Three men in a boat. Large, peaceful lake. They spoke softly with the long, slow diphthongs of the South. It was early morning, wherever they were. Water lapped rhythmically against the boat. The Host of the show, an old fisher king, geared the conversation to the day's topic: fish.
"These fish ain't dumb," he said.
"Nope," said one of his side-kicks.
"You gotta know your bait. Know what they're after."
"Yup. Mmm hmmm," agreed the other two.
"Most important, you gotta know what you're after."
Again both side-kicks, opening fresh beers, agreed. Silence. Water lapping. Birds chirping. The Not-Yet-Accused was calm. Alarm clock hammered him awake.
"Morning," said The Wife.
"What time is it?"
The Not-Yet-Accused and The Wife prepared breakfast wearing business attire. The Dejected Son, age eight, and The Dejected Daughter, age ten, ate cereal dejectedly at the table. The Not-Yet-Accused and The Wife drank black coffee and ate toast layered with fat-free cheese. Silent as fishermen, albeit waiting for nothing.
The Son poured the last of the cereal and reached into the box to grab the special prize, a plastic whistle. The Daughter grabbed too. They fought. Each tugged fiercely for the whistle.
"Son, you got the last prize," The Wife said. "It's Daughter's turn. Let her have it."
The Son hesitated. The Wife leaned forward.
"Let. Her. Have. It."
The Son relented. Overjoyed, The Daughter ripped the whistle from its plastic wrap and blew. Shrill and cutting, worse than the alarm clock. The Not-Yet-Accused pressed both hands to his ears.
Outside, The Wife kissed the Not-Yet-Accused. She walked the children to their private school not many blocks away. The Dejected Son waved to the Not-Yet-Accused. The Happy Daughter blew her whistle.
Beautiful Spring morning. The Not-Yet-Accused fell to reverie: youthful hours in the arms of The Missing Girl. His cellular phone yanked him back to the day. Shrill cellular phone. His Secretary. Someone needed something; some other needed something else.
"I'm feeling better," he said. "Not coming in today. Whatever needs to be done, or not. Pick up the pieces. Tomorrow. Today I'm Missing," he said, and thought, but did not say: "Like when I was young."
He went to the garage, withdrew his car, headed for a clean green Suburb, away from the soot and rot and steel glass towers of the City. The Suburb of his youth. The Suburb where his parents lived, still, after so many years.
He stopped at the Sporting Goods store to buy a fishing rod and tackle. The phone squealed like an infant when he left the car. He slammed the door on its insistence.
He bought a short, thin pole with a manual rod and reel. A rod meant for a child. No buttons or levers or other such gadgetry.
He drove to the pond where he had fished as a boy. This was before he was Missed and then found, or rather, before he left and then returned.
A fence surrounded the area. He found an opening someone had kindly provided with wire-cutters.
The pond, as he remembered it, was about a half a mile's walk into the woods. He still wore his suit. He should have purchased a t-shirt, jeans and thick boots at the Mall. Also, he'd forgotten bait. But he was going fishing.
The pond in view, he knelt between shrubs and scratched for worms with his bare hands. He collected half a dozen of the sticky, writhing tubes, which he assumed the fish might find edible, and placed them along with a fistful of soil in the pocket of his jacket.
There were already fishermen at the pond. Two elderly men in loose, comfortable old-man clothes. Plaid shirts and baggy gray pants. Rubber boots for mud. They looked at the Not-Yet-Accused and spoke to each other. The garrulous, older old man, called out to the Not-Yet-Accused.
"All day long," said the Not-Yet-Accused.
He had no knife. He sliced a worm over a flat rock with his house key, impaled the writing juicier half upon the hook, attached a float to the line, cast it in, and waited. He removed his tie and coat, rolled back his sleeves.
"Why don't you come over here and be sociable," the Garrulous Old Man called out. "We won't bite. Not like the fish."
"Didn't want to invade your turf," said the Not-Yet-Accused. "Fishermen's etiquette. You know."
"Ahhh," the Garrulous Old Man waved his hand. "There's more fish in this pond than all three of us can catch in a lifetime. Well, not in our lifetime. That ain't saying much. Your lifetime. Young guy like you can spend his life here and not empty this pond."
The Garrulous Old Man laughed heartily. His companion remained mum
"I didn't think there was any good fishing left in this world," said the Not-Yet-Accused. "At least, not around here."
"What're you here for, then?"
"I don't know. Just to relax. Fish. Didn't really plan on catching anything."
"Oh, you'll catch something. That's certain," said the Garrulous Old Man. "Meanwhile, let’s hurry up the time."
He pulled a silver flask from his vest pocket and proffered it to the Not-Yet-Accused. The Quiet Old Man provided paper cups.
"Plenty more where that came from," said the Garrulous Old Man. "Don't be shy."
The Not-Yet-Accused drank and fished and talked with the Garrulous Old Man. The Quiet Old Man, who wore a hat low on his brow, did not utter a word.
The Not-Yet-Accused felt a tug on his line. Then a hard pull. He rode the reel a few seconds, then drew in. He was not a small man – six feet, 170 pounds – but the thing on the other end of the line had a life strength of its own. It fought him. It was not going to come easy, but it was going to come because the Not-Yet-Accused was stronger than the life on the other end of the line, the life that was hooked, snagged, almost but not yet taken. The rod bent like a blade of grass. The Not-Yet-Accused felt pain in his wrists and fingers. Not a sick, debilitating working-at-a-keyboard pain, but the buzz of muscles awakening to do what they were meant to do all along, always, from the beginning, and growing stronger despite exhaustion in his lungs. He reeled and pulled and it, the Other Life, emerged from the water struggling, twitching, arching, but subdued. His fish.
The Not-Yet-Accused was excited. Drunk. He talked too much, too quickly. He talked about the office and data and fulfilling whatever his duties were supposed to be according to the job description on file at Human Resources. He talked about endless talk at meetings where nothing ever was decided, yet every two weeks he took his paycheck, though he couldn't connect the work he did with the payment he received. Yet it was that pay, no small amount, that supplemented by his Wife's sizable income, bought insurance and the condo and the cars and food and school for the kids and gadgets all those damned gadgets.
But he couldn't connect the work to the pay. He went to his job everyday – except this one – because that was what he did, and he possessed the goodies he possessed because that was how things were, but here he was pushing his mind and body, his will, to fight another thing, a powerful, struggling, fierce thing with a will of its own, a will to fight the Not-Yet-Accused, a will to free itself and live. The Not-Yet-Accused was fighting for his supper. He was earning his food with his muscles, mind and senses.
"Whoa, Captain," said the Garrulous Old Man. "You don't want to eat that thing."
"What?" The Not-Yet-Accused, out of breath, was genuinely upset. "Why?"
"Because that fish is a freak. It shouldn't be alive. God knows what poison courses through its veins."
The Not-Yet-Accused held the hooked, still-struggling animal close.
"The reason we can fish here," the Garrulous Old Man patiently explained, as if talking to a child or an idiot, "The reason there's a pond and trees rather than a school and neighborhood and supermarket on this land is because the meadows surrounding this property are contaminated. So's the property itself. The Real Estate company that owns this land, on which we're trespassing by the way, is in litigation with the original owner and the State. The Real Estate people bought this property to build on. A beautiful hunk of land like this, a hunk of peace on earth, doesn't come free. The Hospital had been dumping here for years. This was a burial ground for the waste of generations. Ever hear of leeching? Know what leeching is? The Real Estate Company hasn't been able to build on this land, to create the development they'd been planning because the property was poisoned. Somebody's gotta clean the place and somebody's gotta foot the bill. That's what all the litigation is about, and it's expected to go on for years. So as long as those lawsuits fly back and forth, you can come here and enjoy a good afternoon of fishing.
Just don't make too much noise about it. Don't attract attention. Notice how there's no ducks in this pond? Used to be ducks. They flew off or died. Most of the animals around here disappeared or died. Listen."
They listened. To nothing. No birds, no bees, no woodland creatures.
"This place used to be full of wild-life. Now there are some creatures here, mostly raccoons, they're used to garbage, and the little creatures they eat. But they're mutants. They look okay, they don't have two heads or seven eyes that glow in the dark like in the movies, but they're mutants. They should have been killed by the poison in the earth. The ones that survived are different. They look regular, but there's something in them, something unnatural I'd call it, that lets them live with the poison inside them. Who knows? Maybe because they've adapted, they thrive on it. Maybe it's what gives them life. But they're not regular. They're stronger. Some gene or DNA thing or whatever you call it allowed them to survive where the others couldn't. This pond shouldn't be filled with fish and algae and mosquitoes and its own little bio system. It should be dead water. It was dead water for a long while. But then the fish came back. They were never really gone, of course. They just survived. A few survived, a few stronger that could live with the poison, and they repopulated the pond. It's well stocked, this water hole, but with what? Yeah, it makes for good fishing. They're probably a lot feistier than their forbears, these...creatures. That's natural selection. But you don't want to eat them. They're immune to the very poison that killed their ancestors and all the natural life around here. They're more a product of unnatural selection, I'd say. The poison in their blood probably works to their advantage somehow. Like spikes on a porcupine. Protects them against predators. Nobody wants to eat these fish. Except maybe the raccoons or whatever other characters evolved from the same spiked primordial soup."
It suddenly struck the Not-Yet-Accused that the Quiet Old Man in the hat was not merely quiet, he was dumb. Retarded, perhaps severely. The Not-Yet-Accused asked the Garrulous Old Man why he and his companion kept the fish they caught in a bucket if they didn't plan on eating them.
"That's for my brother," the Garrulous Old Man pointed to the Quiet one. "He likes to see how many we caught at the end of the day. He likes to look at them. Afterwards, I throw them back."
The Not-Yet-Accused asked if he could borrow a bucket. The Garrulous Old Man gave him one, half-filled with water, into which he deposited his fish of a different breed.
The Old Men began packing their gear. The Not-Yet-Accused offered to return the bucket.
"Keep it," said the Garrulous Old Man. "Give it back next week. Remember what I told you. Whatever that fish is made of, it's not meant for stomachs such as ours."
The Garrulous Old Man lead his brother by the hand.
The Quiet Old Man turned longingly to the pond and uttered a long, plaintive cry.
Adam Engel is Chief Executive Officer of Tree of Knowledge Inc. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. This essay is an excerpt from Adam's new book Topiary.
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