Once I was a fish. At least I imagined I was. As a young girl, I spent hours lying on the docks around a bay of Lake Minnetonka, staring into the water to watch the sunnies and perch and minnows that swam below me. I might catch a glimpse of a bass lurking on the edges. Schools of baby bullheads swarmed in wiggling blobs that were ever elusive to a pair of human hands.
I saw how the fish darted into the shadows of the dock when alarmed, how they fluttered their side fins to stay in place and whipped their tail to move quickly. I wondered how they moved as a school without ever running into each other. I puzzled over how they could breathe through gills and wished I had some. I learned where they would hang out during the day depending on the weather. If I was fishing, I saw how those crafty small fry would nibble a worm clean off the hook while barely moving the bobber.
I remember the feel of sun-warmed wood planks as I lay there on a cool morning, feeling like a browning piece of toast. Those uniquely lake odors of aquatic plants, dead fish, and gasoline wafted over the water, mixing with the tang of creosote from the railroad tracks nearby. Just like I imagined the fish doing, I'd seek the sunlight in the mornings and rest in the shade in the afternoons. I ate squashed, waxed-paper-wrapped sandwiches for lunch, chased down by a slurp of water from the water fountain over at the beach.
When I swam, I tried to move my body like a fish. I'd flutter my arms out to the side and thrash my legs, but I could never attain the grace and fluidity of a fish. And I so desperately wanted gills. I loved swimming under the water and looking at things. It was annoying to have to go up to the surface to breathe. It was ages before I discovered masks and snorkels, but I still had to come up for air. When I read the Harry Potter books as an adult, I was hugely envious of gillyweed, which allowed that lucky wizard to get oxygen from the water like fish do.
One way to get closer to fish was to catch them. I cried when I injured them with hooks that went in too deep or lodged near their eye. I used to fish so often that I would dream about fishing. After a long day staring at a bobber for hours and hours, I would be dropping off to sleep when I would envision the bobber just starting to sink under the surface. I would jump to jerk the hook, waking myself abruptly.
I got really good at casting after losing many lures and practicing in the front yard with a metal washer tied to the line. Most of the lures ended up in tree branches, but I also caught boat ropes and awnings, sailboat stays, buoys, tons of aquatic plants, my brother's ear, my neighbor's shirt, and, of course, my own hair, body parts, and clothing. I once hooked both my hands on the treble hooks of a Hula Popper.
I used my father's old tackle box, complete with a rusted tangle of hooks and lures that took a long time to separate and sort. I would organize and reorganize them until I had the perfect place to fit everything I needed. Every time I got a new lure or package of hooks, I'd change everything around. What a colorful little arsenal to yank an unsuspecting fish out of its world.
I discovered what fish looked like on the inside when we cleaned them for the frying pan–once I got past the horror of cutting off their heads. I had to put a tissue over their faces so they wouldn't look at me as I knocked them on the head with a hammer to dispatch them. Once the head was off and out of sight, I saw them both as food and as a biological investigation. Each type of fish had a different shape, but many of the same organs that supposedly were much like our own. Those organs were encased in bones that were arced like wooden boat ribs, and it made sense to me in an aquatic sort of way. The bright red gills were a wonder, gold specks glittered in their eyes, the scales cast rainbows–but all grew dull and sad with death.
Some of the first lessons I learned about taking a life were with those fish I caught after a day's angling. I mourned those that died from a swallowed hook or were forgotten on stringers at the end of the dock, or the ones that turned stiff and gray in the laundry tub, where we hoped they would last until we felt like cleaning them.
The older I got, the harder it was to make the decision to take a fish's life. But if I didn't catch the fish, was it OK to eat one? I had to wrestle with a budding conscience and a new empathy for other living beings that were very different from myself. Now it is no trifling matter to go fishing. I spend other ways enjoying a day on the water, swimming, or in a kayak or a sailboat. When I do fish, it is mostly catch and release. I keep very few to eat. Because once I was almost a fish.