He threw the fish up on the bank with a puff of dust. It flopped for a moment then stilled. I remember daddy telling me fish can’t breathe air; out of the water they drown. I watched it flop and then lay still, gasping. Drowning in a people’s world.
Splashing out of the water, he looked at the fish, toed it with his boot, let out a curse. “Ain’t enough on this one to eat,” he growled, gathering up his gear and moving down the river to try again.
I stayed with the fish. Maybe it was playing dead? Maybe somehow it kept just enough water inside itself that, once our backs were turned, it would slither down to the water and swim off, a wiser fish for having been caught.
But it lay still, eyes blind, too small to eat, yet not too small to catch. Reaching out a hand, I touched its side. It’s scales felt smooth and damp, fins sharp along the edges and along it’s back. What kind of fish was it? Had it had a family? Friends?
I didn’t know if fish has such things as families and friends, but I felt sure they must have. Had daddy looked like this when he was dead? My sister wouldn’t let me see him and so I imagined he had looked like this, sleek and beautiful, drowning in air.
Picking the fish up, I brought him to my nose, fishy smell taking me back to daddy’s boat, nets folded, desk cleaned for the next days fishing. He promised when I turned eleven, he would take me out to watch the fishing. I was fascinated with the nets and he let me play among them as long as I didn’t tangle them. Everything smelt of fish and sweat and daddy.
Somebody took the boat away the next day.
When he drowned in the air, my sister had him burnt. I couldn’t understand how my big daddy fit into such a little container. Where are his legs, I asked my sister. In the urn. Where are his arms which held me tight, swing me up into the air when he’d come home from a good day fishing? In the urn. His smile? In the urn.
A boat took us away from the coast. My sister clutched the urn, looking out over the sea. I stood beside her, holding to the stiff material of her shirt. When the boat stopped, she turned to me.
“This is where he wanted to be,” she told me. Knelt down. “Do you understand, Jonny? Father is dead and we are burying him at sea. This,” she held out the urn, “is all that remains except what we remember. We will always remember him, Jonny, always.”
She hugged me. “Don’t ever forget. Don’t ever forget.”
She poured some of him into my hands and stood, urn on the railing.
“Goodbye, Father,” she whispered as she turned the urn over. He floated out, tiny grey sparkles of him, catching the winds, tumbling down to the water and gone.
I looked at the handful of daddy in my hands. I wouldn’t let him go. If I never dropped the ash in my hand, he would never leave. I’d carry him in my pocket forever.
“Come on, Jonny, hurry up.”
As she turned to walk away, I dropped daddy into my pocket. Maybe when I was eleven, we could still go out and fish. I could hold his pole for him. I would be eleven, old enough to hold the pole.
Picking up the dead fish, I walked to the edge of the river, looked into its eyes one more time. “I don’t have anything to put you in,” I whispered and gave it a kiss. “Will you find my daddy for me? He’ll take care of you.”
And then I slid him into the water, watching his tiny body drift away on the current. I lifted my hand in farewell and he was gone.