The hatchery water was colder than he remembered. He had usually worn overalls and boots, but was barefoot this time. The first step onto the mossy round pebble made him shiver and almost slip. He grabbed his brother’s shoulder and steadied himself. His brother looked back at him, more thankful to be touched than he had expected to be.
Tony hadn’t wanted to go, he had wanted to lay around and feel the contours of the hole he had in his stomach, touch it and work out where it was and went and with what he might fill it. His wife had left again. Micky woke him up from the end of the lounge, just standing there, and he rose without saying anything. She had left again and he had watched her leave, this time.
She usually left in the night, like he had with his brother to the hatchery, except that his bag had been packed for him. Micky had got his waders from the garage and had brought an extra coat from home, like he knew.
She must have packed in complete meditation, he always thought. She can’t take everything, so she must always hide some of it somewhere to give the impression that she had. He would imagine her folding everything carefully, considering the nights out and dates she would have in the city and what she would wear. Maybe she tried them on. She was never in a hurry, maybe she hoped he would catch her. There was never a pile of discarded clothes or torn curtains, just his brown suitcase and the Mazda gone.
When he got in the car his brother had handed him the coffee thermos and a ham sandwich with the crusts cut off, but didn’t say anything.
His brother watched him now, he had worse eyes than Tony, and squinted in the yellow light of the full moon like he was searching for something on his older brother’s face.
‘It’s been 25 years,’ his brother Micky said, finally.
‘Longer,’ he said after a minute, picking up one of the spawn and watching it flap and turn in his palm and then resign, its lungs softly moving in and out in the tiny puddle of water in his hand – delicate movements he thought, for ones that mattered so much.
‘No, since Dad died. It’s been 46 years we’ve done this, I reckon.’
‘First time was the year I started school. 48 years, then, maybe. You would have been 3.’
‘Dad carried me on his shoulders.’
‘No, he told me.’
His Father and uncle had started it. They would drive out at midnight, the first full moon of spring. It was a three hour trip to the hatchery and the same back to the Barrington. They had to make it back by sunrise or the spawn didn’t live. They ran out of oxygen in the water, or it warmed up too much, he was never sure. His Father never taught him the science of it, probably didn’t know it himself, but just the purpose. Not in lectures and facts but crossing a running stream to pick up some plastic bag washed in, by putting the breeders back when they caught them and never fishing outside season.
Back then the caretaker at the hatchery stayed up for them, made a camp fire and they joined him for coffee. He hadn’t thought about him much as a child, but a few days before he died, his Father had recalled memories like chopped up tv clips, all out of sequence and context.
‘The bridge in town was named after him. He was the first person to cross at age four. He was in the paper. They say he crossed and never crossed back. Must be true, never saw him this side.’
They were both gone, his Father and the caretaker, and there was a camera and a spotlight and a six foot barb wire fence and a hole in it behind the storage shed that they got through each year.
He had been on the lounge. She had the car packed, a satchel bag and high heels in her hand and she said bye and then she had gone. He turned the TV off but nothing else changed, there was just the same hum of the highway over the way and the bug lamp started cracking as the sun went down. She’d left to make it for Friday night, he thought, hours later when it was too dark to see anymore and he got up to turn on a light.
He felt nothing, where he usually felt everything. Like the ache in his back – a splinter in his spine when he knelt and scooped the trout spawn and turned the net over into the bucket. He knelt again, slower this time, to really feel it. He’d barely got any and his brother swapped buckets with him, his was full.
His brother wanted to tell him that she’d be back, she always was. But he didn’t know how to say it, he wasn’t ever much good at that and he wasn’t even sure he knew that she would be back, or how he might know that. They must have exchanged millions of words the two of them (I wonder how many, he thought?) on football, fishing and betting on who could skip a rock the longest (he could) and how many head of cattle they had. Around the fire and the TV and the dining table when his Mum would make a fruit pie and they’d sit waiting under that yellow light, playing cards and talking for hours.
But they’d never spoken about feelings and women. He wasn’t even certain she’d gone, but she probably was, they way he walked around softly like everything was going to crumble under his feet.
Tony didn’t think she’d be back. It felt different this time. He didn’t know that it felt bad, maybe it felt good. He would turn it over again and again in coming mornings and nights, he thought, looking forward to it, and then he would know.
He put his hand in the bucket, it was cloudy with the tiny fish that swam through his fingers and across his palm. The water felt colder in the bucket, his feet were numbing and ached, beyond cold. The moonlight on the plastic made his hand turn blue in the water. He wanted to fall back into the stream. He wondered how it would feel for the water to run up inside his jacket, along his neck until his face was underwater. It’d be purifying, that’s how they christened people. What would the moon look like from there? The water was silky, silver. It would probably be a blur.
It was time to go, but Micky stood on the bank and smoked a cigarette and waited for Tony, he was standing in the stream a while longer, watching the spawn run past his feet, listening to the white water slap against the fallen tree by the bank. Tony thought he could stand there like that for hours, but felt the moment when they had to leave like it was a silent alarm in his body, like his Father was there with them: ‘did you feel that it’s time?’ he’d have said.
They were still late driving back and the sun was just coming over the tops when they turned off the highway. It had begun like a yellowish tinge behind the mountain and then came on like a torch over the road and the car, bringing the first touch of warmth. Micky wound the windows down and breathed in. Tony saw him and did the same and remembered it, that they had always done this, like they had always taken the spawn to the Barrington, but usually they were a little closer to the river by now. And Tony had always driven, he realised.
When they arrived the sun was just starting to carry over into the valley, lighting the mist on the pollen like tiny lanterns, lighting the way to the river. He was surprised how quickly he got out of the car, fetched the buckets where his brother had tied them to the back seats like he usually did himself. He noticed that he hadn’t done it then, wondered why, but undid the bowline knots as though they were his own, familiar, just like their father had taught them. He handed his brother a bucket, threw the damp towel off the top and started to the river, almost running, the light feeling on his face like it must to the small shards of ice that were melting off the branches in the river, dripping back into the Barrington in tiny sparks.
He went straight in with the bucket in front of his chest, noticing the cold on his feet, the sand between his toes and then the pebbles, smaller than at the hatchery, feeling every part of his body shudder and waken as he walked further into the stream. He’d taken off his waders at the hatchery, felt the water carry up his pants and to his waist.
The stream clicked at him, the sun seemed to creak in its waking. He remembered everything then, as though he could see every year that they had done this together all at once in a bright, silver reflection on the water. He felt his fingers follow the rhyme of those bowlines – out of the fox hole, around the tree, back in the hole – he felt the first touch of his hands in the water when they would arrive at the hatchery.
With his father, and his brother on his shoulders, his mother met them about now. She was gone too, but he remembered that without sadness like she was still there on the bank in the sun hat.
He had one last look in the bucket. There would be a few hundred in there at least. His Father told them they’d get a thousand each year, ‘thousand to the very last tail’, he had said, but who could know. He felt that he knew, and said it to himself. He had 500 and his brother wade in next to him with the other 500 and they tipped them into the Barrington, tiny scales and fins and tails and they disappeared instantly, 1,000 tiny lives that he couldn’t any more see but had to believe were there, had to know, and he felt that he knew everything then in a quiet but fleeting way.