Rufus ate all the strawberries this year. I sent the kids out to gather what they could, and they ran barefoot with the bottoms of their t-shirts folded up over their elbows, ready to use as baskets. They tore down the hill to the strawberry aisles Arlo planted our first year in the house. Instead of the abundance of bright red, sweet berries, the children discovered gnawed on branches, slobbery leaves and half bitten fruits. My chocolate lab lumbered towards the woods to, I expected, take a great red dump. The children returned with a meager load of fruit and claimed it was all they could find. Since we couldn’t have fresh strawberries, I asked the children to pitch ideas for the pie I was attempting, now fruitless in more ways than before.
I gave them the keys to the shed where we kept the fishing poles and told them to catch me as many fish as they could. Again, they sprinted down the hill to the edge of the lake and fought over the door handle and the keys. Rufus came back up eventually, his brown snout licked, but not quite clean of the evidence.
“I’ve caught you red-snouted!” I teased and he threw his butt into the back of my knees for a scratch. Big dummy. Now we had no strawberries today but there were still a thousand that weren’t ripe yet, as the summer was just beginning.
I have caught a grand total of six fish in our lake, all before the kids came to us. All but two were sunfish, one was a bull head, (like a smaller, sharper catfish) and one was an actual catfish. I caught a trout once in a different lake with my grandfather, who made me kiss on the lips every fish I pulled up from the water. I would be granted luck by the fish for one kiss, as long as the hook was not embedded, irretrievable, somewhere in the belly. I have only three memories of my grandfather: kissing the fish, him crouching outside my window and pretending to be a frog that talked, and walking toward the lake with his retriever, Godrick.
The talking frog was proposed by my father, who wove elaborate stories into reality, who recruited as many people as he could into the web. The stories were so good, people willingly lent themselves to perform them for the very purpose of terrifying us kids. Somehow, my father could build an entire species of creature that distressed me, and then when the story ended, family members or perfect strangers would perpetuate the events in their own ways. I turned to see a woman once who swore she saw the skinless, neon scavengers of my father’s most recent fabrication. My grandfather, as he croaked and laughed outside my window while the crickets and real frogs joined in beyond, was playing into my imagination through my father and his terrible stories. Only when I started to cry did he stand up full length and reveal himself the ventriloquist of the frog king’s voice. Seeing my grandfather, still in his fishing vest and smelling like wet tobacco, was somehow worse than an actual frog king leaping through my window and croaking about his horrible life.
The children were experts. The girls were strong and sure of their casts. They speared and twisted and doubled the night crawlers on their hooks, always with the same confident and serious looks on their faces. The boys sometimes opted out of poles entirely, using one of the large nets to scoop up fish as they stood knee deep in the water. Patience was their greatest strength, and what patience was to the boys, grace was to the girls. The girls cast their lines with the kind of sweeping arm movements that I believed were reserved for painters to their canvas. Far away, bobbers danced on the surface and worms danced on the hook and fish churned the waters around the boys ankles, mistaking them for reefs. Rufus and I stood on the porch, facing the lake together. He moaned and whimpered until I looked down and gave him permission to leave my side. “Rufus, go see the kids,” and he bounded off. I wish I could say he trotted onto the dock and sat loyally by the concentrating girls, or that he looked to the boys with a reverence for their dedication. Instead, Rufus, the dog I had inherited from the side of the road, launched himself into the lake, jaws snapping at the water he shot in the air and scaring away every single fish in a hundred foot radius. The children dropped their tools and dove in laughing.
For a year, I had the same dream night after night. There was a small pond in a field with wide shores of mud and wild grass. The water was a burnt yellow and sometimes large fish would raise their mouths above the surface. I struggled against the force that pushed me in, could not lift my legs out of the tangles of weed and minnows that cling to my ankles. By the time I was in the middle of the lake, not being able to touch the soft, murky bottom anymore. The fish mouths were rising and falling. Always before I woke up, some force grabbed me by the ankles and dragged me down into the dark water with the bloated corpses of animals that had met the same demise. I only remember one dream where I actually saw the animals. Hairless, pale grey and swollen bodies were scattered around the shore and the force that pushed me into the lake was gliding me past the bodies, most of which still had their long black claws. I woke up from that dream with a weight on my chest like a tight bandage my racing heart was trying to undo. The waves from the lake were breaking against the dock, but very slow and very far apart. In my final dream about the pond, I wish I could say there was some conclusion. I wish I could have found the lake all dried up from drought, with dead weeds and cracked mud all the way around and the force that pushed me down would not be able to drown me. But all I can say is this: the last time I had the dream about the pond, I felt all the fish writhing around my legs like worms writhe in a bucket I keep in the shed for fishing.
Of course I didn’t make the pie.
Call it catharsis, revenge, pity. Call it something I wouldn’t expect, like bravery or love. Call it my life with Arlo and all the strange and beautiful things that happen to us. I sometimes have a strong feeling about our connection, like we are always unlocking old wooden doors and finding fresh growth in the gardens we forgot to water. Every once in a while the world seems a veil with runs that reveal the strangeness behind it all. The nail that scrapes the fabric, or the edge of the firewood pile on the side of the house that snags the thin layer of material and threatens to break the skin, is really the core of our relationship and the surface of reality that is being broken. We look for the single red berry in the swath of white and green. We see the translucent lips of sunfish pucker and close around skittering bugs and mayflies. The children fall asleep together in the living room with the window open to hear the frogs. Arlo and I sit on the porch with a small bottle of bourbon and brush the crickets off our legs. There is balance in the world that we can see, but beyond it there is a thin curtain between truth and story, and that is where we live.