The old man awoke in his wooden boat, wincing at fiendish daylight. His wrinkled skin atop his brittle bones ached underneath the sun. “Jesus,” he mumbled, still lost in the whiskey. He got up slowly, closing his eyes and grinding his teeth, and when he finally found an adequate spot against the wall of the boat, he caught his breath and reached for the bottle he knew would be there. He picked it up. Empty. In the lake it went. Having faced this dilemma before, he came prepared. A second bottle remained somewhere in the boat. He reached down again and fixed his bleary eyes on a lone Northern Pintail as it skimmed across the lake.
“The Lone Pintail,” he said, chuckling to himself.
Just then he felt the slimy slap of a wet smallmouth bass and jumped from the shock. The bass bounced off his belly and fell to the floor where it writhed around desperately in a tiny pool of water. Its bronze and gold and diamond scales sparkled like treasure underneath the sun, a ball of white in the center of the sky. Two, three hours of waiting and drinking, drinking and waiting. Nothing. Now this. It had to have been eight pounds, seven at least. A hefty son of a bitch, and it just plopped right into his lap. Francis would have gotten a kick out of it. He shook his head to the side. No, he was dead. James? No, he was dead, too. William? He was still alive, that dirty old no-talent bastard. Hack.
A soul to tell or not, life was harsh and forgiving that day, and a gift had risen from the lake and fell into the boat of the dying man.
He took out a blade and set his sights upon the smallmouth, expecting the splashing and flailing of a creature who understands its fate and will do anything to escape it. That quick and glorious battle to see who lives and who dies. They always died. But the last smallmouth bass he would ever see did not move. It did not flip and it did not flap. Instead it lay like a lung, deflated and doomed. A scowl curled itself onto his red, sun-beaten face, and he grumbled nonsense as he broke his sight to search for the whiskey. He picked it up from underneath his boot, flunked opened the bottle with his mouth and, with his teeth holding the cork, spoke to the fish.
“There is nothing cruel about what I am about to do to you…” he thought a moment, pondering endless names in a vast chamber of faces. “Hadley,” he said. He spat the cork out into the twinkling lake and took a long swig of his whiskey. “All men must die, it is true. Just as all creatures must die. But we are men, you see. And we can craft a blade and we can kill and we can think and we can feel. It is what separates the man from the beast. Unlike beasts, men can love. What wonders of affection do you feel in your animal mind? Do you feel, as I feel, the pain of death? Not just the pain, but the haunting weight of morality? I think not. But we do have something in common. Man and beast are connected in their suddenness of being. Why, I arrived on this planet in a matter not very different from how you arrived on this boat, thrown, from there to here.” He looked around at the endless, empty lake. Addressing it like his audience, he asked, “Are we not fish ourselves?”
He turned his head back to Hadley and began his descent for the kill when a cloud of coldness and pain billowed in his chest, exploding the old man into a fit of coughs. In the furious shaking, Hadley flapped and flipped and floundered and, finally, he flipped himself over the boat and fell back into the lake. As Hadley swam away, the old man settled himself against his boat and watched.
Francis. Oh, how he would have gotten a kick out of it.