by Scott Beard
Thunder clapped loud as the black Z-71 lumbered up the incline and into to the rusty shed. Bill let out a sigh as Powell put it in park. They crawled out of the cab, bodies aching from a long day of fishing down on the Cache La Poudre River. The mercury struggled to hike to sixty and gray clouds had thwarted the sun’s attack on the foothills of the Sawatch Range.
They grabbed the rods and bucket of channel cat and plodded into the shed as rain fell on steel like popcorn in a Stir Crazy. The clouds pressed a puffy gray blanket across the afternoon sky. Powell peered at the white plastic aquarium and smiled. Six channel cat. Bill had caught nothing. The murky water rippled and a gray caudal fin broke the surface as the cats writhed back and forth in their submarined gallow.
Powell lifted the bucket and labored along the firm, dry earth to the toolshed and set the bucket next to a rusty red Craftsman toolbox. Old rags of turpentine, a sandwich wrapper, a rusty crescent wrench, and some machine thread screws laid on the top. He slid the top drawer open, fished out a blunt, rusty fillet knife, and grabbed an aluminum pan perched on the shelf behind the toolbox. The whetstone stood next to the toolbox. Bill leaned against the aluminum wall of the shed and watched. The rain still pelted the roof. He inhaled ozone and humidity. Balsam wafted from the blue spruce and ponderosas into the shed. A cool breeze intruded and Bill contracted his shoulders under the windbreaker and quickly zipped it. He scanned the rest of the shed—a few old dusty license plates lined the walls. Tools stood guard as well: a rusty scythe, a shovel eaten away with rust, and a wooden ladder with a broken third rung. Oily rags of grease and turpentine and the tinkered remains of several fish lay on the floor underneath the whetstone from one of Powell’s previous cleansings. A rusty dog dish lay under the table. It was now filled with shrapnel from a catfish skeleton. He peered out again at the rain falling like bullets from an M16—rapid fire on the softened earth now. A magpie squawked high in one of the ponderosas. He caught sight of it. It shook as if being tumbled in a washer as rain drops pelted it.
Powell was at the table ready to battle. With the fillet knife in his right hand, he studied the prison of cats. He thrust his left hand into the murkiness and dragged out a four-pounder by the lower lip. He slapped the body onto the table on its back, held its head above the pectoral fins, poked a hole just above the anal fin. He ran the incision back towards the head, the skin wilting to the blade. Liver, heart and spleen, plunged onto the table. He ripped the remaining entrails out with his hand as he held the knife perpendicular to the fish. When he squeezed, the flesh squished like soggy soap in clenched hands. He tossed the entrails into the aluminum pan. He turned the knife again, sawed at the head. The blade sliced its ways through soft bone and finally through a flap of sinewy skin. The head rolled off onto the ground. He gripped the tail and made one final small laceration across the skin just above the caudal fin. Setting the knife down, and finding a pair of pliers, he trapped the lacerated skin in the vise and pulled laterally back towards the top of the corpse, removing the slimy coat on both sides this way. Finally, Powell took the knife and scraped along the bones on the inside of the fillet, ridding the skeletal cavities of any excess entrails and blood trapped in the recesses. When he was finished with the first fillet, Powell wiped the blade clean along the bottom of his shirt. He lifted the blade eye-level, ran his finger across the inside of the stainless steel. He turned and began to spin the concrete stone with his left hand. He angled the blade to the circle, shards of grinding heat flew in all directions. The thunder roared again and Powell was back on duty.
Bill remained, stiffened against the truck. He was exhausted. The pack that he carried bore blisters into his back. They had only trekked a few miles from where they had parked the truck to the secluded pond. Bill gave a skeptical look towards Powell who was at work on the last fish.
Powell didn’t poke a hole in the fish this time. The blade was more efficient. He cut a perfect line from head to tail. He smiled. The rain continued—heavier now. It had formed deep puddles in the earth. Impressions of the damage it had done to the steep mountain roads. Powell still operated on his kill, performing the rest of the ritual now like he had done the first time. He cut quicker now, muscle memory from many earlier cleansings. The stink from the aluminum pan could not be hidden by the rain and wind. Bill turned to look at the rain again. Powell finished off the second and kicked the head along the dirt. It bounced and slammed into the sidewall of the front tire of the pickup.
Bill crossed his arms against his chest. In two weeks, both he and Powell would head out for Fort Carson. The U.S. had been engaged in a conflict with the North Koreans for almost a year now. Soldiers had been lost. The war seemed trivial to Bill: two countries debating about fishing rights along the China Sea. They were being sent over for the freedom to fish. He had enlisted for six years—just wanted to skate by, make the taxpayers fund college. This stuff was for real patriots, not him. These Koreans were insane. Evil. They had been killing American soldiers for a year. Apparently they needed more fillets to cleanse.
The dead fish still lay on the ground—mangled. Bill kicked one of the corpses into the corner. Skin and organs stained the dirt. What if he didn’t make it back? Surely he would. Of course he would. Why not? He had to make it back didn’t he? He’d have others looking out for him, his Kevlar. Yes, he would be fine.
He began to daydream of the terrain, of patrols along the DMZ, minefields scanned non-stop for months and months. He thought back to his days at the university. His instructors praised him for his aspirations. Graduate and post-graduate work was in his future. He was always expected to give one hundred and ten percent on everything, be at the top of his class. For what? Several years as an Associate Professor’s punching bag at some crack pot liberal university where they were applauded for vigilant defiance to the pursuit of peace and justice around the world? He imagined some piece-of-shit in a turtleneck, bow tie, and blue jeans with a 128-ounce mug of coffee sitting with his legs crossed like a school girl rambling on about his misguided perception of the evils of non-socialistic world views—Powell had called them fucking lib-tards.
Powell had been working furiously at the fish. He had managed to take care of all six and now sat calmly, cleansing the rusty knife. He ran the sides of the blade through his grimy fingers, eliminating flesh and blood. He had neatly piled the shredded skin and organs next to him. He wiped his hands on his black jeans and piled the carcasses into the aluminum pan. The storm had summoned up reinforcements—it fell mercilessly now. Powell scooped up the entrails and tossed them like garbage into the dog dish. A few scraps slipped from his clutch and slopped to the floor. Bill stared at them. A fly had landed on them. Powell moved towards the front of the shed. He charged out into the rain with the remains. The rain stung his face as he marched down the dirt road. Lightning flashed overhead and Bill covered his ears. Powell never faltered, but steadied himself forward. The thunder rumbled and the ground shook beneath his feet. Bill put his arms down and watched the rain. Powell neared the edge of the forest, flung the dead flesh to the scrub oak for the scavengers—bears, coons, skunks, magpies. He knew that something would take care of them. Powell marched back toward the shed, his black jeans and shirt stained with blood. The rain beat down on his head. Lightning cracked again, his face a ghost-white. He moved in a trance, the knife still clenched in his fist as the blood began to wash away from his hands, spilling to the ground.
Scott Beard has a B.A. in Creative Writing and an M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction from Wichita State University. He currently has three books published in his children’s series The Adventures of Rufus the Wal-Pup, and has recently published a collection of short fiction entitled An Honest Appraisal, both of which are available on CreateSpace and Amazon. He enjoys fishing, hiking, shooting, camping, reading, writing, and painting. He is submitting this story in honor of his brother-in-law, Spc. Sgt. Dan Woods, U.S. Army, Combat Action Badge recipient.