I’ve been walking through a densely wooded area of thick pines and a few struggling oaks for about an hour and then the path abruptly ends. I come upon an open field filled with people, relaxing on a sunny Sunday afternoon. The grass, where they meander about, is worn from the pacing of so many feet. Bare patches of soil peek up from the well trodden lawn. Children on bicycles skid to sudden stops, grinning, as they show off their skill.
Everyone seems to know someone, except me, but that’s all right. I don’t mind at all. In fact, it’s rather nice to be among people and have no responsibilities, no obligation to be friendly or to strike up a conversation. I make no eye contact but gaze past the cheerful faces to an imaginary spot beyond the group, as if I’m searching for someone I know. It’s a ruse to remain alone. I’m a stranger among the throng of happy revelers.
Some of them seem foreign, as if they originated from a Middle Eastern country, although none of them are wearing long white robes or other unfamiliar dress, to combat the heat of the day. A few men have full beards and dark hair. I smell cigarettes wafting towards me from a group deep in conversation. Others are skinny teenagers, wearing shorts with straight blond hair. I wonder if they are wearing sun screen in the hot afternoon. I am.
Casually, I walk through the crowd and peer over the rough concrete edge into the slowly moving water. Three or four boys are fishing in the wide canal with simple gear. They’re catching masses of stripers. I stand straighter, impressed, and watch their success.
“Would you like to do some fishing?” a boy about twelve asks. “I have an extra rod here that I’m not using.”
“Thanks,” I say, and make eye contact with him. I take the flexible bamboo pole and cast it far out into the canal, its jade green water sparkling in the dazzling light. Almost immediately, there’s a huge yank on the hook and the power of the fish almost pulls me into the channel. I jerk the line up and snag the mouth, feeling the tremendous weight of what feels like a sea monster.
My hand spins as I reel in a great white fish, about six feet long, unlike anything I’ve ever seen. In spite of its huge girth, glistening gills and heaving body, it’s as light as air. The giant fish lies on the trampled grass, calm and still. It doesn’t thrash around as I would have expected, but is motionless, as if it’s waiting for me to come closer.
People stare at the monster fish, but don’t break conversation with their friends, as if it’s unusual, but not unknown to catch a fish so huge and strange. I want to take a photo, but remember I don’t have my camera with me.
I’d come with a child and say to him, “Let’s go back so I can get my camera.”
“Okay,” he answers, and takes my hand. It’s warm and sticky.
Time passes. No one who remains by the fish could tell how long I am gone. I’m unable to sense if it is five minutes or fifty minutes, or if it’s considerably longer. The blue sky develops wispy clouds and the sun isn’t as intense.
When the child and I return with my camera, we see that the fish is being ripped to shreds by a flock of carnivorous birds. They remind me of the vultures I saw eat an entire cow that had died on a Pakistani road. The difference is that these vultures don’t eat the fish’s flesh. They rip pieces off and throw each mouthful up into the air as if batting balloons at a birthday party. As a result, the fish seems even larger than its original size. The pieces may be floating lightly above the body’s surface, but from where I stand, it looks like a pile of mush.
No one appears concerned with the destruction of the fish. Families and single adults, children and teens continue socializing, laughing, joking and performing acrobatics on the lawn. Boys slide their bikes to make nearby girls shriek in make-believe terror. They run away, laughing, as if to say, “Follow me. We’re not really scared!”
Nearby, where the vultures and the fish remain, a group of men happily play with their dogs. My dog wants to romp with them. I let him off his leash and the child and I smile as he races around with the others, barking enthusiastically, his tongue hanging out of his mouth, his ears flopping.
I awake. It’s the anniversary of my mother’s death.