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Worms and Fishes
Posted on Aug 15, 2011
By Mr. Fish
It was Aug. 4, 1978, a Friday night, and there was just me and my big brother, Jeff, and the rain outside our open-air cabin at Camp Consecration Revival Retreat in upstate New York was pouring down through the trees like applause cheering on the foulness of our moods. There was something about the crackling and popping of the raindrops against the roof that seemed to place us at the center of a raging fire that refused to consume us, and why should it? As the only two avowed atheists in the entire campground, what good would such an Old Testament behavior modification technique such as divine incineration do for two pissed-off little boys unwilling to recognize the implicit existence of God outside of the word “goddamned”? Finding our blackened bones amid the smoldering ash of our collapsed cabin would’ve been explained by the fire department, no doubt, as an accidental death due to cigarette smoking, our newest passion, an explanation the camp pastors would’ve found impossible to believe because it might imply the existence of free will, or, even worse, it might expose God the Father as a crummy baby sitter, as if the whole of humanity and its tired eyes and feral disposition weren’t proof enough.
“Let’s bug out of this shit hole before everybody else gets back and gives me such a fucking pain in my ass that all the voodoo dolls that look like me all over the world will start crapping out porcupines, backwards,” said my brother, crunching his face into a fist with the blue smoke from the cigarette that hung out of his 12-year-old mouth curlicuing with the grace of a much older person’s signature around his eyes. He’d been reading “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and, in addition to calling me Ole Jim all week, had begun trying to make everything that he said sound as if it had some folksy backwoods wisdom to it.
“Where we supposed to go?” I asked, crushing out my own cigarette on the bottom of my sneaker and letting it fall to join the holocaust of butts on the floor. “It’s really raining out there.”
“I don’t care,” he said. “I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” I didn’t say nothing. “You think they moved the Jamboree of Light into the mess hall or you think they’re still outside in that field?” he asked, looking out into the dark.
“Think I give a shit?” I said.
“I’m guessing that nobody noticed that we wasn’t there.”
“Think I give a shit?” I said.
“So let’s get out of here,” he said.
“And go where?”
“Home,” he said.
“Home?” I asked. “Home 90 miles away home?”
“I’m getting so powerful bored with all this Jesus bullshit, Jim,” he said, standing to put on his jacket, “and when all you can smell is how stinky everybody else is then you’re in mighty deep shit.”
“What are you going to do, walk home, you fucking moron?” I asked.
“Yup,” he said, pulling his knapsack out from under his bunk and brushing it free of spider webs.
“It’s 90 miles! Nine-zero!” I said.
“It’s only 90 miles when you’re standing still, jackass,” he said. “The distance becomes progressively shorter when you’re actually moving towards it.” Appreciating his big brotherishness for a moment, particularly the quickness with which he could sometimes ridicule me with common sense, I narrowed my eyes. I was unable to decide if there was something like real genius behind his words or if he was an idiot savant whose flashes of insight were episodic and no more useful than would be the ability to instantaneously count a fistful of toothpicks thrown into the air.
I thought about the incident at the lake earlier that day.
Assembling a group of us, all boys, at the water’s edge and supplying us with bamboo fishing poles and the unmistakable feeling that our young buttocks and thighs were being recorded by his frontal lobe for the purpose of being played back later in slow motion above a shower drain, counselor Dusty Woo paced back and forth behind us while we fished, the back of his flip-flops slapping his chubby heels as if each was a naughty little ham. With a smiling face that might’ve invited comparison with Buddha’s had it not been dotted with the eyes of Charles Manson and framed by a dyed blond hairdo that belonged on a cheerleader, he described how Jesus was a fisher of men’s souls and how it was our job to catch a fish and then to release it back into the lake. The lesson was supposed to demonstrate (a) the simple idea that all life is equally precious; (b) that a fish whose life has been spared will, on some level, communicate the virtues of the fisherman’s compassion to the rest of the universe; and (c) just as Jesus abhorred the appetite for violence, we too must recognize our own responsibility to limit the propagation of murder, particularly of those beings whose lives have been deemed to be somehow less miraculous than our own.
“What about the worms?” asked my big brother, Jeff, who always had a gazillion questions about everything and whose freckles—splattered recklessly enough across his face to make you want to check your own clothes for stains—gave the impression that he was comfortable causing explosions.
“What about them?” asked Dusty Woo.
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