Jim draws back his spear. Several gray shadows drift across the green moss, swimming upstream where Eagle Creek narrows to flow under Highway 18.
Leaning forward, Jim strikes. The carp flails to escape, catching a ray of sunlight, flashing gold underwater. Jim lifts the shaft of his spear like a shovel and flips the fish up on the bank. Next to him, Barry throws his spear but the other carp have scattered. He pulls it back to show us a broken tine, laughing like he intended to hit the rock all along. I ignore him and focus on Jim’s carp.
Its fins bend and quiver as I scramble over the culvert to the other side for a closer look. On the bank the carp has shed any hint of beauty, dull brown and gray, the color of mud, with dirty white highlights on large scales and a stretched snout ending in a sucker mouth, a vacuum cleaner of crud. One yellow eye stares up at us. The carp tries to flip but it’s too heavy, too full of muck to move. Jim touches it with the toe of his boot, but I lean away, staring at the blood wash along its back where Jim’s spear entered. Barry pokes it with his pole. The carp curls its tail and tries to flip again.
“Maybe we should throw him back,” I suggest, recalling how we release any fish we catch. “He’ll die out of the water.”
Jim laughs and Barry laughs louder. Spearing carp was Jim’s idea and this morning he helped Barry and me drive rake handles into the four-pronged spear heads and secure them with a nail. He reminds us how carp eat the food that bluegill and northern pike need to survive. “We’re doing the lake a favor. We need to keep the carp from spawning.”
I recall his reasons for shooting deer and pheasant when his father takes him hunting. They’ll die of starvation if we fail to thin them out.
“Tommy, you’re just chicken,” Barry says to me, stabbing the carp with his spear, piercing the scales halfway down its side. Barry’s a year younger than Jim but two years older than my ten years.
“You didn’t hit anything,” I reply, watching the carp gasp for air.
“At least I threw my spear,” Barry persists.
“Leave him alone,” Jim says, but I’m not sure if he’s referring to me or the carp, as Barry pokes it again. Jim adds, “It’s like hunting; some people don’t like to hunt.”
Barry shakes his head. “He wanted to come with us.”
“You dared me to come,” I reply.
Jim looks at me and says, “Okay, Tommy, you can spear the next carp.”
We return to our places on the bank, our silence merging with the faint murmur of water washing over the rocks and the fat, lazy flies resurrected from their winter sleep by the April thaw, buzzing above Jim’s carp. I check my footing on the slippery rocks, knowing the creek is cold with snowmelt, rewinding the safety rope around my wrist and studying Jim from my spot on the opposite bank. I follow his lead in dipping my spear in the water to measure its refraction. Barry rests his spear on his shoulders like a rifle, cocking his hips.
Several carp emerge from the weeds along the edge of Eagle Lake, unaware of the danger waiting near the culvert. A pod of seven, they break into two smaller groups to hug the shore as the creek deepens. Five head for Jim and Barry, and two take my side. I hear Jim yelling at me to throw my spear but my arms freeze, and the carp wallow past me toward the protection of the culvert.
Jim strikes at a fish near him. The carp rises out of the creek, careening across the water and flapping on its side, stunned by Jim’s spear. We stare for a long moment as it tries each fin, bleeding from a slash near its tail. The carp rights itself and swims slowly toward the culvert, wavering once more and straightening again.
“I told you Tommy was chicken,” Barry says softly, breaking our silence. He holds his spear ready, as if the wounded carp might climb up on the shore after him, and I notice he has broken another tine.
“He’ll get another chance,” Jim says. I take a deep breath and tighten my grip, knowing I’ll never hear the end of it if I don’t throw my spear.
We hear an odd thrashing noise coming from the culvert. Jim steps up to the mouth of the pipe and leans in. He glances back at us with a sickened expression, and we know what he’s thinking. The carp inside the culvert are eating the wounded one.
Jim returns his attention to the creek with a determined stare, and Barry and I take our places, with the splashes echoing in the culvert behind us. As if attracted by the morbid sound, more carp enter the creek. I quickly count up to a dozen before I lose track. Jim steps back to give me the first try. Barry stands directly across from me, holding his spear with its two remaining prongs pointing upward, his grin expecting me to fail.
I pick out my carp and mark each twist of its tail. The white fin along the ridge of its back waves in the water like a blade of seaweed. My distorted reflection looms above its large body as it inches toward my deadly trajectory. I cock my elbows and imagine my spear piercing the carp behind its head, the carp struggling to escape the four barbs, me throwing it up on the bank where it dies a slow death surrounded by dry air and flies.
The carp’s path and my angle intersect, but I wait a critical second before throwing my spear. The pronged head passes just behind the carp’s tail and the fish scoots ahead and enters the culvert.
“Nice shot,” Barry says sarcastically, but I smile with relief, feeling oddly guilty that I threw my spear at all.
Jim praises me for my effort. “Good try,” he says. He throws his spear at a trailing carp, but he misses also.
With the thrashing noise still resounding from the culvert, we cross over the highway to see if any carp or pieces of dead carp are coming out the other side. The roiling sounds are louder on the upstream end, but the bank is steeper and we can’t get close enough to peer inside the pipe. Finally, several carp, my carp safely among them, emerge and continue their journey, propelled by lazy flaps of their tails.
Terry Tierney has stories coming or appearing in Jersey Devil Press, Fictive Dreams, SPANK the CARP, Longshot Island, Literally Stories and Big Bridge. He has poems coming or appearing in Valparaiso Poetry Review, Front Porch Review, Third Wednesday, Riggwelter, Rat’s Ass Review, Cold Creek Review, The Lake and other publications. His website is https://terrytierney.com.