Fish-ing

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.”

“What?”

“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.

“Yes,”

“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.

An overheard conversation

Recently I was in a local museum, walking from painting to painting. There was a couple ahead of me admiring the paintings.

“I will tell you, Carla. The woman does not look happy,” the man said.

“But, George, that’s cause she’s dead,” Carla said, then pinched her friend.

“Ouch! Why did you do that?”

Carla laughed. “Checking to see if you’re alive.”

“I’m alive? Of course, I’m alive,” George objected.

“You wouldn’t be happy if you were dead either.”

He stuck his tongue out at her, then said, “Then I wouldn’t have to put up with you.”

Carla puckered her lips. “Give us a kiss.” Her lips came close to George. He tried to move away. “C’mon. Give us a kiss, then I can bite that tongue off.”

He backed away from her. “You’d do that.”

“Course I would cause you’re such a downer.”

They took one final look at the Roman matriarch, then moved on.

Soon

Another lyric for your enjoyment.

Rigor mortis is setting in
When it does I’ll be stiff as a board
Just another corpus delicti
Part of a great skeleton hoard

Crossing over the River Styx
On I go to another side
Hoping to be one of the picks
Through the Pearly Gates to reside

Soon I’ll be in the grave or bust
Soon I’ll be ashes and rust
Soon I’ll be nothing but dust
Soon I’ll be part of the crust

I’ve done my share of roaming
I’ve got trav’ling shoes to prove it
Picked up a bit of sea and sand
Been to the sunrise and in the pits

Took on the valleys and mountains
Over rainbows and under bridges
Never sure where I was bounding
When I made my jump off the edges

Soon I’ll be in the grave or bust
Soon I’ll be ashes and rust
Soon I’ll be nothing but dust
Soon I’ll be part of the crust

Near 500 words: Life goes on

Cora was much too young to be a widow. Married only six months and already a widow. Gani, her husband, wasn’t a soldier who went off to war. He didn’t have a dangerous job. He simply ran into a truck. Or should I say, the truck ran into him.

So here she was, wearing black and trying to hold back the tears. But they just wouldn’t stay behind the the dam. Nineteen years old, and a widow. That was all she could think of.

At the funeral, folks came up to her and offered her their condolences. They offered them to Gani’s family as well.

After the funeral, she went to bed and stayed in bed for several days, getting up only for food. The house she and Gani had bought was now empty. And she wasn’t even pregnant. That, at least, would have been something.

Her mother-in-law came to see her. “Get out of bed,” she said. “I will make you a nice breakfast, and you’ll feel better.”

“How can I feel better?”

“But you will,” her mother-in-law said.

As Cora ate her breakfast, her mother-in-law sat across from her. “You know, I lost my first husband.”

Cora put some eggs into her mouth and chewed, then she said, “You did?”

“I did. And I cried for weeks. Then I realized I was still young and life needed to go on.  Whether with me or without me. My son is dead. You are still alive. Put a smile on and go out into the world and enjoy yourself. The house is paid off. From the insurance.”

“But what about Gani?”

“What about Gani. He is in someplace wonderful and he doesn’t want you quitting life. He loved you. Do you think he wants you dead too? He doesn’t.”

“But I can’t.”

“You can. And you have too. Remember the wonderful days you had with Gani. They were a gift. Now you have permission to go on and live your life. You’ve had some great times. And you are going to have some great times in the future. Life is too short to waste it on the dead.”

“What will everybody think?”

“Who cares what everybody thinks? The important thing is that you get on with your life.”

That night Cora put on the new dress Gani had bought for  her. She put on the new shoes she had bought herself and went dancing. Dancing made her feel alive. At the dance, she met someone. Someone who became her second husband. Little did she know that he would die from an accident with a truck too.

Near 500 words: The nurse and Mr. Smith

Charlie had been a nurse for twenty years and had seen all kinds of patients. Few patients gave her the satisfaction she received from Mr. Smith. Though in a great deal of pain, he bore the pain like an old trooper.

She got the call from her service Tuesday morning three weeks earlier. “You’ll be with a Mr. Smith.”

Charlie almost laughed but she didn’t. Smith was quite a common name and she had served her share of Smiths. And Joneses as well. Little did she know this Mr. Smith was going to be different.

On her initial interview, she remembered Sarah, his daughter, telling her about her father. Tears filled Sarah’s eyes. Seems he had been in pain for much of his whole life. How he managed it Sarah wasn’t sure.

Charlie began her work, administering the drugs prescribed, adjusting his body in the bed, taking care of his bowel movements. As she moved through her work, Mr. Smith did not complain. Most of her patients did, but he did not.

As she watched Mr. Smith sleep, she saw his body struggle for the peace he deserved. When he was awake, he sometimes spoke through the pain. There was a peacefulness in his voice as he struggled through that pain. During these times, he told stories. His stories were funny and often dirty. She did not mind. His stories had a life in them that few writers had in their books.

One day Charlie got an idea. “Mr. Smith, can I record your stories?”

He smiled as his words struggled to get out. “If you would like.”

She turned on the recorder and he started a story. This one was about pirates.

Over the months, Charlie sometimes wondered if the old man’s stories were recollections of an earlier life. Or were they dreams or imagined?

After six months of attending Mr. Smith, he let go of life. Charlie had been reading Dickens to him that night. She went into the kitchen and made herself a cup of tea. When she returned, she looked over and realized her patient had left her.

She walked over and closed his eyes, then reverently kissed him on the forehead goodbye.

She left the room quietly, tears in her eyes. She called his daughter. “Sarah,” she said. “Your dad has left us.”

“I’ll be right over,” Sarah said.

Sarah came and she saw her father and she smiled. “He had a good death, didn’t he?”

“He did. I have something for you.” Then Charlie handed Sarah his stories. “These are for you.”