Catch and Release

Seven days ago, I ate the live walleye.

            My new “bun in the oven,” as my friend Bo calls it -- I’m only four months along -- is a miniature beer gut. I read once of a fish-eating champion that drank his victims straight out of the bowl, but the standards are always higher for mothers.   

            Bo had run for the cobwebbed-filled restrooms by the pier where we were fishing. Anybody else but him would know--left alone with our catch uncovered, I wouldn’t be able to stop staring at it--that sushi is bad for babies.

            Bo has been comforting, though. He has told me his sister desperately wanted to eat autumn leaves when she was pregnant. It got so bad she took a fork with her on a walk in the woods, and tried to harvest a low-boughed maple. Her husband stopped her just in time.    

            He says she only ever mentions that the birds were in large flocks that day, the fall burst of twittering and upheaval.

            "Yes,” she will say. “Exciting plans were being made.”  

            I often find myself cupping the head of the neighbor’s cocker puppy, looking into its eyes with a maternal hunger. There is nothing so soft and limpid as the eyes of a spaniel.

            Another child will bring some much-needed chaos into my life. I never think of motherhood in terms of robbery -- as some of my friends do -- as if it is long years of bait stripped off the line. My little daughter Lucy is becoming too manageable, even with my husband gone, deployed to Iraq. The long stretches of calm between his phone calls, her tantrums, are making me uneasy.

 

 

            The path next to the lake where Bo and I fish is made of clay. It looks as it’s been beaten down by the stamping of angry feet.

            The day I ate the fish, Lucy had been studying a man baiting his hook with a mackerel head. Still staring, she had straddled an imaginary horse and peed.

            Walking back from the bathroom, Bo had splashed lake water over the dock and, holding her under her armpits, lowered my daughter gently over the side.

            She didn’t start watching me until the third bite.  

            Two weeks before, my husband had called me, with the whirring ding-dongs of a bad connection. There was a five second delay between us speaking and being heard, as if we'd both turned elderly.

            “My R and R’s been moved out three weeks,” he said.

            “Lucy’s birthday,” I said flatly.

            “We’ll celebrate it late." A helicopter flew past on his end. "She won't even know."

            “Oh,” I said. “She’ll know.” He had obviously not thought of countdowns, birthday cake stickers pressed onto the date.

            “Okay,” I said. “We give in. Let’s celebrate everything those two weeks you’re back. Christmas, Thanksgiving, All Fool’s Day.”

            I imagined a blur of parties, everyone with a constant smear of frosting on their lips. Throwing the turkey out of the fridge one day to make room for oyster stew the next.

            “There’s no talking to you right now.” His voice is bone-tired.

            “Hijinks.” I picked at something lodged in my teeth.

            “Love you,” he said.

            I made myself wait for the click and let it sink in hard.    

            Some people cut their arms and legs with knives. I have other ways.

            I chewed the walleye carefully. It was young, full of fight where I sank my teeth into first. Masses of scales, needle-bones, slipped down my throat. After awhile the fish shuddered in my hands, and was still.

            When a gift comes to you in the form of another life, you can only choose the outlet your gratitude will take.

            I watched Bo dip Lucy in the water again, as if she were a tiny leper, her chin tucked against the chest of her butterfly swimsuit.

            So long as she stays thankful she will always be clean, I remember thinking. Thankful feet are light. They wear better paths than angry feet, ones without a tight-hard sheen across them, slippery when wet.

Natasha Heller lives in Kansas with her husband, four kids, and their Portuguese Water Dog. She has had poems published in the Blue Earth Review, Critique, and Relief: A Quarterly Christian Expression, as well as creative non-fiction published in GreenPrints.