The figure approached my children and me on the pier, just as I finished tying a spinner on the line for Julie, who had dubbed it “mean” to sacrifice a worm's life for sport. He wore a hooded sweatshirt and tight grey jeans, and left wet tracks behind him on the wooden planks. I didn’t see where he’d come from, and there were no signs of human life around us, not for miles.
I pulled Julie, my five year old, close to my side. My twin teenagers, John and Jason, kept their lines in the water, but snuck furtive glances in the man’s direction as he methodically plodded toward us. I turned to face the newcomer. "Something I can help you with, friend?" I asked.
"Think the better question would be, how can I help you?"
He kept his hands inside the front pocket of the sweatshirt, clutched tight to his body as if nursing a stomachache. His mustache was sparse and light, revealing his youth. His eyes stayed low, the lids near shut.
"I think we're doing just fine, thanks."
"You could be doing finer." His teeth escaped his lips in a brief grin. "I know the secret to this lake. I know how to beat it."
"Well," I said, turning my shoulder, trying to give the hint that this greeting wasn't about to turn into a conversation. "We're not professionals or anything, just trying to have a little fun, that's all."
His skin was pale beneath the hood, and he turned his head to bark a single cough. "Caught anything yet?" he asked.
Sounds like you have, I thought. "No. We haven't."
"Doesn't sound like much fun."
"Any fisherman will tell you, it's not the fish you catch but the people you're with that make a fishing trip."
"Thing about fishermen," he said, clearing his throat and spitting a white rocket into the lake, "is that they're all liars."
Julie tugged at my shirt. "Tell him, Dad. We don't want to catch any fish, because that's mean."
"Now, I said we'd let them go again, didn't I?"
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Jason—in the red shirt—throw a nudge at John. John, without looking away from his line, spoke up. "Let what go? We're not catching anything."
Then Jason: "Yeah, Dad. Just see what he's got."
"Have a little more patience,” I said. “We've only been here an hour."
"Forget patience. I want to go home."
"Yeah, I'm freaking bored, Dad."
"It is boring, Dad," said Julie, twisting the corner of my shirt and sticking a finger in her mouth.
"Don't, Julie, you've been touching the fishing stuff," I said, tugging her finger away. "Well all right, friend. Seems I'm outvoted. What do you got?"
"I told you," he said, walking straight up the spine of the pier and splitting my family into halves. "I've got a secret. All you have to do is want to tell it to them . . . and they'll listen." At the edge of the pier he dropped to his knees, simultaneously pulling the hood back from his head. His dirty-blonde hair was wet to dripping. "They'll listen."
I squeezed Julie a little tighter.
The skinny young man took a breath and closed his eyes. Then, he lowered a slow hand into the water as if testing the temperature. John and Jason shot me nervous looks. I shrugged, acting calm for their sake.
"That's right," whispered the young man. His hand twitched in the water, once, then again. "I know . . ."
"Dad?" said Jason. I waved my fingers across my throat to silence him, probably betraying my unease, but whatever was happening I knew we should not interfere. I didn’t want to startle this man.
The thin morning fog around the pier seemed to thicken, as if a crowd gathering to watch.
Two more twitches, his lips muttering a silent incantation, eyes closing tighter by the moment. And then, with a sudden, guttural shout he thrust his hand deeper into the water —
my heart, stopped —
and came up with a small-mouth bass, hanging by the lip from his thumb and forefinger as if he'd just pulled it off the hook. Jason and John looked at each other before dropping their poles to the deck and offering up applause. Julie slowly joined in, but I couldn't bring myself to do the same.
"Who are you?" I asked, when the clapping subsided.
"I can catch a bigger one," he said, tossing the fish back into the water.
"No, no, I think—"
"It just takes a bigger secret."
"Do it!" shrieked Julie happily, as if awakening to find herself at the circus.
He was already rolling up his sleeves.
"Really," I said, "mister, I don't think that'll be necessary."
"Dad, back off," John, in the blue shirt, said, his brother nodding in agreement. "This is cool."
The man dipped both hands under the surface of the water. What do you know about secrets, I thought. I began to protest once more, but Julie shushed me like a librarian. His eyes rolled back and closed, both hands began twitching intermittently, and the day seemed to darken around us. His lips ran through their litany without a noise. A stiff wind picked up from the south and tossed waves to shore like an afterthought. Again the fog closed in, and the floating peer lifted and groaned, and then the shout, which once more rattled through me and caused my chest to pause. This time he came up with a pike at least two feet long, maybe more, except he held it in both hands above his head like a championship belt.
"Yeah!" shouted Jason, giving John a high five. "That's the coolest thing I've ever seen! Can you teach us how to do that?"
The man tossed the pike back, breathing deeply and grinning under his pencil mustache. He seemed to have a wellspring inside him, the way droplets appeared and fell from the tips of his pale-skinned nose and bleached hair. A strong flashlight, I imagined, might shine clear through him and out the other side.
Julie tugged me down to one knee by my shirt. She cupped a hand to my ear and whispered, "That fish had a scary mouth."
I rubbed her back reassuringly and said to the man, with a sad attempt at authority, "Okay, friend, it's time my family and I got back to—"
"Sometimes the fish," he said, no longer smiling, "have their own secrets to tell."
"Do they now?" said Jason. "Did they tell you?"
Again Julie beckoned for my ear, and whispered, “I have a secret.”
“What is it, baby?”
She thought for a moment. “Worms are gross but I love them.”
I nodded in agreement. The man was nodding, too, saying, "The fish say they’re not supposed to tell me this, but there's an even bigger fish in this here lake. One that ain’t never caught. Biggest fish in the state, they say."
“Big as him?” asked John, pointing at his brother, who was his exact height. They were goading him on, now. Playing with fire, dancing in the eye of the storm.
The man looked down on them through the slits between his eyelids. “Bigger.”
"Awesome!" said the boys in unison, high-fiving again, but this time in mock slow motion, patronizingly pantomimed. Julie nuzzled into my shoulder; the pike had been big enough for her. I stood up again and said, simply, "No," as firmly and finally as I could.
“Dad,” said John, scolding me, and then Jason finished the thought for him: “Shut up. We want to see this.”
Julie, confidentially, said, “I don’t want to see this.”
The man peeled off his sweatshirt and dropped it straight into the water. His thin white abdomen was peppered with scars, all near-purple, like over-soaked toes. They were, if I had to guess, bite scars. Julie hid her face in my leg, and the boys stopped their act and stared. "I hope I have a big enough secret," said the man, and then he threw me a wink.
I tried to swallow, but my throat was dry. A secret is only a secret if someone cares to know it, I thought, and no one cares about you, friend. Like if you won’t rent a rowboat because you don’t want anyone to know you’re afraid of the water. Or if you never could tell your twins apart, no matter what other parents say about theirs. Or if you’re afraid of your daughter getting older, even by a day, because you can only pamper her for so long. And you still don’t say hello to them by their names in the morning until you recognize their clothing, and if they’re wearing the same outfit it’s hopeless. And soon she’ll know, too: Whatever they want they can take, without your consent, because you don’t know how to stop them.
The man dropped to his knees.
“Stop it,” I said, then again, louder: “Goddamn it, stop that!”
But he kept going, kept getting even lower, eventually lying prone with his torso as far out over the edge as it could go. His eyes closed, tight, tight, tighter. His lips spoke silence, and with a final deep breath, he plunged his entire upper half beneath the surface.
Instantly the lake reacted, as if he were composed of an alkali metal. The clouds darkened the horizon; the water around us churned into a white froth; the floating pier itself pitched and threatened to toss us. The boys grabbed onto one another, and I fell to my knees, holding onto Julie’s cornstalk body like a flagpole, like a prayer. Soon the fog was so thick I could barely even see my daughter in my arms; it swirled about us like a cauldron being stirred from above. From somewhere nearby, one of the boys shouted "Dad!" and I thought, Jason—that was Jason.
The next thing I knew, I had grabbed the ankles of the pale, thin man—damp to the touch, like a dishrag—and tossed him completely into the lake.
A column of water twenty feet high ejected from the spot he’d gone under with an audible, palpable THUD. The lake and the sky, shaking hands like old friends. The column rose to its full height and then split to pieces, dumping on us sheets of lake water. But the man himself was nowhere to be seen. After a moment, the water calmed, the sky cleared, and the pier grew stable. I stood, and one by one located my children. Julie, Jason, John. Each one looking stunned, but alive.
I lifted the boys to their feet, then nudged them towards shore, their shuffling steps sending brand-new fishing poles clattering along the wood planks. All of our gear had survived. Julie, who’d stood herself, I took by the hand and we followed the boys toward land.
"Daddy, the worms!" cried Julie, fighting against my pull. "We can't leave them! It's not safe!"
"Julie, dear," I said, looking straight ahead. "Forget the fucking worms."