The mouth alone must be over a foot wide, and the fan-like tail is kicking up mud some four feet away. My father says no, it is only three feet. He was a chemist and is careful with his measurements. Still, those whiskers, tangling with the sedge along the shallow banks of the Hennepin Canal, I half expect to turn into whips.
It is early October and we are out for a walk—a grown woman and her father with nothing more pressing to do on a Tuesday afternoon. Life is being lived somewhere else.
The path is on fire. The canal slow like a mole, and still our footsteps are unable to keep up. We have seen four painted turtles and a red-tailed hawk. Not to mention the trees, which my father lists off like a game. Shaggy Bark Hickory, Elm, and Sumac.
I point to a tree that I am not sure of, and he stops on the uneven gravel, leans back a little on his heels, and says “ah heck” as he tries to remember. “Some kind of oak,” he says. He’s known these trees his whole life, long before my mother, before me. When he picks up one of the fallen leaves to examine it more closely, it shakes in his hand from the Parkinson’s.
Lately, I too have been memorizing trees, gobbling them up like large broccoli tufts in the hope that they will stave off something: sickness, laziness, some monster nipping at my heels. I move from tree to tree, trying to make up for lost time. My teeth are stained brown from the bark.
But here, I let my father do the identifying, as he has always done. The stars and the birds, the waterways and weeds, they would have no names if it weren’t for my father. Like Adam, he has named them into existence. Pisces. Milkweed. Hennepin. Heron.
“Chinkapin, right?” I ask, when I see he cannot make his lips spit out the word.
The fish looks at us through milky eyes; its mouth is open like a gate. It doesn’t flip its tail and dart away. In the cover of our shadow, it remains still. If it were another animal, a raccoon maybe or a possum, my father would warn me to stand back. “It’s not acting right,” he would say, “could be rabid.” But instead we both inch closer. This fish has something to say.
“What is it?” I ask.
“Catfish,” my father says.
But I know that already. That is not what I’m asking.
We are bending down looking right in its eye, the toes of my tennis shoes turning soggy in the mud, when it winks. A minuscule reverberation. In that moment a story, long forgotten, comes back to me, and I know what we have stumbled upon. I can hear the story in my father’s voice, told to me one fall night in the car on the way home from my piano lesson.
The fish is no ordinary fish, you see, he is a god. A slippery god who has taken cover in the cool waters of our humble canal while he hides from a monster with tongues that hiss like snakes and yelp like puppies.
I can feel it coming, bounding over the empty cornfields. Poor fish-god. Our hubris is to blame. We have summoned this monster. Did we really think we could create order among such things? Full of fecundity and decay, did we really think we could line up the world in neat columns, genus then species, and keep it there? Typha latifolia Linnaeus. Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus.
The tufts of the cattail have been let loose in the breeze. All that is left is the stalk. The yellow-headed blackbird prepares for Mexico.
Before the monster appears, perhaps my father could wade out into the water, too. He could sink down so only his nose was visible. I could come to him from time to time and ask him to list the water plants that have grown up around his legs. We can do it, I’m sure.
But there I go again.
My father takes my arm to steady himself.
And then, the fish winks again. And again.
Maybe I am wrong. Maybe this is just another old catfish stunned to discover it has lived another season and must again prepare for winter. Rather than join it, my father and I will walk home while the chokecherries cluster, whispering behind our backs. “Prunus virginiana,” my father will say like a blessing.