10/4/12

Prompt: Three things my father told me.

Survival Skills

She shivered in the chill March wind, channeled as it was through the sharp crevasses of the mountains above, but at least the sun was high and hot. As she picked her way carefully over the muddy slush-filled path to the stream's edge, the sunlight made beads of clammy sweat trickle from her brow down her neck. For one heart-stopping moment, her boots lost purchase and she nearly slid into the water, dropping her rod and tackle, but a convenient boulder caught her shoulder and brought her up short.

A shaky sigh breathed past her lips. "Jesus," she laughed, quietly, "be careful kiddo. No cuts, no bruises; it's dirty out here." And it would be a long, lonely drag back to camp if something happened to her way out by the creek.

Funny how she always called herself "kiddo" when going out to fish. She knew why. Fishing was irrevocably tied to her father; the sometimes gruff, always quiet, rarely demonstrative man with whom she'd grown up. The man who had retreated deeply into himself after the death of his wife and barely acknowledged his two young daughters. Together, Laura and Emily had managed to keep everything together…but only just. Emily had left the moment she'd turned sixteen; moved in with a sympathetic friend and refused to come back.

Laura had stayed. She was older by four years than Emily, after all, and she remembered sides of their father that the younger girl had never known. He had not always been silent. When their mother was alive, he had cooked and baked for them, brought in little bundles of sweet spring violets to place on her desk, and taught Laura how to fish on her seventh birthday.

It was funny to think that after so much had been lost that Laura should have managed to keep hold of her little green and yellow tackle box and child-size fishing pole, now just barely longer than her arm. Holding them in her hands, she could remember her father's rough, kind voice imparting what had seemed to her to be the Great Secrets of Fishing.

She could hear him now, as she scouted the creek for the right place to drop the line:

"Look for an outside bend," he'd knelt down by her side, stubble scratching at her ear as he'd pointed out a wide bend in the stream where a few fallen branches rotted slowly in the current, "The food's there, and that's where the fish will be."

Laura spotted just such a place and sat down on a stump to bait her hook. Thankfully, though almost everything else was running short after a long winter, worms were still plentiful, and she had dug a good half-can full in the muddy banks around camp that morning.

"Don't just spear it on there, kiddo," he'd laughed at her first attempt to get the squirming worm on the line, "Fish are gonna bite that right off. Here now," and he'd taken the hook in his big hands and delicately threaded the worm's entire body along the curve of metal.

"There," he'd nodded, approving, "now they can't steal it away from you."

It had taken practice—especially for young fingers, reluctant to harm any living thing—but Laura could do it now with only one or two false starts. She left a few millimeters of worm wiggling at the end as an added enticement, then crept to the edge and dropped the line with a satisfying plop.

The stream was just slightly too deep in this section for Laura to see if there were any fish lurking below, but she preferred it that way. No matter how many times she dropped her line, there was always something thrilling about the breathless, silent wait for that tell-tale tug on the end of the pole, followed by the delicate dance with the determined fish, edging it ever closer to the bank.

Also, it gave her time to think. Camp was too crowded to go for long without being noticed by someone and wrangled into some new project. There was always something to do…quiet reflection was frowned on unless it came in the hours after dark, when firewood could no longer be split, the washing was taken down from the lines, and the shabby tin dishes were all washed and put away. By the end of the day, everyone was usually too tired to think, and retreated immediately into the tents clustered around the bonfires.

This physical and mental exhaustion might be a boon to some, but Laura needed to think. So many years with her father had given her a taste for loneliness, for the peace that isolation brings to a troubled mind. For a while, she lost herself in just watching the red and white striped bobber bounce and twirl in the stream's slow eddies, letting her memories drift by like leaves in the water.

Emily had had children of her own. Twin boys—twins ran on her husband's side—coming up on their eighth birthday, by now. She wondered if anyone would teach them how to fish…if they had, by some miracle, managed to find their way out of the city and into a camp, as she had.

There was no way to find out.

Thankfully, a dip on the end of her line put an end to those morose thoughts. Laura sat up and waited for the fish to give her one more sign…

The bobber disappeared under the surface as the fish swallowed her hook.

"It's a big one, kiddo!" he had whispered, excitement giving an urgent edge to his voice, "Give it one good tug," his hands had closed over hers and pulled back, sharply, "There, it's set. Now, gently…coax him to shore. If he panics, he can break the line."

Laura coaxed. The fish—probably a small-mouth bass, given its fighting spirit—danced with her, trying to tangle the line in the stray branches that clogged the river, then making a break for the boulder's overhang. She let it run but never too far, and eventually the fish flopped on the shore, exhausted and panting.

"Nice one!" she laughed, prying her hook from the inside of its gill and tossing the fish into her bucket.

Her first fish had been less than impressive. But both she and her father had insisted on taking the eight-inch perch back home, where her mother had thrown up her hands and declared it a monster. There had been more bones in that fish than fish, but she still remembered the way the skin had blackened in the fire and the way the firm white flesh tasted when dipped in tangy tartar sauce. Everyone—even baby Emily, just three at the time—had declared it the most delicious fish ever, and the memory even now was enough to make Laura close her eyes against the tears that threatened to spill out.

She missed the worm entirely on her second attempt, but the pain of the hook in her thumb banished the tears and made her focus. For the rest of the day, she kept her thoughts on her work and took another four bass, two perch, and one mudsucker before the sun started to dip towards the horizon.

It took a good forty five minutes to get back to camp, and Laura knew she would have to hustle before the sun set. She disassembled her rod and threw it in the bucket, clamping the lid down over her catch. She could carry both the bucket and tackle box in one hand, which left the other free just in case.

She slipped a few times getting up the bank, breath puffing vapor in the quickly-cooling air, but it felt good to move and warm up after a chilly afternoon sitting so still. And tonight there would be good hot fish, maybe cooked up with a few turnips or potatoes…they were mealy after being stored for the whole winter, but still…

A branch snapped to her right, the sound echoing starkly through the silent wilderness. Laura dropped everything and threw herself behind a tree, fumbling in the waistband of her jeans for her pistol. She cocked it, the sound echoing just as loudly but twice as deadly.

After a long moment—during which her heart threatened to burst from her chest—Laura eased slowly around the tree.

The soft brown eyes of a skinny doe met hers, the animal just as startled as she to be interrupted. After a moment, the deer returned to pawing at the snowy ground, snuffling eagerly for an undigested bit of early spring growth. Laura sighed, and holstered her gun.

The deer barely flinched as Laura clattered her gear together and resumed her trek up the hillside. This doe was just a few years old, and was probably ignorant of the dangers that humans, despite their reduced circumstances, could pose to her serene existence. This far north, the human population was reduced to either small camps or roving bands of marauders. Laura's own camp, for example, had just sixty-two people and was the only one within a ten mile radius.

The doe would not have to fear her gun, in any case. They saved all their bullets for the thieves who lurked at night.

Speaking of night, Laura had to get back before Michael needed his gun for the evening patrol.

But first…

She turned and pressed her fingers to her lips, blowing a shaky kiss back towards the river.

"Thanks, Dad."