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Grey Sparrow Journal and Press, as of January 31, 2018 will move to

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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The Bait


by Scott Carpenter



It was early August before my fourth-grade year, during the annual pilgrimage to my grandparents. For a week we shared their squat bungalow tucked in a jungle of rhubarb and raspberry bushes. Summer had stretched into one of those steamy days when dogs pant like mouth-breathing boys and screen porches hum with the murmurings of grown-ups. I’d headed down to the dock with the little rod grandpa let me use, my bait cup filled with kernels of sweet corn pilfered from the salad chilling in the fridge. Did fish even like vegetables? It was worth a try.


Out on the dock I pricked the hook into a niblet, dropped my line in the water, and leaned back to study the sky. Within minutes there came a first tug, followed by a second, and as I grabbed for the handle of the reel, the tip of the rod curved straight down. The line slackened and pulled, pulled and slackened. Inch by inch, I drew in my opponent. Grandpa would be so impressed! His white goatee would dance under his smile, and he’d give me that wink of complicity. Or so I imagined until I drew a pocket-sized Hercules out of the water—a perch the length of a baseball card, no longer than certain minnows I’d seen in the vats of bait shops. I considered feeding him to grandma’s kitten back at the house, but catching my own reflection in the shine of the young perch’s eye, I sighed and eased the hook from his lip, slipping him back into the lake, where he paused before vanishing into the dark. At least he’d gotten a piece of corn out of the deal.


A few minutes later I was lying again on the boards of the dock—a cloud had just started to sprout the ears of a rabbit—when the line tugged again and I sprang into action, working the rod to tease in the beast that had clamped down on my tackle. As my catch rose closer to the surface, I caught a glint of light and fin, a flicker of recognition: it was the twin brother of the fish I’d just caught. The exact double.


What did these baby perch think they were doing? Where were their parents?

And when I lifted him out of the water, I noticed the small, familiar hole in his lip, right next to where the hook had caught. It was the same darn fish, and he’d cleaned off another piece of corn.


This time I launched him as far as I could, winding up like a baseball pitcher and hurling him toward the middle of the lake, where he disappeared with a plop.


            For a long while nothing happened. The sun had baked all the wind out of the air, and the lake had gone still. Clouds were thinning into wisps. My chin on the edge of the dock, I watched the kernel of corn drift under the water, a hook without ambition. The stones on the bed of the lake were speckled and blurred. Sprigs of seaweed swayed like lanky belly dancers. Every now and then the sand burped out a bubble that rose through the water like a lost balloon.


            Then, through the shadows, something green and golden flashed, a body curving around the hook the way a shark brushes against its victim. As it darted in for the kill, bearing down on the kernel of corn, I saw—too late—the tail, the size, the eye, the lip.


            I told my grandpa about this later, laughing at the fish. I found it incredible that an animal could be so dumb as to return again and again, hoping that the same actions would somehow produce different results.


            Grandpa slipped his arm around my shoulder. “Well,” he began, leaving enough time for the chuckle to die in my throat, “there are two animals in this story, aren’t there?”