A flash of scale catching reflected light, then dancing through the sepia ripples. Ernesto Sanchez could tell by the particular way it hit the bait, from an angle unsuspected, almost as if it was using the gentle currents to stay undetected, that what he had on the line was the most famous of all Big Bend fish, the Gambusia. He reeled slowly, steadily, bringing the creature closer and closer to shore, telling himself to be gentle. And when it came at last out of the river too low, he took it in hand and held it for a breath.
And it was the black and orange eye of the Gambusia which made him cry. Staring back without a care, without malice, without emotion. But there was something in there. Something wild. Something impatient. Something godly.
He lay the rod down, its line pulling annoyingly against him, and flipped the lid of his tackle box open. Taking from it a tool, he wiped his cheek with the hand headed for the fish. But his tears only intensified. “No,” said he, weakly. “It’s okay.”
The water licked his knee, which he had scraped raw coming down the path to the shore. Below his feet were countless prints dried in the reddish-brown edge. In the line where tan met gray above, just under the darkening shade, he saw what he thought was a black bear. But watching it a moment told him it was simply a trick of the waning day.
Suddenly he was smaller than a pin on a clothesline, but it was this moment when he felt it. A drop of rain. There under the shadow of the evening hour he felt a weight lift away. It was only more tiny cool droplets which hit near the itchy bump on the back of his neck that forced a relieved smile. He looked to the sky and exhaled.
Then the fish wriggled in his hand, its mouth opening and closing slowly. What made him cry harder was remembering catching a big cat, in a place which looked the same as where he was, back when he was nine years old. His father had taken him hiking, and when Ernesto pulled his catch out of the water far too quickly, Papa said, “Should clean it, if you want to eat it.” Embedded deep within that memory was the feeling when that rotten filet knife slid to the spine, and that little fish shuddered before going still.
That moment, how he felt. He swore never again.
Now, Ernesto told the Gambusia whose tail twitched, “It’s okay.” He worked his hook free with the pliers, carefully, so as not to hurt the little thing. Then he kissed the fish on top of its head and bent until he was crouching just above the soft brown water.
“Be free,” he said.
It was so hot he felt as if he were being pushed downward, and for a moment he was afraid he had hurt it. But then the Gambusia swam off, and along with it went another sliver of that day he wanted gone from his head.