(About the Big One That Got Away) Personal narrative essay by Mark Nadeau, copyright 2012 Previously published in July, 2022 in “We Don’t Fly: essays” by Mark Nadeau Word Count: 1,866
In the weedy coves and island channels at the west end of the lake there was an old northern pike that had been around for as long as anyone could remember. This fish’s stature was so well established that the people who lived on the surrounding shores had a name for him. At any disturbance of the surface they’d look up and say, “Big Pete,” while watching the water return to calm. A friend of mine had actually seen this fish’s tail once, just a glimpse, as it was swimming away. We were adventurous boys, determined to get a better look, so one day we set out in a rowboat before sunrise, a time in which predators hunt the shallows. Coming into the cove we shipped the oars and the boat drifted in a waning ellipse. As my friend scanned the water he recited in whispers the facts of his epic sighting: Big Pete was a big as his leg, maybe even bigger. I leaned over the transom and watched the shapes in the gloom. The edges of boulders and the arms of weeds came into focus and blurred away again and my eyes were constantly correcting for depth and the trick of reflection. I contained a sort of panic. In each moment I was anxious to know whether a shadow would fade into insignificance or suddenly coalesce into the flank of a monster.
Among young people, there’s tremendous prestige in being a witness to a legend. At that age, communion with the magical realm is a hallmark of a person’s wisdom and courage; it’s not at all the stigma of lunacy that’s so quickly attributed by adults. Aside from the mysteries of that big fish, one of the more resonant legends of my childhood was that a WWII bomber had been downed somewhere in the woods near my house. Every kid in the neighborhood was quietly enchanted that such a very important thing could exist here, artlessly hidden in the humus. We knew we might happen upon it while playing; at any moment our ordinary afternoon could be so rapidly altered into the incredible. Of course, each of us wanted to be the one to find it, to pry away a sheet of rusted aluminum to reveal bullets or bones or a map with military secrets. The premise, of course, was a little shaky — the war had happened on another continent; it was improbable that any wrecked military aircraft could be in these woods. Just the same I kept my eyes peeled. I was subject to surges of hope, not just to discover the bomber but to discover anything at all. The woods then were vested with so much promise, powerful but entirely undefined. It was there, or there, on the bare side of a bleached log or in a bright clearing of yellowed grass or beside that odd rock. These were the places where teenage girls might gather; where flying saucers might land; where Colonial bandits might have cached their coins and daggers.
Those woods of my childhood surrounded me still as I started adolescence. But then, instead of playing make-believe games and searching for relics of war, I’d walk for hours simply sorting my thoughts. Sometimes I crossed the northern tract of woods beyond the powerlines, to the fields at the edge of Grammar Road. I’d stand there for a while staring at a little white farmhouse. The girl who lived in it had a crush on me, and I was terrified of her. She’d been famously around the block more than once, while I was innocent, unaware of even the basics of female anatomy or the mechanics of intercourse. In all the times I stood there she never once appeared in her back yard, and if she ever had I’d certainly have run, quickly and quietly, into the sanctuary of the woods. I didn’t really want to see her, and in fact I grew up and left that town without ever having gotten closer to her than one awkward date to the movies and some choked greetings in the school hallway. None of those moments felt as close as my spot at the edge of that field. There, I was anonymous enough to stare fully into the nebula, reckoning with its pull and trying to weigh and measure and make sense of all that unknown.
For all we know, Big Pete could be a dinosaur, an echo from another epoch. The lake itself has been around for so long that it too could be some sort of ancient beast, one that long ago grew tired, pressed its belly into the earth and fell into a millennial sleep. If I ever return there some summer, I know I’ll want to wade into the water and swim across its bare back. I’ll move like a drifting log, immutable and unperturbed, more a part of the water than the air. At some moment, when I know I’m above the deepest spot in the middle of the lake, I’ll collapse my hips and dive and push through the silence, stopping only when the pressure becomes too great. Then I’ll have arrived, suspended in black space and treading my bare limbs in the face of that profundal darkness. That’s how I’ll finally catch Big Pete. Or that’s how I’ll at least finally, fully see him.
I once met a man with a high-level form of schizophasia. His monologues were sensical for an entire sentence or even two before jumping off the tracks into an associated but barely relevant idea. We met beside a wrecked automobile being displayed on a campus plaza to raise awareness of the dangers of drunk driving. Before I noticed the information booth, the stranger strode up to me with wide eyes and said, “It fell out of the sky!” It took me a moment to figure out that it wasn’t true, but that moment of uncertainty was compelling. As I swam through layers of realization, the man launched into a confounding narrative that was at one moment about the car and the next about the sky, stuffing irrelevance in among artifice, telling me a sort of fish story. I wish I could tell that one instead. He conjured the improbable and opened the gates, letting in myth and surreality, letting promise and doubt wrestle over the ownership of meaning. Anyone who listened to him might wonder where to focus; they might wonder whether any of this is real — these shapes and shadows; this big one that got away. I know now: the schizophastic man had been wandering in the woods long after everyone else had grown up and moved away. And once, he decided to step off the trail, just past the bottom of the hill, where the powerlines meet the swamp and there’s a gulley leading into a small depression, a crash crater, almost, surrounded by trees that are no older than the war. There he grinned and stuck his hands into a hummock and peeled it back, feeling it give like the rotted bark of a tree, which, he now knows, feels just like the rusted skin of a Grumman F3F. After pushing away the moss he studied the insignia; recited the military numbering; considered the forensics implied by the shrapnel scars. He was the lucky one who found the bomber, and he’s been trying to tell us about it ever since.
I saw this man again one day, standing on a sidewalk. A couple walked out of a café and I watched their faces as they returned his greeting. He spoke to them brightly, gesturing with his arms and leading their gazes into brief but unprofitable distractions. Within a few moments their faces changed from geniality to stricken disbelief. Their mouths gaped as though to interject and then closed without having produced a question. They darkened, hardened, pulled their coffee cups against their chests and stepped back and abruptly walked away, only once casting a spooked look back. From the deep I was seeing them, the blurred faces of discouraged children hanging over the edge of the rowboat, so anxious to be heroes that they were missing everything obvious and important. Despite the loss of his audience the man kept talking to the empty sidewalk, his enthusiasm undiminished. With the midday sun casting an aura around his white hair, he seemed to me to be some sort of a prophet, dropped from the sky, here to preach secrets to anyone willing to listen.
But this is a fish story, isn’t it? So let’s get back to the fish. I finally caught Big Pete, or maybe I just saw him. I was in my late teens, no longer interested in fishing or swimming as much as getting into the world, falling in love and being part of life. The unchanging lake and woods were beginning to feel stifling. There was so much going on in the towns and cities; so little significance in the water. I was stuck on the lake in the lonely season just after Labor Day, when almost every human has left and the air has a bite and leaves are starting to turn. My family was preparing to leave, boarding up the cottage and pulling in the boats. It was our last summer on the lake – my father would soon sell the cottage and we’d all move away. I decided to take one last cruise in the canoe, and I headed for the small islands near the cove, kneeling in the Montagnais style and probably pretending that I was an indigenous adventurer. I coasted in a shady channel and set the paddle in the boat; not caring how it knocked against the thwart. Big Pete can hear you all the way across the lake, from his deepest lair, if he wants to, but at that point I wasn’t looking for him anymore. I watched a strider move across the water the way that they do, appearing to touch nothing. It was testing the small waves that folded from the hull of the canoe and trying to make some sense of them. For all I knew that little creature had never come across a boat in its short life. It was prudent and skated away. And then the depth behind the surface filled with green light, accruing light, like the lamp of a train steaming up from the center of the earth. It spread out slick and glowing and bigger than any of us had ever guessed, bigger than our most vain exaggerations or the lies that we told so that we’d sound grown-up. My throat tightened on an “Oh,” an admission that no one could hear, and I leaned away so quickly that I almost capsized in the other direction. The boat shivered and I had to wait for it to settle before I could look again. But then I could only see a sunken tree lying along the bottom and blackness sketched around its edges. Big Pete was already gone or else had never really been there. If I did see him, I swear, he must’ve been as big as the canoe. Even bigger, I think.
By Mark Nadeau (2012)