“Six-X,” short fiction by Elizabeth Gaffney, appeared in the Summer 2018 issue.
The rental car slowed, straightening Louisa in her seat, snapping her back to awareness. She scanned the narrow road ahead for some obstruction, some sign of why her husband of seven days would be stopping. Their exit was still a ways off.
“Mole,” Jake offered. As they passed a seventy-kilometer sign, she saw a low, oval critter skitter across the gray gravel road and vanish in the grass.
“Go, mole!” she said.
They’d noticed the island roads were strewn with carcasses, and even after a week, every sighting still seemed worthy of mention, every death averted a cause for minor celebration. In fact, it seemed that everything was cause for some kind of revelry, so copious had been the recent festivities. They sat and soaked it all in, the breeze and the warm foreign air flowing around them like vapor. Today they were still alone. Tomorrow they’d be back with others, in their everyday worlds. Now and then, some feature of the landscape bore mention — a wind-twisted tree or fleeting specimen of wildlife — and the mention drew a laugh or a quiet response. They hardly needed to speak, it seemed. They just understood. She laid her hand on his knee.
For hours, they drove, contented, watching the world through the windows of the car, separated only by the stick shift.
What’s the difference between now and before, Louisa asked herself, knowing for certain that there was one. Marriage is a matter of custom and circumstance, of a culture and a couple, and yet that doesn’t begin to explain it. Was it accident or divine plan that they met when they did? Did convention or passion lie behind the formalization of their bond? Why had they been granted happiness when others were struck down by busses? The fishing lodge where they’d spent the week was just as luxurious as they’d heard — fashionable yet remote. This honeymoon was exactly as they’d wanted, except perhaps for the heat wave. Still, it hadn’t answered her questions. What changes lay in store for them? The wedding is not the marriage, she knew, the drive is not the destination, the fishing is not the fish.
A lump of freshly killed raccoon came up too quickly to be avoided, just as it must have for the truck or car that first struck it. The bump was considerable, and Louisa thought of her old friend Max, who liked to go straight for squirrels, frogs, anything — he’d practically swerve into oncoming traffic to score. He’d have enjoyed the thump thump of coon beneath the wheels; he’d have left the mole a blotch like a tar spot behind him on the road. She didn’t miss that about him. Once, when they were groping each other, clothes on, in bed, he’d told her: “You’re the kind of girl I could marry.” She’d smiled, squirmed. They’d been best friends, for a while, but she couldn’t say that back to him. He’d made her laugh. She’d liked his razor-straight hair and the crinkles at the corners of his eyes, but there was a worry she had about Max: that deep within, he wasn’t kind. A decade later, Louisa had invited Max to her wedding, somewhat against her better judgment, but she wasn’t exactly sorry that he didn’t make it.
Louisa worried about the spindly carbon-fiber fly rods in their cases in the trunk; she hoped they were properly packed. She pictured herself fitting the tapered sections together, aligning the ferrules. She always thought it should be harder to get them exactly straight, but it wasn’t—they lined themselves up, just like that. There were other things that ought to have been easier than they turned out to be: such as casting into wind, avoiding trees, understanding one’s own desires.
Fishing was an area of mutual non-expertise for Louisa and Jake. They could have gone to Europe—he could manage in French, she in German—but they wanted to be on equal footing wherever they went. There was a hobby they shared, cycling, but when Jake suggested a bike tour, Louisa shook her head. She didn’t want to be utterly depleted at the close of every day. There was another thing, too.
“Saddle sores?” she said.
Neither of them wanted to spend all day doing something that would dampen their lust, come the night. On the other hand, they’d also passed on the notion of a beach resort. They were a little afraid of being bored together, so soon.
One Sunday during what they had called “the prenuptial quarter,” they’d done a test run: closed their books and laid them on the coffee table, folded the Arts and Leisure and the Metro sections and stacked them by the fireplace. They’d left their plates, scattered with loose sesame seeds and stray smudges of cream cheese, unwashed in the sink; taken final gulps of coffee and grabbed apples from the vegetable bin; and then driven forty-five minutes from the city to a tackle shop near an obscure state park with a trout-filled river. They’d borrowed rods and kits from Louisa’s father, a devoted fisherman, and hired a guide to take them out for the morning. The entrance was an unimposing gap in a chain-link fence, and the faded brown Department of Natural Resources sign was so small they almost passed it by. By the time they had parked and straightened their shorts, a flock of deer—a bevy, she thought, a gaggle?—had sauntered up on them. The animals with their scruffy fur appeared to be hungry for handouts. Whatever they wanted, they were welcome to Louisa and Jake, who remained for several minutes in the parking lot, allowing a few of the bolder does to nuzzle their wrists.
They followed their silent guide down the wood-chip trails, stopping here and there to try their skill. They didn’t discuss the art film they’d seen the previous night or the recent putative evidence of life on Mars. None of that. Sometimes being close meant not needing to say a word. They looked.They saw. They were surrounded by grasses, ruddy at the top where the seed heads swelled, and bushes full of bayberries. An osprey swooped and dropped like a stone to the streambed, came up empty-taloned. The white-tailed deer and Lyme tick warning signs were equally prevalent.
“What do you say we check each other thoroughly tonight? For infestation,” Jake whispered.
She laughed and bumped him with her hip. She’d had a tick in her pubic hair, once, and ripped it out with tweezers, along with an unnecessarily large chunk of her own flesh. She’d never spoken of it to anyone, not even Jake, but a tiny scar remained, which she would point out to him that night.
After three hours, the guide had caught several fish; Louisa and Jake got none, but he’d taught them a few things. They’d only paid him for the morning, so he bid them good luck and left them alone. They kept on trying, not really caring when their lines snagged on logs or tangled in branches.They weren’t exactly naturals at this sport, but they were enjoying it. It was lovely to see the fine monofilament unwind across the water, exciting just to hope for a bite. Toward dusk, they paused at the edge of a cleared bank to watch a lone woman switch her fly rod in the air and stop it short, shooting Day-Glo line across the riffle. Like the prospecting tongue of a frog, the woman’s line darted with delicacy and precision. She had steel gray hair and the posture of a poplar, the cool indifference of a loon. She didn’t see them, and they stayed quiet, so as not to scare away the trout. Eight or ten casts later, she decided to change her fly. Just as they’d given up on her and turned back onto the path, a low yet feminine chortle rolled across the stream bank. Her line was stretched taut, her rod stood upright, its tip bent under load. The gray lady’s face cracked into a wide, happy expression Louisa would never have guessed she possessed. Louisa smiled and looked at Jake, also grinning. The pleasure was infectious. She sidled closer to him, quiet, like a deer, and held him around the waist.
That was what they were looking for, at least in part, when they’d booked the honeymoon for Nova Scotia: the happiness of the catch. So far, they hadn’t found it. Instead, they were trying to find their satisfaction in unexpected places: blackberries on the brambles, eagles perched on branches, moles on the run.
Driving south on the last day, Louisa and Jake saw and smelled a former skunk. A crow strutted in the middle of the road, risking its own neck to pick at the carrion. The houses they passed were sparse and sweet, one- or two-story white clapboards with the trim painted black or, occasionally, delightfully, turquoise.
“Land must be cheap up here. Maybe one day we could buy one,” Jake said, and she liked that idea. The landscape was green and rolling and misty in the distance, though the sky was blue. They stopped for drinks and fried scallops at a stand. There was a destination, the airport, but not a hurry. They hadn’t had any luck fishing that week, because of the hot spell. The fish were lying low, their guide explained. They’d cast and stripped in their lines over giant fish, as easily visible—once you learned to see them—as they were circumspect. For Louisa, the worst moments of the trip came with the proprietor’s query as they pulled off their boots and waders every afternoon: “Get any?”
Over dinner that night—venison for her, ratatouille with polenta for Jake—she let herself whine a little.
“I can’t believe we’re such shitty fishermen.”
“I don’t mind. I really don’t want to kill them,” Jake said.
There was that kindness she liked about him—or did she? Could kindness be a fault?
“There’s always catch and release,” she said.
The gray lady’s name had been Barbara, and the fish she’d caught that first day they tried fishing was a princely rainbow trout.
“Nice fish,” called Jake.
“That was the best fish I’ve caught all summer,” she said. “Wow.” Then she bent down and twisted the hook from the fish’s lip. It swam away in a flash.
“You’re letting it go?”
“Sure, I don’t need dinner, and it was in good shape.”
“What do you mean, good shape?”
“Out of kindness to the species,” she explained, “you don’t release a fish you’ve fought for very long—it’ll only die of exhaustion afterwards.”
“This is our first time fly fishing,” Louisa offered. But she was thinking of the freezer her father stocked full of bluefish, during the summers, when she was a girl. It hadn’t mattered if they didn’t need more. The killing of fish had been something to be proud of. She remembered a day spent on his motorboat, the hull smacking against the chop, casting and reeling in, her fair skin burning in the hot sun. That afternoon, he explained how to gut a fish, handed her his fish knife and said, “Try it.” The blade was sharp, the flesh was soft. The organs and entrails slid out of its body and into the rainbow-streaked water of the marina with a plop.
Barbara had shown them the fly she’d used to catch the fish. “A muddler,” she said. It was brown and stubby. Then she threw it back into the stream.
“See, I quarter it across and up”—the line leapt maybe twenty yards toward the gently curving bank on the far side of the pool—“and strip it in like this . . .”
The second fish hit just a moment later, and she set the hook. “Here,” she said firmly, and handed her rod to Louisa. Smiling Louisa.
It was alive.
There is something I’m attached to through this line, Louisa thought. It’s with me and yet it’s not. It fears me.
It was a good feeling, quite good. She was fighting a battle she could win. She started to reel in the line.
“Don’t bring him in too fast,” said Barbara, just as the fish got feisty. While it thrashed, Louisa held the rod vertical like she thought she ought to. Then the monofilament sprung lightly into the air, almost invisible, like a hair that snaps when you brush too fast and with the same sting: tiny, severe. The fish was gone.
“Oh, sorry. I lost him—and your fly.”
“Doesn’t matter, but what you should have done was lower your rod and let him run a little, just then. Isn’t it fun?”
Louisa nodded. While she fished, she hadn’t been thinking of herself or Jake or anything but the fish. She had wanted it so badly, it almost felt like a transgression. Otherwise, she saved that kind of yearning for him. She glanced at Jake, wondering if she had wandered in some way.
“You see,” said Barbara, you don’t want to wear him out, but still you’ve got to give the fish some play. The tippet is super thin. 4-X, but you can bring a big one in on even thinner—five, six, even seven. She whipped out a spool of gossamer thread and pulled a length of it free. “See?”
Maybe Barbara was lonely, Louisa suggested to Jake on the way home, as they were musing at her generosity with them.
“Maybe she was just drumming up business,” countered Jake. It’d turned out that Barbara, too, was a guide.
“I like novices,” she’d said. “They’re the best clients—they don’t have any bad habits.”
And so, the following week, they were out there again, bright and early, this time with Barbara guiding them. They spent three and a half hours lashing the air with Louisa’s father’s rods. Barbara taught them how to cast properly and generally to be self-sufficient on the water. The fish would come later, she promised, once they’d mastered the meditative art of casting.
“And you have to know what flies to choose, what knots to tie,” she said.
The lodge where they honeymooned was Barbara’s idea, but it turned out Louisa’s father knew of it, too. They were going for salmon, there, not trout, so the flies were bigger and funny colored. They were so much heavier and harder to cast. They landed with inexpert splashes, warning away the fish.
“The fishing is not the fish,” Jake reminded Louisa—but she wasn’t sure she agreed, anymore. She wanted to catch something. To kill it and eat it.
They were quick to go fishing again when they got home. They certainly hadn’t mastered their sport, but they’d gotten a lot of casting practice in. That first Sunday after their honeymoon, they didn’t even discuss calling Barbara to guide them. There was a privacy they craved, and Louisa felt a desire to succeed on her own.
And they did. They’d learned a few things, apparently. Jake was rigged up first and got a strike right away, then brought it in while Louisa watched in admiration.
“They’re biting,” he said, gently releasing his fish.
They agreed that she would fish upstream, he down, and each waded off a little distance. Louisa tied on a Mickey Finn, the yellow- and red- streaked fly that imitates no known minnow. They were biting, indeed, and she hooked a fish quickly. The thrill she felt as it fought her rivaled anything she’d felt before. The fish and the fisher each have their strengths, but the tippet between them has limits, and only one member of the fight knows which X is on the line. Louisa was having fun with her fish, but after a while, she thought of Barbara and realized she was doing the wrong thing, letting the trout out and reeling him in like that. She was wearing the fish down, just like Barbara had warned them not to. She decided to land him and let him go, but he still had some kick, so even that took a while. At last, she wondered if she ought to kill him. He would never revive from such a fight. Just as she reached into the water to grasp the fish firmly yet humanely, she felt the filament stretch and snap, then saw it go kinky. The fish was gone. Quietly, she frowned, and said: “Go, fish.”
Later, after having no more luck and not really trying, Louisa thought she’d go find Jake upstream when something in the water caught her eye. She peered through the ripples and saw the dull gold glint of a trout against an underwater log, the red and yellow lines of the Mickey Finn still in his lip. This was the fish she’d just lost, come to lurk and die. Only a fish on the verge of giving up its fishy ghost would lie so still, so exposed, so near the dock. From the way it was floating, off kilter, it looked unlikely to survive, but the slight flutter of its gills told her it lived yet, it breathed. She leaned her rod against a tree and took off her fly vest. She eased her fingers into the cool stream, sunk her arm in up to the elbow and then, slowly, the shoulder.
When her nails grazed the gravel bed, she slid them toward the fallen log. Fingers exquisitely close to the body of the trout, Louisa felt the flow of water change. The fish must have sensed it too, for he stiffened and scooted the tiny bit closer to the log that it was possible to go. Then he froze.
When she thrust her fingers into his gills—so red he must be a cut- throat—she expected his insides to be warm, like a body, but of course they were river-cold. Heat is not vitality to a fish. He convulsed, he flailed, he tried to escape. It’s too late now, she thought, though she didn’t formulate for what. Louisa realized she was wet to the neck and also that the fish no longer seemed almost dead.
“Jake!” she called, not knowing how far he’d wandered upstream. He didn’t call back.
The fish glowered at her, at once desperate and forlorn. The thrill of success felt different when the victim met your eye. He bucked more fiercely than Louisa could believe as she struggled to get herself and it on the bank. This mercy killing was not going as planned.
It probably wasn’t a minute before he came down the path at a trot.
“You’re keeping one?”
“Sort of, yeah . . . I didn’t mean to,” she said, knowing this must sound odd in light of her dripping shirt and double fistful.
“You should have let it go,” he said, his voice low and somehow cold, and she felt that he was judging her in a way he never had before. He had seen something new about her: that in her core, she wasn’t kind.
“He was stressed. I thought he would die anyway,” she said, but the fish seemed terribly alive.
“I guess this is why they have fish billies,” said Jake. He looked around and saw nothing—no stone, no substantial branch—that would do the job. “Hit it on the back of the head, then.”
Louisa turned the fish upside down and whacked its head sharply against a root. The fish went slack, but when she put it down on the bank, its tail smacked the grass. The second attempt was more protracted, and when it seemed that no amount of fish brain could possibly remain unscrambled, she paused. The fish twitched. She was torturing it, not putting it out of its misery. Her eyes met Jake’s and looked away. Her face was splattered with stream water and slime. Jake, she saw, had clearly come down on the catch-and-release side of fishing. He had come down on the side of the fish. He did not approve of her killing this fish, and even less of her inability to finish the job.
“Sorry,” she said, shrugging, as if to say she couldn’t help it.
“Sorry?” He rolled his eyes at her incompetence, her lameness, her irresponsibility. This was death she had meted out. Sorry? He put his hand out and took the fish from her. He raised the creature high like a hatchet and brought it down with a thunk. A quiver passed through fish flesh, then it was still.
They sat down together and breathed a sigh—of relief, regret, guilt, and possibly, on his part, disgust.
“Wow,” Louisa said. “Thanks, I guess.”
She did not feel loonlike, not like Barbara, as she reached in her pocket for the little steel pocket knife of her father’s she carried, and unzipped the trout’s rubbery underbelly, anus to jaw. Inside the gut were a couple of small stones: no bugs, no minnows, no clues to why they were biting Mickey Finns that day.
The fishing is not the fish you catch, and the honeymoon isn’t the marriage. The filleting was tricky and there were one or two bones left in. But the fish, which she dipped in milk and dredged in fine cornmeal, the fish that she pan-fried with shallots, the fish—it seemed to bring on some change in Louisa. She was married to Jake now, in a way she hadn’t been, even after the wedding, even on the honeymoon. Married for real, because now she had survived his judgment. Now she trusted that he wouldn’t leave her, even though he’d learned he didn’t love everything about her. The fish smelled as fresh as a river, like a stand of eelgrass might. Its skin, once slimy, crisped up brown and delicate. The flesh came apart in beautiful segments under her fork, flaky yet plump. Salt and lemon and the savory aroma made her taste buds stream. She fed a bite to Jake—hoping for a smile and getting a reluctant one. Then she fed herself. She was the hungriest person she knew.
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Image: MacDonald, J.E.H. “Falls, Montreal River.” 1920. Oil on canvas. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.
Elizabeth Gaffney is the author of the novels Metropolis and When the World Was Young. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in the New York Times, Paris Review, A Public Space, Mississippi Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. She has translated four books from German. She teaches writing at Queens University, NYU, and the New School, and serves as the editor-at-large of A Public Space. Find out more at elizabethgaffney.net, or follow her on Twitter @elizgaffney.