The last fish - A short story by Eddie Cunningham
Likai was 93. He had been able to fish since he was six. His father, with great patience, had shown him all he knew about it during long sunny evenings at the Trout Pool on the Mikang holy river. "Good child, good child," his father would say when the boy landed a flip-flapping victim of his innocent predatorship.
Within a few months, Likai had become better than his father. After a year he could catch enough to feed his parents, three brothers and himself every day.
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His family and the villagers were curious about his success because sometimes they went for days without catching anything.
He didn't go to school.
There was no place or prospects in their country for a blind boy who could barely walk and seldom spoke. Instead, Likai filled his days by the river. He learned much from it. He spent a lot of time listening for little changes in the flow of the water, its speed, its levels, its eddies and currents. He always fished alone.
Some villagers went out in small boats across the broad and deeper sweeps of water. Others fished nearby. But they always left Likai his spot on the bank with the round, smooth stone. They often smiled between themselves when they heard him murmur words to the river, something he did every day. He would say: "River, today give me some nice large trout, please, because my aunt and three cousins are coming to visit and my family wants to honour them with plenty."
Other times he would say: "It is just for me and my brothers today, River. My parents are visiting my uncle and will not eat in our house this evening so I ask only for what will fill our four bellies." He was patient. He brought his simple rod and line, a self-made hook and worms sometimes; on other occasions he would use a fly made from small-bird feathers camouflaging the hook. He kept and fed his worms in a large urn of earth with a lid. He learned, from his father and from pricked, bloody fingers, how to spin thread and shape small bones into outlines, with hidden hooks, that looked like a snack for a fish.
He would sit still for hours, his head cocked to one side as if listening to the water and to what was going on beneath the surface.
It was called the Trout Pool because some fine specimens of that fish had been caught there but there were many other species, too. By his teenage years and despite his blindness, Likai could tell what he had caught, often by the fight the fish put up when hooked and, always, when he traced their outline with his fingers. He was always careful touching them because some had sharp fins on their backs and sides.
No matter what the time, he waited for, and left, when he had enough fish to feed the household for that evening.
He told the river he wanted only what would be enough for those eating under his reed-covered roof as the sun set.
His parents died when he was 25. They were still young but a terrible fever took them and many others who had worked in the fields for the overlord. Likai's youngest brother did not survive either.
Likai and his two other brothers grieved a long time but still he went to the river every day. For many months they lived solely on what he caught because there was no work in the devastated region.
Then one brother left for the big city port where he got employment on a boat that fished the ocean. He never came home again. They eventually lost touch.
The remaining brother, Luak, stayed until his death many years later, working in the small fields as hired labour at sowing and harvest times.
In the evenings, they would eat whatever Likai had caught, usually boiling the fish so they could also have its broth for breakfast the following morning. Not once in the years Likai had been fishing had he failed to bring something home for them to eat.
After Luak's death, Likai's needs were fewer. He noticed how, without having to tell the river any more, the fish he'd caught were smaller than before.
It was, he told himself, the river giving him enough and no more. He was content with that. He always thanked the river before departing.
At 93, despite being blind, stooped and scarcely able to walk all his life, Likai had no pain. He had never been sick or poorly. He slept soundly on his bed-mat every night.
He dreamed of his father and how he had shown him how to fish: "Son, you will not depend on anyone. Only the river. It will provide for you."
And he dreamed of his mother, touching his face as he lay on his mat and telling him: "Now in your sleep, Likai, you can see everything. When you close your eyes you will see."
He prayed their spirits were with those of his brothers. He missed them but he was happy if they were at peace. And he had the river for company every day.
The weather had been unusually fine for the early months of the year that marked his 93rd birthday. He loved to sit in the sun while his worms wiggled welcomes at, or his flies flirted with, hungry fish. On the Wednesday of the second full moon that year, the first rain for many weeks began to spatter the river's surface.
Likai blamed the sudden change for the lack of activity by the fish. By mid-afternoon there had not been one bite, not one nibble. He asked the river about it. He blamed the bloated drops of rain for disrupting the surface and making it difficult for him to sense what was going on beneath. He'd had bad days like that in the past when the weather changed and it rained heavily. On those days, when mid-afternoon came, Likai would say: "River, you are testing my faith and my patience. I know that. So I will stay here no matter how long because I know you will take care of me in your time. I am not fretful. I trust you."
Yet the river had never previously delayed on yielding something until dusk as it did that Wednesday of the second full moon but Likai didn't mind as he relied on touch and hearing, not sight.
With the rain getting heavier, the villagers had little else to do except go early to their beds. None saw he was still at the river deep into the night or they would have come over to ask why.
The rain cleared around 11 o'clock. "River," said Likai as the moon he could not see glistened on the swollen, fast-moving surface, "this is the biggest test you have given me. But I am still here. I trust you."
Early next morning three boatmen from the village found Likai at his usual spot, on his side, his hands locked on his fishing rod, eyes vacantly open, his face cold against the round, smooth stone.
He had no need of food on what was to be the last night of his life on Earth, so the river gave him none.
- 'Letters In The Sky And Other Stories' by Eddie Cunningham is published by Ballpoint Press (€14.99) and is available in all good bookshops