After my mother died, my dad took me on a fishing trip to Wawa, Ontario. He said we needed r & r so we drove eleven hours north. Flashes of burnt orange leaves gave way to spruce, then shifted to cliffs of sharp rock until, trapped in darkness, we reached the Big Ol’ Bass. I don’t know if that was the camp’s name. We called it that because every morning they played a banjo song about a guy trying to catch a massive fish, but the sucker always got away, like some northern Ontario Moby Dick. By the end of the week we could sing along to every word.
We didn’t fit in at the Big Ol’ Bass. I was the only girl except for the waitress—missing half her front tooth—and my dad was the only guy who wasn’t wearing gaiters. The place was decked out in hunting décor. A moose head with shellacked antlers hung over the fireplace. A black bear stretched flat against the wall above the lobby desk, his mouth pulled open into a snarl. Dozens of mounted fish gaped over tables in the dining room, each with the name of the guy who caught the winning fish. Names like Buddy Tripcut and Terrence Bolger. Big guy names.
Up until Wawa, I’d never fished before but my dad got it into his head that I needed to know how to survive. Just in case, he said. He had no qualms plucking me out of school. You’ve already missed a week anyway, he said. It was closer to three but I didn’t correct him. While we waited for our eggs and bacon I wandered over to a mounted fish, traced over its pearl belly, up the spotted scales, and into the pink glassy gills. I was ten and could get away with it. I pressed my fingers into the brass plaque underneath, scrutinizing the imprint of the names, anxious to leave a mark, some sign that I was here.
“Stop touching,” the waitress said. The air whistled through the biting edges of her teeth. “Those are worth something.”
My hands shot back and I hid them into the sleeves of my extra-large sweatshirt.
Dad peeled his hands from his face. It took him a moment to focus, as though unsure of where he was. “What if we just look at them, would that be all right?” His voice cracked with dryness.
The waitress was pissed we were late for breakfast, but she wasn’t going to stand up to an adult so she left the room. Dad joined me in front of the trophy, a forty-two-inch Muskie.
“That’s quite the catch.” He put his cold hand on my shoulder.
“Would you eat it or stuff it,” I asked, “if you caught a fish that big?”
“I’d probably throw it back in the lake.”
“No, but if you had to keep it.”
“Then I’d eat it.”
“What if they really wanted it on their wall? You’d have to stuff it then, wouldn’t you? Then everyone could come and read our names. Ede and Victor Frost.”
“You wouldn’t put Edeline?” He waited for me to answer. When I didn’t, he said, “Tell you what, if we catch something that big we’ll have them mount it and put it up. That’d be something.”
He took his arm off my shoulder and let it fall by his side.
I sniffed the gills. “What do they do with the insides? Why doesn’t it smell?”
“It’s not the real fish, Ede. It’s a plaster mold and then an artist paints it so it looks like the real thing.”
I scanned the wall. “These are fake? All of them?”
“Some of them might have the real skin but most of them are molds.”
“Nothing’s left? No real part?”
I lost interest in touching the plaques after that.
Chuck, our angling guide, took us out every morning after breakfast in the aluminum boat. The water curled as we cut through the black surface until he cut the engine and the lake stilled. We stuck the guts of the worms and waited. I guess Chuck was curious about us because on the third morning of silence he said, “So, what brings the two of you out to this neck of the woods?” I gripped the spongy end of the fishing rod, tight. We hadn’t talked about her since the funeral and an unspoken understanding settled between us.
I waited for my dad to say something to Chuck. To answer him. I wanted to hear him explain, but I was also scared of hearing it out loud. Dad absorbed the trees, a line of spruces rooted into rock, his gaze at some distant point across the lake. His face was the colour of parsnips. A cloud of mist hovered over his mouth as he exhaled and then disappeared into the morning air. Only two feet away from me, but I reached out for his gnarled sweater to make sure he was still there. Chuck cleared his throat. I released the hold of Dad’s sweater, flushed with heat along my neck, suddenly mortified I had revealed a secret. After the question sat unanswered for a long time and I was ready to tell Chuck about her car accident, Dad said, “Learning about survival.” I wasn’t sure what he meant or how to explain why my dad was acting so strange so I didn’t say anything at all.
Instead I pretended a fish grabbed my line and began to reel it in. All excited and exaggerating the fight she was giving me, I yanked my rod to the right and then to the left.
“It’s a big one,” I said.
“Easy now.” Chuck reached for the net.
“You’re going to catch the big ol’ bass,” Dad said.
I hammed it up as much as I could, drawing the catch out, and when I finally heaved the hook from the water I felt upset nothing was there. Not even my worm. Either I wore the bait off in my struggle or a fish nibbled it away without me feeling a thing.
Dad patted my knee. “Next time, kiddo.”
If Chuck knew there hadn’t been a fish on my line, he didn’t say anything. He smiled without moving any other muscle on his face. I could tell he felt bad for me. After spearing a new worm onto my hook, he took one of the oatmeal cookies from the Folgers coffee tin where he kept his lunch, and asked me if I
“Sure,” I said, though I hated raisins and wasn’t hungry.
I’m not sure how much time passed. None of us were fishing anymore. Dad contemplated the lake while Chuck showed me wildlife. He pointed out a Cooper’s hawk in the distance, sharing his binoculars, when the boat unexpectedly jerked to the side. I grabbed the edge and Chuck, who was kneeling, lost his balance and lurched toward his tackle box. The water splashed behind us. I looked to my dad, but only his fishing rod, runners and yellow life jacket remained in the boat. Chuck stood up, even though he told us never to stand in the boat, and called my dad’s name. The water beaded and closed into thin black rings. I searched for him but only saw my shaky reflection mirrored back at me. Chuck asked if my dad could swim. I told him yes, he was a good swimmer, although I knew it was too cold for swimming and that nobody swims with their clothes on.
He was at least twenty feet away when his head broke the water.
“Are you okay?” Chuck called, turning on the motor and heading toward him.
His chin, nose and mouth dipped back under. Then he bobbed his head above the water. Once we were close enough, Chuck killed the motor and held out a life preserver but my dad wouldn’t take it. He said he’d swim back and I said I wanted to join him in the water but they wouldn’t let me so I had to stay in the boat. We puttered behind him and watched his dripping wool-sweatered arms, lined with murky weeds, lift in and out of the water. By the time he reached the
shore, the cold had bleached his hands white and his teeth shook so loud I thought they might break apart.
We didn’t fish again after that. The rest of the week I read Archie comics in the amusement room while Dad slept. When we returned back home his mom, Betts, had moved into the spare room and all my mom’s stuff was already boxed up or given away.
The next day Betts took me to the mall and gave me a hundred bucks to buy whatever I wanted, so I got a pair of red pants and a doll that could pee. I regretted buying the doll, not because I was too old for dolls (which I was), but because she leaked all over my bed. I started crying, offensive and chaotic sobs, and Betts said, “who wants a doll that pees anyway?” But she couldn’t make
me stop and my dad wasn’t around so she took me and the peepee doll to the grocery store and bought diapers, real ones, for the stupid baby. I kept bawling. The only thing that made me stop was when Betts held the doll as though she was a newborn and asked me to help give her a bath in the sink. We ran a warm soapy washcloth along her distended belly and her hard, chubby thighs and into the crease of her plastic bum. Betts sealed her diaper and showed me how to swaddle her in a towel and I knew it was dumb but I went along. Liked it even.
Betts put the two of us to bed, patting her fingers between my shoulder blades, murmuring “there, there.” The steady rhythm of her hands reminded me of the ripples on the lake. In the darkness the boat rocked and shuddered. I thought about asking for something, anything: a birthday party, money, a horse, a trip to California, more peepee dolls. I pressed my face into the pillow that still smelled of my mother’s hair. I wanted to ask where my father was. I wanted to ask about ashes and dust. I wanted to ask what was under the lake, at the bottom, under the thick veins of weeds, past the sand and wet rocks, under those rocks. What is nothing? I didn’t speak. Everything scared me. My own voice, especially. A feeling of urgency stuck in my throat as the feeling of water began to swell around me. Betts withdrew her hand.
“Wait,” I said into the pillow.
She misheard me and said, “you’re welcome” as she cleared out of the room.
I gripped the pillow as the water pulled me under, down into pounding silence. I sank deeper. My feet strained to reach the silty bottom of the lake where, I felt certain, even roars of anguish lie buried and unheard.