“Now hold the line like this,” he told his boy, “and wait for a bite.”
The child complied, swinging his feet excitedly at the end of the pier. He was sure the long reed float would start bobbing in the water any second now, that a big, fat bass would come and nibble the worm off the end of his hook, and he’d lift the rod quick and set the hook, keep the tip high and let it fight and fight, and then when it was tired he’d reel it in, just like his dad showed him.
Will Senior had retreated to the bench he’d carved by hand in the shade, set down beneath a huge old juniper, and joined his pregnant wife who had a thermos of coffee waiting for him, strong and white. “The way I like my men” she’d tease. He’d pretend to frown, but then would laugh and she’d join him, nudging him lightly and leaning her weight against him. But beneath it all he was keeping track. All women are whores. Not one of them can keep her legs together, not for love nor money. Been so ever since Eve was tempted into mortal sin by the serpent himself. To this day women lust after the serpent, and so it shall ever be. So Will kept score, and every time his wife jokingly revealed her desire to commit adulterous acts with other men, the grim tally ticked upward in readiness for the final accounting.
“Stay away from the edge, honey!” Ellen hand on her belly, called out, apropos of nothing. “You sure he’s old enough for this, Will? He cried the last time you made him cut one open.”
Well, that was not exactly true. The boy’s eyes were shining when he pressed the knife to the fish’s belly. A small slip of drool had escaped his lips when he pressed the sharp tip to the dimple of it’s anus, slipped the blade deep into the gut and began sawing up towards its head. He’d only begin to cry when the old man slapped the juddering, frantic bass from his son’s hands, clubbing it hard across the head until it stopped moving. “For God’s sake!” he’d roared at the boy, whose lips had quirked into a moan. “Not while it’s still alive!”
Now the man made a noise in his throat, spat into the distance and swallowed some hot, black coffee. “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him–“
“Feed him for his life–yes Will, I’ve heard it before. But he’s not like other boys! He’s different. He just likes to be on his own. The other kids, they don’t understand him—”
“Understand? Only thing he’s gotta understand is that life’s tough, Ellen. Life doesn’t care if you’re different … being different doesn’t pay the bills. Time he learned that. Time you both did.”
She twisted towards him sharply, belly notwithstanding. “And what does that mean? Don’t you start on me—!“
Not hearing them, out on the pier the boy felt a solid tug on his line and froze. The end of his handmade rod, the cork butt, tapering sections and rod guides glued and bound by his father’s own hand, bucked then jerked like a wild thing. He almost lost his grip, could barely hold on, and felt as if his arms were being pulled out of their sockets. The bass, so large it actually dragged him an inch towards the edge, changed tack and dived, seeking shelter beneath the undercut bank, so that the rod bent into a perfect parabola. Hold the tip up! Hold it up until it tires! Then bring it home!
“Then I can cut it.”
The boy spoke these last words to himself and aloud, with a smile that showed all of his teeth. The fish-getting mantra drummed into him by his father played over and over. His father, who had told him he must learn to hunt and trap, to shoot and split wood, to make a fire in the rain, catch birds on the wing, and showed how to fish, above all else, how to catch a fish. His father would be proud. “I’ve got one, daddy!” he cried, “I’ve got a fish!”
He bent over to check if he could see it, hoping for a glimpse of a stout body, a flash of bronze as it thrashed and fought below his feet. At that moment, the hook tore free and scythed out of the water, slashing across the boy’s cheek and narrowly missing his eye as it continued upward into the air. The rod straightened with a violent snap. He dropped it, startled by the pure, clean sensation of metal dividing his flesh, his nerveless hands flapping as the rod dropped from his grip then disappeared into the water with a splash.
He sucked in air—fingers trembling to his face to come away wet and red—sucked in air and screamed.
His mother appeared first, hauling him to his feet then up into the air for inspection. She gasped at the two-inch gash in his cheek, eyes widening like saucers, and the alarm in her expression redoubled the boy’s wailing. Sensing self-indulgence, his father took him by the chin and turned his head roughly this way and that before releasing him with a grunt.
“Quit hollerin’ now, d’you hear?” His father had to say it twice, louder the second time and with an edge, but the boy finally lowered his register to a snuffle. Then his father asked, “Where’s your rod?”
The boy grew rigid, every hair on end as his father turned from him to the water, then back, and then to the empty planking at the end of the pier. Those Norwegian eyes, blue and fierce, were on him unblinking. “Answer me, boy. Where’s your rod?”
“Fish took it,” he gulped.
“Can’t hear you.”
“The fish took it, sir!”
“I did not hear that!”
Seething, his father stomped to the end of the pier and glared down into the deep, black water. He turned on his son, high in his mother’s arms, “Where’s the goddamn rod I made you! Did you drop it in the lake? Did you? Answer me or by God I’ll—“ Eyes rolling white in his head, his father rushed forward and grabbed with strangler’s hands for the boy, but his mother jerked him out of reach and wore his open hand, sharp and hard across her cheek.
In that dreadful moment, the anger went out of William Senior and he sagged, shoulders drooping, hands lowered almost to his knees, head bowing. Ellen, by contrast, reared to full height, expression regal, with one arm across her distended belly and the other about her son. Her cheek wore the blossoming colour like a badge. “You’ll do what, Will? What? Hit me again? Or maybe you’ll throw your son into the lake after your stupid rod? Something cut him on the face, and he dropped it. Accidents happen all the time. You leave him alone.”
Will stood, seemingly halved in size, and nodded mutely. He looked back towards the cabin, back to the spread of the juniper and the bench beside the fire pit he’d made from castaway bricks and an old iron grate salvaged from the dump. When they’d first arrived, he’d started a good fire which now was reduced to an even bed of embers, bright coals that would now fade to black. “We should have lunch,” he said heavily, as if exhausted, “I’ll get the meat.”
Ellen watched him go, and when he was far enough away, lowered their son to the ground. With her fingers twining through his hair she said aloud, but to herself, “Perhaps he’s right.” Kneeling carefully, she watched her son sniff into a blood-stained hanky and noticed how his bright blue eyes were trained at his father’s back. The cut had already dried and was nothing, as Will Senior had said — barely a scratch. She turned the boy’s head to face her, but his eyes did not follow. “He spent the whole summer building that rod. He was out in the shed a whole week, Junior! Look at me! You need to be more careful. He has every right to be upset!”
The boys eyes turned slowly until they were on her, unblinking. “I hate him,” he said. The utter conviction in the words squeezed her heart. When it resumed beating, Ellen found it all for the man walking stiffly away, and none of it for this mean little boy standing before her. “Don’t you say that! I know it isn’t true” she said, giving him a little shake, as if the act of speaking the words would make them true.
Ellen turned to watch her husband walk up the curving path to the cabin, hale and bluff for all the world to see; nobody but her knew about his night sweats, the thudding helicopter-fears and screaming jungle-nightmares, his terror at the thought that she might abandon him. She sighed. Why did he bring them here, of all places, the wilderness seat of so much ancient family grief? It was a mystery. No less mysterious than his reasons, never discussed, for refusing to consider selling up their swaybacked house and getting out of that awful neighbourhood. There were so many questions she wanted to ask, but if she’d learned anything at all about Will, it was never to ask him twice. Her husband was not a man to repeat himself. And tonight, if he ran true to form, Will would apologise for the slap just as he always did. He’d bring them back together as only a man and woman could, and she would forgive him, juddering and shaking, her fingers clawing at the sheets. Oh, would she forgive. Sometimes Ellen found herself almost yearning for that slap, subtly goading him to anger, so that their day would end in heat, and so that in the morning she’d wake reborn.
Will in the meantime had stepped out of sight behind the end of the cabin and now had stopped, leaning against the wall, to recompose himself. He’d almost lost control, just then, had found himself wanting to slap her again and again. If the boy had got in the way, he’d beat them both until the meat and bone of their bodies merged into one.
Will stamped his feet to loosen any dirt before pushing through into the cabin. Closing the door behind him, he locked it in case Ellen followed, as was her wont when she realised her error. He’d punish her tonight by giving her a beating of a different kind, a kind she craved the way an addict yearns for the needle, and in doing so would bring her back into his fold. “Cock-hungry whore,” he muttered, kneeling to open the floor-trap. There was barely light enough to see by down there, a full larder, and a smell not unlike what you might expect, considering the store of venison he’d hung to cure. He descended the steep ladder, leaving the trap open until he found his Dolphin torch. He moved to the back, where behind a hinged rack of canned beans and preserved fruit was the mouth of a narrow tunnel his great-grandfather carved in the 1850’s. The tunnel led to a single large room at the end, where the Copperheads would met to plot the assassination of Lincoln—the room where Will now hung his meat.
He swung the preserves aside and tramped down the tunnel with historch, stopped at the end to yank open the ancient iron door, nostrils flaring at the smell of old meat, and crossed to the oldest haunch of venison. He cut away three thick steaks with his curving knife, shaving a little off one shoulder to pop into his mouth. In his mind he entertained visions of what he would like to do to Ellen down here in this secret room, where centuries ago angry men fought and drank, argued and plotted the overthrow of a President. He could see the room empty of hanging meat, it’s smooth stone walls scrubbed clean. A single, hanging bulb; a spigot for water; a bucket. The frame of a bare metal bed hard against one wall.
Ellen, naked and chained, pleading.
Utterly at his mercy.
The thought, along with the taint of blood and meat in the air, made him loosen his trousers, draw himself out. With the knife stabbed a savage hole into a swinging haunch of meat. Wrapping his arms about it like a lover, he forced himself in, pressing in hard, imagining her screams, as he began slamming his hips into the dead flesh, tempo increasing until the world turned white then black then juddering white again behind his lowered eyelids.
Spent, he pulled away and raised his torch to stare at the hole he’d made with his knife. A ripped red wound. Picking up the steaks, he raised one to the hole and caught the issuing fluid, then used the flat of the knife to baste it. Returning upstairs, he rubbed in salt and crushed pepper, then laid them out on a wooden plate. Ellen’s portion looked sticky until the salt did its work, but after that it looked just like the others. Returning to the fire, his thoughts were all for his wife, the simpering slut, and what the evening would bring her. He spared not a look, not even a thought for his son, William Junior, whose eyes across the fire were all for him.