A girl and a man sit in a boat in the middle of a lake. The girl is thirteen and doesn’t think there is anything strange about the two of them spending every day out on a lake in the man’s rickety fishing boat.
The man has his old fashioned fishing rod, and she comes equipped with her Snoopy fishing pole. The girl never tells the man that she has outgrown the toddler sized pole, and the man never asks.
Every night, they sprinkle coffee grounds to attract the worms. The girl is reminded of tobacco. Clutched in the left hand and then set on the damp earth to attract spirits. Or is it to honor spirits? The girl cannot remember.
They get up before dawn every day. Without speaking, they go into the woods behind their house and dig through the damp earth, pinching worms between their fingers and tossing them into a tin can, dented and rusted.
The girl holds a worm longer than necessary between her fingers, watching it curl and squirm, trying to escape back to its protected life underground. She wonders if it feels naked without the dirt. She holds it a moment more before dropping it into the can. The wet splat of it landing on top of the other worms stays with her through the rest of the day.
They never talk when they are out on the lake. After the girl casts her line into the water, she abandons it for whatever novel she is reading, a replacement for the oral stories of her childhood. A ghost of a memory now. She glances up every once in a while, to make sure the bobber hasn’t gone under. The man never notices that she has abandoned her pole, his eyes always locked on his own bobber.
At the man’s house each evening, the man cooks up whatever they have caught and serves it on a bed of rice. They eat in silence. After the meal is done, the man goes outside and smokes while the girl washes the dishes. Then they go to bed, a single door shutting, and start the whole day over again in the morning.
The girl is fifteen now, and she meets a boy. It is on one of those rare days when the man lets her skip fishing to go into town to buy groceries. The man does not skip fishing.
The boy works at the market, and he is like any other boy at that age. The girl wouldn’t have paid him any attention, but he makes a point of helping the girl grab the cereal that is slightly out of her reach. He then helps in finding everything else she needs instead of re-stocking as he is supposed to, and when the girl is walking to the checkout, he asks if she would like to go to a movie with him that evening.
She stops in her tracks and raises her eyebrows. There is a long moment of silence as the girl considers. She has no particular interest in the boy, but the thought of escaping the man’s watching eyes and the stifling silence of that house, if only for a night, is too tempting an offer to pass. She nods. The boy smiles and asks where he should pick her up. The girl says she’ll meet him at the theatre.
The girl takes the groceries home. She doesn’t know what a girl wears to the movies to meet a boy and spends the rest of the day trying to figure that out.
The man returns sooner than expected from fishing.
From inside the bedroom closet, the girl hears the heavy thumping of his boots on the wood floor. She gathers up the clothes she has laid out and shoves them back into the closet, closing the door behind her. The sleeve of an Aztec print t-shirt peeks out from the door.
The girl goes to the kitchen. The man is waiting for her, arms crossed and looking almost like a disappointed father. The fish are on the counter, waiting for the girl.
The girl picks up a spoon and grabs a fish. The fish is still moving, flopping, trying to escape her hands. She places the spoon at the tail of the fish and scraps all the way down to the gills. Scales fly everything. The methodical zipping sound of the spoon on the scales is the only noise in the house.
The man stands a few feet behind, watching her.
When the scales have all been removed, the girl picks up a knife. She cannot tell if the fish is still alive anymore. Sometimes they are, and sometimes the slipperiness of the fish gets mixed up with the continued moving of a fish trying to fall back into the safety of water.
She hopes the fish is dead.
The girl makes a long incision from the anal fin up to the gills. Then she reaches in and begins pulling out the organs and intestines: heart, gizzard, stomach. The girl can see an air sac inside the fish and wonders if she cut herself open if she could see the same inside herself.
The man comes up behind her. In her right hand, she holds the fish’s stomach. Her left hand rests on the counter next to the knife.
The man gently runs his fingers through the girl’s hair. The girl clenches her fist around the fish’s stomach. Liquid and half-digested worms and minnows leak out onto her hand.
“Scales,” the man says and shows her the scales that he has pulled from her hair.
They reenter their silent routine. Neither of them says another word as she finishes cleaning the fish. She wonders if the boy saw the movie by himself.
After dinner, she washes the dishes. When she finishes, she sits on the couch, hands folded, and waits for the man to finish smoking his cigarette.
The man comes in, the door slamming shut behind him. He motions towards their bedroom. The girl stands and walks into it without saying a word. The man follows and shuts the bedroom door behind them.
The girl is seventeen now and dreaming of college. She’s not sure she will be accepted anywhere since she has been homeschooled, and her education hasn’t consisted of any topics normally covered in school. In secret, she took the ACT and sent out applications. In secret, she waits, clutching the only dream she has ever had close to her chest.
Long after the man has fallen asleep next to her, his snoring echoing through the room, the girl lies awake and counts the bumps on the wood walls. The man’s hairy arm tossed across her chest is a heavy reminder of everything—the silence, the pain, his eyes, his hands.
Sometimes she hopes that the man discovers the applications. Sometimes she thinks that her life with the man is fine, that it could be worse, that at least she knows this pain, is familiar with it. And he is not a bad man. He takes care of and treats her well enough.
But most of the time she thinks of fish. Scales flying. Fins cut off. A head ending in gills. Dead worms in its stomach. With each precise motion of her spoon and her knife, it looks less and less like a fish.
The man turns in his sleep, the prickly hair of his arm making her skin itch.
She whispers a prayer to whatever is listening as she tries not to scratch.
The girl is eighteen when the first rejection letter arrives. Nestled between junk mail addressed to the man is a small envelope addressed to her. She slips it into the gap at the back of her jeans, pulling her baggy shirt over it to hide it. It stays there, unopened and rubbing against the sensitive skin of her back, until she uses the bathroom. Seated on the toilet, she rips the envelope open and pulls out the slim piece of paper inside.
We regret to inform you—
She crumples the letter up and tosses it in the toilet. With the help of the plunger, she watches the letter disappear into the pipes. She exits the bathroom, scowling, and begins to clean the fish.
“What’s wrong?” the man asks her as they eat their dinner.
“Nothing,” she says.
The man does not ask a second time.
The girl wakes before dawn the next day to a vase of flowers by her bed. She presses her nose to them and inhales deeply. Then she gets dressed and meets the man outside to pull the worms from the ground. As they work, the girl glances at the man. He does not acknowledge her gaze or say anything about the flowers.
When the other rejection letters arrive, the girl flushes them too, watching the water seep into them as they swirl around in the bowl before disappearing forever.
The girl is twenty now and working at Kohl’s. She never went to college and still lives with the man, but while the man goes fishing every day, she goes to work so that they can afford to live. The girl doesn’t miss fishing.
The girl meets a woman at work. The woman is only four years older than the girl, but she seems worldly. Like a woman the girl can almost recollect whose dress used to sing with every step she took. The woman has black hair that cascades to her waist, a nose ring, dark nude lipstick, and a tattoo on her left forearm. It’s a geometric Animikii design, a thunderbird.
The girl thinks the woman is the most beautiful thing she has ever seen.
The woman and the girl become friends. The woman recognizes something in the girl that the girl had almost forgotten was there. The woman spends their shifts together telling the girl stories that the girl half remembers from her childhood before the man’s house. A flood and a muskrat diving down into the water. The muskrat dies sometimes in this story, sometimes it is only unconscious, but in its paw, it holds dirt. Saving dirt.
The woman slips into their native tongue often during the stories, and even though the girl has not spoken it in years, it comes back to her quickly. The girl wonders why she stopped speaking that language and feels guilty whenever she does not understand a word the woman speaks or whenever her own tongue trips over pronunciations. The woman translates when the girl’s forehead creases or slowly pronounces a word, syllable by syllable, when the girl cannot pronounce something.
When the girl returns to the man’s house after her shifts, she practices the words she has learned under her breath as she cleans the fish. She stops whenever the man comes near. She is not sure why. The reason is like a decomposing body, still there for now, but barely recognizable as what it once was.
As they refold men’s jeans one day, the woman asks the girl, “Niijikwe, have you heard the stories of Mishibizhii?”
The girl chews her lower lip. She remembers a woman whispering that name to her.
A warning, she thinks. Then hands grabbing, pulling. She can remember nothing else.
She shakes her head.
The woman smiles at her, dark eyes twinkling. The girl could stare into those eyes forever.
“You know the story of the Animikii though, right? Thunderbird?” the woman asks. “Well Mishibishii and Animikii are like always in conflict. You know, opposing forces.”
The woman’s hands fold the jeans with expert ease. Her fingers are long and delicate looking, but there are callouses on them. The girl wonders if the woman has ever scaled a live fish.
“There are some that say that Mishibizhii is powerful but helpful, looking out for our people, and others think Mishibizhii only brings death and destruction,” the woman says. The woman leans toward the girl and lowers her voice, a whisper. “He drowns women and men both, and sometimes he grabs women and brings them back to his home, forcing them to live there with him. Forever.”
The woman leans away from the girl and bends down to pick up another pair of jeans. When the woman stands up, she laughs at the girl’s wide eyes. She lightly bumps her shoulder against the girl’s. “It’s more complicated than good versus evil though. There’s a balance to maintain. He might be capable of evil, but that doesn’t make him evil.”
“Where is his home?” the girl asks. To her ears, her voice sounds breathy, almost scared.
The woman doesn’t seem to notice. “Mishibizhii lives in those deep caves. He is a great underwater panther. Hey, hand me that pen, will ya?”
The woman continues, telling the girl story after story about Mishibizhii. Some star Nanabozho, some Animikii, and others have unnamed characters. When the two finish thei folding, the stories end, and they continue their work.
At closing time, the woman drives the girl home. When the girl moves to get out of the car, the woman lays a hand on her arm.
“Wait,” the woman says. “There’s something I want to do.”
The girl’s breathe catches, and she looks at the woman with wide eyes. The woman leans across the space separating them and kisses the girl. The girl kisses the woman back, and in that moment, the girl stops thinking of herself as a girl.
Once the former girl gets out of the car, the woman drives away. The former girl walks towards the house of the man, smiling. She stops when she notices the man standing outside the house, smoking. The man flicks the cigarette to the ground and stomps on it.
The man has seen everything.
The former girl tries to go to work, to see the woman again, but the man won’t let her, even skips fishing to ensure she doesn’t leave. She screams words she has learned from the woman at him as he drags her back into his house. Chimookomaan. Gawiin ni-nisidotanziin. Daga wiidookawishin. Daga wiidookawishin! White man. I don’t understand. Help me. Help me! His fingers leave bruises on her arms.
“We speak English here,” he tells her and locks the door.
She tries again the next day and the next day. But each day, the man drags her back into the house as she yells the same three phrases at him.
She lies in bed one night and wonders what the woman thinks happened to her. She hates the idea of the woman thinking it was the kiss that scared her away.
“Gizaagi’in,” the former girl whispers into the night to the woman. The man stirs in his sleep, and the former girl vows that she has to see the woman one last time, to explain.
The former girl tries to escape one night while the man is smoking. She does not know where the woman lives, but she will deal with that once she has escaped. She opens the bedroom window and climbs out. She expects something to go wrong. Maybe landing on her ankle wrong. Maybe the man is smoking directly outside the window. But nothing goes wrong. She makes it to the end of the gravel driveway. She glances back, looking for the man. He is nowhere to be found, and the former girl cannot bring herself to take another step, to leave the driveway and begin walking on the road. All she can think of is that vase of flowers from when she was eighteen. A mixture of wildflowers that the man must have gotten up early to pick and arrange.
The man finds her, hesitating on the edge of the driveway and the road. He carries her back to the house. The man smokes inside after that, and the former girl feels like a girl again. The man returns to fishing, and the girl is forced to join him.
She pulls the worms from the dirt with more force than she used to and wonders if the worms actually like escaping from the ground. If the earth is suffocating. If her fingers yanking them from the dirt feels like salvation.
On the boat, the girl rips one of the worms in half. She tosses one half back into the tin can, and the other half she threads onto the hook of her lure. Her fingers are sticky with its blood. She pulls back her pole and casts her line into the water. She doesn’t bother rinsing her hands in the lake. She leaves bloody prints on the reel.
The man watches her now instead of his bobber. The girl watches her bobber but knows the man watches her.
Near the end of their fishing day, the girl cannot take the silence any longer. She asks the man, “Why don’t you live underwater?”
The man looks at the girl, and the girl looks back. She begins to think he isn’t going to answer when the man says, “From my experience, people can’t survive down there very long.”
The girl’s bobber goes under, and she gives the pole a sharp tug. The fish catches, and she reels it in. She unhooks the bass and drops it to the bottom of the boat. It flails about, looking for water and smacking its mouth, a hole in its lip. The girl picks up the angler’s priest and slams it down onto the fish, over and over again, until the fish is no longer moving.
She sets down the fish bat and wipes her face. She feels the trail of warm blood on her cheek. She meets the man’s eyes and says, “Sometimes I wish you lived underwater too.”
Amber Wardzala is an English—Creative Writing student at Denison University. She is Anishinaabe from White Earth Reservation and grew up in rural Lyons, WI. Her poetry and photography have been included in several regional publications, and she has received awards for her short fiction. Her short story “Realism” was adapted for orchestral performance. She has been involved in various theatre productions, appearing on stage from Albuquerque to Milwaukee. In summer 2019, she joined an ensemble to adapt and stage Nahoonkara, a novel by Peter Grandbois. She was also a teaching assistant in the summer of 2019 for the Jonathan R. Reynolds Young Writers Workshop. For the fall 2019 semester, Amber studied abroad in Bath, UK. She is co-captain of her university’s Varsity Fencing Team, and, before COVID-19, she volunteered at Licking County Humane Society in her free time.