River fishing requires a certain amount of tact.
My father is the most graceful when he is on the river, a fish following his fly. He squats, hunches over his fly rod, and slowly drags the leader. His feet move delicately through the current as he tries to find the perfect spot. Something with riffles, tree cover, rocks. He has forty years behind him practicing this art, shown to him by his father. Forty years to master it.
My grace does not lie in wading through the water, over algae-coated rocks, trying not to trip, or slip, and fall headlong into the tannin-stained river. More often than not I tromp more than walk through the water.
I think, perhaps, walking the river is a developed skill, not one that can be taught.
I am eleven. My uncle’s new log cabin sits on the shore of the Escanaba River, still shiny from the fresh coat of sealer on the logs. Dad is teaching my brother, Peter how to spit. It’s a game: who can hock a loogy farthest into the current. Peter is a natural.
I should not want to participate. It is not the fault of my father for not teaching me how to spit. I sit on the porch and watch.
When the river floods in 2001, I do not understand the repercussions of such an event. When we make it to camp the following spring, everything looks the same. I cannot tell the cabin had three feet of water in it: the floor needed replacing; the stones of the fireplace needed scrubbing to erase the black that stained it. The Escanaba looks the same to me as it always has. My father can tell the difference. Water does not let things stay the same forever, but he memorized the curves of the river, and the flood carved new canals.
Still, he takes us down the river. I am wearing my brother’s too-big, hand-me-down, Sanibel Island t-shirt. It is bright orange, and I like it because it is so long on my ten-year-old torso. There are alligators on it, all green, except for one that’s red, with their mouths wide open, bearing their sharp teeth. “Dare to be different,” it reads.
We do not catch any trout but we manage a few small mouth bass and a single northern pike. Dad tells us it’s good to get the garbage out of the river and he throws the rock bass we catch into the brush on the side of the river. He threads the stringer through the bottom lip of the pike and ties it to the back of the canoe. The fish drags behind us as Dad paddles, careful not to take too big of a stroke. I sit on the bucket that has the bass.
On the final leg of the trip, my father’s stroke goes too far back and his pinky is caught on the sharp teeth of the pike. He wraps his finger in a small Band-Aid, but by the time we load the canoe and belongings into the back of Grandpa’s Chevy pickup, Dad has bled through the bandage. Smushed on the bench seat, we spend the car ride back with his pinky wrapped in the orange cotton of my t-shirt. When we take pictures, I do not change my shirt.
When I am fourteen, it is clear I do not hold the same passion for trout fishing that my brother does. He ties his own flies, delicate and soft with feathers and beads and tufts of fur. He has his own tackle box. Several of them. A few fishing rods. He is invested in this art. My father takes this opportunity to teach me a different art: how to read the river. How to steer efficiently, how to let the water do the work.
I struggle with this last lesson. The current is insistent and pushes the canoe so we float sideways down the wide channel. I want to steer so the bow points downstream. I want to go forward, and going sideways feels unbalanced. This seems like it would be the safest option, but Dad tells me it only matters when we get to rougher waters.
He shows me how to predict where eddies will form next to the steep reed banks, how to give low-hanging trees a wide arc to allow for a few good casts into the shadows. He makes sure I know, intimately, the way water flows over rocks, how to avoid the smooth water in rapids. Aim straight. Dig deep.
Two years later, I will graduate from steering in the front, to the back. I watch my father cast into the shallow riffles, waiting for that familiar weight on his line: the tug-tug-pull of trout. I guide the canoe down the waterway.
Trout do not have scales. They have skin, and a protective layer of slime coating them that prevents infection. They shine in sunlight, gleam of rainbow-speckled silver.
In my family, men are measured by their ability to fish.
To read landscapes, and water temperature.
To look at the surface of the water and name the fly-hatch.
Caddis. Blue Winged Olive. Stonefly. Mayfly. March Brown. Hendrickson.
Men are measured by how well they can filet a fish. How cleanly they can cut flesh from ribcage. How quickly they can gut a trout. Men in my family do not wear filet gloves. They need to feel the fish beneath their fingers.
These are soft things. Delicate.
I am seventeen when I take my brother’s pants from the dryer in the summer and put them on while he teaches tennis. That fall, I buy my first pair of men’s jeans. I do not tell my mother. I could not articulate the strength I felt as I pulled them on. More like the armor from my books about lady-knights.
I blush though the first time I wear those jeans to school because there is a part of me that thinks I should not want to look like a man. I should not feel good in men’s clothes. I should not like the way my hips blend away under the loose fabric. I should not like the way the shirts do not pull on my shoulders, do not accentuate my “natural figure.” Clothes are such a thin protection.
In my early years at college, I reacquaint myself with the river. It is a long process. My feet do not remember how to slide over the stones and I no longer wear waders, opting instead for the comfort of gym shorts. It makes me feel close to something permanent. I like the way the water flows like satin against the backs of my knees. Heavy, insistent.
There is no therapy for a person who does not understand her own gender. The counselor looks at me in my first session and tells me to “pick one.” I do not tell her how tempting this is: to follow the line of baggy pants, button-down shirts and ties and wander into injections of testosterone. To shoot “man” into my thigh every evening. To carve the “woman” off of my hips. To sharpen jaw, thicken brow.
I do not tell her how much I crave an answer so simple as this. I do not “pick one.”
At nineteen, I keep buying skirts, hoping I will like them. But when I look in the mirror, my short waist, small chest, broad shoulders, and narrow hips do not feel like they belong in the light fabric. For the first few years I was able to really dress myself, I only wanted to wear dresses. Dreamt of pirouetting in pink, tiptoeing in tutus: an illusion of weightlessness. Now, I pull on a dress and I am afraid I will float away. There is not enough weight to keep me on the ground.
So I pull on two sports bras at a time, listen to my pulse reverberate against the back of my ribcage. Watch the sidewalk as my hiking boots thum-tup against the concrete in time with my heartbeat.
When I am twenty, I tell my father I want to learn how to clean fish. He promises.
We float from camp to the Big West. It is seven hours of fishing hard, stopping often. My father says the water is “prime” and we manage to catch our limit. He tells me this is a good sign; the trout population is finally getting back to healthy numbers. The DNR has planted thousands of trout into the river system.
We wrap each of our fish in the rough reed grass that grows on the banks, and soak the canvas creel to keep the trout cool.
After the trip, back at camp, Dad takes me down to the river’s edge. He holds a trout in one hand, a pocketknife in the other. He puts the knife in the belly of the fish and slides up toward the joining of head to body. I copy him. My trout makes a popping sound as the air exits.
My father shows me how to open the chest cavity, and rip the heart and intestines from the fish. He tells me to tear the gills from the cheeks, and throw all of it into the grass. I rinse the fish and watch the brown water discolor the pink of the flesh as I rub my thumb against the inside of its spine.
I can feel the tiny ridges of the backbone, and the lines of rib that hold flesh to the body. The eyes do not yet look dead. Just very far away.
It is May. I am twenty-one.
Dad and I sit around the fire pit, trout skeletons on our plates. The eyes are white. Not just far away. Dead.
Sometimes I wish myself far away.
My brother sees his sister. But he does not see the sister he grew up with. He looks at my cropped hair, and my diminishing articles of “women’s” clothes. He tells me, “You are still a girl.”
He inhabits the binary so securely I cannot tell him it is not so simple as “boy” or “girl.”
When my mother and I are looking at jewelry she asks if I see anything I like. I lie when I say no. There is a polished gray agate with sterling silver rim but still I cannot tell her the weight of a chain around my neck feels like hands.
When she asks if I need a new swimsuit I point out the one with the highest neckline. I tell her it’s because there will be less drag in the water. What I mean to say is that I do not like when there is more than three inches between the base of my throat and the top of the fabric.
What I do not tell her is that the reason I have so many sports bras is because I wear two at a time.
What she does not know is that I started binding my breasts last year. That I know the exact angle to hook my finger to pull the bunched up Lycra down my back. That I wait to feel my heartbeat to know that I’m still here.
What she does not know is that it feels like there is three feet of dirt piled on my chest, but I am grounded.
What she does not know is that sometimes there are pebbles in my throat instead of words.
What she does not know is that the snapping of the Lycra against my ribcage sounds like killing trout.
Martha Lundin graduated from Northern Michigan University in 2013. She currently lives in North Carolina with her cat where she is pursuing an MFA at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington’s Creative Writing program.