I used to wonder why the Universe made rivers. They often overflow their banks, and are seldom tamed. Lakes seemed so much more tame and approachable. Despite its unpredictable nature, the river that ran through my hometown of Butler, New Jersey, became an unruly friend out of both necessity and desire.
If my childhood had been happy, I may have chosen the quieter lake waters as a sanctuary to gather my thoughts. But since my father had an odd habit of granting me favors after he’d expended his energy swinging his belt at my legs and back, I was able to gain permission to go fishing at the river that flowed in a canyon on a hill behind our house after he had exhausted his rage.
When I first felt the deceptively gentle tug of a trout nibbling the caddis fly larvae I’d dug from the gravel at the stream’s edge, I had tangible evidence that I could experience events that were beyond my father’s control. As the slivery scales flashed near the surface, I felt the trout’s desperate struggle to remain free.
At first I was tempted to let the fish go—but the struggle gave me something to hold onto—a part of me rose to the surface with the trout and would not let go.
As the trout leaped, shaking its head to dislodge my hook, my courage leaped too. Though my father’s controlling hooks dug deep into my psyche, I would find a way to free myself.
I realized in that moment that in all the years that my father had used my body to soothe his anger, I’d never had the courage to look him in the eye the way this fish looked at me before I pulled it from the water.
It neither accepted or denied its fate, just gazed at me as if asking, “What will you do next?”
As I held its quivering body in my palms, trembling with awe that I could feel so connected to a fish, I wondered if my father had ever realized that he’d held my life in his hands in a similar way.
My trout wriggled and its slippery body escaped my grip. It landed beside the stream. I watched as it flipped its body over and over until it landed in the water where it could swim free.
As I watched the trout swim away, memories flooded me, of times when I’d cowered as my father had swung his belt. As often as I’d dared to speak back—to tell him that hitting me was wrong—my strong words had brought waves of blows that reduced me to a whimpering heap of defeat.
The surface of the stream rippled as the trout rose to swallow a mayfly. As if it was laughing at me—showing me that even though it had taken my bait, still it had gotten away.
My hook had been embedded in its jaw so firmly that even leaping from the water hadn’t freed it. I’d held it in my hands. If I’d wanted to, I could have used my filleting knife to ends its life.
But even then, even when it was in the same position I’d been in when I’d capitulated to my father’s blows, it had slipped free. Not even then had it landed in the water. I could have recaptured it and slipped the end of my stringer through its gills.
Instead I’d watched it flip and flop back to where it knew it would be safe, at least for awhile. I’d watched because the fish was teaching me that nothing happens without leaving some mark.
My father had told me many times why he hit me on the back—so that no one would see the bruises and blood blisters. He even explained how he could pummel me so that no outward sign would show. Just like the story of the fish that got away, I couldn’t prove the abuse and get help.
Yet the trout had gotten away. Maybe the mark left by the hook would heal but the fish would remember and perhaps learn to tell the difference between a mayfly larva embedded in a hook from one that wasn’t.
The thought of looking my father in the eye while he beat me instead of cowering on the floor “like a little animal” as he liked to put it, and telling him he was a coward for using my body to calm his inner storms—was frightening. But in that moment the possibility of standing up for myself was no longer a fantasy.
I suddenly realized that if the fish’s life mattered, that my life must matter, too. It mattered that I knew my father was a coward. Until it mattered to me, I was hooked by my father’s anger. Until I knew that my experiences mattered, my life had remained in my father’s hands.
I’d been afraid of where I would land if I broke free. But though the fish hadn’t landed in the water, it now swam free. Though my hook had damaged its jaw, it wasn’t dangling from my stringer, waiting to be filleted for dinner.
The reality of freedom had never been so clear. All I had to do was take the first step. Once I’d done that, I’d ever be hooked again.