Short Story April 2005

Bullheads

He wanted to thank God for his life, and he did. He didn't know what was next, but saw no point in being fearful now

During the last week of March—on Hurricane Lake, a lake so small and obscure it must be found mapped on the county township plats for rural southwestern Minnesota—Leroy Johnson, a cash-crop and livestock farmer, had a turn of character while doing his early-morning fishing. What happened was that at the age of eighty, for the first time in his life, he felt so sorry for a caught fish that he threw it back in the water.

Leroy still took four fish home to eat for breakfast, so it wasn't a total turnaround. But he could almost hear that one fish sucking for air on the dock. He couldn't. He was old, and could barely hear his alarm clock unless it stood three feet away from his head. But the fish had struggled next to his boot as he sat there, and he was bothered, not that it would be eaten but that its death was being prolonged needlessly. Leroy thought he should either kill the fish or release it back to the cold lake and not have such a show of the mouth going open and shut, trying to draw water through the gills when only air was available. Too much drama was involved.

His mysterious and sudden feelings surfaced for a bullhead. This was not a majestic muskie or a delicious walleye; no ferociously toothed northern pike or blue-bellied crappie as big and round as a dinner plate. No, this was a bottom-mucking bullhead, and damn if Leroy Johnson didn't almost come to tears for the spiny-headed devil before he finally kicked it off the homemade dock, and thus put an end to the philosophical struggle between them right then and there.

Still, valuing one shade of animal over another so greatly seemed wrong. Leroy knew that without the worms he baited hooks with, his life as a farmer would be in danger.

Because thousands of lakes pocket Minnesota, people think of some bodies of water as theirs, and Leroy considered Hurricane Lake his lake in that way. The lake shimmered beside his best eighty acres of cropland, his family's original homestead, and since Leroy first walked, the lake had been an everyday part of his life. It had given him more than he could ever measure, and he wanted to remember that.

Leroy recalled a time thirty years earlier, on a more public lake eight miles across the section. He had been sitting in a duck boat fishing when he saw four adolescent boys catching bullheads and throwing them on the ground. The boys had a baseball bat; to Leroy's amazement, they started tossing the fish to one another, practicing their most furious home-run swings on the bullheads. A sickening whop followed, but the boys seemed to think swinging at the fish was the funniest thing they had ever done. Leroy could barely talk, he was so disappointed; he trolled in, secured the bat, and let those boys know they could not continue with their stupidity.

Having a conscience was a good thing, and Leroy lived a life that was evidence of that fact.

A half hour later, back on the farm and cleaning the stringer of perch and walleye he'd kept, Leroy lopped off their heads with his hatchet and then threw the heads to Sister, his old Irish-setter mix. Sister carried them away to bury somewhere behind the machine shed, as was her habit with dead things she did not care to eat. The only female in a litter of thirteen pups, Sister always had her own stubborn intentions, and she was so smart that Leroy sometimes joked she might be the first dog in the world to actually speak a human word.

Today he thought she wanted to say, "Where's the bullhead you had on the dock? Why don't I get to dig a hole for that one?"

Leroy slowly bent down and rubbed Sister on her favorite spot: the breastbone. "That fish still had swim in him, girl. You should have seen him wiggle away when he hit the water."

Although Leroy Johnson had a near holy respect for animal life, he was certainly no tree hugger, and as he fished the next days, he wondered what had gotten into him. He puzzled over self-righteous vegetarians and animal activists, because he felt almost everything in life could be good for you if you didn't abuse it. If God had not wanted beef to be consumed in tremendous quantities, it would not taste as good as it did. Leroy believed that eating meat was a luxury, but so was not eating it. He had witnessed, in the work camps during World War II, that when truly hungry only the rare human being would stand on ethics about diet. The story of the Donner Party told him that people would sometimes eat human flesh if they had to. The choices in a person's life were not always clear, and sometimes not even available.

The weather still acted like winter, and Leroy felt good stepping into the house porch and taking his heavy coat off. After throwing his boots in the closet he decided to limit himself to three fish for his stringer each day. Then, as fast as he could, Leroy washed, filleted, and cooked the fish for late breakfast. He couldn't cook like Doris, but he wasn't fussy. His standards had lowered over the three years since she had passed.

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