By: R. E. Hengsterman
They stood in waist-high feathery plume grass which gathered around the large pond. Two fishing poles lay against a folding chair whose canvas seat sheltered an aspiring pink tackle box and a container of red worms from the heat. Overhead, the bright blue sky softened with a blemish of slow-moving nimbiferous. Their fishing hole was at the end of a tiny gravel road butted by a narrow strip of a house. Amongst the forgotten tillage, a tractor roosted idle in the weeds, and a No Trespassing sign hung from a single twist of wire.
“Storms’ moving in,” he said, craning his neck to study the horizon as a gentle breeze resurrected the tempered snort of horses that once stomped the dry earth.
Darla dug for a night crawler, separating the cylindrical tube-like bodies that collected beneath the soil until she found a plumpness that met her needs. She raised the reddish-brown wiggle to eye level.
“You’ll do,” she said, nestling a wayward tuft of her purple streaked hair back under her baseball cap which topped her fishing outfit: baggy jeans, tennis shoes, and a T-shirt. Her grandfather had moved closer to the pond’s edge, leaning enough to have his face reflected on the water’s surface.
“This is where I met your Grandmother,” he said. “But things have changed. Not like it used to be. Look at the way you’re dressed. Never catch anything worth a damn dressed like… like I don’t know what!”
Darla kept quiet. For years they’d fished this pond. Grandfather would tell her how things were, and she’d tell him how things are now. He’d complain about her generation and her about his.
“Bout thirty minutes,” he said. “Before the weather.”
Speaking about the weather was his way of releasing tension from an uncomfortable conversation.
“Just want to catch something special,” she said. The whine of the reel in her ear as she reworked her cast towards a darkened corner of the pond.
As her bait landed between two lily pads, a palette of purples breached the water’s surface, the lean form arched its taut underside to collect the remaining sunlight before plunging back into the dark and evocative depths of the pond.
“Over there, Darla said. That’s the one I want.” Her dirtied finger extended to her right.
Her grandfather squinted to examine the glassy surface. He’d always said she had inherited the family fishing gene. Before Darla was able to reel in the line and recast towards the ripple left by the hypnotic beauty, she felt a tug.
“Got something,” she said.
As she worked the reel, her grandfather withdrew from the edge, leaving a patch of matted inflorescence on the bank.
“Back in my day, there were only two options: male or female. None of this other fashionable binary nonsense,” he said. His words were like a pickaxe to her thin veneer of self-worth.
Darla interrupted. “Some days I feel like my gender is what I was assigned at birth, but there are other days when I feel different,” she said.
Her grandfather mumbled as he sat, his long legs folded into his chest. His arms propped on his knees.
“Cis-gender, gender neutral, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, gender fluid. My generation accepted biology as biology. Man and women.”
Darla wrestled with the burden of his words.
“Thing are different now. I’d rather be who I am and be authentic than try to fit into one of those crappy little boxes. I have a great box I’ve made for myself. Can’t you just be happy for me?”
The loose lead weights in the tackle box rolled across the tiny ridges of plastic and broke the silence that followed as her grandfather pretended to search for something.
“Do you love me any less?” she asked, snapping the fishing pole vertical and drawing in the line with a furious spin.
“No,” he said.
Darla caught a glimpse of the pale white belly that ruptured the smooth surface of the pond before it tugged against her pull and dipped back under the water. She stiffened her back, locked her knees and yanked harder. Cresting the catch out of the water before losing it again to the pond. Darla dug her heels into the mud and cranked the reel. Her pole bending at the butt guide. With a sharp snap of the rod she set the hook, careful not to pull through the mouth.
“Keep working,” her grandfather said. Hunching forward in his chair.
Darla lowered the rod until it was horizontal with the ground. The tip pointed at the water. Then she raised the tip back to the 11 o’clock position. Keeping tension on the line, she repeated the process until her catch tired. Then she gave one final tug, sending the tip of the rod over her right shoulder. The pale mass followed, landing on the embankment where her grandfather had worn down the plume grass.
Darla glanced at her catch and then her grandfather, who had risen from his seat and positioned himself over the open mouthed catch. As her grandfather inspected, Darla slouched.
Before she could finish her grandfather grasped the line in his fist and raised the white flesh off the grass.
“Male,” he said. “Cisgender.” His lips curled into a smile.
“This one’s no good.” And with a quick flick of his pocket knife he sliced the line and tossed the candidate back into the water. The mush of white flesh flopped, waggled, and then disappeared into the darkness.
“No harm in catch and release,” he added. “Keep what you want. I got lucky when I pulled your grandmother from this pond years ago. Maybe you’ll get lucky too.”
Darla eyeballed the surface of the pond. “I hope so.”