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.
For a week the memory of that gasping bullhead still flashed in Leroy's mind. He realized that he was really trying to think about his wife and the months of trouble she'd had breathing with lung cancer. Like when a fish has swallowed a hook so far that you have to almost pull the guts out of it to remove the hook—that's how he thought of his wife's cancer. The disease ruined her deep inside and started her rotting, and once that hook was set and yanked, no surgery could correct it. The cell mutations began in her chest, and the mass just grew and grew, filling her lungs until it moved up into her throat and then she had to gag on it every day. The smell of that sickness reeked worse than rotten soybeans, and Leroy gagged on it himself many times, even though he was not the one who had to die from it. He remembered having to stop the car one summer day and get out for fresh air while driving Doris to chemotherapy. He stood bent over and dizzy, and he threw up in the gravel on the shoulder of the road. He felt ashamed that he could not bear to stay in the car with her, but Doris was sorry for him and forgave him.
The images of his wife and the fish groping for air became intertwined in his memory and almost made him dizzy. His wife meant more to him than the bullhead, so Leroy was confused to find them edited together in his memory's slide show. He questioned the way his mind worked lately, but decided he shouldn't place so much weight on any one loss, because the world was full of loss, and if you stopped to retch through every injustice or mystery, you would never stand straight. Leroy liked to carry high spirits and, like most people, usually had a way of ignoring almost everything outside his orbit if he had to. Yet in the days following this bullhead he made himself concentrate his images and think about only the fish. The bullhead had become mythic somehow, and thinking about it made him feel even more blue.