One day a year, a man kneels to pray. He can’t remember his Catholic school prayers, or what to pray for, or even exactly how to say one, so he lets a memory come through him and figures that is the truest thing he can do.
He is knelt down in a clearing along a cauliflower-shaped lake. The lake is surrounded by the forests of Shepley County, Maine. It takes in all of the twenty six rivers of St. John Valley and bloats with their charge each May. Most years, the water doesn’t recede until the black gnats swarm in mid-August and twist along its surface.
This is when the man arrives to the lake by way of a St. John Lumber Company logging road. He pulls up to his slumping cabin and takes his rowboat across the lake to its East Cove. When he reaches this shore, he hauls the old boat onto the rocks. He navigates shortleaf pines until he reaches the clearing. In the center of this clearing, beneath the ground, under an arkose sandstone, is the man’s brother. All that is left of the body.
In the man’s memory it was dusk and he leaned in his teenage body over the edge of the small boat. They were near the yellow-flowered lily pads of the lake and the boat tilted with his weight. His brother, well-muscled, pulled the oars in along the shallows. Their eyes were saccadic. Oak branches extended above them and shadowed the water. Once their eyes settled, they saw darker obscurations, transitory, beneath the surface. These fleeting shadows circled and escaped, leaving a flush from their offshoot. Their resonance. But again, here they crept, and his brother pointed at them and he knew he wasn’t seeing things.
The water felt still but the boat drifted into the white foam of a feeding river mouth. They moved as the boat moved. His brother took the oars.
He pulled them away from the canary grass of the lake shore. Again, their eyes settled. The curious specters returned. The deeper ones.
Now, they tossed their lines out, and the lines tightened and the boys were double-quick hand over hand until the lines were back in. On their ends were the beating strange creatures—the momentary shadows. He could see his brother’s slight grin as the creatures wrapped the boys’ arms and rubbed like luminescent gelatin on their hands. The boys worked off their ravel and clubbed them.
Afterwards, on shore, by flashlight, his brother held the eels out. Their rubbery spines stiffened when he took a hammer and drove a nail through their heads into an oak tree. Hey! Hey! Hey! His brother’s pleased shouts echoed off into the forest. They hung like strands of dark-brown tinsel, dead but muscles still twitching. He slit each just below the eyes with a filet knife and started down just slightly on the scales. He put his index finger and thumb where he had cut to secure the membrane. They peeled easily and the filet showed nicely and went into the ice box. It was late now, and he and his brother were thirsty. No water, his brother insisted, but some fine cheap wine. He looked back at the tree, his theatrics. The next afternoon, in the light, his brother sliced the inner-ends and chopped them to squares. In the frying pan, after the hours and the ice, the muscles still jumped and twitched—all the young cousins shrieked at the zombie fish dancing in the kitchen. In forty minutes, the zombies hid in a broth and the cousins ate them. His brother leaned on the cabin wall and grinned. He had a fist of sunflower seeds and let them run through one hand into the other like a pirate with black pearls.
This same memory comes year after year. It is even and clear and ends before the withered flesh and the stench of the hospital bed. The man knows what is meant by it. He takes out his handkerchief and wipes the stone.
Since he is already knelt down and praying—more or less—the man figures he should try to pray for the other people he knows. He closes his eyes. His mind opens like a Gospel and he passes along all the good people in his life, and he waits year after year. When he opens his eyes again, he’s glad he still hasn’t come up with any other prayers at all.
J. Damon Andersen is the author of two short fiction collections and several screenplays. He earned dual BA degrees in English and Print-Journalism from the University of Mississippi. He currently resides in Providence, Rhode Island. Contact him by email here.