EXCERPT: “A River Closely Watched,” by Jon Boilard


Thaddeus sits on a rock and jiggles fishing wire. The boy watches him and puts a worm on a hook. The dog always at his side now. He calls her Dingo. He and his uncle got the bait from a vending machine tagged Live Bait at the service station in the center of town. They busted open the machine with a tire iron because they didn’t have fifty cents. Festus will be pissed when he comes across the results of their most recent act of vandalism. A dozen pink and gray night crawlers packed with dirt into a milk container. The trout is running pretty good. Uncle Thaddeus will be happy to eat some fish. There’s a dirty white plastic bucket on the ground next to him and there’s some tackle in it. Different size hooks and lengths of wire and a small knife for dressing the catch. The boy casts his line out and it takes a couple tries to get it in the right spot. The dog barks twice.

There you go now, Uncle Thaddeus says.

Think that’ll do her.

Unless she scares them off with that barking.

Uncle Thaddeus wants to eat the dog.

He insists it will taste like chicken.

 Basically just chink food, he has said many times.

But Bobby has grown quite fond of Dingo and she’s all ribs now anyhow.

And the fact that it was a gift from Doreen is important to him.

He has come to think of the dog as a piece of her.

A piece of them.

Bobby shuts up the dog and settles down next to his Uncle Thaddeus. He wraps the line around his wrist a couple times and gives it a tug. He leans forward and then the line goes slack and he sits back. There are trees along the stream and a mill with a water wheel. Bobby watches the wheel turn and there is a beaver-cut log caught in a standstill and he watches that, too. He is shirtless and his uncle is shirtless and their shirts are wet and hanging to dry on a straight leafless branch with socks, as well. They had bathed in the stream, too. They washed their hair and bodies, naked and pale and skeleton bone-hard now with the lingering hunger.

It’s just water so there is little they can do for the stench, but they don’t smell themselves anymore and aren’t around other people for it to really matter. Thaddeus closes his eyes and leaves them closed and rests the back of his head against the tree trunk. He doesn’t want to sleep but there’s no fighting it. It doesn’t feel like sleep anymore. Then his line jerks and tightens and he opens his eyes and looks at the boy who is sleeping now, too. The line doesn’t let go and he has a live one. He pulls back in a quick snap and can feel the hook catch on the lip of the trout. It feels small, but big enough for them to eat. The dog gets up and barks, whips its stubby tail back and forth.

Sonofabitch, Thaddeus says.

The boy opens his eyes and blinks and looks at his uncle.

You got one, he says.

He checks his line, too, but there is nothing there and he turns back to his uncle. Uncle Thaddeus stands up to get some better leverage and he pulls the line in hand over hand. Bobby unwraps his line from his wrist and snags it on a piece of bark so he can help. Then the fish breaks the surface and it is silver in the sun and flicking its tail first and then the rest of it. The boy manages to get hold of it and the hook has gone through its eyeball and there is some rust-colored blood. He works the hook out backward and lays the three-pounder on some leaves they’ve set up and he puts a foot on it and reaches in the bucket for the knife. He uses it to clean the fish, slicing it and folding it open. The innards of the thing still working for a second or two once exposed. Uncle Thaddeus is already starting the fire. He had dug a hole for a pit and surrounded it with stones. Dry leaves and twigs as a base and a teepee of bigger sticks and some other kindling. Logs and heavier branches on standby. There are still some matches left, but they have to be careful. Thaddeus cups his hands and blows at the embers and a thin wisp of smoke. When it catches he straightens up and looks at the boy who is just finishing up.

How’s she looking over there son, he says.

He has taken to calling the boy son and Bobby does not seem to notice or mind.   

About ready now, Bobby says.

There is a flat piece of tin and the boy puts the meat and skin and bones there. All right hand it here, the man says.

The boy hands it to his uncle. Thaddeus puts the tin on some rocks to hold it over the flames that are licking upward now like the cursed tongues of a hundred hungry demons buried somewhere deep. He stands up and steps back and spits. Bobby walks down to the water and rinses his hands and wipes them sticky in some weeds and then shoves them back in the water and then again until they are not sticky anymore.

Wish we had some bread, he says.

That was the last of it the other night.

Can she bring some more.

He means his grandfather’s girlfriend, who had dropped more supplies with them a week or so previous. But that was not a good idea with all the folks on their asses. Meeting up with known people in town. The perfect way to get themselves caught.

I think we got to lay low now, Uncle Thaddeus says.

Uh huh.

That’s just the ticket for now.

All right.

Until things blow over a little bit.

Bobby nods his head in agreement. He knows it’s true, but he wants some bread and some chocolate and ice-cold beer. He wants these things and more. What he used to have even though it was never much. He wants to drive around carefree with Fat Johnny and maybe tussle with some other f---ing rednecks in a relatively harmless fashion that doesn’t lead to a f---ing funeral. Doreen. He wants to see Doreen and to put his hand in her hair. To get inside her. He pictures in his mind for the millionth time what them boys done to her and it hardens his heart. And now Bobby’s baby forming in that belly.

After them poking and prodding around in there.

It was a trespass that Bobby could not ever forgive.

Maybe when it’s dark, Bobby says.

He means maybe they can take the bike into town and do another raid on Rogers & Brooks or Hebert’s or Boron’s Market. Uncle Thaddeus is nervous about going into town now and he does not answer the boy. He flips the fish with a stick and you can smell it. Seconds later he removes the tin from the flames and puts it down on the ground and puts his burned fingertips into his mouth. They are too hungry to let it cool and Uncle Thaddeus takes the knife from the boy and cuts the thing in half and he gives his nephew the bigger half with the tail and he eats the one with the head, eyeballs intact. They use their hands that have gotten shiny with oil. The bones are small and sharp and they spit them out or lick them onto the backs of their hands like feral cats.

Good f---ing fish, the boy says.

His uncle laughs and chews and laughs. Then they stand there. Uncle Thaddeus goes down to the stream and takes a knee and puts his hands in the water. The boy does, too, though the fish stink will not go away entirely. Then the sun has dried their shirts and socks. They get dressed and Uncle Thaddeus pisses on the fire to put it out.

 Let’s pack up then, he says.

The key to their survival is to stay in constant motion.

The boy gets the bait and tackle together. He rinses the tin they used for cooking. He puts it all in the box and then he puts the box under the seat of the chopper that is leaning against a tree. His uncle kicks some dirt and leaves into the fire pit. He looks up at the sky through the canopy of trees. Dark clouds are forming, shifting ominous shapes.

Looks like rain, Uncle Thaddeus says.

Uh huh.

Might could help us.

Keep them others at bay you mean.

But meanwhile we got to find some cover.

They have a blue tarp and rope that is fine and functional for some mist or light rain or heavy fog, but it will not do in a real storm. Not that half-assed lean-to they contrapt. They need real shelter soon. There is some rolling thunder in the distance.

Coming down from Canada, Uncle Thaddeus says.

Yeah. Sounds like a real f---ing beaut. All right then.

The boy looks at his uncle.

 Let’s go hey, Uncle Thaddeus says.

The boy laughs a little bit and puts his hand on his mouth and Uncle Thaddeus throws his leg over the bike and backs off the kickstand and the boy straddles behind. It is a strange thing that links them now: the way they need each other like never before.

— By Jon Boilard, reprinted here
with the author’s permission.

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