Every spot on this sweet blue globe of ours has its miracles: bioluminescent dolphins speeding under a sailboat on a calm night in the Gulf of Mexico like constellations on the move, the sound of peepers demanding the return of Persephone from the underworld, the scent of actual chestnuts roasting on an open fire. They happen all the time, but we only sometimes notice.
For several years, neighbors at the Would-Be Farm regale us with the walleye run. Early in the spring, the story goes, northern walleye gather to spawn. The walleye –– Sander virtreus –– is a nice little freshwater fish, delicious and sporting to catch, a beefy cousin in the perch family.
"You look for their big googley eyes at night," we heard. It's a natural wonder.
It usually happens too early in the season for Mr. Linton and me. We miss maple season. We miss ice fishing, and generally, we miss the walleye.
But not this year. Spring is dawdling, despite the peepers' chorus. We are here early. Our first nightfall, we bee-lined from the Would-Be Farm to the rapids of the Indian River.
Flashlights revealed ambiguous tan shapes for a moment until our eyes reconciled the truth: those are fish, and those are indeed big glowing googley eyes, as promised. But in such astonishing volume.
SO many fish.
At the flash of my camera, each googley eye showed as a spangle –– a spark –– a star –– in the madly rushing water.
There's no flinging about like salmon, no crazy aggression, just this seething vision of piscatorial mass.
We stood by the roar of the river (the waterfalls are just out of frame in these photos, cold and brutal in the dark) for a long while, meeting their googley gazes under the cloudless starry night. Then, shivering, we chased the beams of our flashlights back to the truck.
On the far edge of the parking area, the game warden eyed us but didn't bother getting out of the truck.
The locals have been known to fill their wading boots with walleye and then squelch right past the officer, equal parts insouciant and insolent. But Mr. Linton and I might have been wearing big mouse ears. Obviously tourists. Just here to see the sights and move on.
For a couple of months when I was in fifth grade, one of the neighboring horses escaped its field. Even then, the neatly fenced landscape of small dairy farms was sliding away from cultivation. It was possible for a large hoofed mammal like a runaway horse to make itself scarce amidst the uncut brush. It set my imagination on fire.
* To break the rational universe, yes, the happiest of all combinations in the English language would be the impossible pairing of "free" + "ponies."
But don't be a fool, man, the space-time continuum can't bear the strain...
Lucky reader, we have NOT world enough or time. But as my skipper recently remarked, "You can take the girl away from the horses, but you can't take the horse out of the girl.
We were heading down to the river to do some paddling and fishing, four of us convoying our kayaks along a remote stretch of private dirt road when, like a big blue bird of happiness finally coming home to roost, abracadabra! A pony!
As someone in a dream, I fed my prize a nibble of apple and rubbed her ears. I whipped up a serviceable halter from the bow line of my sister's kayak and dropped it over the pony's head and commenced the long walk to the Would-Be Farm.
My fishing companions had a variety of reactions. The retired state cop, visibly relieved at someone taking action, drove off saying he'd phone in the missing pony.
My sister echoed my exclamations of "A PONY!" and took photos.
My sweet spouse suggested that I didn't need to move the animal anywhere. He left the second half of the sentence, "let alone bring it home" unspoken.
Do I need mention that it began to rain? Or that, once at the Would-Be Farm, the pony ate a snack of grits, drank a bucket of water, took a vigorous roll on the newly cut grass, and trotted off in the direction of the wild back half of the Farm.
The first rule of farming? Right after "If you have livestock, you'll have dead stock," is "Fences first."
There is no comfortable spot to stow a beast of burden at present at the Farm. I found a longer bit of line and made a more secure halter, and when the pony trotted back –– and toward the road –– I recaptured her.
Making sure she was familiar to the limits of being tied (she had showed a great deal of sensibility and calm on our long walk), I anchored her to a handy tree and ate a belated lunch.
The consequences of my actions tossed her sweet head and snorted impatiently. She got a hoof over the line and stood balanced on three until I put down my lunch and rescued her.
She snorted and backed with zero dignity into the tenting platform so that she could rub her butt against the edge of the deck.
She took a bite of the evergreen and theatrically rejected it, tossing her thick mane and blowing flecks of green around. She was bored, bored, bored!
It entertaining program, but not a sustainable one.
I laid the options out to my favorite skipper: "One of us will have to drive up the road and ask a neighbor with a corral if we can put the pony there. The other will have to stay and hold the pony's lead." Into the considering silence, I added, "Which one do you want least?"
He elected to hold the pony. The man surprises me. I gave him a pointer or two –– he generally dislikes the whole family of Equus –– and dashed off.
Luckily, there's a messy farmstead up the way with a handful of cattle and horses, plus chickens, and as it turned out, eight sheepdogs. Beware the dogs indeed. Standing on the running board, I asked the woman who emerged from the scrum of dogs, "Hey, have you by chance lost a pony?"
She was standing a couple of yards away from the fence inside which a variety of horses and ponies and cows were calmly eating hay. She gestured over her shoulder and said, "Honestly, I don't know. These are my husband's horses."
I thought: and THERE is a successful marriage.
I told her about my wild pony, and she said, "Hmmm, my father-in-law lost a pony last summer." (The youthful horse-crazy kid in me silently fist-pumped at this additional proof that wild pony herds are possible).
Then she said she'd better come take a picture and text it in case it was one of her father-in-law's.
Yes. It was one of the father-in-law's bunch of horses, she told me. Name of Daisy. "She's a wanderer," my neighbor said, "Though usually she stays on the other side of the river. It's a long way to walk."
We chatted a bit, and then my neighbor led Daisy away. "I'll bring the rope back," she said.
I sighed and then said to Mr. Linton, "So, you remember that time we went fishing and I caught a wild pony?"
Some warming-up exercises from my writing day.
Story 1: Got an Eye on You
They might be watching from the most unlikely of places: from your own wristwatch, a smudge on a painted cinderblock wall, the unfurling tendril of kudzu.
If it looks like, it looks.
An eye for an eye.
You might speculate, but how will you ever know what thoughts –– or if thoughts –– drift across those observer's minds. They are made to watch, certainly, function following form, but by whom and for what possible reason?
Story 2: Fisheye Lens
Fish always look surprised when lifted from the water. Well, not all fish: Sharks aren't so much surprised as continuing to look as if they are hunting, cat eyes blank in those smooth faces. But most fish tilt a that sequin of an eye and flex a jaw, possibly astonished by the wide airy world that has taken them.
Maybe it's gravity that surprises them, even more than the suffocating air: the sense finally of the earth pulling on every cell, unsupported guts tending downward, gills crowding one another in a single direction.
Are they at the apex of surprise when hauled alongside a boat? Is there further astonishment at being unhooked and slid back into the sea? Surely even the most inexperienced of baitfish can not be surprised or outraged when the rigging hook circles a spine and the wire leader dictates their way. But no, that feels false. We all treasure secret ambitions. No baitfish knows for sure that she is bait, even when she's twitching away from the cotton net in the aerated tank.
Trachinotis carolinas. Characterized by small silvery scales, forked tail, related to Jack-fish but highly valued for eating.
A Fishing Story –– Version 1
Caught me a biggun. Though he had me whupped, but I turned the tables on his bipedal ass. Bootless meet toothless. How do you like them airless apples? Huh? Swim like a fish much?
All he had to do was let go, but it's greed what catches em, every time. Sparkle sparkle! Just let go and get back to your spot, but no. Gotta cling. Dunno why it's called landing when you reel one in. Land's the one thing they ain't much of in that situation, if you know what I mean. I figure he'll eat pretty good, give him a few days.
A Fishing Story –– Version 2
A short list of ways I've avoided writing today: rearranged the fiction bookshelf, cleaned my stainless water bottle with bleach, followed by cleaning the bottle-brush. With bleach. Made a few calls. Perused Writer's Digest. Bootlessly researched a specific twitter from a specific Twit. Cleaned the keyboard with rubbing alcohol and q-tips. Listened to samples of Billie Martin's songs on iTunes. Decided listing my excuses was nearly as good as writing anything. Words are words when you are trying for a daily word-count.
A Fishing Story – Version 3
Swimming, swimming, swimming, biting at a shrimp.
Shrimp has sharp –– ow!
And damn! What the hell?
Swimming swimming, vaulting into air.
Tractor beam or something yanking.
Don't beam me up.
Swimming, running from the grasp.
Ah, mackerel season. Say you are a sailor. Naturally, you are sailing on a Thursday evening, enjoying a beverage as the sun sinks below the skyline of Tampa.
A meaty torpedo of fishiness flies out of the water. Then another! And another!
It seems impossible that no one is brained by the piscatorial hailstorm.
It seems impossible that the near victims often don't even notice it. (Ah, the power of enjoyable beverages and picturesque sunsets on a Thursday evening on Tampa Bay!)
The Spanish mackerel, scientific name Scomberomorus maculates, which does –– seriously –– translate as "silly spotted mackerel," is back in town. Sharply pointed and oily, iridescently dotted and foolish enough to sometimes bite the hand (or toe) that tries to unhook it.
I don't even need to write fiction.
I looked up the word "simulacrum" a while back for a story I was writing, and I keep wanting to put it into wider circulation. It's defined as a copy or an imperfect image of a thing. Likewise the word "brace" means a pair. I'd thought it was more, as in "a brace of partridge," which seems like a small bag for a day's work.
Anyhow, for your viewing pleasure, a brace of angular angler simulacra.
We'll camp in the Everglades National Park. It's not our first venture into this wilderness. It's a place less full of shady Spanish moss and swampy mud than one might expect.
It's pretty darned pleasant, actually: we pitch a tent on the sandy beach, maybe catch a few fishes, play with driftwood.
In general, the hazards that are most worrying on this venture off the map are, oh, I dunno –– mosquitoes, sunburn, getting stranded and having to be rescued.
THIS is not what I expected:
Mormon Key is our favored camping spot. George was almost 10 feet long last time they checked, and weighed in at 700 pounds. Good lawsey day.
More Everglades Challenge?
Okay, here's a story about the adventure race by the late great Meade Goudgeon. We'll miss seeing him on the beach this year.
The Challenge starts on March 3 off Fort DeSoto Beach.
We spent a month in Ecuador.
We went to the lovely seaside town of Salinas, west of Guayaquil for the Lightning Masters World Championships and the Lightning World Championships. The Lightning we sailed is Steve Davis's boat.
We jump onto a Lightning with Steve from time to time, and as a bonus, we've been able to travel with Steve and his wife Jan. Sometimes we get to hang out with additional Davises, which was an extra treat this time. Hi Stephanie! Hi John!
Steve and Jeff share an unshakable and insatiable interest in hunting fish. Luckily, they have a Lightning friend in Ecuador, Paco Sola, with just the right big boat for such an interest. The boys took a day between races to search for fishes.
Shall we say "bucket list"?
After the racing was done (3rd and 12th respectively. Respectable!), we split tacks with Jan and Steve. They went home to Colorado, to work on the Bosler House, while we went swanning off to the Galápagos.
We saw a whole bunch of blue-footed boobies. (Yes, the use of the word never gets old.)
Also iguanas –– both land and marine versions.
We swam a lot.
We had some encounters.
And hiked some trails.
And had some other encounters.
The time just flew by. But we never got our fill of sea-lions.
In a blithe hunter-provider mood, my favorite skipper once yanked a yard-foot-long shark right onto the 24-foot-long sailboat we were cruising.
Three muscular feet of dove-gray anger thrashing about, in what turns out to be a –– maybe –– six-foot long cockpit.
At every thrash, those blank yellow cat-eyes not blinking and that grabby mouth with the stadium-seating rows of triangular serrated teeth snap snap snapping...
We weren't wearing shoes, and we had neglected to arm ourselves with a winch handle or any other species of bludgeon.
Forced to retreat to the cabin top, we were obliged to wait for the fish to, as the captain put it, "simmer down."
Oh, we ate shark nuggets that evening, of course we did.
As my hunter-provider often remarks about the swimmer vs. Jaws issue: he's eaten a lot more of them than they have of him.
(*"Alert! Sharks have no bones!" is the most awesome Archie McPhee catalog headline of all time.)
My favorite skipper was sailing back to Florida from the island of Bonaire with his dad when the theme song from "Gilligan's Island" got stuck in his head.
It was a long offshore voyage that included a lot of adventures, beginning with Pappa Joe having decided it was time to quit smoking.
A few peevish days into it, and having scrounged every fleck of dried old tobacco from the bilge, I believe they made a foray into Key West for smokes.
Later in the voyage, they nearly sunk off the coast of Venezuela. Spent the night holding Island Woman off the rocks and had to limp into shore to effect repairs.
Which led to a midnight bunk, dodging commercial traffic out of –– was it Maracaibo? to avoid having to hire the required but extravagantly expensive harbor pilot. They returned home with both passports, which was a bit of serendipity.
Also, Pappa Joe nearly got pulled overboard by a billfish. He wanted to boat the fish; the fish wanted to ocean the man.
Two men on a stout 36-footer with a damaged rudder making their way upwind from the lower reaches of the Caribbean? Of course some song was going to get stuck in someone's beezer. Why not that most appropriate of lyrics: "The weather started getting rough/the tiny ship was tossed"?
Any sailor with the slightest lick of whimsey has chanted those words from time to time.
Of course, with the Google these days it's a cinch to get the rest of the words. Offshore, back in the day, sleep-deprived and salty? Upon reaching shore, I imagine these were his first words to the nice fella at the gas pump in Marco: "Hey, you know Gilligan's Island? Yeah, what comes after 'Sit right down and you'll hear a tale/A tale of a fateful trip'?"
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