The Little Fish That Could
by Terri Mork Speirs
He was a father on limited time. His son was a boy explorer. The fish they caught together let loose infinite potential.
First, let me set the scene.
It was a Saturday in July. The extended family and I were at the lake. The air was humid, buggy, and slightly rainy so we spent most of the afternoon sitting inside a netted patio. Insects aside, it was a glorious time together as we don’t often enjoy opportunities to see each other.
The lake was a quiet body of water, more so that day due to the overcast skies. No speed boats, jet skies, canoes, or kayaks. Our campsite, though completely modern with electricity and running water, was surrounded by an undeveloped state park. Thus, it was just us. Family, food, drink, alongside a pristine panorama of water, sky, and tremendously thick tree growth. Who cared about the relentless gnats outside our the netting? We had a good working flush-toilet and we were together.
As grand as it was, we were about to witness something even better. Something that could have fizzled into nothing, could have escalated into disappointment, could have never happened at all. That something was pretty simple: a boy wanted to fish and his father complied. The boy was my eight-year-old nephew, a outdoorsy ruffian who showed me his nature finds throughout the weekend, things like turtle eggs and a fossilized skull. The father was one of my three brothers, a man who shares custody of his children and makes every minute count.
Overall we were not so much a fishing family, but knowing the boy (my nephew) enjoyed this activity, the father (my brother) had packed two poles and simple gear for the weekend. There was bait next to the beer in the fridge. Father and son pitched their strings at the end of the dock and waited, flying pests and moody clouds notwithstanding, the rest of us still taking refuge inside the netting. The rain grew harder.
“We can fish on the paddle boat,” the boy suggested. The watercraft had a sun cover and to him, it could function as an umbrella. As a parent, I’d have called it quits at that point. (Actually, I don’t fish so I wouldn’t have even made it as far as the poles and the dock.) But the father followed his son and out they went in the rain on a paddleboat with two fishing poles.
If you could pick up a pencil and draw a classically formed fish, simple lines, fan-shaped tail-fin, curved topside arching into a pointed head with bulging black eyes — that’s what they caught together. The gilled creature was about the size of a large human jazz hand, a little fish with big possibilities. I don’t know who caught it, the boy or his father, but it didn’t matter. They caught it together. It was mission accomplished, rain or shine, gnats or no.
Next came the filleting. With a kitchen knife and a cutting board, the boy and his father stood in the rain on the dock and sliced the fish open, trimming away the morsel of meat. The truth was, the father didn’t know how to fillet a fish but he cut away the best he could. The boy watched intently. Meanwhile, those of us hiding in the netted shelter kept hollering for them to make sure the guts were disposed far away from the campsite. The boy took care of that part.
For me, the most magical moment of the story came next.
Holding up the small white fillet with his little rascal fingers, the boy asked his father: “Do we eat now or do we cook it?” It was the most earnestly asked question I’d ever heard. And there were so many potential answers. There could have been laughter, embarrassing the boy for his curiosity. There could have been mockery, poking fun at the boy’s innocence. There could have been deceit, telling the boy to go ahead and eat the raw fish flesh.
There are so many choices when it comes to how we relate to children. As adults, we have the power. We may choose to engage or ignore. We may choose to talk straightly or sarcastically. We may choose to care or neglect. We may choose to empower or abuse.
Children and fish figure into our public choices as well, as presently there are up to 80,000 unaccompanied minors from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico being held in detention (a nicer word for jail) in the U.S. These children are, in essence, asking the questions and we have many answers from which to choose.
As Christians, we are informed by Jesus’ call to believe that when we give there will always be enough for all, as described in the parable of the feeding of 5,000 people (not counting women and children) with just two fish and five loaves of bread.
As Lutherans, we behold a robust infrastructure of social service agencies with decades of proven experience to care for foster, immigrant, and refugee children.
As citizens of the U.S., the richest country in human history, we are more wealthy than we can imagine. (My definition of wealth is this: if you reliable and private sanitation, you’re rich.) We have resources.
Holding up the humble piece of floppy fish flesh, the boy (my nephew) waited for his father (my brother) to answer to his question. Should he eat it raw or cook it first? As an innocent child, he’d do whatever his father told him.
“We will cook it first,” the father said. No frills language, just an answer. And they did. The boy stood in front of the grill with a spatula, meticulously turning the fillet over and over the hot irons. His sincerity was palpable. He cooked it real good, flipping and flipping again, loosing a flake here and there to the fire. I was pretty glad I didn’t have to eat it, but they placed what was left of the blackened fillet in between slices of bread and sat down at a picnic table.
The boy and his father feasted together. ~