Five minutes. I knew what I had to do. It was our last chance-my last chance-but my heart, beating like a hammer, filled my desperate mind with a wild music. He’d given me five minutes. Elation filled me as I dragged him by the hand toward the big sandbank where I had laid my last trap. The prayer that filled my mind as I ran from the village was a yammering, deafening imperative now-only you only you oh Tomas please oh please please please-my heart beating so hard that it threatened to burst my eardrums.
“Where are we going?” His voice was calm, amused, almost disinterested.
“I want to show you something,” I gasped, pulling harder at his hand. “Something important. Come on!”
I could hear the tin cans I had tied to the oil drum rattling. There was something in the trap, I told myself with a sudden shiver of excitement. Something big. The tins bobbed furiously on the water, rattling the drum. Below, the two crates secured together with chicken wire rocked and churned under the surface.
It had to be. It just had to be.
From its hiding place beneath the banking I pulled out the wooden pole that I used to maneuver my heavy traps to the surface. My hands were shaking so badly that at the first try I almost dropped the pole into the water. With the hook secured to the end of the pole I detached the crates from the floater and pushed the big drum away. The crates bucked and pranced.
“It’s too heavy!” I screamed.
Tomas was watching me in some bewilderment.
“What the hell is that?” he asked.
“Oh, please…please…” I was heaving at the crates, trying to drag them up the steep banking. Water ran out of the slatted sides of the boxes. Something large and violent slid and thrashed about inside.
At my side I heard Tomas’s low laugh.
“Oh, you Backfisch,” he gasped. “I think you’ve got it at last. That old pike…Lieber Gott, but it must be huge!”
I was hardly listening. My breath rasped my throat like sandpaper. I could feel my bare heels in the mud, sliding helplessly toward the water. The thing in my hands was dragging me in inch by inch.
“I’m not going to lose her!” I gasped harshly. “I’m not! I’m not!” I took one step up the bank, pulling the sodden crates after me. Then another. I could feel the slippery yellow mud beneath my feet, threatening to bring my legs from under me. The pole dug cruelly into my shoulders as I fought for leverage. And at the back of my mind, the rapturous knowledge that he was watching, that if only I could drag Old Mother from her hiding place, then my wish…my wish…
One step. Then another. I dug my toes into the clay and dragged myself higher. One more step, my burden getting lighter as water poured from the crates. I could feel the creature inside hurling itself in fury against the sides of the box. One step more.
I pulled, but the crates did not move. Crying out in frustration, I threw myself as far as I could up the banking, but the crate was stuck fast. A root, perhaps, dangling from the bare bank like the stub of a rotten tooth, or a floating log wedged in the chicken wire. “It’s stuck!” I cried desperately. “The damn trap’s stuck on something!”
Tomas gave me a comical look.
“It’s only an old pike-” he said, with a hint of impatience.
“Please, Tomas…” I gasped. “If I drop it…she’ll get away…reach down and pull it loose…please…”
“I’m not getting mud on my uniform,” Tomas observed mildly.
He shrugged and took off his jacket and shirt, leaving them neatly on a bush.
My arms trembling with the effort, I held the pole while Tomas investigated the obstruction.
“It’s a clump of roots,” he called to me. “Looks as if one of the slats has come free and got caught in the roots. It’s stuck tight.”
“Can you reach it?” I called.
He shrugged. “I’ll try.” Pulling off his trousers to hang them beside the rest of his uniform. Leaving his boots beside the banking. I saw him shiver as he entered the water-it was deep there-and heard him swear comically.
“I must be crazy,” said Tomas. “It’s freezing in here!” He was standing almost to his shoulders in the sleek brown water. I remember how the Loire parted at that point, the current just hard enough to make little pale frills of foam around his body.
“Can you reach it?” I yelled to him. My arms were filled with burning wires, my head pounding furiously. I could still feel the pike-still half in water-as it flung itself mightily against the sides of the crate.
“It’s down here,” I heard him say. “Just below the surface. I think-” A splashing sound as he ducked momentarily and resurfaced sleekly as an otter. “A little farther down-” I leaned against the pull with all of my weight. My temples burnt and I felt like screaming in pain and frustration. Five seconds…ten seconds…almost passing out now, red-black flowers blooming against my eyelids and the prayer-please oh please I’ll let you go I swear I swear just please please Tomas only you Tomas only you forever only-
Then, without warning, the crate released. I skidded up the banking, almost losing my grip on the pole as I did, the freed trap almost bouncing after me. With blurred vision and the taste of metal in my throat I dragged it to safety on the bank, driving splinters of the broken crate under my fingernails and into my already blistered palms. I tore at the chicken wire, stripping the skin from my hands, certain that the pike had got away… Something slapped at the side of the box. Slap-slap-slap. I was suddenly reminded of Mother and how she used to scrub us when we wouldn’t get washed, sometimes until we bled. The fierce wet sound of a washcloth against an enamel basin-Look at that face, Boise, it’s a disgrace! Come here and let me see to that-
Slap-slap-slap. The sound was weaker now, less persistent, though I knew a fish could live for minutes-even twitching for as long as half an hour after it was caught. Through the slats in the darkness of the crate I could see a huge shape the color of dark oil, and now and again the gleam of its eye, like a single ball bearing rolling at me in a stripe of sunlight. I felt a stab of joy so fierce it felt like dying.
“Old Mother,” I whispered hoarsely. “Old Mother. I wish. I wish. Make him stay. Make Tomas stay.” I whispered it quickly so that Tomas wouldn’t hear what I was saying, and then, when he didn’t come up the riverbank immediately I said it again, in case the old pike hadn’t heard the first time: “Make Tomas stay. Make him stay forever.”
Inside the crate, the pike slapped and floundered. I could make out the shape of its mouth now, a sour downturned crescent whiskered with steel from previous attempts at capture, and I was filled with terror at its size, pride at my victory, crazed, engulfing relief… It was over. The nightmare that had begun with Jeannette and the water snake, the oranges, Mother’s descent into madness…it all ended here on the riverbank, this girl in her muddied skirt and bare feet, her short hair scruffed with mud and her face shining, this box, this fish, this man looking almost a boy without his uniform and with his hair dripping…I looked around impatiently.
“Tomas! Come and look!”
Silence. Only the small sounds of the river plapping against the muddy hollow of the bank. I stood up to look over the edge.
But there was no sign of Tomas. Where he had dived down there was an unbroken creamy smoothness the color of caf'e au lait with only a few bubbles on the surface.
Maybe I should have felt panic. If I’d responded there and then maybe I would have caught him in time, avoided the inevitable somehow…I tell myself this now. But then, still dizzy with my victory, my legs trembling with exertion and fatigue, I could only remember the hundreds of times he and Cassis had played this game, diving deep under the surface of the water and pretending they were drowned, hiding in hollows under the sandbank to resurface red-faced and laughing as Reinette screamed and screamed… In the box Old Mother slap-slapped imperiously. I took another couple of steps toward the edge.
Silence. I stood there for a moment, which seemed like forever. I whispered, “Tomas?”
The Loire hissed silkily beneath my feet. Old Mother’s slapping had grown feeble in the crate. Along the rotten riverbank the long yellow roots reached into the water like witches’ fingers. And I knew.
I had my wish.
When Cassis and Reine found me two hours later I was lying dry-eyed by the river with one hand on Tomas’s boots and the other on a broken packing crate containing the remains of a big fish, which was already beginning to stink.