They say fishing is relaxing, and it can be, if you catch a damn thing. I had been at the creek since sunrise, the sun was now setting and all I had caught in that time was, I shit you not, a small leather shoe.
Throughout the day I saw an old man fish from a pitch on the opposite side of the river. It was like clockwork. He reeled in fish after fish for the whole day. I noticed he didn’t have a keep net and let his catches straight back into the water without even weighing them. What I wouldn’t have given to have caught at least one.
As the sun began to disappear, the old man began packing up his tackle and walked across the bridge to my side.
“Had any luck?” he asked, almost as if he was trying to wind me up.
I let out a large sigh, “No, just this stupid shoe.”
His eyes lit up when he saw it.
“Can I have a look?” he asked.
“Sure, you can have it if you want,” I said confused.
He sat on the bank next to me and picked up the small piece of footwear.
“You found it,” he said as his voice broke.
He turned it over in his hand and cried.
“Are you okay?”
“Very okay,” he replied.
He touched it to his face.
A few minutes passed and I was lost for words.
He leaned over, opened his tackled box and pulled out some rotten fabric.
“This was his T-shirt,” he said, showing me a faded green top.
“His shorts,” his voice broke again.
He placed the other shoe next to the one I found. The leather was cracked and hardened from years of neglect.
“I never thought I’d see it again.”
“Thank you,” he said, hugging me tightly.
I patted his back, not knowing what to say.
He placed the clothes back in his tackle box and got up.
“What happened?” I asked.
“It was a long time ago, we used to fish here often. And one day…” he looked away.
“I’m sure you didn’t come here to see an old man cry,” he said, pushing himself up onto his knees.
“Was he your son?”
“No, but we had fun together. It’s nice to know he’ll be here with me now when I fish. I really appreciate it.”
“Did they ever look for him? Did they drag the river?” I asked and as soon as I did, I winced.
The man sniffed and picked up his tackle box. He began to walk away.
“Did they know he was here?” I asked without thinking.
My line tugged and my heart raced.
“Happens when you least expect it, doesn’t it,” the man said, walking away.
I grappled with the fish, pulling back on the rod, seeing the tip twitch, feeling the tension in my grip.
I reeled in carefully, not wanting to lose it. Slowly but surely the fish tired. I was worried it had got away and wound in the line. I saw the fish lay on the surface, surrendered to me.
When I landed it, I swiftly removed the hook and was glad to see the bait was missing, hoping the fish had a little reward for the struggle. It was a decent size, and I was more than happy to let it go free. I placed the rod on its rest. I threw my remaining bait into the water, pleased I had finally caught something and packed up.
As I picked up the rod and reeled in the remaining line, it went taut. I pulled and realised it had got stuck on something. I mentally scolded myself, seeing the reeds that grew on the bank. I heaved on the line and it stretched to breaking point.
I stood up and walked along the bank, letting the line run out. I walked onto the bridge and began to wind in. With one last pull, it freed. As I reeled in, I could feel something was on the hook. It didn’t struggle or fight, though I was aware of its drag.
In the last few feet, I saw something beige rise towards the surface through the murky waters. As it emerged, I panicked. A small skull. I wanted to cut the line and allow it to sink, so I could pretend it didn’t exist. The macabre urge overtook me, I lifted the rod, allowing the bone to rest on the bridge.
I peered around, looking for the old man. He was nowhere to be seen. I unhooked the line that was tangled in the jawless skull and hid it under my jacket.
Panicked, I disassembled my rod, and put it away in its bag. I took my other possessions and ran to the car.
It was dark when I arrived at the carpark. I struggled to open the boot while holding the skull under my jacket. I put my gear in and slammed it shut.
“How big was the fish?” a voice said from behind.
I spun on my feet.
“Yeah… yeah, good,” I said, as the old man looked me up and down.
“How many pounds?”
“Uh, I don’t know, I didn’t weigh it.”
“Really? You were trying all day, I saw you. You finally land a fish and you didn’t weigh it?”
He eyed my jacket.
“I was so happy to land it, I didn’t even think,” I let out a nervous chuckle.
“Did you catch anything else?” he asked, his smile revealed a set of crooked teeth.
“No, no,” I said, moving my hand to my shoulder to hide the skull.
“Are you sure?”
“I have to get home, my wife’s expecting me.”
He clamped a hand onto my shoulder.
“Thanks again for the shoe. Really means a lot to me.”
I feigned a smile, “no problem.”
I got in the car and saw the man hobble over to his rusted Land Rover. I let out a big sigh and drove home.
I parked in front of the garage and went inside.
“You were gone long,” my wife said, “your food is in the fridge.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Are you okay? You sound on edge.”
“Yeah, I think.”
“Do you want me to heat up your food?”
“No, I’ll do it,” I said, leaving my wife in the living room, watching TV.
I placed the skull on the sideboard and turned on the light. It was so small. You could see the adult teeth above the milk teeth, waiting like little solders, for the time their owner would grow up and they’d be on duty.
I placed my food in the microwave and the security light out front lit up.
A rusted out Land Rover had stopped outside the house. The blinds on the window were open. I snatched a look at the skull and realised it would be visible from outside. I closed the blinds.
I took out my phone and dialled the police. I spoke to a nice woman who said that they’d send someone round immediately.
There was a knock at the door. Before I could tell my wife not to answer, the old man had entered the house.
“I’m a friend of your husband’s,” he said, “we go fishing all the time.”
“Oh good,” she said, “I’ll leave you two be.”
The old man smiled at me as my wife left the hallway for the living room.
“I think you have something of mine,” he said, striding past me and into the kitchen.
He picked up the skull and rubbed it to his face, letting out an excited purr. He placed it under his jacket and approached me.
“You didn’t tell anyone you found it did you?” he asked with a plastic smile.
I shook my head in fear.
He left the house.
The police arrived minutes later and I told them what happened. They asked if I still had the shoe and the skull. I told them no. They stared at me with incredulity. I asked them to search the river. They said they needed something concrete to go on before they’d investigate. I was shocked. But I guess this is the result of budget cuts.
I’ve told a friend of mine, a scuba diving instructor and he says he’s up for it. So we will bide our time and find the remaining bones.