by Lauren Rose
The words on the sign read, in big, red letters:
CATCH & RELEASE FISHING ONLY
You must return fish to the lake IMMEDIATELY
Do NOT remove fish.
We were in Momma's little dinghy on Lake Oonapota. She was teaching me how to fish.
She set me up on my rod, then did her own. Mine was tiny, like a toy, but hers was big, even bigger than me. We waited for a long time, sweating like Mary, as Gram used to say. I think the expression was meant to be “sweating like pigs,” but for some reason she said Mary. Who was Mary, and why did she sweat so much? I always wondered.
Momma was the first to catch one. She felt a few tugs from the end of her rod, under the dark water. Then she reeled it in with a frantic zip-zip-zip sound.
“Oh, she's a beauty,” she said, when she finally pulled it, flopping and flapping, into the boat. I couldn't really see how it was beautiful—I mean it was nice enough, for a fish, but beautiful?—but I acted all excited and crowded around the red bucket she'd dumped it in. It was maybe the size of my arm, elbow to finger.
“It's a rainbow trout,” she said, though it seemed pretty gray to me. Definitely not rainbow. We watched it heave for about 10 seconds until Momma carefully lifted it up and released it.
The whole thing was kind of disappointing.
I decided that if I caught a fish, I sure was not going to let it go.
We had egg sandwiches and juice boxes. Then we waited some more.
I was starting to think I'd never catch a fish when I felt a big tug. I was so sleepy and full and hot that I'd loosened my hands around the rod, and it nearly fell out.
Momma helped me reel it in. We dumped it in the bucket like the last one and watched it jump.
“Looks like a guppy to me,” she said.
It was small, skinny, and freckled. From the way it had tugged, I thought it would be at least as big as Momma's.
I held my water bottle off the side of the boat, and when it came time to release it, I huddled over, secretly slipped it in, and twisted the lid shut. I decided to call her Tina.
Since Gram died, we didn't go to her part of the house. Momma believed in ghosts and didn't want to disturb her space. But I wasn't scared. When we got home, I snuck up and filled her old bath with water, a little brown from age, and emptied Tina into it.
There were dead flies on the windowsill, so I fed her those that first night.
Each morning and night after that, I would bring her a cricket I caught in the backyard. I stored them in a jar. She liked live ones best but she'd eat dead ones, too.
This went on for a year. She grew and grew and grew, until she bulged with fat, and took up half the tub. Sometimes she'd let me pet her, but sometimes she'd flinch and turn away, like she was sad.
And then one day Tina died. Somehow she'd knocked the plug loose and all the water had drained out. When I found her, she was on her side. I tried to close her eye, like Momma did with Gram. But it stayed open, flat and smooth, looking right at me.
I wrote Tina lying in my old backyard in England, on a rare sunny afternoon, thinking of home. In elementary school, I used to visit my biological dad and he would take me fishing in an effort to bond. I never quite got what the big deal was: I was bored and sweaty and impatient to get off the canoe, failing to recognize his good intentions. Around that time, I had a friend whose school-fair goldfish ate all the other goldfish in the tank. It grew massive and lived for years. "Tina" emerged from these unrelated memories. I don't normally write stories this short and I loved the challenge of fitting a lot into a little.
Lauren Rose received an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, where she was awarded the North American Half Bursary. Her fiction has been published in Sou'wester. A California native, she now lives in Brooklyn, NY.