by HEATHER E. GOODMAN
In the flooded cornfield, water splashed at Sam’s knees, and carp thumped against his legs. Their muscled bodies felt the way he envisioned ghosts: thick, heavy, just out of reach.
The reservoir had spilled over itself with rains that finished before Sam returned home to Pennsylvania. Now, humid air hung in the green hills that bled into the valley. Before he knocked his arrow, he turned to see Edith sitting on the hood of his 1960 Ford Fairlane in her bikini. Over the sloshing of fish breaking the surface, he could hear the car’s radio playing “Hey Jude.”
When he arched the bow, he felt the new, tight muscles in his back and was glad he’d left his shirt in the car, knew Edith looked at the work under his skin and wondered about it. She’d said as much the night he returned when they laid the blanket on the picnic table by the swollen river before the mosquitoes got too bad.
“Like they’re turning you into a man,” she’d said and laughed a little, but she thought he still knew she meant it. Sam home, not with the warm bulk of his football days, but with a sharp-edged, coal and quartz industrial body that made her think of her father’s needle-nosed pliers. A year ago they’d gone to prom. Then the draft notice: rushed wedding, brief deferment. For eleven weeks she’d lived alone in their apartment. Now just six days left of their eight days together between boot camp and advanced training.
On the blanketed picnic table, she’d asked him what the worst part of basic training was. Eventually he’d said, “Bayonet practice.”
At first, she hadn’t responded. She couldn’t imagine he needed training in something so violent and archaic. “As in stabbing someone?”
He hadn’t looked at her when he nodded.
In the field, when one carp spooked, the fish stampeded over one another, their arching backs glinting. Occasionally a carp wandered into the shallow water near the Ford, and she watched it rove. Sweat beaded at her temples, the air cloying. She guessed the carp might nibble at her skin like the sunfish did at Sam’s Uncle Neal’s place—a tentative kissing unless they clamped onto a mole. She and Sam had fished plenty of times together, but never with bow and arrow. She hadn’t asked him why now. Her nurses’ training had taught her that much, at least.
Sam sighted a carp ten feet away. A gimme, he thought. He shot, and the nylon rope whipped behind the arrow until it plunged into the water. He tucked the bow over his shoulder and pulled the carp towards him. He’d expected slashing, but the fish lay over. Other carp rubbed his legs like hulking, drunk cats.
Still holding the pile of rope, Sam bent to the fish and closed his hands around the carp. The fish dashed, the rope burning his fingers as it streaked. When he clenched the cord, the line went taut. The carp leapt in a sodden heft, crashing back to the flooded field.
Sam looped the rope and took a few steps to the fish, water soaking the edge of his cut-offs. The carp, exhausted, rolled over into his arm, its ugly eye bulging with its last effort, and Sam thought of Waits, who puked and passed out after every one of Sarge’s Indian runs. Sam unscrewed the arrow’s tip, put it in his pocket, and pulled the shaft out of the fish. He snugged the carp up in his forearm like a football, guessed it weighed eight pounds. Slipping it into his duffel bag, he stared at the fish’s gaping mouth, its dumb gawk. Sam zipped the bag halfway closed and moved the weight of the bag over his back.
He pulled a chunk of scale from the arrow’s tip, rinsed the point in the murky water, screwed it back on the shaft, and called to Edith. “You good, Mrs. Carr?”
“Of course,” she said and waved. So strange to be called his mother’s name. Not that he hadn’t made her name his own right from the start, calling her Eddie for short instead of Edie. His immediate claim on her a thing that had once made her feel safe.
The car’s hood was hot when she replaced the palm of her hand. She’d hoped her bikini might have been enough to entice him from the fish, but he went back to his prowling. He took a long step, looking down the shaft of his arrow. She could see him then, not in this field, but in the flooded rice paddies, under a helmet to cover his new buzzed head, heavy olives and browns containing his springing muscles, could see him tensed over a gun, ready for the kill. No longer her Sam, who, junior year, nursed a young opossum with an eye dropper and formula until it died.
Saying their vows had been easy. The champagne toast in the VFW party room, her mother and father standing back, proud, perhaps stunned—not so far from her own reaction.
She could now see the weeks of living with the draft card tucked into Sam’s wallet as preparation. The edge of the card had peeked from the cheap black leather where the billfold lay with their keys in the wooden bowl he’d made for her in shop. More recently, the weeks alone in the apartment, his keys untouched but still in the bowl, the wallet gone, and with it, the draft card—all of it a way of teaching her to live without him, so that she drifted within the thin walls, alternately peeved at his leaving and euphoric at his approaching homecoming, a temporary salve.
She watched Sam shoot again, this time missing. Jamming her feet into her already soaked boat shoes, she trod around the car, smelled the damp scent of worms mingle with the humid fish smell rising from the water.
In the cooler where she’d packed their lunch—liverwurst and onion sandwiches wrapped in wax paper, Herr’s potato chips, and one of the six-packs of Schlitz she’d had her dad buy for them before Sam came home—she found the envelope of wax paper with her homemade bait. She grabbed the fishing rod out of the backseat. With the rod over her shoulder and the bait in her other hand, she saw Sam looking at her and changed her walk to a saunter. He liked the bikini after all.
Before roping the arrow back, he stared at Eddie. My wife, he thought. He’d added another carp to the bag over his back, and he felt one of them move, a kind of pulse through his spinal cord, but awkward and broken, not like the touches at his calves.
It wasn’t that he was scared. Not all the time. But look at her. Tight and thin and sassy, in a bikini the colors of some tropical paradise. Her swagger, the water rolling at her knees, rod slung behind her. The sun on her skin, the smell of wet earth, the ghosts at his calves.
She sidled up to him, and he still hadn’t knocked his arrow. She smiled and said, “Hubcap, you love me.”
“Yep,” he said.
From the wax paper, she fished out one of the marble-sized bait balls of Velveeta and corn meal she’d mixed up that morning. She refolded the paper and asked, “Can I give you this?”
He nodded, and she handed him the makeshift envelope, which he tucked in the front pocket of his shorts. “You look good.”
“Just keeping up,” she said and leaned to his bicep and brushed her lips across his skin, tasting his salt. She moved a few feet away, smashed the cheese ball onto the hook, opened the bail, cast forty feet, clicked the bail back over, and watched the bobber float and dunk immediately. Edith set the hook, and the carp fought back. She choked up on the rod and pressed the base of the pole into her belly, cranking hard. She let out a whoop when the beast heaved itself out of the water.
Behind her, Sam yelled, “A killer!” When she got it close enough, she asked if he wanted the fish. He said, “I’ve already got two and can’t release mine. Want to eat them?”
“Enough hot sauce might make them okay.” She finagled the hook out of the fish’s mouth. As the carp loped away, she asked Sam for the bait to reload her hook.
After she gave it back to him, he knocked his arrow into the bowstring and made sure the rope was free and clear before taking aim. He’d settled for smaller carp, but this time he fixed on a beast, maybe the length of his arm, shoulder to wrist. The fish porpoised twenty feet from him, then vanished.
Eddie asked, “This’ll all go away?”
He scanned the fish backs breaking the surface, looking for another carp as large as the last. “Should recede in a day or two.”
“And the fish?”
“Most will figure it out.”
She let out another whoop and took three dousing steps as she wrangled the carp’s initial fight. He waded in the opposite direction, and the water lapped midway to his thighs. The carp stirred around him, and he felt the brush of a pectoral fin behind his knee.
The last time, a year ago, the only other time he’d seen the field flooded, he’d been here with his brother Hank. They hadn’t known about the fish, had just come to the fields to drink a six-pack his brother was oddly willing to share. Had no bows, no arrows. Then it was Hank who was fighting the draft, before he’d reported for his medical and found out he had an irregular heartbeat, earning him an exemption. Sam had tried to gulp his beer like his brother. “Life’s a shitter, you know?” Hank said. While they drank the beers, two for Sam, four for Hank, they chucked rocks at the carp, but the fish continued swimming their same aimless figure eights. (“Infinity, man, they’re signing infinity,” Hank said.) His brother claimed if he got shipped out, they’d come back to hunt carp. “Take those suckers out. Practice.”
Sam drew back his bow, watched the haunted school, considered their huddled drift in this place the fish never belonged. He released the arrow, but it only skipped across the water’s surface. Sam cursed and zipped the rope back, then wiped his sweating forehead with his palm. The sun had risen in the sky, and the whole false lake burned.
“Close,” Eddie called.
For a moment he didn’t know what she meant, thought he’d missed part of the conversation until he realized she referred to his shot. “Not slaying them like you,” he said.
“Velveeta’s cheating.” The carp had whittled her bait ball down to a pearl, but still the creatures kept gobbling it, hooking themselves to her line. “Don’t you think two will be plenty to eat?” she asked.
“My bet would be more than enough.” He added, “Going for Grandpa now.”
He ran his fingertip over the fletching and fitted arrow to bowstring. He scanned the water. Took a few steps. Scanned again. Bow to nose, he sighted a horse of a carp, and released. The arrow hit the fish just behind its gill, and the fish shrugged. Sam lugged the fish toward him, waiting for it to realize it was caught.
The carp, wider than Edith’s thighs put together, nudged into two smaller fish, and at that, it convulsed and dashed, ripping the line from Sam’s hands. “Come on!” he shouted.
Lifting the rod high, Edith tried to run by raising her knees, but the water was too deep, so she barreled through, falling farther behind.
Sam dove for the rope, and when he stood, he wrapped it around his hand. He struggled to gain ground on the fish, but to avoid another hand burn, he let out any slack he’d gained whenever the fish ran. Twice more the carp yanked line from him, but the last time, Sam was disappointed not to even have to dive for the rope.
The fish had led him deeper, near the border of the field, and now water lapped at his chest. Heavy grasses clutched at his shoes, tripping him. Once the carp seemed tired, he swam the fish back towards Eddie. Carp surrounded her like so many suitors. The sun threw itself at the drips still on her skin. He already knew he’d remember this in the jungle.
The carp pulled slightly, like a dog on a leash. Eventually Sam and the fish floated next to each other, the fish nearly as long as his torso, its eye, vacant, neither accusing nor exonerating.
He looked toward Eddie, who’d tucked her lips together, then back to the fish, its fins rippling. Once his fingers reached bottom, Sam kept his body submerged and shepherded the carp towards him. The fish didn’t bolt, though he held the rope in loose Os in case it would. He placed his free hand by the arrow, the point out the other side of the fish, and the carp held still, its fins massaging the water. There was no way he could pick it up. They would not eat the monster. Without looking at Eddie still twenty yards away, he sat in the water and directed the fish into his lap. When the carp was over his waist, Sam bent his knees up, let go of the rope, twisted the point off the arrow, tucked it in the first fold of his immersed pocket, and with both his palms on the side of the fish that faced him, he pushed the carp against his knees. With one hand surrounding the wound, and the other at the base of the arrow, Sam ripped the shaft free of the carp.
Edith looked away, over the low valley, beyond where rippled water met hanging air. She squinted through the reflected sun and tried to see it clearly, the imposed lake receding, the carp retreating, her husband leaving. Sam would kill. Or be killed. Not her Sam, but this Sam. And he’d come home. Or he wouldn’t.
Sam had expected the fish to dart. It did not. The carp’s pectoral fins continued their butterfly wing beat, but the fish turned a sick roll, so that it swam parallel to the surface. Its sloppy mouth gaped. Sam put the arrow’s shaft in his teeth and gripped the fish’s jaw in one hand, completely extending his arm so that he could reach its tail with his other hand, nursing it as his Uncle Neal had taught him to do, forcing water through the fish’s gills in order to revive it. For several minutes he did this, and with the school of fish breaching around him, his head at the water’s surface, he didn’t hear Eddie approach until she said, “It’s okay, Sam.”
She rested her hand on the fish’s back, and Sam stopped running the carp through the water. It rolled over and floated. Its eye stared. Sam took the arrow from his mouth and saw his own teeth marks in the shank. From the arrow’s tip, he pried a quarter-sized fish scale. He laid it on the water’s surface, watched it bob, and when he stood, the swell of water sank the scale.
Heather E. Goodman
Heather E. Goodman’s fiction has been published in Gray’s Sporting Journal, Hunger Mountain, Terrain.org, Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment, Shenandoah, where her story was awarded The Shenandoah Fiction Prize, and the Chicago Tribune, where her story won the Nelson Algren Award. She lives in a log cabin along a creek in Pennsylvania with her husband Paul and pooch Leo. Please visit: www.heatheregoodman.com.