I once knew a boy who was swallowed by a fish.
I was in the wasteland of my tween years, every day like every other day, blended into semi-eternal summer months where the terror of school was a distant nightmare waiting at the entrance of a long, dark tunnel called winter. I was an experienced outdoorsman, having learned to fish and shoot and camp as a toddler. I needed no help baiting a hook or landing my own catch on the banks of any river or stream. So confidant a fisherman was I that I usually only baited my hook once at camp before spending up to half an hour teasing the pools and currents with only that first worm until snagging and landing one of the silvery mountain trout I so often fished for in my youth.
My family and I were deep in the middle of a summer camping trip somewhere in the Sawtooth Mountains of southern Idaho, parked beside an ambiguous river whose banks varied in width by narrow inches and broad feet, the same for its depths, and it was shocking for us all earlier in the weekend to chance upon an occasional spawning salmon or two in the narrow lanes of the waterway, their great scarlet bodies slithering up stream – yards of fish so gigantic in the narrow river they seemed to be mythological. The sight of the creatures created in me a fisherman’s lust so strong that I planned to spend the next day casting my line at any wild thing that would take the bait.
It was late morning as I prepared to set off alone, down river from camp, to try a new hole I had found the evening before. I stood under a shady pine and baited my hook with one half of an earthworm before heading for the water.
The pathway to the fishing spot tailed along the water’s edge over smooth stones that made the footing uneven. To add to the challenge there were branches everywhere, cloying mountain brush that I had to navigate through and around while trying to avoid catching my line. When I finally arrived at my destination I squatted low at the edge of a wide and shallow spot on the river where a small, black waterfall dropped into a deeper pool. I steadied my baited hook over the water, then swung it like pendulum several times, releasing the bail so the line fell at the top of the fall, and watched as the patch of fleshy worm disappeared into the current, my line swirling into the deep.
It didn’t take long before I felt the strong tug of success, and in victory I yanked my pole skyward in an attempt to set the hook. Instead of the familiar resistance of the fierce weight and struggle of a fish on the other end, my hook came flying up out of the water, and immediately sailed weightlessly through the air until momentum spun it repeatedly around the tip of my pole, tangling it into an almost hopeless mess. That clever fish had stolen the worm and left the hook.
I had been bested before and though somewhat frustrated I made the delicate journey back to camp, retrieved another dying worm half from the bait box, and returned many minutes later to try again. I swung the line, dropped the bait, and watched it fall satisfactorily into place. In moments I felt another strong tug, which I answered with a setting motion, and again my hook flew gleaming and bare up out of the water to wrap itself without further ceremony around the tip of my fishing pole.
I felt a granite cloud of anger in my gut, and I scowled. Once again I returned to camp, baited the hook with a fresh worm, and made the treacherous journey back to the magical spot. I was determined to catch that fish, more determined than I had ever been before about catching any fish. Deftly I sent the line flying into the fall, and expertly I set the bail. The line jumped, the hook flew out of the water, and once again it danced around the tip of my pole.
I raged under my breath. I could feel the hot seizure of fury creep over me like a rapidly rising sun, a heat so consuming it was sinful. And as the heat rose my mind turned inward, to the dark center found in every man. I was so mad at the fish, the river, the worm, at everything in all of creation that I turned my anger explosively toward heaven – I got angry at God Almighty Himself. Back up river I turned, every step and stumble a curse. I mumbled under my breath, uttering swears I had only heard on television. I began to chastise God. “Stupid fish . . .” I said. “Might as well have stayed home . . .” I muttered. “All Your fault . . .” and then, as I broke from the brush, my fury at its crazed peak, seeing red everywhere, I glanced skyward and said loudly, “You might as well throw me in the river!” Instantly I pivoted, my arms flying into the air, my fishing pole sailing to the left, back toward the cursed fish as I stumbled forward and fell, spread eagle, only a moment to cry out in terrible desperation for my mother before landing with a great wet splash in the unrelenting river.
I had the bizarre sensation of floating, arms and legs still spread, like a big, pale water bug on the surface of the water. My voice went hoarse, and I kept calling out, “mom, mom, mom” but it was a gruff, chest deep croak, not even loud enough to carry over the gentle trickling sound of the river, and I imagined floating there for the rest of my life, unable to drown, unable to get out, my suggestion taken wholly to heart by Great God Almighty and His accomplice, the Devilfish of that smooth dark pool at the base of a glistening waterfall.
But my cry in the air had made its way up river. Through the forest my mother came wending, the look of fear on her young face, and there she found me, drifting in a foot of water like a paralyzed floaty thing. She scurried to the river’s edge and helped me stand. She held my arm as, sobbing, I retrieved my fishing pole from the below the water’s surface.
Back at camp I lay trembling in the tent, naked and terrified and ashamed, stunned by God’s audacity. I shivered on the floor of the tent, wrapped in a bath towel, with no dignity remaining.
“He almost drowned,” my mother said.
“Probably he didn’t,” my father said, and looked in on me with a soft humor in his eyes. “You all right, tiger?” he asked. I supposed I was even though I wasn’t sure. I spent the rest of the weekend close to camp, and God and I did not talk for the rest of the trip.
I never did catch that fish. Never returned to that spot again. I wouldn’t call it “the one that got away” because I doubt that Devilfish was half as big as it was clever. It swallowed me, though, or part of me. My pride most likely. But I got a story in exchange, and one I’ll never forget. For a writer there’s no better catch than that.