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Wrong Fish

           On Lyle’s thirtieth birthday, he and his older brother Wes hooked the boat trailer up to the back of the Jeep and went fishing on an unnamed lake deep in the back woods, accessible only by a narrow, muddy road through the pines. They launched their aluminum johnboat from the ramp on the bank just as the rain started and they were glad they’d brought their homemade ponchos, which they’d cut from the remnants of a ragged tarp. Lyle wrapped the starter cord around his fist, gave it a few yanks, cursed the resulting rope burn, and the little outboard motor coughed to life, sending the boat puttering out across the still, gray water.

            The men chose a spot near the center of the lake, cut the motor, and dropped their lines in the water. The rain drummed against their ponchos and pinged off of the metal boat. They hardly spoke at all and Wes had a few coughing fits. They could see their breath in the chilly air, and after an hour, the metal pail, half-filled with lake water and resting in the bottom of the boat, contained only one bluegill, swimming around and around. The trees on the bank looked ghostly in the drizzle and fog. Lyle and Wes were content.

            Wes had brought a battery-powered, waterproof radio with him, and he rested it on his seat and scanned through the static for any station at all.  The only station he could pull across all that distance and through all that weather was Q106, but Lyle and Wes were rewarded for the effort when a man identifying himself as “Rip” called in during the Q106 All Request Lunch Period. Rip couldn’t remember the name of the song he wanted to request, so he tried to sing the one fragment of it that he knew, hoping the DJ would somehow recognize it and play it for him. This went on for a while. Whatever Rip was singing did not sound like a real song, and Lyle and Wes laughed so hard that they almost capsized the boat.

            About an hour later, Lyle finally hooked something sizable. It gave him a good fight, and he stood up in the boat to get better leverage while Wes held his legs to steady him. After a few minutes of skillful struggle, Lyle reeled a thrashing, silver 10-inch fish up out of the water. He gripped it just behind its gills with his right hand as he eased back down into his seat to remove the hook from its mouth.

            “Whatta ya got?” asked Wes.

            “Big perch, I guess” said Lyle. He grabbed the slippery hook with his left hand, but just as he was about to pull it free, he stopped.

            “What is it?” asked Wes. “What’s so fascinating?”

            “This fish has no eye,” said Lyle.

            Wes shrugged. “Nature’s a rough place. It’s been known to claim an eye or two.”

            “No,” said Lyle, holding up the fish so Wes could see. “It’s not missing an eye. Look, no hole, not even a little dent. Just scales right over where the eye should be. Huh, look, this side too.” He turned the fish around to show Wes that it had no eyes at all. The fish had stopped thrashing since Lyle had grabbed it and now it opened and closed its mouth with a steady rhythm. Lyle pulled the hook out of the fish’s mouth, but continued to study it, holding the fish flat on his lap with one hand and rubbing his finger over the place where its eye should have been, feeling the cold, slick scales. The fish began to tremble in his hands and Lyle said, “I don’t know if I wanna eat this one. He’s not acting right.”

            Wes looked out across the lake and said, “Does it seem like its getting choppier to you?”

            Lyle looked up from the fish. “It does,” he said. The johnboat rocked from side to side as small waves smacked against its hull. Then the boat began to slowly rotate around in a circle.

            “The water’s swirling,” said Wes. “Uh oh. Oh boy. It’s swirling around us.” He reeled in the rest of his line in a hurry and dropped his rod in the bottom of the boat. “Lyle, throw that freak-fish back.”

            Lyle seemed about to protest, but Wes looked scared and said, “Get rid of that thing, Lyle, I’m not kidding around.”

            The boat spun faster. The swirling water started to pour in on itself at its center and both Lyle and Wes recognized the beginning stages of a whirlpool. It was forming rapidly. Lyle got up on one knee on his seat, his other foot planted on the bottom of the boat, and threw the fish far out into the water where it landed with a quiet, little slip of a splash. “Happy?” Lyle yelled after the fish.

The water kept swirling. “That didn’t do it,” said Wes. “We’ve gotta get off the water.” Lyle turned and yanked on the starter cord again, once, twice, three times, and the engine finally responded. At first, Lyle didn’t think the motor would give them enough power, but he opened the throttle all the way and the boat managed to break free of the edge of the whirlpool even as it grew more ferocious, sucking floating branches down its roaring throat.

            “Forget the ramp!” shouted Wes from the front of the boat over the growl of the engine and the churning water behind them. “Just go for the closest bank!” The waves on the lake had become large enough to spill over on themselves in their rush to the center, and the boat plowed over and through the whitecaps without grace, jarring the men painfully and sending the radio bouncing over the side and into the water where it disappeared.

            “Please, please,” said Lyle quietly, “I wasn’t trying to catch you.” The rain stung his face as the wooded bank came closer. He didn’t want to look back. If they had no chance of making it to shore, he didn’t want to know. Fallen timber flowed past the boat in the opposite direction, carried by the increasing suction of the whirlpool. Lyle saw Wes, sitting in the front of the boat with his hands gripping the sides, looking back towards the middle of the lake. Wes’s face was not encouraging. Lyle looked back. The whirlpool was huge, violent, stretching further than ever. Lyle was certain they had no chance.

            And then, twenty yards from the shore, the boat ran aground, grinding against the sandy bottom of the lake and coming to a shuddering halt, pitching both men forward, Wes toppling out of the front of the boat and into the shallows and Lyle sprawling forward across the fishing gear, dumping the tackle box and overturning the metal pail with the bluegill in it. The fish flopped around in desperation, its tail slapping against Lyle’s cheek. Lying in the bottom of the boat, he could feel it being pulled back out into the middle of the lake, he could hear the rocks buried in the sand scraping along the boat’s underside as the whirlpool’s draw reached as far as the shore. “Get out!” Wes was shouting. “Lyle, get out!”

            Lyle pushed himself up, two hooks stuck in his left hand, and flung himself over the side of the boat and into a foot of freezing water just as the boat worked loose and began its doomed trip back to the lake’s angry center. Lyle scrambled to his feet and stumbled through the muck up to where his brother crouched shivering on the bank.

            “There it goes,” said Wes, and the men watched in quiet awe as the current carried the johnboat with all their fishing gear in it back out over the water in a clumsy rush. The last the men saw of the boat, it spun around a few times, capsized, and disappeared down the mouth of the whirlpool, sucked to the bottom of the lake.

            And just like that, the lake went calm. Within a minute, the only sign of the whirlpool and the waves were a few residual ripples on the surface of the water. Not far from shore, a fish began jumping and waving its tail about, it seemed to Wes and Lyle, exultantly. It was impossible to tell if the fish had eyes from such a distance, but the men assumed that it did not.

            They stood on the bank with their tarp ponchos twisted around their portly bodies and frowned. “If I wasn’t freezing to death,” said Wes, “I would get my gun out of the Jeep and shoot him right out of the air.”

            On the way home, the Jeep bumping over the rutted track through the dripping gray and green woods, Lyle said, “It’s a time like this that makes me regret crying wolf so often over at the tavern.”

            “Ah,” said Wes. “You’re referring to the infamous electric eel story. And the infamous tame carp story.”

            “Yes,” said Lyle. “Among others.”

            The empty boat trailer rattled along behind the Jeep, and miles behind that, the fish leapt and splashed, the only disturbance to the dead calm of the lake.