hills, wind taking your jacket off, hair touching the sky. Blow the cobwebs away. Smell the salt air.
When the wind comes a certain way and she can smell the sea at home she smiles all day and says things, wild things, unbuttons her shirt, says, “To hell with everything”.
She looks out past the breakers and white caps, sucks in the salty air and her eyes shine. She knows that her flesh is made of blood and bones, fighting, screaming, dying, being reborn each moment, like the waves, and that one minute you are swimming by an old plastic bag, the next flapping and gasping your last in the sunshine on a wooden deck, the smell of your own guts already filling the air, watched with fascination by two children and a mother who thinks she is a pirate. And she loves it. She loves death, cause she loves life and truth and she hates boredom.
And I read this back and I don’t know what kinda fish is on the line. A fish I love. A fish that I can’t catch right now, a fish that is braver than I, a big fish, a fish I can only see part of. It’s too heavy to pull out. Maybe I snagged it, just caught it on its side, am dragging it up by its fin. I will cut the line, throw it back, before I do it much more damage.
Do you know those colors that a fish has only while it is alive? You pull it up on the deck and there it is, shining with these colors – opalescence I have heard it described as – shining strange colors we don’t really even have words for cause no one ever sees them, except on the skin of a living fish when pulled up into the air, as it is dying. You can only see them for a moment and then they’re gone. Best to throw it back quick, hope that it can still breathe the sea.