The hands grasping the loan papers have long
Broad fingers, farmer-strong,
His father’s gift to him, along
With the money that allowed the son
To escape the farm. The elder had worked hard, was one
Who had what is called luck. Why should the boy craft or husband
When he could do . . . something else? So he went
Dutifully to school, worked hard, was as lucky as his father. What he lent
Came back with interest. What he spent
Got him a wife from one of the town’s old families, and
A reputation as a likeable fellow, an
Agreeable sort. Very few suspected his incompetence. The hands
That ached for the density of the tool’s handle
Barely suspected it themselves. But now, in this latter
Evening when they turn to the paperwork, they only slowly shuffle
Through what solidity they can feel, loath to sign, to loose the none-existent hammer.
“Son,” he said, “watch. First
The knife—freshly sharpened each time—point-first
Into the thick part of the head, hard, above and behind
The eyes, into whatever brain it has. A sever the spine.
Then slice down past the gills. One side, then
The other. Twist the head off. Now then:
Blade point inside the belly, off-hand fingers to pin
The backbone down. Slit the belly all the way to the anal fin.
Now dig in, next to the spine, and scoop all the way back
With the first two fingers. Next, clutch the guts and extract
With a firm pull. Don’t be shy,
Boy, it’ll all wash off—blood, entrails, shit, unborn fry.
To do it quick and clean you need to get your hands dirty.
It’s this simple: only you are feeling anything.”
He looks up from his work in mild surprise.
The lake is a mirror of the quiet sky,
And in it he can see
The first stars and the waxing
Moon. When he looks down to the picnic table,
The same moon shines in the luminous eye
Of one of the catfish heads, and then shimmers:
The head is still breathing. Or whatever
You call it when reflex is no longer attached to entrails.
The guts, in this light, are softened to hues
Of pearl, and the eyes are iridescent,
Glowing now like jewels against
The black velvet of redwood and dried blood. He holds up the knife.
The moon gleams and twinkles from the blade obediently,
As indifferently as in any other mirror.
The catfish mouth opens and closes. Silently as any oracle.
Peering into the clear water of Courdais Creek,
He had many chances over the years to muse
Upon the vagaries of a fish’s life. How the meek
Rarely inherit the depths unless
They also have the speed and the moves, and how many dangers
Nature puts in the way of a creature with such an innocent eye,
Such a sporting, yet grave demeanor:
From the cunning turtles that lie
In pretence of rock, hunting the new fry, to the deception of hook
That bites the veteran (here too the discrepancy
Between experience and reality, which, lacking philosophers and books
The poor fish must discover through hard knocking experiences);
From the drought that shrinks the world
Toward slow suffocation in the alien air of an evaporating pool,
To the ice that lowers the sky till the furled fins
Slow and still completely, the spring’s cool
Resurrection comes too late. But the worst
He watched one perfect spring: bass, perch, bluegill, healthy
Fish suddenly struck, apparently at random, with fin rot—
Spines dissolving as spring turned to summer, membranes fraying,
Movement faltering, swiftness to spasm. The lucky ones
Were eaten quickly. But it was s fruitful summer, with plenty
Of other prey, and after awhile even the cripples could not tempt . . . . So some
Ended, in fine irony, by drowning, trunks rolling and pitching aimlessly
In the swift current, unable even to bear upstream, to move
Enough water over their gills. Of course the epidemic
Eventually ran its course. He saw much new
Spawn the next spring, in the clear water of Courdais Creek.
Robert Lee Mahon has been teaching comp and lit at East Central College, in Union, Missouri, for the past 44 years. Since ECC is a community college, the teaching is pretty basic, which, he says, suits his rather basics-oriented personality, and which he hopes informs his poetry. He has been published in numerous literary journals over the years, and, at 74, is flattered that his poems still see the light in journals like this one.