Age 28, Northwest Pond, Newfoundland
The happiest I ever saw my father was on a fishing trip. Stress and swear words as we lurched along the dirt road onshore: “fucking potholes” and “Jesus struts.” Strained conversation and accusations as we wrangled the boat offshore: “How could you forget that?” and “Not that way, for Christ’s sake!” My brother, hungover, puked over the side of the skiff into the pond. Vomit mingled with the gasoline rainbows trailed by our motor.
Dad cut the engine; we cast our reels. They whirred and unfurled their clear lines – seemingly tenuous but strong. Hooks and lures landed with splashes as they dove below the surface.
My brother’s retching punctuated the uncomfortable silences, alongside the birds calling and mosquitoes buzzing. We three bobbed in place, waiting for a bite or an insight from one another, when something pulled on my father’s line. It was something big. We forgot my brother’s hangover as we all hung over the side of the boat, vying to see the powerful adversary.
All we could see was the rod straining and the line taut. An invisible force was wrenching our vessel. The water revealed nothing.
I turned to watch my father. He smiled and laughed in a way I never saw before. “Some strong,” he hollered as he danced from one side of the boat to the other with his invisible partner. In all our communication, he and I never matched that give and take.
The mighty salmon acquiesced. He emerged from the water, the same mottled greens and browns as the water. He belongs here, I thought. Dad let out a triumphant whoop while I held my breath and bit my tongue.
My father caught him fair and square. The odds were stacked against him, wrong reel, bait, and season. But after some internal debate, he returned the tender pink flesh to the lake.
“Don’t got the right permits,” he explained.
I like to believe it was more than that.
Age 7, Southwest Arm Inlet, Newfoundland
My father and I were on an expedition. We seesawed in a slight ocean current, but the wind was nonexistent. I whined about flies. Dad huffed and coated me in repellant.
“Shoulda left you home.”
The bug spray stung my eyes, but I dared not complain a second time, preferring blindness to going home a disappointment. Garden variety childhood melodrama that felt true at the time. Familiar waters I can still slip easily into.
I swallowed words as a fish flopped in the bottom of the boat. Its rainbow scales caught the early-morning light. Its gills gasped rhythmically. I longed to toss it overboard — or bash its skull in, but I never had that sort of nerve.
The hours passed; the bodies piled. A soundless choir of mouths opened and closed at our feet. We opened our lunch bags and closed our mouths around Wonder Bread sandwiches. I avoided the panicked eyes. When the body count reached an acceptable level, dad wordlessly turned on the engine and pointed our bow homeward bound.
Age 35, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia
I try to recall other memories of my father but the images that surface are murky and intermittent. It’s like trying to see a salmon in an opaque pond. Sometimes there’s an outline or a movement, but it disappears. You wonder if you ever really saw it at all.
My father worked away on draggers much of my childhood. He missed all our births and birthdays. He missed one baby’s death.
After weeks of dredging the bottom of the ocean, it’s a wonder he wanted to fish during his brief week home. Maybe it was for the sport. Trawlers never offered a back-and-forth dance to their catch: killing machines with a psychotic upper hand.
Still, it was work, so he was happy to have it — until the moratorium. The fishery’s standstill took away our livelihood and gave us years together. We lived to a soundtrack of tense silence; my father’s presence was barbed by unspoken fears.
Eventually, the government retrained the schools of listless men to pillage another resource. This time our messiah was named Oil & Gas. Then, he was gone again, for weeks and months at a time.
Dad came home to strangers and interrupted routines built without him. A louder, happier house resulted from the security he provided.
Resource extraction made my mother a single parent. Dad, a tool in her arsenal: “Just wait until your father gets home,” she said, running from errand to chore. Though the threats never materialized, we harboured a healthy fear of him.
Photos tell a different story: us children bouncing on his knees and cuddling him on couches. But my recollections of these are vague at best, possibly forged from the pictures themselves. The fishing trips have the strongest pull.
Age 10, Black Brook, Newfoundland
I went fishing with a childhood friend. We got separated. When I came to a bend, I went the wrong way.
Water sluiced in my boots, and panic rose in my chest as I walked alone. Hours passed. I clutched a hot margarine container, sunshine-yellow dappled with screwdriver punctures.
The worms lay forgotten inside, a writhing tangle in a handful of dirt. Perhaps it felt like payback to them: feeling the vibrations of my frantic calls against their plastic enclosure: “Please?” and “Help!” They were no longer the only ones searching for a way out.
My father heard the news and herded the family to the mouth of the river. He sped there, my siblings tumbling in the truck bed, risking the flock to save the wayward one.
He let out a triumphant whoop when I emerged. But condemnations followed close on the heels of the celebrations.
“What were you thinking?”
“I don’t know.”
“You coulda been killed.”
“You have to be more careful.”
Age 12, Gaze Cove, Newfoundland
I started my period while fishing. The tongue of fabric lining my underwear tasted iron for the first time as I cast from a calm ocean shore. The clots of uterine lining like fish guts my father threw to gulls.
A seal carcass lay supine nearby, its eyes eaten from the sockets. It wore a crown of flies. Like me, it smelled of blood and wasted potential. Already, I looked around the idyllic rural reprieve and feared I would rot there.
At home, I scrubbed the rusty stains in the bathroom sink and told no one. I wadded toilet paper to catch the blood. I imagined my parents knew but were as happy as I to avoid the talk.
For a year, I held tight to my secret. When the news leaked, my aunts pinched my cheeks and bestowed womanhood to me though I still felt like a child.
Age 35, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia
Now, pain from an impinged nerve pinches my face. It spreads down my leg like uncontained menstrual blood. It reminds me of how life expands and contracts. It ebbs and flows but stays somehow the same.
I am still the same child, biting my tongue and hiding my inner life. Before I pick up the phone to call my parents, I give myself pep talks. This time will be different. But it never is.
They seem dismissive and uninterested in me: “Have you heard what your brother is doing?”
I am defensive and petulant: “What about what I’m doing?”
When I hang up, I wonder if I were a fish, would they toss me back?
I don’t fish anymore — I don’t even remember the last time I cast a reel or rode in a motorboat. It’s just not the language I speak; I’m not sure it ever was. Was it a genuine shared interest or another half-baked attempt at bonding?
My father still fishes, although not as often. I smile to think of his nuanced exchanges with unseen adversaries. Most of his hobbies are being dredged away by the trawlers of illness and old age.
In my spare time, I churn up lake water with a paddle. Twenty bodies pile into a boat, outfitted with a dragon’s head. We move as one in a back-and-forth dance, gasping rhythmically in time with our efforts. Paddling is hard but compared to family it’s easy.
Maybe that’s why I spend time casting for meaning in my memories. They are connected but separate, intricately woven like a net. I dip it under the surface to see what I can catch.
This journey with my parents is full of false starts and failed attempts. The effort is often much greater than my resulting catch. But I keep trying for those occasional achievements and the triumphant whoops they elicit. Someday perhaps, we’ll understand each other like my father and his catch.
Elizabeth Pike is a writer living in Nova Scotia with Newfoundland roots.