It was mere days after returning from Vietnam that my brother started to take me trout fishing on the Larmet River. And there, on the banks of that misty river, Michael told me all kinds of stories about the War. The people, the land, the food. I told him I had never caught a trout over nine inches long. He said that Vietnam was beautiful and that nine inches sounded about right considering I was just nine years old. Most beautiful place he’d ever seen, he said. Perfect for getting blown to bits.
He showed me Polaroids of him and his buddies. I scanned the far riverbank for a good spot to cast my line. They were always seated in a tavern, always with beers in hand, always Vietnamese girls perched on laps. Sometimes my bait got hung up in the trees. Always the same girl for Michael. We either had to wade over to untangle my line, or cut it off. Michael didn’t want to get into the water too often after he got back, and I was too small to wade into a lot of the spots I was casting at. I was going after a lunker, which meant deep water. I looked at more of his pictures. We usually cut the line. The girl disappeared toward the end of the stack. His smile in the photos got different after that.
I asked what her name was. Michael’s eyebrows twitched up. A moment later, he lowered his gaze and looked away and said her name into some tall grass. There was a breeze and rapids and weeds swishing, so I didn’t hear. I looked at the tall grass, too. The blades were bright green and beaded with ladybugs and dew.
She was pretty. I never asked if he wrote to her. But I wondered.
The war gore was constant, my eyes always huge as he told me about guys with arms or legs or parts of their face blown off. Michael walking around carrying someone else’s arm or eyeball back. Jesus Christ, he’d say, throwing his head back. The eyes, he said. Ya had to bring the eyes back. Eyes are what make a guy, ya know? Jesus Christ almighty.
One day he told me about the bullets streaming down from the sky while I put a nightcrawler onto a size eight hook. Seriously like rain, he said. The nightcrawler squirmed between my fingers, impaled. Bullets missed whatever they were shot at way up on this one hill, and fell down and whacked the Quonset hut he and his Company all slept and ate in. Like hail, he said. Michael told me to be sure to leave some of the nightcrawler’s tail wiggling free. You knot them up so much, he said.
The bullets bounced off the Quonset mostly harmlessly, he said. But you still didn’t want to walk outside into that. He told me not to walk so heavy on the river banks. I thought I was being stealthy.
That’s why you only catch the little ones, he explained. You scare off all the keepers. Foot-falls create sounds heard only by fish. Sound travels way faster under water, he said. He stretched his arms out wide and wiggled his fingers like ripples.
Later he pointed to a nice undercut bank and held his breath, no doubt hoping that my cast wouldn’t get hung up in the prickly ash bushes that bent into the river. “Prickly ash” is a really good name for those things.
Next time on the river he told me about a huge boat they had him stationed on for a really long time. The size of a city block. There was not a whole lot for them to do while at sea. They were waiting for orders, he said. But one day they got to blow up an enemy ship. They split it in half with a deafening shell from over a mile away and watched it fold into the sea through a telescope. Otherwise, he said he got really fat on that boat. So fat he hoped he wouldn’t get sent home because our dad had a thing about fat people.
One morning it was really hot on the Larmet. Michael picked me up at 4:30. I remember him shaking me awake, his sour breath on my face, his gold chain swinging from his neck. I was sweating before the sun came all the way up. He parked and we split up for a while. The nettles were just tall enough and just prickly enough to make pushing a path along the riverbank very unfun. I was just about to ease into a new fishing spot I’d found when I heard a distant whoop. Michael. Several whoops. A lunker.
I made my way to him as fast as I could, but couldn’t find him anywhere on the river. I finally went back to his car. Took forever. I pulled off my waders and looked around. His fancy wide-collared button-down shirt lay draped over the hood of his car. And there was Michael, sprawled out bare-chested and asleep in the back seat, a thick forearm shielding his eyes. His hands were black with river dirt, the knees of his white bell-bottom jeans soiled and stained a dark green.
Michael? I said.
He groaned and rolled onto a side. I said his name again but he didn’t move. I pulled a can of Coke from his cooler. It was still morning, Mom would be mad, but I didn’t care. I was boiling hot and itchy all over from fighting nettles.
I was also really confused: Here we were trout fishing on the famous Larmet River, my brother had just caught a lunker, and he was sleeping through it. How could anyone possibly sleep through that?
Michael nearly jumped out of his skin when I snapped the can open. He bolted upright and yelled and screamed something I couldn’t understand. He knocked me over as he ran to the river and shoved his head in the water. I picked up my Coke.
He walked back from the riverbank slowly. Pulled his wet hair back over his head. He was growing it out. He told me about arms and eyeballs again, and repeated the story about spent bullets hitting the Quonset huts. All the people on that ship they sank.
I asked about the whooping.
Oh, he said. That was me?
No kidding, he said. He rubbed the stubble on his chin and scratched at his lamb-chop sideburns. Huh, he murmured.
He had this far-off look in his eyes. I knew not to say anything.
Well, he said. I buried her.
I shook my head. You what?! I yelled. You buried—
Tuyen deserved a decent burial, he said. He stared at the long wet weeds again and shrugged. She did, he insisted. He reached absently for my can of Coke. C’mon, he said. Let’s go to Mary’s.
I wanted to see that fish in the worst way. Something live and fleshy from the glossy pages of Field & Stream. We sped away, kicking up gravel.
Michael ate two Specials. I figured he didn’t get food like Mary’s Café while at the War. I ordered pancakes and eggs but couldn’t eat the eggs because the cook made them sunny-side up. Michael laughed and ate my eggs for me. I told him about wanting to catch a lunker and having it mounted on my bedroom wall before he got back from Vietnam. Like a surprise. He scraped his plate and got coffee.
After a while, he said we could dig it up and tell everyone I caught it. I didn’t like the idea, but I said okay anyway.
We parked in our usual spot by the Larmet. He parted the soil with his hands and lifted her carefully from layers of dirt and lush grasses.
What Michael pulled from the black earth along the Larmet River that blistering-hot morning was pure magic. A gleaming twenty-four inch brownie that could only belong to another world.
I gasped. So beautiful, I said.
Yes, he murmured. I thought I heard his breath catch. She was, he whispered.
He took me home going ninety. Kept saying to put the trout in the freezer right away, that you gotta freeze it properly before getting it stuffed.
Michael dropped me off. Said he was headed to a barbecue. No need to stop by his place because, Heck, he said, I’m already dressed!
He laughed and laughed and peeled away, shooting gravel.
I still had the trout clutched to my chest while the gravel shot up. I put Michael’s lunker in the basement freezer and rode my bike to the ball fields and played with my friends until supper.
That night, Michael buried her again in my sleep.
My teenage sisters’ crying woke me really early the next morning. I stumbled out of my room straight into a wall. Hay fever sealed my eyelids shut during the night. I had to press water into the gunk over the bathroom sink to get them open. I wobbled toward the kitchen, eyes all gauzy, and saw two police officers sitting on living room chairs. Dad leaned against the big hi-fi by the picture window, motionless, and stared out at the dawn piercing the trees. My tall sisters with long messy hair and flowing nightgowns leaned into each other on the couch. They choked and gasped and moaned. I thought I’d awoke in someone else’s house or was still asleep and had wandered from my dream into a different person’s. I filled a glass with water while my mom sat on the floor against the wall of the living room, knees pulled to her chest, rocking beneath the slurred murmurs of cops.
The room got real quiet when I walked in from the kitchen. The doorbell rang. Everyone turned their head.
I was the only one up, so I answered the door. A priest on the other side peered through the screen. Felt like Confession, him on the other side of that mesh, so serious, forehead wrinkled into rows of eyebrows. Rosary beads swung from a Bible pressed to his chest, and clacked. I didn’t recognize him. He was older. But he wore the same clothes, and had the same waxy skin, and same stale breath of our regular priest.
After a pat on my head and a cup of my chin, he crossed over to my mom. She lowered her fists from her eyes and crumpled onto her side and sobbed.
I’d never seen Mom like this. I backed into the kitchen and set down my water. The priest crouched beside her and placed a hand on her side and spoke softly.
Mom sprang up and shrieked. Don’t you tell me he’s in a better place now! When he was just starting to… to smile again. He just… He… she choked. He just—
Bought a puppy, for Chrissake! Dad cried, and threw up his hands. And now… this?
I ran away downstairs and slammed into the chest freezer. I had to get away. The horrible wailing, the strange men in our house. Seeing Mom like that. But I also knew I had to make sure Michael’s trout was okay. Tuyen. Maybe get back into my dream—if I’d even left it—to be sure. I raised the lid on the freezer and gazed at that frozen magical fish. Its golden frosted sides, the bright white belly. And the crimson and black spots that lit up beneath my touch. Gorgeous brown trout. I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten about her while at the ball fields the day before, the way Michael said her name while unearthing her from beneath those weeds: Tuyen.
I pulled her from the freezer and sat down and placed her between my legs. Like I would a pail of ice cream. I stared. But not for long. I didn’t want to have to re-freeze her before Michael came by to head over to the taxidermist.
I pressed my thumbs onto her dark eyes, melting the layer of frost until they glowed fleshy beneath my skin. I curled up on my side next to her. Tuyen’s eyes shone before me, looking up at Michael as he lifted her from the soil, opened her nest of fresh blades of grass. I saw her rise and sit on Michael’s lap, Michael murmuring her name, and Tuyen saying it wasn’t his fault, not his fault, her deep wet eyes easing mine closed on the basement floor beside Michael’s Larmet lunker.