Lily learns the truth while fishing with her dad.
|I squinted against the dome light and stared up at the underside of Dad's beard. "Happy birthday, Lily Bean," he said, snugging my blanket around me. "Go back to sleep, now. We got a ways to go yet."
The dashboard whooshed warm air throughout the cab. The engine revved and decelerated as we climbed and descended our way off our 20-acre property, and I slowly bounced awake on the back seat of our '76 Ford pickup as I watched the stars follow us to Bing's Landing.
It was still dark and we were the only people there; we had our choice of spots along the bank. "The early bird catches the worm, Lily. Grab the tackle box," Dad said, readying my line for me.
"Yeah, but what about the worm?" I asked. "What good did it do him to get up at the buttcrack of dawn?"
Dad chuckled and skewered the net-wrapped salmon roe onto my hook. He had a coffee can full of the stuff. I never could bring myself to touch it. I always wondered why he used small squares of netting and a glob of eggs when he baited my line, but when he baited his own he did some fancy magic trick that he called an egg loop. Somehow the eggs stayed on the hook without any net.
I heard a splash and turned to see a cow moose swimming toward us, struggling with her effort to traverse the Kenai River. Her huffing was the only sound I heard. I breathed deep of the crisp morning air. It was tinged with the scents of water, earth, fish, and pine. Going fishing with my dad was my favorite thing in the whole wide world.
Our rubber boots sucked and squelched through the mud as we walked to Dad's secret spot. "Cast upstream at a 45° angle and let it drift downriver 45°, then start reeling it in slow. Bounce your bait nice and steady along the bottom. It you feel a quick tug, jerk the line as hard and as fast as you can to set the hook good, then reel 'er in."
Dad caught a humpy right away. I watched as he laid it on a rock and stabbed it through the head with his fillet knife, swiveling the blade this way and that, scrambling its brains. It didn't die right away. They never do. They flip and flop, sometimes for hours, and usually suffocate to death. I don't like the killing part, but I do love to eat fish. It's one of my favorite things--fish rolled in flour and fried in butter with a little salt and pepper to taste, served with jasmine rice and soy sauce. Does it get any better than that?
"Tell me about Mom."
He stopped moving and stared down at his blood-streaked hands. "Lily," he whispered.
"Please? I'm old enough to know, aren't I? I'm eleven now, and the only thing I know about my own mother is that she was young and beautiful when she died. I don't even remember what she looked like." I choked back a wail and willed myself not to cry. Only babies cry, Lily. I thought. He'll never tell you if you cry. "All I have is that picture Grandma Chen gave me--the one where she's sitting on a rock and sketching beside a pond and you can't even see her face."
Dad's body seemed to cave in on itself. Deflate like a balloon. His shoulders slumped, he hung his head and sighed. "I took that picture," he said. "It was the first time I ever saw her. I'd just graduated high school. It was 1986." He leaned against a tree and closed his eyes. "For years I'd dreamed of traveling overseas--backpacking across some foreign country. I'd heard my Uncle Ted talk about Wuzhen in Zhejiang Province. I'd seen his pictures. That's what decided me. It was beautiful."
"Is that where you met her? In Wuzhen?" I asked, laying my pole down on the bank.
"I liked camping in secluded spots, preferably spots with water where I could get cleaned up, maybe even catch me some dinner. I'd been walking for days, and I was filthy. I found this little pond and was half-way undressed when I saw her, your mother, sitting there sketching. I couldn't move. I couldn't speak. She was so ... beautiful. I squatted to reach my camera and snapped the picture."
"Did she see you?"
"Oh, yes!" He laughed. "I scared the crap out of her, but I was able to convince her that I wasn't some crazed maniac and she calmed down. We talked. I fell in love with her that day. If anyone ever tells you that love at first sight doesn't exist, they're a liar. I loved your mother from the moment I laid eyes on her."
"What was she like?"
"Liling Chen was the most beautiful woman I've ever known. You know, in English her name means white jasmine tinkling in the morning. The translation held me spellbound, as did Liling, and I couldn't imagine a more suitable name for her. She was fun and funny and so smart. She was soft-spoken and kind and modest. It took me a while to convince her to give me a chance, but once we started dating we were inseparable. We got married three months later."
"Did she ... did she want me?" I asked.
"Oh, Lily Bean. She gave you that nickname, by the way. On the day you were born she held you in her arms and said, 'Hello there, little one. I've been waiting so long to hold you, Lily Bean. You're just as beautiful as I imagined. Mamma's precious flower.' She loved you more than life itself."
I started to cry then. "Is it possible to miss someone you don't remember?" I asked. "Because I do."
"I miss her, too."
"What happened? I need to know? I deserve to know."
Dad pinched the skin between his eyes and took a deep breath. "She'd gone to the grocery store to buy you diapers. I stayed home with you to give her a little time alone. It's never easy to go shopping with an infant. She was on her way home when she was t-boned by a drunk driver. They say she didn't suffer--that she died instantly. Part of me died that day, too. If it weren't for you...."
I swallowed hard and whispered, "How old was I?"
"Eighteen months. You're what kept me going: getting up to feed you, change you, bathe you, play with you. You gave me something to live for."
I didn't know what to say, so I didn't say anything. Dad and I have always been close. He's mother and father, friend and confidant. He takes good care of me, and I've never doubted that he loves me, but I feel this emptiness inside, an emptiness that only a mother can fill. Who will I talk to about boys and becoming a woman? Who will make my prom dress and do my hair? My make-up? Dad's taught me to be independent, to fend for myself, to fillet a fish and gut a moose, but what if I want someone to take care of me for a change? To be babied and coddled a little? To be treated like someone's little girl?
"Thank you for telling me," I say.
"I probably should have told you a long time ago, but it's hard, you know? I ... fish on!" Dad jumped up and ran toward my pole. "You left the line in the water? Quick, reel 'em in! Lily's birthday fish, hot damn!"
He was smiling now, and I took the pole from him and started to reel. "Whatever it is, it's huge!" I said, grinding my teeth with the effort and planting the butt of the pole in the crook of my thigh for support. "It feels like I'm reeling in a log!"
Dad paced the bank, and when the fish broke the surface of the water he whooped in excitement. "Look at that, Lily! That's a five, six-footer, easy! That's a king!"
I spun and gyrated that reel until the salmon finally lurched onto the rocks. It wasn't moving. It was dead, decayed, black. I frowned and stomped my foot. "Ah, shit. It's dead!"
Dad started to chuckle, then the chuckle turned into an all-out belly laugh. "Don't swear, Lily," he said when he was able to catch his breath. "Dead or not, that's the biggest damn fish I've ever seen. Look at the size of that sucker!"