Two men on a boat, fishing. The two have been friends for twenty years. It’s early morning of an autumn day, a breeze in the air. Perfect for being on the river.
“Have you thought much about dying?” the priest asks. He has a white head of hair and a little paunch around the belly.
“Of course. It’s on my bucket list,” Tom says from his side of the boat. Tom’s in his mid-forties but looks younger. Life has treated him well.
“Sounds like you think death will be a vacation,” Father John says.
“Pretty much. It gives me something to look forward to.”
“Don’t you have any fear of what comes after?” Father John casts his line. The line splashes into the water.
“Not really.” Tom reaches for the can of worms. “I’ve never gone in much for all the hand-wringing about the afterlife. Seems to me that is what you’re for. Me, I like the anticipation.”
“What I’m for?” The priest studies the water.
“Yes.” Tom finishes baiting his hook.
“I am no expert.” The ripples have stopped and the water is calm.
“I sure am not. Why did you ask anyway?” Tom casts his line into the water.
“Lately I’ve been thinking about it more. I’ve had an awful lot of funerals to conduct this year.”
“Oh, yeah.” Tom thinks he has a bite on his hook. He slowly reels the line in.
“It’s become hard to comfort people when they’ve lost someone. I am supposed to have answers and I don’t. All I have is some mumbo jumbo that don’t even make sense to me.”
Tom pulls his hook out of the water. It is empty and the bait is gone. “It may not be mumbo jumbo to them.”
The priest is quiet, then he hums some of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”. After a bit, he speaks, his voice almost a whisper and filled with tears. “When I was seventeen, I lost my sister.”
“I didn’t know. You never told me.” Tom selects another worm for his hook.
“She was only seven. Such a fragile little thing.” Father John remembers. “My mother almost lost it. She’s never been the same since.” He reels in his line, grabs it out of the water. No worm. “You know, I like that Dylan Thomas poem, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’. I have wondered for years why my sister did not rage against the dying of the light. But she didn’t. That’s when I decided to become a priest.”
Tom casts his line back into the water. “So you could find out why?”
“Not really.” The priest tosses his line into the air. It lands in the water with a splash. “So I could fight the darkness with some light.”
“Have you succeeded?”
“No. The darkness seems to be winning.”
A fish pulls on Tom’s line. He slowly reels him in, handling the line gentle so the fish won’t know he is being hauled in. He pulls the fish out of water and drops it into the boat and next to him.
“Now that is what I call a fish,” Father John says, glad to have his mind off the darkness.
Tom unhooks the fish. He looks over at the priest. “Without a little darkness, there can be no light. That’s what the Tao te ching says. And that is what I try to live by.”
“There is some dark and some light in the world. Just like there is some dark and some light in each of us.” Tom takes the fish and tosses it back into the water. “That’s what the fish know.”
The priest looks puzzled.
“The fish know that the worm they see might be on some hook. But they bite anyway. That’s his acceptance of the dark. But he also knows that is the cost of all that time he got to swim in this river. The river is the light. Without the hook, there can be no appreciation for the river he now gets to swim in. So you see. It’s all good. Isn’t that what God said?”
The priest still puzzled. “God said?”
“It was good.”
“You have got to be kidding,” a voice comes from the water.
“What was that?” Tom says.
“What?” Father John asks.
“It was me,” the voice again. Then the fish Tom threw overboard jumps out of the water. “Terence Patrick Michael O’Bass.” He falls back into the river.
Father John can’t not believe his ears. And neither can Tom. “Are you hearing what I’m hearing?” the priest asks. Tom responds, “Yes.”
The two look into the water. There is the fish and he is…how shall we say? Speaking in tongues. And the tongues he’s speaking in are the foulest kind of words.
At that point, Tom protests. “Now hold on, fish.”
“Terence, if you don’t mind,” the fish says.
“Now hold on, Terence,” Tom says. “What in the world are you talking about?”
“Your palaver,” Terence says, jumping out of the water. “It’s the biggest line of baloney I have heard in many a year. First off. We fish do not bite into a worm thinking it might have a hook in it. That’s downright stupid.”
“Oh yeah?” Tom says. Father John nods his head. He can’t believe what he is seeing, hearing. Tom is actually talking to a fish, and the fish is talking back. Unbelievable.
“Get this straight,” Terence says, diving back into the water. He pops up his head. “All we fish want is to be left alone. It’s no darn fun, having a hook in your mouth. You should try it sometime.”
“I didn’t say it was fun,” Tom again.
“It’s bad enough that we fish have to struggle day in and day out to survive. But, on top of that, we have you to contend with. Life is hard enough. Just leave us alone. And you, priest, why are you blubbering over your sister?”
“What?” There is anger in the priest’s voice.
“Do you not believe your sister is in a better place?” Terence asks.
“Then why are you so sad?”
Father John does not have an answer. Instead the weight of his doubt falls from him. He feels like he can float away into the sky like some cloud,
“And here’s one more thing for you to think about,” Terence says, then jumps out of the water and faces the two men, fish to man. He shoots water into both of their faces, laughs and falls back into the water.
When the two have gotten the water out of their eyes and can see, Terence is nowhere in sight.