You might recall I baited the hook and left you dangling a few weeks ago by withholding the ending to The Tragic Tale of Fred the Fish and inviting readers to guess what happened. No one provided the correct answer. Some of you picked up the completed story at my book-signing session Aug. 11 at the Northern Ontario Book Fair in Sault Ste. Marie. For the rest, here it is.
I love to fish, but only for sport. You won’t find a trophy trout on my wall, not even a fur-bearing one or Big Mouth Milly Bass singing Take Me to the River. Catch and release, that’s me.
On a sunny day you’ll find me hiking to a nearby lake, plunking a piece of worm on a hook, casting out and then leaning back against a tree until my daydreams are disrupted by a bobber living up to its name.
One day I forgot the worms. For lack of any better substitute, I cut off a small chunk of hot sausage from my lunch pack, attached it to the hook and let fly.
And the fish went bananas, attacking that bait like their lives were at splake. Captivated by cacciatore. Who would guess Italian sausage would drive fish wild, even in a lake near Sault Ste. Marie?
Next trip I remembered the worms. But the bobber seemed to be on a union-mandated break all morning.
Then at lunchtime, when I dug into my pack, something very strange happened.
There was a splash at the shoreline. A fair-sized fish flopped onto the grassy bank and flipped up the slope to my feet.
It glanced sideways at the sausage, clearly coveting my cacciatore. So I carved off a tiny chunk and flipped it into the air.
Flexing its caudal fin it leapt and snapped up the spicy morsel. Then, mustering the closest a fish can come to a satisfied smile, it waddled back to the lake like a glutton departing the Mandarin on all-you-can-eat-crab-legs night.
In days to come there were encores to this fishy performance. I could almost fillet, er feel it, that moment when he’d leave the lake behind and take a lunge for my lunch.
Then one day as I headed homeward I heard a noise. The fish was flopping along the trail behind me.
I slid the patio door shut behind me, but that fish flapped its tale noisily against the glass. Curious, I let it in. It headed straight for the toilet, jumped in and swam around in circles.
As the days went by, Fred (it turned out Fred was its name), spent less and less time in water, somehow developing an amphibious ability to survive mostly on air. Eventually he never had to go near water, except to wash down his cacciatore at mealtime.
Sounds bass-ackwards, but it’s true.
And he became not just any run-of-the-mill Fred the Fish but a true friend and companion.
Fred might have been a fish out of water but he soon got in the swim of human ways.
At night we’d play cards. Go Fish was his favourite.
We’d read books together. We started with One Fish Two Fish Whitefish Blue Fish. But Fred caught on quickly and before long he was deep into The Old Man and the Sea, Trout Fishing in America, Moby Dick and everything by Salman Rushdie.
We celebrated his birthday February 28, which made him a pisces.
Fred and I would watch Extreme Fishing together and he would cheer for the fish.
His favourite hockey team was the Sharks, favourite football team the Dolphins, favourite baseball team the Marlins.
We’d have a beer or two while watching the games. But it’s a good thing Fred couldn’t master the twist top or pull tab (had didn’t have prehensile thumbs, or any thumbs at all for that matter) because he drank like a fish.
Sometimes when he was in his cups, literally, Fred would tell me long and often tedious fish tales about his school days in the pond.
It was survival of the fittest of the fishiest, to hear him tell it, a fish-eat-fish underwater world. Throw in fish-eating birds and its a wonder there were any survivors to snap at a worm.
But Fred’s nemesis in the kingdom of Neptune was a certain invasive species, a rosy coloured guy with a big mouth who was native to Russia. This alien was always trying to hack into poor Fred. Perhaps that accentuated his impulse toward accelerated evolution.
Still, I hadn’t lost my love of fishing, or lying in the sun pretending to fish. So Fred would accompany me, flopping along the path, then perching beside me and cheering for an inactive bobber. Sometimes he’d even take a dip and hook up with his old buddies.
Perhaps I should have seen tragedy lurking in the weeds. (Perhaps, clever reader that you are, you already have.)
One day when I was heading home with an empty creel and Fred flipping and flopping at my heels, I heard a noise that chilled me to the fishbone.
It was the distinctive sound of sliding scales — not the musical kind or the way cheap companies pay their workers, but standard equipment on a fish
That was followed by a plop and a splash.
Then, to my horror, a gulp and a sputter.
As I spun in my tracks, eyes scanning the stream over which we had just crossed, castigating myself for missing that sale on fish-sized personal flotation devices at Canadian Tire, my blood ran cold.
My fishy friend floated belly up on the water as if it were a bed of crushed ice in the deli department. Then his lifeless body sank slowly beneath the surface.
Fred the Fish had drowned.
Notes: So it wasn’t the mysterious Russian-speaking fish that put an end to Fred. That was a red herring.
The Tragic Tale of Fred the Fish is based on a story I heard once, possibly told by the late Utah Phillips, labour organizer, folksinger, storyteller, Wobbly and presidential candidate, who might have borrowed it from someone else.
At the book-signing Aug. 11 during the Northern Ontario Book Fair, held in association with Fringe North and the Up The Arts multifest in Sault Ste. Marie.