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Fishing To Remember

by Elizabeth Donovan 6 months ago in art

replication and originality

In my head our destination is rugged and secluded. I imagined a shack, crouching between leaves, attempting to hide from travelers. I imagined it was a small, sad house, built forever ago and abandoned before that. It would have drooping shutters that looked like eyelids slipping into a daze, and sagging gutters full of wet leaves and sedentary slugs. Trees would have started to take the house back into their fold, branches poking through shattered windows and roots creeping up through wooden boards. Just beyond the thicket of woods would be a thin gravel road that would wind down to murky wide waters where a wooden dock would rest just barely above the waterline. Muscles and algae would grow thick underneath planks of wood and translucent weeds would tickle the bellies of minnows attempting to stay hidden from humans and fish alike.

This was of course, a very ill-informed idea of what our living situation was going to be like for the next week or so. I had constructed this image from fragments of descriptions my father and grandpa had dropped occasionally over the years. I had painted the place my father would disappear to for 2 weeks of the year with my idea of what a fish camp ought to be and not much else.

When we arrived at fish camp I was sure my father was joking. Sure, the “fish camp” itself was decently decrepit enough in a charming way, but surrounding it was civilization. The trees that were there were sporadically spread out and thin, allowing for no possibility of coverage. The building itself was actually a small double wide trailer and resided directly in the backyard of a large log cabin house. I could tell the trailer was old because vines had started to grow from the cracks in the concrete it sat on and onto its sides, winding almost all the way up to its windows.

My sister and I look at each other apprehensively. We had been looking forward to the isolation. I step out of the truck on legs wobbly from the hours long drive and gather the pile of assorted items off of my seat and trail after my father. I wait as he unlocks the door. It’s an old wooden door, painted white with an antique looking knocker in the center of it. It almost looks out of place until we step inside and I look around. The door opens into one long room, a small kitchen at the back and a cozy living room taking up the rest of the space. The floors are a thick carpet of red, orange, yellow, and cream patchwork. It summons to mind images of poppy flower fields. A deflating brown couch lines one of the wood paneled walls, a small window above it overlooking the hill that leads down to a shining metal dock at the shoreline. An overstuffed green lazy boy rests beside the couch and sitting opposite the two is a blue and grey plaid rocking chair. There's a decent sized TV on the wall to the left of the couch and strung up above it is a paper banner reading “CONGRATULATIONS ELIZABETH!” in the colors of my school.

I imagine most would react kindly to this surprise, or at the very least with veiled neutrality. But as I stand frozen in the colorfully mismatched room and face the blue and white sign, all I feel is overwhelmed. I know this sign was made with the best of intentions, I’m sure of it. But all it brings to the surface is that this week will not be what I want it to be.

Although fishing had been an integral part of my childhood, I’ve fallen out of love with it. I’m unsure of when it happened, maybe around the time I started hating hunting. When I started looking into the eyes of creatures trapped and realized it wasn’t for me. But the act of sitting in a dingy boat with a metal rod in my hand still brings back uncomplicated feelings of fondness from past years, it can’t be helped. So here I am on a week long fishing trip with my father and younger sister. I had stacked books on the floor matts of the truck, shoved sketch pads and pencils into tote bags, crammed paint supplies and canvas into my suitcase, lined the edges with markers and tape and glue and scissors, and cradled journals in my arms. All with the expectation that my time on the boat would simply be an unfortunate chore set to the background of a secluded vacation full of creativity and comfort. Creativity and comfort, both of which I had always firmly believed thrived in solitude.

And now here I stand, faced with a banner with my name on it. A banner in a trailer surrounded by people. A banner made by people, people I don’t know. I exist in strangers' minds already, where there is now an expectation of gratitude from me.

My father is already unloading the truck, heaving out coolers and plastic rubbermaids full of food. My sister has disappeared to the tiny bathroom. The hall itself is comically cramped and leads to a small master bedroom. Off the right of the hallway and next to the bathroom is an even smaller room with just enough room for a rough bunk bed and an open closet. I step into the room, tossing my things onto the top bunk, and shut myself in the closet. There are hot tears forming a film over my eyes and I don’t understand why. I’m being petty, and I know it.

I hear the sink running through the wall behind me. I dry my face with my shirt and slide the closet door open, the irony of hiding in a closet just now occurring to me. I straighten up and soldier my way out to help with the unloading. The grass here is shiny and wet, just beginning to perk up under the spring sun. It squishes under my boots and I remind myself that this, if anything, will be a break from normalcy.

I’m standing in the small smudged aluminium fishing boat, passing tackle boxes and rods down to my sister, when two strangers emerge from the house. My father waves and shouts a boisterous greeting to them, “The Garners!”

As they grow closer I can make their features out more clearly. Mr. Garner is an older man, most likely somewhere in his late 50s or early 60s. His horn rimmed glasses and grey vest over fitted plaid shirt do a good job of disguising this, something that his thinning hair gives away right away. Mrs. Garner is tall and wears a matching fitted grey vest. Her blonde hair is tied up carefully with what looks like an uncomfortable amount of bobby pins and she smiles widely with thin lips. Together they look like they strolled straight out of a magazine publication about golden retrievers and the american midwest.

Once introductions are made I smile as genuinely as I can and thank them for the graduation banner. They smile back and I get the sense that they miss having children around. This does not bode well for the vanishing act I was committed to performing once initial niceties had passed.

Soon, all of our luggage and supplies are grouped unceremoniously in the center of the living room. But we had arrived somewhat late in the afternoon and my father wants to get out on the water so unpacking is forgone in favor of suiting up in warmer clothing and clambering down to the dock.

The blue carpeting of the boat's interior is soaked in spray from the lake and the unmistakable scent of fish. I’m sat precariously at the front of the boat on a cracking leather chair lined with indents where hooks have been ripped from it. We’re trolling tonight, a new technique of fishing for both my sister and I. We are simple people, who love the anticipation of watching the bobber slowly be submerged by whatever mystery creature resides beneath the blue. Trolling, I am finding, is much more fast paced than the gentle swaying of bobber fishing.

When trolling, the boat is typically speeding along between 1 to 5 miles per hour. As the boat cuts through the water you cast your line alongside the boat, and your lure trails behind the boat, typically a bright and flashy one designed to attract the attention of predators. The lures are designed with a nose that forces them to dive so that they ghost along the lake bed. The snag of a fish pouncing on your lure is very different from the gradual pull of bobber fishing, it’s sudden and sharp and leaves no time for hesitation. Though this fast paced technique is mostly unfamiliar to me I am still engulfed in nostalgia as the nose of the boat cuts through jagged waves, spraying sticky water everywhere. The sky is a cool grey in this space in between day and night, everything lined with silver. Insects buzz over the growl of the boat's motor, and if I strain my ears hard enough I can hear music echoing softly from another boat anchored near us.

I've only reeled in one short walleye by the time it's well past dusk. We release it back into the lake. The boat ride back to shore is always so different from the ride out. The ride in is careful and searching, whereas the ride back is hard and choppy. It is rushed but not in the sense that we have anywhere to be, we are simply speeding to speed.

By the time we’ve docked the boat, it's already banged up sides scraping against the sharp metal, it’s well into the night. Stars peek out from beyond cold clouds, offering us a dim lantern on our walk back to the trailer. Inside we strip from our slowly freezing clothes to shower and change into warmer, dryer ones. I’m the last to shower, mine taking longer than usual because I’m forced to face off with a family of spiders who have apparently been tasked with guarding the browning porcelain tub from intruders such as myself. I wander back into the main room, the smell of a gas stove drawing me out.

My father is sitting at a round wooden table, his wool socks propped up on a chair as he strings new line through a fishing pole. “There’s macaroni on the stove,” he says with line pinched in his teeth as he ties a knot.

River Monsters is playing on the tv, Jeremy Wade’s commanding voice explaining that he’s about to get into a pool filled with carnivorous piranha to prove that they don’t attack humans unless provoked. Another rush of fond nostalgia races through me at the sound of his voice. Maybe this week will be okay after all.

Over the next couple days we develop a sort of routine, largely similar to our first night here. We awake before the sun, dressing and shuffling down to the dock where we all arrange ourselves in the boat. For the first hour or so of sitting underneath the sunless sky, we speak very few words to one another. The ones that we do speak are only said out of absolute necessity. Once our eyes start to burn with images of the lake's glassy surface even after we've closed them, we make our way back to the trailer and have lunch. The hazy afternoon is mainly reserved for napping and avoiding talking to adults. Once the sun begins to dip out of view we eat a small meal and find our way back onto the boat. We spend hours out there. By the fourth night I think I might be falling back in love with fishing a little bit. It's half science, half art, and half luck. All common ingredients in the creative endeavors I so usually practice. By the time we've all exhausted the phrase, "just one last cast," we've past the light evening and make our way back in the deep blue water under the deep blue sky. At the trailer we make food and mainly watch movies and River Monsters.

While we do I keep my hands busy. I have found that when I love someone, some time, or something, my instinct is to preserve it. I sketch scenes from whatever's on the television; Jeremy’s hands grappling with a 50 lb catfish, the alien oarfish glimmering in the deep ocean, a velociraptors claws from Jurassic Park, a haunting face, an expansive green and yellow field, strangers and wild animals. I snip leaves from the vines growing on the trailer and try to flatten them into collages pressed underneath heavy stacks of books. I attempt to journal about my time spent on the water, though this only lasts the first two days. I illustrate everything around me. It’s a sort of cataloging, moments and ideas and images all cemented onto paper with the intention of what? I think I am afraid I will lose these moments if I don't. I stitch memories together in my head, weaving them through the present and hope I will be successful in translating them into something others can perceive.

By the 7th night this routine has become familiar, save a few visits from the Garners every once in a while. Even these have become commonplace in my mind though, a testament to how fast the mind adjusts and settles into its new environment.

It’s our last night here. I’m laying in the top bunk, eyeing a decent sized spider in one corner of the room next to my head. It has yet to make any sudden moves and I still feel guilty for crushing one of its brethren while in the kitchen so I think I will let this one live. Enough time passes so that I begin to relax and look away from it, pondering on other topics. I think about the past days and moments that have led to this one. Before the trip entirely even. Those days are what informed much of how we spent our time here. Nearly everything we have done has been a nod to the past, the fishing and the food we eat and the things we watch. The things I make, cut out images from loose magazines glued over drawings gone wrong are all callbacks to fonder memories. The more I think about it the more I am realizing that a good lot of the things I do are simply a copy of already accomplished events. I pick at the blanket settled on top of me, even this a copy. It’s a quilt sewn by my mother, the squares of fabric all nods to different aspects of me. There’s a square made from my favorite shirt as a young child, one square is a swatch of fish patterned fabric, another is a piece of a different quilt. A copy of a copy. I recall thinking how horrible it was that I needed to look at things to be able to draw them accurately, why couldn’t I just draw perfectly from my head? But as I lay here, running my fingers over a silk patterned portion of the quilt, mind on the pages of my sketchbook and the repetition of each day here, I am beginning to think that replication and originality aren’t quite as different as everyone seems to think they are.


Elizabeth Donovan

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Elizabeth Donovan
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