~For Lois Gibbs, Love Canal survivor and activist
Sylvie weighs a warm river stone in the palm of each hand like a balance, deciding which to keep and which to toss. She looks up as Hank casts a long fly that drops weightless into a silver pool; water swirls and eddies all around him. Hank loves to fish.Sylvie loves to set her rhythms to the warble of the water’s ceaseless song. She loves the inevitable search for the perfect marbled river rock to cup its sacred smoothness and nestle the shape of eons in her hand.
Sylvie sits up and waves to Hank, then scoots her rear from side to side, scrunching the
pebbles at the water’s edge into a customized seat. She closes her eyes and leans back
against a boulder, tilting her face towards a shaft of sunlight that burns pink through her
eyelids and falls full and warm upon her forehead, cheeks, and neck. She concentrates on the music of the river: the mellow, liquid plink-plunks of water flowing over rocks, the nasal whine of late summer cicadas, and the background harmony of a wood thrush’s lonely call, ee-o-lay.
This is their eighth summer returning to the river, and Sylvie never tires of it. Little River
reminds her of the rivers of her childhood and although it’s aptly named—especially for this
end of the county—it has a presence nonetheless, and like Hank, has more than held her
interest through the years.
This has been the driest summer in her memory, though, and the river is down at least three feet from last year. It feels diminished—dirtier, and rockier, and Hank has fewer pools in which to fish but lots of rocks to walk upon, which he does, since he opted not to bring his waders today.
She hears a shout of triumph and opens her eyes to see Hank about 300 yards down the
riverbed with a thrashing fish at the end of his line. Even from this distance she sees that he’s smiling. She places the shapelier of the two stones in her pocket and begins stepping rock to rock to join him in his victory.
Sylvie loves her husband, has loved him ever since she met him. Mister Popular, athletic,
sandy-haired, happy-go-lucky Hank—Big Man On Campus, as the brothers of Psi Epsilon used to say. Hank was captain of the soccer team at UVA, back when soccer was barely heard of in the southern states, and Pele was at the height of popularity in South America. Sylvie and Hank met at a game actually, his senior year at UVA, her junior year at Virginia Tech, arch rivals, culture vs. agriculture he used to tease. They could hardly wait to get married and start a family.
By the time Sylvie makes it across the slippery rocks to Hank he already has the fish on a
stringer and back in the water, where it flails about in frustration. “Be right back,” he says.
“Saw another jump down river.”
Sylvie squats to watch the captive fish. It alternately rests and curves its body in an attempt to rid itself of the metal rod running down its mouth and out past the gill. With a sudden sinking urge, Sylvie wants to set it free. She can picture the grateful swish of its tail as the fish takes a giant pain-free breath and escapes, weary, but wiser. The fish turns its eye upward to study Sylvie and she feels its wordless pleading. She’s got to help it. She’ll figure out what to tell Hank later. The fish can’t wait. It’s dying before her eyes. She feels it dying with a stabbing pain in her jaw and she has to save it. She squats lower on her haunches and reaches down into the water with both hands, circling them around the fish’s slender body.
The fish flips as if to chase its tail and a dorsal spine catches in her thumb. She cries out and
jumps back in surprise nearly upsetting her precarious perch on the rock.
What? What is it?” Hank says from behind her. “You okay?”<
“Fine,” Sylvie says past the thumb in her mouth. “I’m fine. I thought you were downstream?”
“I was. Damn fish took my lucky fly.”
“Oh.” She points at the remaining fish. “This one’s dying, Hank. Look.”
“Dying?” he says. “Poor thing.” Sylvie isn’t sure if he’s mocking her. She decides to think the best of Hank and smiles. She’s learned, in thirteen years of marriage, that you get into trouble assuming the worst. “He looks to be about six inches, though, legal enough, guess we’ll just have to share him tonight.”
She’s still smiling as Hank bends down, picks the fish up by the stringer, lays it across the rock and with a knee on the fish to steady it, cuts off the head.
“Oh,” she says, and sits. Sylvie has never seen this part of the fresh caught river dinners,
savored before the fire on camp chairs, steaming in tin foil, shiny with buttered scallions and salt.
Hank quickly slits the fish from tail to missing head. With a deft scoop he eviscerates it and out plops a mass of multicolored, tunneled life topped by a still beating heart. With the knifepoint he motions toward a small pink heap. “Look, honey. See the eggs? It’s a female.” His knife chinks against the rock as he flicks the heaving mass of eggs closer for Sylvie to inspect. Two long rosy sacks swell and bulge with tiny pearls then taper to small threads. Not just a female, a mother-to-be.
Sylvie and Hank planned this long weekend on the Little River as their getaway, a second
honeymoon, of sorts, at which they intended to relax, reconnect, and reconceive. Which isn’t a word, of course, but they use it just the same. Not to friends, though, who can’t bear to ask anymore, since their fourth and most recent loss occurred in the final trimester, no longer even a miscarriage, but a stillbirth. And it was still a birth: their perfectly formed, miniature son, lashes knitted together, arrived with all the attendant labor pains and follow-up bleeding. But what Sylvie remembers most is the eerie quiet of the labor room, and holding her tiny pewter baby in that deafening vacuum of sound.
And she remembers the milk. How it overflowed, two days after her empty-armed return from the hospital. Her ill-informed breasts, one step behind in the message chain—thank you but we won’t be needing your services after all.
Sylvie shakes her head and looks back to the fish. She stares at the severed luminous green head, lips gaping around their shackle, mouth gasping soundless at impossible air. Bloody and bodiless, it lies on the rock as sun sparkles along the mottled jawline lush as a forest floor, dapples of silver sunlight and moss agate green.
The shimmery colors remind Sylvie of her little brother Luke and the magic mud they used to make as kids. Out behind the house at the shed where nothing grew they found the most amazing patch of ground. It first appeared in spring, after the blizzard of ’77 when snow reached up to the roof at the little white house where they were born, near Niagara Falls, honeymoon capital of the world. Each time it rained that spring, their magic spot would sparkle with drips of color and glowing rainbows that ran through their hands like gloppy strands of pizza cheese.
That summer Sylvie turned twelve, still half-child herself, teetering on the cusp of outgrowing six-year-old Luke’s games. In their childhood lore it became known as the hot rock summer. Mysterious bright blue rocks that exploded like pistol caps when you threw them onto concrete appeared in their backyard. They were cryptic moon rocks—weapons sent back from secret agent astronauts to fight an alien invasion. Luke loved those “hot rocks” and emptied a blue pocketful onto his bedside table every night.
And here, in the glistening mound of fish guts sit two remarkable blue shapes that wink up at her. What, inside a fish, could be blue?
“Here, honey, look,” Hank says eagerly. “You can tell what he just ate. A crayfish.” He holds up each blue pincher in turn to show her. “Cutting open the stomach and checking? That’s my favorite part.”
“She,” Sylvie says and leans forward to pick up the tiny crayfish tail, perfectly preserved and neatly severed from the rest of its body, a Barbie lobster dinner. The fish must have captured and eaten the crayfish only moments before attacking Hank’s lucky fly. There had been no time for digestion. And what had the crayfish eaten that morning which in turn might have been spared?
So much unnecessary loss of life.
“They love crayfish,” Hank says, sawing through the flesh behind a ventral fin. The small
armature of flexible bones crunches beneath the knife. “At least his last meal was a
“Hers,” Sylvie says.“Hmmm?” Hank looks up from the fish, confused.
“Oh yeah, hers,” he says and smiles.
Sylvie has always loved Hank’s smile. It’s a movie star smile, even though Hank never
gives his teeth a second thought. Good teeth were just one more thing that came
naturally to Hank. Sylvie had dreams where rooms of children smiled towards her, all
wearing Hank’s radiant grin.She picks up the head of the fish and gently removes the metal clip, sliding it past the pink feathered gills soft as rose petals. They spread and fan, choking on air that doesn’t satisfy, air that goes nowhere. She strokes the silk-skinned jaw and slips the end of her pinkie inside the mouth, running it along a small spur of teeth.
“There’s a lot of blood in the head,” Hank says, “but not much anywhere else.” Sylvie
sees this. It’s thick and dark red, stringy and disappointing like the menstrual blood that
mocks her every month.
After Luke died it became even more important for Sylvie to have children, as if she hadn’t wanted them enough before. But losing a brother who was nineteen to liver failure? And he the last male to carry on the family name? Well it left her with a weighty emptiness, a whistling black void. And Sylvie longed to fill it. But her body refused. Or pretended to comply only to switch teams just when she thought she was home free. So hard to explain, these emotions of hers.
First and foremost, there was the question of fault. Whose systems have let us down?
Initially the doctors called it a simple failure to conceive. Then, when Sylvie conceived
and lost, it became failure to sustain a pregnancy. And finally, after far too many losses
and subsequent invasive probings, it was labeled a possible incompetent cervix. Sylvie
did her sit-ups. She took extra folic acid. She stayed bedridden for days. For weeks she
crossed her legs thinking, just stay in. Please stay in.
She was constantly reminded that there were women, women everywhere, who
conceived effortlessly, recklessly. Women dismayed by the little plus sign on the stick,
women who longed for a monthly crimson reassurance. Sylvie was haunted by the
millions of cavalier abortions performed every day to rid these women of their burdens,
when all she wanted was the one.
The worst of all though, was the continuous roller coaster ride of hope and
disappointment, the please, please let me be always followed by the no, no not this
The day the government bought their Love Canal home, Sylvie’s mother fled to Virginia’s
pristine bluegrass hills, taking the children with her. And Sylvie has heard the constant
ticking ever since, the corporeal time bomb that wakes her wide-eyed in the night, her
very own tell-tale heart.
“Should I put it in the water?” Sylvie asks as she cradles the fish’s pointed snout and
rubs her thumb along the smooth skin below the eye.
“No, I’ll bury it in the dirt when I’m done. Along with the entrails.”
She dips the head in anyway and washes away tiny pebbled bits and pine scrubbings.
The watery marbled eye peers upward at her through the silver surface. Sylvie
shudders. “Can she see without her body if the brain is still attached?”
“Aw honey, don’t worry. It’s just a fish. He can’t feel anything, I promise.” Silver scales
shed like shining raindrops as Hank scrapes from tail to head, sideways with the blade
of his knife.
She, Sylvie thinks. She can’t feel anything.
But Sylvie knows that sometimes it’s the things you can’t see or hear or feel that do the
most damage. Likewise, the things that lull you into life: the place you lay your head at
night, the sound of water flowing through its cycles, the shifting ground beneath your
feet, the air you breathe.
Sylvie sets down the head to pick up the discarded ventral fin. She spreads it open like a
fan. Thin ribs, webbed by a gossamer skin, open beneath her fingers. “It’s a wing,” she
says, watching the veins open and close between her fingers. “Do they fly?”
“Sure,” Hank says, smiling. “Smallmouth are really feisty and just leap right into the air.
That’s why they’re so much fun to catch.” He picks up the head and places the knife
along the jaw, its point resting against the eye, which rotates slightly from the pressure.
“With a smallmouth the jaw won’t go past the eye. Largemouth bass go back a lot
She nods, bringing the fin with its tiny piece of attached flesh to her nose and sniffing.
“It smells sweet.”
“Yeah, baby. Good eatin’. Course, later, your fingers won’t smell so sweet. By this
afternoon they’ll be rank as a fish market.” He lays down the head, flops the fish carcass
over and begins scraping the other side as scales shower the surrounding rock, hit the
surface of the water and float gently downward to lie sparkling along the bottom of the
small pool of water.
He stands then, her husband, and folds up his knife, sliding the cleaned and gutted fish
into a two-handled plastic grocery bag. He picks up the head and entrails in his other
hand and maneuvers across the slippery faces of half-submerged rocks to the trail.
Sylvie carries the rod. Just before they reach the dirt road where they have left the car
Hank takes several steps to the side and drops the head and entrails into the
“I thought you were going to bury it?” she says.
“Yeah, well, it’s been so long since we’ve had rain, the ground’s too hard. It’ll be fine,
honey. Don’t worry. Some animal will come along and eat what’s left of him.”
She watches his back as he pushes through the weeds at the end of the trail. His
outline disappears from view as he steps out into the sunlit clearing.
“What’s left of her,” she says.