Sweet Caporal A seagull stands poised on one webbed foot. Its clawed toes grip the granite hump in the nautical dawn light. Preoccupied with breakfast, if not survival, the gull is indifferent to me as I walk out onto the fishing rock. Several other gulls gather to stamp their feet—as if in anger—on the mossy ground down by the little bay. Nightcrawlers mistake the gull stomps for the sound of rain and slither out of the dirt. Sneaky buggers, them gulls. I don’t blame them for ignoring me. What could be less interesting than a skinny kid in a red and black Mackinaw jacket? Weak chop disturbs the surface of the lake—a slight frown on the water. Clouds in layers slide by, inexorable, the lower levels heavy with rain and passing faster than those above. Or so it seems—a parallax view. Granular snow bits from way up high play in the air, taking fidgety, irregular paths down to become a part of the hungry spring lake. I wonder about how long it takes them to fall. Old Chester is already there, seated on his favourite log. He shows me how to skewer a minnow on the hook. He explains in a rumbling voice why the hook is twisted; snelled. Function follows aquatic form in the architecture of fishing. It seems cruel, even with the shiner frozen and long-dead, as the slender brass slips down the throat, out the gill and back in under the salty spine. Chester speaks with his hands, showing me the hooking technique, saying aloud only the part about, “that’s why the hook is crooked.” “Crookt,” he says; just one syllable. Then he shows me the way to tie the line to the leader. Crowned, nicotine-brown fingernails pinch like a snapping turtle beak and pull the knot taut. Chester tugs twice making the line vibrate with a faint musical hum. “See?” And so we fish. The depressed economy of words suits us fine, sitting and watching the lines angle out, the point where they enter the water constantly shifting and restless. The lead bell weights sit far below, holding the bait steady, just off the bottom. Our shiners stare with sightless, gelatinous eyes in the gloom. The rod tips nod above them like jazz lovers, keeping the syncopated beat of the morning chop; the wind conducting. If you stare at a rod tip too long it goes in and out of focus. Then you close your eyes and a negative image is instantly projected on the back of your eyelids—a monochromatic memory that fades to black. Smoke. It curls in the air and is pulled apart in languid white fronds by invisible hands. It is Sweet Caporal tobacco in Export “A” rolling papers expertly assembled by Chester’s clever fingers which are adroit despite their bratwurst shape. I notice dirt caked into the many cracks in his skin. The look of it made me think of pictures of henna tattoos in the National Geographic but this was wilder, as unpatterned as the forest around us. The tobacco smoke smells like Winnipeg to me—like the bus depot where Aunty Shirl picks me up for summer visits, her sparkling eyes and dimpled face a bright beacon in the hazy terminal. “Want one?” Chester asks with a roll-your-own bobbing in the corner of his thin-lipped mouth. He is a sudden confederate, with me only fifteen years old. Small for my age—had not grown out yet. “How do you make ’em?” I say. Silently, he reaches for the pouch of tobacco and the pad of rolling papers tucked in the pocket of his army parka. His thick hands do the fabrication, robotic and precise. Casually efficient and nimble from practice, he slips the finished cigarette into a breast pocket for later. “Now you,” he says, handing me the makings. I snatch a glance towards the path from where Dad might emerge, coming to check on me, or to say, “Izzy, come and eat.” Chester’s eyes understand and they squint a bit—a silent communication. He lays down a round-edged, silver lighter beside me with a tinny click. I roll the cigarette, copying his technique and licking the glued edge to finish. Just then, my fishing rod jumps. A jut-jawed male, I’ll bet, down twenty feet and eager to get to the spawning grounds. Twisting towards the rod, my boots skid on the ancient lichen covered pluton and I drop my unlit smoke. The fishing line draws a sudden, tiny wake where it pierces the surface; a pencil mark etched on the slate top of the water, soon to disappear. Scramble. Down to the dark edge. Grab the rod. Then, without warning, there’s Dad’s big voice behind me followed by Chester’s nonchalant reply. I freeze in a Mackinaw Tai Chi pose, tip held high to keep the line tight. Set the hook: Snap! Sneak a look: Two stocky men, Dad’s collar is up, hands pocketed. There is the cigarette I rolled. It peeks out—just the twirled white tip showing—from beneath the toe of Chester’s wry gum boot. The lighter rests nearby, eager to give damning testimony, I fear. I study Dad’s face, temporarily ignoring the persistent, annoyed tugs at the end of the line. Then back up the slope to them with the quivering pickerel. A male, round bellied with milt accompanies me to the witness stand. Ascending slow and wary, I look for signs—how they stand, what they say. My fingers are stiff with cold from the May lake water, palms red and flecked with clinging silver fish scale. What? Why don’t they speak? Then Dad bends down to pick up the lighter and flips it casually to Chester. Chester makes a hammy hand basket to catch it with a nod. He is Buddha with a snelled smile painted upside down on his face. India ink rims sparkling eyes—quarter moons that lie on curving backs. Crow’s feet decorate the corners of Dad’s laughing grin, in mirthful triplicate. His lakeshore weekend happy gaze probes my doe stare, looking for an opening. “Breakfast time, Isabel. Bring the fish,” he says, pausing to toss a wink at Chester. “We’ll smoke it later.”
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Mitchell Toews is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and has published in various journals, anthologies, and literary prizes. Mitch and Winnipeg publisher At Bay Press will release a collection of short stories, “Pinching Zwieback: Made-up stories from the Darp” in 2023. The themed collection focuses on the author’s Mennonite heritage. Mitch and his wife Janice live in semi-bliss, in a cabin, in the boreal forest, beside a generally cheerful lake.
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