The 2-track dirt lane that wanders into the little valley we've been calling home lately splits off from itself. You can follow it to the weathered and worn 70-year-old log house, or you can take the path that leads over a hill and through a falling-down gate to what my kids call "the fishing hole."
"The fishing hole" is no more than a wide spot in a tiny, seasonal creek, but to 9-year-old Carter and 4-year-old twins Avery and Bennett, the creek is a river; the wide-spot, a lake.
I'm not sure how, or where, my children (lead by Carter) got the idea that rivers were for fish, and fish were for catching, but soon enough they'd made plans: a string for a fishing line, a paperclip for a hook. Sticks for poles and worms for bait.
I didn't encourage them--how could I avoid explaining the river was too small; the lake, nothing more than a good imagination? But I didn't stop them, either, which is something new for me, as a mama.
In the past, I'd likely rush in and try to save my children from what I perceived to be certain disappointment. I'd divert them from this activity to something else, something safer and more sure, like blowing bubbles or digging a giant hole in the soft dirt behind the wood pile.
Maybe it was the way the light slanted through Bennett's wispy blond hair, or the brightness of Carter's smile. Maybe it was watching the 3 of them work together, sharing string and dividing up the house in a well-mapped search for extra paper clips. I might have been distracted by my own thoughts of what to have for dinner, or of how much milk was left. Whatever the reasons, this time, I let the adventure run its course.
I didn't say anything when Carter told me to get the net, or when Bennett asked that I bring an empty, rinsed-out peanut butter jar (family sized!) to put the fish in once it was caught. I didn't think about what we'd actually do with a caught fish, or how I'd explain it to them, the life-and-death part, the eating-means-taking conversation I sometimes struggle with, even among adults.
But, no. Really, I had no thought it would ever come to that.
Our little party headed up the 2-track lane, through the broken gate and past the rusty, junked model-T. Over the rise and through a grove of cottonwoods. Down a slope covered with last year's grass, yellow like straw, and there below was a trickle of water the color of coffee with cream.
Carter and Bennett ran up ahead. I was pulling Avery in the red Radio Flyer wagon with the supplies--the empty peanut butter jar, the net, extra paper clips, extra string, a blanket, and a baggie of jelly beans--when I heard Carter yell, "I saw a fish, Mom!"
"Wonderful, honey," I said in my distracted way, so sure was I that there were no fish in that tiny brook. I continued toward them, and got Avery settled with his stick and string, then sat on a rock at the water's edge, again, waiting for whatever the day might bring, but certain that it wouldn't be fish.
Until the splash of a worm in the water, the excited shouts, the flash of silver, the flop of a fish nearly in front of me--round "O" of a mouth sucking in air, a "V" of a tail flapping the muddy ground.
"The jar! Get the jar!" Carter yelled.
Dumbfounded, I did as told. He gently held the fish in the cupped palm of one hand while filling the jar with creek water. He slid the fish inside, and twisted on the red plastic lid.
A fish, impossibly. And yet, here it was, alive and swimming in circles, trapped in a peanut-buttery cage. It would seem that a plan needed to be made, that I might be the one to make it, but again, no.
"We could take it home and look it up on the Internet," I suggested.
"It might miss its mama," Bennett said.
"Mama," Avery agreed.
"And his father and brothers and sisters, too," Carter said. "We should let him go." Before I could add anything else (what could I add?), the jar was out of my hands, the lid twisted off, and the fish was again cupped in my oldest son's palm.
The boys regarded it for a moment, its fishy-ness, its giant eye, its fins for hands and no legs at all, then it was gone, a silver streak released into the coffee colored water. And I regarded them with the same wonder: my 3 boys, hunched over the creek bed, their voices mixing with the sounds of the water, hearts beating out the rhythm of the day.