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The Free Kokanee

by Sally Jennings

The kick-off was the offer of the free Kokanee. As Bobby stood there in Randy's basement, the regulation distance from the dartboard tarted up with Marilyn Monroe smack in the center, he mulled it over. Four six-packs of free Kokanee for going on a fishing trip with Randy and his twelve-year-old son, CJ. Cons: kids along on fishing trips; pros: adequate hooch added a nice dimension to fishing. FFFFhhhh, Thud! and Marilyn had yet another dart in her nether regions barely covered by her slinky peach dress.

"Hey Randy, is your brother-in-law Harry coming on this trip? We could use two boats, you know," Bobby said, thinking to himself, kid plus dad in one boat, Harry plus him in the other.

"Yeah, Harry already said he'd show, so it'll be just the four of us," Randy puffed between mouthfuls of chips. "Guy I know told me about some real hot fishing lakes. Got directions to the lodge. Pick up the outboards, cross the first lake, then hike 'bout an hour to the second lake." Whsh, Thck! Marilyn had a new front appendage enhancing her smile. "Don't have to worry 'bout the boats. Already there. Only one night. Harry's got some great fishing stories. Kinda think CJ should hear some of them, mus' be old enough now."

So now here they were, crossing the first lake, boats stuffed to the gunwales with poles and tackle, motors, bedding, pup tents, junk food, and those twenty-four Kokanee. Bobby had to hand it to CJ, kid was pulling his own weight. He was toting the Kokanee, and he hadn't complained, even though he probably wouldn't taste any of it.

"CJ's first fishing trip, doesn't know much about boats, so I thought he could learn from our youngest and fittest expert, you," Randy stage-whispered to Bobby earlier, "but ya gotta watch him real close." Sure will, thought Bobby, the kid's overly-excited, he's got my beer, and he's in my boat.

He hadn't realized it until they reached the opposite shore, but the kid didn't know much about docks, either. In a string of events that happened amazingly fast, the kid leapt out of the boat, skidded on the wet swaying boards, and neatly deposited his pack too far across the dock, into the drink. All this before anyone else had their muscles in gear to rise an inch off the boat seats. So all that Kokanee, oh that beautiful juice of relaxation, that vital encouragement to the best fishing stories ever told, now sat invisible in a foot of muck on the lake bottom. Bobby moaned in disbelief, squatting hunched over, staring into the water; Harry had gone rigid, mute with shock; and Randy was reassuring CJ in embarassed tones that the Kokanee didn't matter, he just wanted to be sure he was okay.

"Guess we don't have much time before the evening feeding time, according to the tables, so we better hustle," Randy said, ignoring the fact that the other two men were near tears. "Let's get a move on it, at least it wasn't our gear, or a motor. Maybe we can try to get it on the way back."

They reached the second lake, hauled out the boats, fished unsuccessfully for a good hour, testing their favorite lures, and then gave in to hunger. The lodge's stash of dry wood made a good campfire, popping and spitting mini-jets of tangerine flame into the cold, dry air. The sun sank low in the stillness; the evening nearly silent except for the hooting of loons on nearby lakes. As the clouds purpled to dusky grey, the flickering light of the fire reflected on their faces. Beans and hotdogs already inside them, soda pop and chips became dessert.

But the lack of a suitable intoxicant truly bugged them. Concensus was that premium fish tales required premium lubrication, not less than three cans an hour of high grade hooch. Story quality was directly dependent on adequate blood-alcohol level in both storyteller and listener. Well, they would just have to make do without the Kokanee and get on with it, even though their wings had been clipped.

Meanwhile, Harry, the veteran teller of fish tales, transfixed by the ruby flames, was choosing fish, time, place, and action, when CJ's words sliced their thoughts: "Can we try telling the Fish Story one by one, huh, Uncle Harry? Just one after the other, keep going around the circle, just to see how it would turn out? Then maybe we'll have more fun, you know, since I goofed up and lost the beer."

Harry protested weakly that he was the only qualified teller as witness of his fish and his story, but CJ dug in. Harry caved in. He would set the scene, but once the fish was intro'ed, everyone would tell the story, Randy, Bobby, CJ, and Harry again.

So Harry began,"Down in southeast B.C., where the trees stand dark and green and thick as the hair on your head, CJ, and the mountain comes right down to the water like a huge wrinkled shirt, and the lakes are a deep, dark mysterious blue, there is a pretty little lake. Prettiest little lake, think I ever saw in my whole entire life. 'Been 'bout thirty years ago, now, but I do remember my three-day trip to that lake! Was a lot like this lake, come to think of it, looked cold and deep. Went alone, had to pack in my own gear, and used a boat a friend stashed in the bushes 'bove the lake. Never guessed I'd see a fightin' fish like the one I caught!"

[The fish was waiting in the wings of Storyland, quivering. The story chip had beeped in his fin and here he was again. He so loved this intro and the description of his home lake. But he fervently hoped this freaky method of storytelling the kid had come up with didn't wreck his starring role. After thirty years of pretty much the same story every time, he had his action timed just right. And he truly, truly, hated surprises.]

Randy broke in, sitting hunched, as over a pole, "Just got the line nicely into the water, with a lure and some real juicy roe on it, and was dipping oar a little, starting to troll, you know, real quiet like, when I got three good tugs. Something taking the feed, see. So I tugged back, settin' the hook."

[The fish was suddenly jerked onto center stage above the campfire flames. Hadn't tasted fresh roe like that for better'n thirty years. Quality product. Well, heck, there might be side-benefits to this method, after all.]

Bobby cut in quickly, "Zipped away with that hook, headed right for the bottom of that lake, tried to outrun my twelve-pound test, but I had on miles of it."

[The fish was swimming in place, hard and fast, at a dizzying slant downwards, almost outswimming his vision in the darkness of the deep water. He regretted not spending more of his off time exercising. He could feel that line whipping around by his tail. He had the awful thought that maybe his fate was now in the hands of too many. With this method, if everyone visualized him differently, would he be a composite of four different fish? A horrific cut-and-paste mosaic? He shuddered. Usually Harry was the one in control, creating the vision carefully, piece by ordered piece, all...]

CJ's shout split the cold air, "Ya shoulda seen that fish shoot UPwards, skip on top of the water, and head right back for the boat. Tryin to jump out that hook, he was."

[Sh-sh-shoot? Sk-sk-skip? What the HECK? thought the fish. Jump the hook OUT? He knew better than that. He nearly upchucked at the corkscrew rotation maneuver required. But as a member in good standing of the character's union, he knew what was spoken must be acted, even at this perverse breakneck speed, and definitely against his better judgment.]

Then the last of CJ's words hit: "Oh man, when I saw his tail, I mean, like I got a real, real good look."

[The fish began hyper-ventilating. He knew this storytelling method was too kooky; he was going to be described tail first? He was too old for this, he thought as he fought upwards against the water, too old by a long shot.]

"Y-y-you know what color that tail r-r-really was, it was a pure, silky green, and so was the back of the fish that went with it!" sputtered Harry, anxious to slot in some accurate details.

[Well thank you for the compliment, thought the fish, at least Harry had his head screwed on right. The fish skipped carefully across the water so they could see his beautiful green more clearly. He could tell each of them was visualizing with that typical glazed, unfocused look.]

"Butcha know what, he had kinda dark-like spots. Never seen anything like it, lemee tell you. Had on a rare, rare fish," Randy chortled.

[Rare? Oh heck no, pleeeeease NO! thought the fish. What in the name of the Mighty Trout were they going to pull now?]

But Bobby's imagination was already off and gone, "Biggest, heaviest fish I'd seen for years, really packed on that frame, no kiddin, with these eeeNORRmous pectoral fins. I swear, those babies wouldn't go flat at his sides, no way, no how."

[Suddenly the fish felt weighed down tremendously, and jerked to the right ---THHHHHCK!--- and left ---THHHHHCK!--- as his pectoral fins extended and rotated ninety degrees. He tried to twist them and fold them in again. No go. Stuck fast. He began to gulp heavily, quivering in panic. If they ask me to jump now, he sweated, I'll go into cardiac arrest for sure. He felt positively faint, clammy all over. And it was the kid's turn next. Our Fatherfish, Who art in heavenly waters,... the fish began to pray.]

"But oh MAN, shouldda seen it, he did this great high LEAP out of the water, and I knew I got the color wrong, he was BRIGHT YELLOW with LIVER-colored red spots!" yelled CJ, face glowing.

[The fish gasped silently, horrified. Liver-colored spots? Like whose liver? Fish liver? And Yellow, for fry's sake? And what great high LEAP? His breakfast rose into his throat. Jump, Jumbo. Come on, it was already spoken. At his little, low spurt above the surface, he saw disappointment flash in their eyes. For CodSAKES what did they expect at this ungainly weight with the drag on those stupid things sticking out of his sides not to mention the sheer embarrassment of being this COD-awful color? What did they take him for, Sesame Street leftovers, perhaps, or Barney's new sidekick, or the newest evolutionary nightmare?]

"Did I tell it wrong, Harry?" moaned CJ. "It didn't look right, Harry. Can you fix it, pleeeease, oh pleeease? What kind of fish was this, anyhow?" The kid was whispering earnestly now, staring above the flames, clinging to the vision.

"Well," said Harry, a little smugly, "since I know you studied up on fish pictures in the guidebook for this trip, I'll just tell you his colors, and you tell me what he was. He had his breeding colors. He had a green back, like I said, with some spots, and red sides. And he wasn't nearly as overbuilt as you all think. He was kind of small, as fish go, but come to think of it, he was the spunkiest, most handsome, most free fish I think I ever saw."

[WHANG!!!, and a great zing inwards, KTHUNK! right, KTHUNK! left, that's what the fish felt. He was suddenly thinner, minus those awesome pectoral fins, and that awful cartoon color. He swam calmly above the fire, gratified that his corrected image was registering in all four sets of eyes.]

Randy prodded, "So what was he, son? Can you remember from the books?"

CJ, sunk in thought, suddenly erupted, "I know, Dad, I know! Oh way COOL! He was a KOKANEE! Wasn't he, Harry? That's the beer I dropped!"

"Oh my gosh," cut in Bobby, "my free Kokanee!"

CJ was all over the idea now, yelling enthusiastically, "FREE KOKANEE!  FREE THE KOKANEE!  THE KOKANEE IS FREE!!!" All eyes riveted on the vision of the fish, above the flames, watching, waiting, wondering, was there more?

[The fish could not control himself now. He had only heard of this happening once in his Chapter of Storyland since he had been there. These were the very words he needed to escape to eternal freedom. He knew he should have recognized the name of this lake where they had camped. This was Star Lake, of course. THE Star Lake. He had heard about it. He had only seconds to escape his imprisonment as a character. He took a giant leap lakewards from above the fire, then two or three mighty jumps across the phantom water, and hit the surface of the real lake with a satisfyingly large belly-flop SPLASH! He thanked the Great Fatherfish below as other members of his family, familiar even after thirty years, swam to greet him.]

Four pair of eyes bugged out in the flickering shadows around the fire. Four throats swallowed hard in the cold, dry air. Four sets of hands trembled in the stillness. Each of them had witnessed the entire sequence of moves with vivid color and clarity, had seen and heard it. Yet, as though someone had neatly excised a chunk of their minds, they could no longer remember this particular fish. He was truly a free Kokanee. He was gone.

Harry immediately went into shock, shaking all over like a lakeside aspen in a stiff breeze. Fear had stolen his words for what he had just witnessed. Never, ever happened to him before. Never, ever heard about it happening to any of his twenty-odd fishing buddies. Never, ever, no way! Must, must, oh God!...gotta at ALL costs keep it quiet. Real, real quiet. As in real quiet forever and ever, Amen.

By the light of the dying fire, they made their beds in near silence, and had difficulty sleeping. Up at dawn, they fished despondently, catching nothing, and left early. When they reached the dock where the beer had sunk, the pack was sitting on the boards, hardly wet. This was puzzling, but when they arrived at the lodge to settle the bill, the owner explained.

"Old Louie, he saw you lose the pack, from his boat. Pulled it out of the lake for you, and was gonna return it. But he said you weren't at the lake where you said you'd be. Figured you got turned around and ended up at Star Lake. Wouldn'ta sent you there, myself." He lowered his voice, "that Louie, we think he's a little crazy in the head about that lake. Says it has funny water temperatures, real hot spots, and real cold spots. Says he thinks fish that get loose from fish stories live in that lake. Says its the only way he can explain seeing all the different kinds of fish nobody sees anywhere else 'round here. Like bass, arctic char, kokanee,..."

As one they turned and bolted for the four-wheel, and the owner staring after them, took his cap off and shook his head. That darn story about Louie did it every time, no matter who he told it to, if they had been at Star Lake, they scrammed. Gee, that Harry guy had dropped a lure. Picking it out of the dust, he wiped it off, and squinted. A chuckle escaped. Hadn't seen one of these for years. It was a BeerCan lure; great lure for Kokanee. He laughed out loud. Well, if that was what they were after, maybe they had ended up at the right lake after all. No kokanee anywhere else for miles and miles around. 'Cept nobody ever caught anything at Star Lake. Funny about that, he thought, hooking his cap back on his head. Somethin' real funny 'bout that.

In the vehicle on the way home, they cautioned the kid to keep his mouth shut about the experience. "See, people will call you crazy, like Louie, if you don't," muttered Randy. And then, more forcefully, "and CJ, don't go talkin' to Mom about this. Not any of it. Doesn't matter what she asks. It's just one of those things men don't discuss with women."

Harry was feeling out of sorts, so he got let off at home. Randy decided it would be better to let Bobby and his free booze off at his apartment, rather than to try to explain to CJ's mom why they were coming home from a fishing trip with twenty-four cans of beer. Randy had a headache coming on, but with beer in the basement fridge at home he'd be okay. He reluctantly promised CJ a game of darts, if nothing good was on TV.

So when he and CJ came in the back door, they made a beeline for the basement. Uh oh, looked way, way, too clean. Sure enough, his wife's note on the fridge confirmed his fears, "Beer all gone. Card party and darts with the girls last night. Home soon with groceries." He made a mad rush for the dartboard. His Marilyn! Oh sure, Marilyn's face was there all right, reattached to the body of a sumo wrestler, with a neat little points chart for body parts. The kid shouldn't see this, he still adored his mother. He slammed the board shut fast, re-locked it, and pocketed the key, glancing sideways. Good, CJ had flopped down to watch a monster truck pull on TV.

He heard the garage door, and then "Honey, I'm home, would you like to help with the groceries? Did you get my note? I want to know all about your trip. Did you catch anything?"

He high-fived CJ on his way by. "I'll handle this, son, you just stay put. Since you'll be all grown up one of these years, someday soon remind me to tell you more about women, and all their questions."

Partway up the steps, through his pounding headache, he heard his wife sing out, "I bought some lovely sockeye salmon for dinner!"

Deep inside, he felt his ulcer give a mighty twinge. Weren't land-locked sockeye, kokanee? He hauled himself with a thud onto a kitchen stool, holding his stomach, trying to force the words out to explain somehow, that he didn't want fish for dinner. But all that escaped his lips was "ko-, ko-."

"Some cocoa?" said his wife brightly. "My poor dear, is your stomach bothering you? You look awful, we'll talk about the trip some other time, you just rest now. We'll have your favourite chicken and dumplings tonight instead of salmon."

Good, he thought dully, he had triggered her nurturing instincts, and he was off the hook, but as she turned her back to fix the cocoa, he could swear that the fish in the plastic wrap winked at him.

Copyright 2004-2012 Sally Jennings www.speak-read-write.com

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