“Filter” by Daniel Davis

Categories: ISSUE 04: Eleanor

Tommy had a big one on the line, big enough to tug the bobber under and strain Tommy’s arms, anyways.  He said something about the effort making him sweat, which he probably expected me to believe.  He was grimacing, I’ll give him that much; not that it takes a whole lot to get Tommy worked up.

“What you think it is?” he asked.  He spoke from the corner of his mouth; his eyes were on the water.

I didn’t say anything, just watched his face, and the line.  We were on the isthmus separating the reservoir from the river, a narrow strip of land that served no good purpose except to attract fishermen, because everyone knew you couldn’t drink from the reservoir, and no one trusted the filters enough.  No one even knew where the filters were, or how many there were, or what they did or who ran them.  Maybe there weren’t even any filters.  The reservoir was for “emergency cases” anyways, and nothing ever rated that important of an emergency.

Tommy was slipping on the rocks.  I’d told him sandals were a lousy idea, but he’d said something about getting sun on his feet, which sounded slightly practical.  I went over and gripped his shoulders, then had to lower my hands to his waist to avoid getting elbowed.  He jerked out of my grasp—or, as I’m sure he would say, the fish jerked him—and slipped on the rocks, hitting his head.  He let go of the pole in the process, and it was pulled into the water.

“Dammit!” he yelled.  Bellowed.  Raged.  Maybe because of the beer, though we were only in three apiece.  He wiped some blood from his forehead. I offered him a towel; he refused until I told him scalp wounds bled profusely, and that it looked as though he’d just got his ass handed to him by a fish—at which point he smashed his hand against a rock.  Then, instead of saying something clever or at least amusing, he began cursing and holding his hand.

I nodded towards the water.  “Hell, just go get your pole.  It’s stuck there in the weeds.”

Whatever had been strong enough to unbalance Tommy hadn’t been strong enough to untangle his pole from the weeds just a few feet from the rocks.  Tommy stopped cursing and began laughing, and waded out to get his pole.  The water came up to his knees.  He said, “There’s something out here.  Slimy.”

He picked up his pole, pulling the weeds off.  The fight began again, Tommy trying to wade back to the rocks, the fish—tired now—trying to pull him out into the water.  I glanced up and down the isthmus.  There were other fishermen, families, but they weren’t paying attention to us.  Some were trying the river, though everyone knew the fish there didn’t give a shit about your bait, all they cared about was the dam a few hundred yards downstream and that they didn’t want to get caught on it.  We’ve found some pretty big catfish that got caught on the dam—light enough to be carried over, bulky enough to stick in the cement cracks and starve to death, or suffocate, or dry in the sun.  As kids, we used to throw Molotov cocktails out there–now we remove rotting fish corpses.  Maturity.

“I think I got it,” Tommy said, and I turned my head lazily back to him.  He didn’t have it.  He was trying to reel the fish in, but he could only get a couple turns at a time.  There was something about increasing and decreasing line tension; I’d seen it on television a couple times, some show on the History Channel where this grizzled possibly-foreign guy hooks man-eating catfish and giant stingrays.  Tommy and I didn’t have those kinds of poles, or didn’t know we did.  We did have a net, and I’d grabbed it just in case, but I could already see that Tommy wasn’t going to get the fish anywhere near close enough for me to use it.  I was waiting for the line to break.

Tommy stepped back, his sandaled foot coming down on a McDonald’s cup.  I wanted to think that people threw their trash in the reservoir because they knew that we would never be required to drink from it.  There’s a certain kind of logical pollution in that: we created this body of water, it is beholden to us, as are the creatures in it; if we are to waste, then we waste here.  Just because that thought never crossed my mind, except as a hypothetical, didn’t mean that someone else hadn’t thought it.  Maybe everyone thought it, and I, until now, had not possessed the acumen to see it.

More curse words from Tommy.  Perhaps a few from the fish.  He—Tommy—twisted to his left, an attempt at feinting perhaps, something dramatic, from the movies.  For a moment I thought it would work—either the fish would fall for it, or the move was so quick and precise that the fish was caught off-guard.  But then the animal countered, swimming to Tommy’s right, twisting Tommy off-balance yet again.  He fell into the water, landing on one knee, crying out in pain or frustration or something similar.  He didn’t lose the pole this time.

I should’ve gone to help him.  I think he called my name.  But I’ve been afraid of the reservoir since I was a boy.  Not the reservoir in particular—just the depth of it.  There are sharks in fresh water.  This fact completely and utterly changed my life at the age of eight.  Even as far north as Illinois, on rare occasions.  Bull sharks mostly; they swim up theMississippifrom the Gulf.  They adapt to the change from salt water to fresh water, somehow.  Eels do that, too, but freshwater eels don’t bite, at least not in America.  In certain parts of New Zealand and Asia, they grow big enough to attack humans—out of water, even.

Perhaps Tommy had hooked a bull shark.  But then I figured the shark would have pulled Tommy out already and consumed him.  That didn’t mean, however, that there weren’t sharks in the water.  Or snapping turtles, or water moccasins.  I stayed on the rocks, watching Tommy’s back, and if he had ever asked for my help he didn’t repeat it.  I think even Tommy, after a time, knew the battle was lost.

Because, of course, he wasn’t destined to have this fish.  When the line snapped, it was with the crack of inevitability, the understanding that this was preordained.  Eons of life and evolution had conspired so that this one moment would come to pass, and who were Tommy and I to say otherwise?  It wasn’t fair, because nothing is, but it was what it was, which is more than some things.  Not that I said this to Tommy in consolation.  He was beyond that, foreknowledge be damned.

He didn’t throw down his pole, but he didn’t set it gently on the rocks, either.  I’d long given my bait up for lost; I went and reeled in the line.  The night crawler was still there.  I took it off, awed at its luck, and threw it out into the water.  I sat down on the biggest nearby rock, while Tommy paced for a few minutes, complaining monosyllabically, and then got us both a beer.  We drank in silence.

After a while, Tommy finished his beer and threw the can into the water.  It floated for a second, empty; then it ducked beneath the water and didn’t come up again.  What could make something buoyant sink?  In the second’s time that it would have normally spent underwater, had a fish swam inside, a fish small enough to fit into the can, but massive enough to weigh it down?  Had it tangled in weeds invisible from the surface, weeds sticky and strong enough to hold such a streamlined container?  Or had it merely filled with water, as thousands of cans before it hadn’t—thrown at the right angle, hitting the surface with the exact level of tension required to tilt it to the precise degree so that, when it ducked under the surface, it acquired enough of the reservoir to become too heavy?  I sat and watched the water, waiting for the can to return.

Story by Daniel Davis
Foreground & Background photo by Lisa Guidarini
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