I have an odd little story for you today. The backstory to how it was written is that it was for a writing class, where the assignment was to focus on repetition. The backstory within the story is that the narrator is my pirate captain, Red Ballantyne. He and Tam develop this habit where he tells her stories about his father’s profession; the stories are never consistent and are often contradictory, because after all, he’s a pirate and has only a loose attachment to the truth. And the point is really the stories anyway.
But you don’t actually have to know any of that. Outside of the backstory, it’s just a slightly odd but I hope funny story about Arctic fishing, a reindeer, and a Very Large Fish.
So my father, you see, was a fisherman. He was a more interesting fisherman than most, seeing as he did his fishing up in the Arctic. The funny thing about fishing up there is that the water is all frozen. So when you fish up in the Arctic, you have to cut holes in the ice. Because the water is frozen. Into ice, you see.
So one fine bright sunny morning—though as I stop to think about it there are few bright mornings that aren’t sunny, seeing as it’s the sun that makes them bright; there are, however, fine mornings that are neither bright nor sunny, as that is a matter of opinion. On this fine morning which was both bright and sunny, my father went walking across the frozen water (that’s the only kind of water that can be walked across by ordinary mortals, you know) to cut a hole in the ice, because, you remember, that’s the only way to fish in the Arctic, and my father was a fisherman, who happened to be in the Arctic. I expect you remember that too. If you’ve forgotten that much already there’s no point in continuing.
I don’t exactly know what one uses to cut holes in ice, seeing as my father was the Arctic fisherman, not me, but let’s say it was a pick. And using this aforementioned pick my aforementioned father carved the aforementioned hole in the aforementioned ice, to look for the unmentioned fish. Not that you look for fish, exactly. You sort of have to hope they find you, if you see what I mean. So he carved this hole and dropped several lines into the water below. Then he sat down and waited.
The funny thing about fishing in the Arctic (apart from the ice) is that usually nothing very funny happens. That’s not something funny about fishing in the Arctic specifically, that’s the case with fishing on the whole. So it was rather a surprise to my father when something funny did happen. Though it shouldn’t be surprising to you or to me, because I wouldn’t be telling this story if nothing funny happened, would I? I wouldn’t. I mean, imagine how dull that would be, a man goes out and sits on the ice and nothing happens. It would be dull.
Fortunately something funny happened. Specifically, a reindeer.
A reindeer, of course, isn’t a happening. It’s an animal. A large shaggy brown one with racks of antlers. But a reindeer walking up behind a man who’s fishing is a happening.
So this reindeer came walking up and my father didn’t know he was there until suddenly this big shaggy nose was thrust into the back of his neck.
If I was the sort to make jokes I’d say my father didn’t think anything of it because he assumed it was my mother, but I’m not the sort to make jokes so I won’t even mention that idea.
Where was I? Oh yes, big shaggy nose. My father was so surprised he very nearly fell into the hole. The one he’d cut in the ice. It’s a good thing he didn’t fall in because falling into the water in the Arctic usually ends in nasty stories about trying very hard and failing miserably to build a fire, and death. So that would have been the end of the story, only there wouldn’t have been a beginning because if my father had fallen into a hole in the ice in the Arctic and died, well, I wouldn’t be here to tell the story, would I? I wouldn’t.
He missed the hole by a hair. A reindeer hair, perhaps. Instead he sprawled out on the ice on his back, and stared up at the reindeer.
“Nice reindeer?” he said cautiously, because what else would you say while looking up at a reindeer?
Unfortunately, the reindeer apparently didn’t speak English, because he took offense. He reared his head up and bellowed protest to the sun. Protest to the stars would be more poetic, but also impossible because we already established that it was a bright and sunny morning—you remember that, right?—so there couldn’t be stars, seeing as there are never stars at the same time that there’s sun. Or rather, there are, only you can’t see them both. So we haven’t got both of them, but we have got a reindeer bellowing.
My father found it reasonable at this point to scramble backwards. Unfortunately again, at least as unfortunate as the language barrier, my father got tangled up in his own fishing lines. And as he scrambled backwards his lines dragged with him and what came out of the ice with the lines was a very large fish. On second thought, make that a Very Large Fish.
It was the largest fish seen in those waters in many a day, which is an effective way to imply a general area and a good long length of time without actually specifying either. The fish was Very Large, and Very Unhappy About Life, and still tangled up in my father’s fishing line, as was my father. He got to his feet and ran across the ice, with the fish flopping along at the end of the line, still Very Large and still Very Unhappy About Life. As my father ran and the fish flopped the reindeer decided to get in on the scene and gave chase, to the detriment of the situation for everyone involved.
I have never yet encountered a story involving people running across ice without weak ice getting involved somehow. Maybe you’ve encountered a story like that which does not involve weak ice, but you’re not going to today (unless you go seeking another story involving people running on ice) because as my father and the fish and the reindeer went running across the ice what do you think they encountered?
If you didn’t guess weak ice, you clearly have not been paying attention.
As they all ran along—well, the fish was flopping, actually—the ice started to crack. My father, sensible man that he was, tried to avoid the quickly spreading fissures in the ice, due to all that business about lighting fires and failing miserably and, you know, death. He wasn’t paying attention to the condition of the fish dragging along behind him, and the fish wasn’t avoiding the water nearly as completely. This was actually a positive, because fish are not exactly fond of air. The fish was still Very Large and Very Unhappy About Life, but he felt a Tiny Bit Better because at least he was being dunked in and out of water, which was better than nothing.
You know what else usually comes along in this sort of situation? Great big gaping ravines. So naturally, as the ice cracked and broke behind him, my father found himself on the edge of a great big gaping ravine. My father turned around, to face the reindeer. The Very Large Fish was at this point in a break in the ice, feeling Reasonably Content, and isn’t really relevant just now so never mind him.
My father looked at the reindeer, and because there wasn’t really anything else to say, said, “Nice reindeer?”
They—“they” meaning the general unspecified masses of people—say—probably no one individual ever really said it, but somehow “they” got hold of it—that it’s insane to do the same thing twice and expect different results. However, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and a miscommunication is just a miscommunication, and when my father said “nice reindeer” again, this time the reindeer lowered his head.
My father was sure that he was going to charge. I don’t know if the “nice reindeer” somehow made sense this time, or if maybe the reindeer figured that between the Very Large Fish and the cracking ice and the gaping ravine enough was enough, but for whatever reason the reindeer bellowed a reasonably friendly bellow, turned around and trotted, or whatever it is that reindeers do, off into the distance. It was too early in the day for there to be a sunset, or there would have been one.
This left my father, and the Very Large Fish, who was still floating nearby because the line didn’t let him swim away. Now as noted, this was the largest seen in these parts for many a day, and the whole point of fishing is to catch large fishes, especially Large Fishes, mostly so that there will be good stories to tell around the fire. And, you know, so that the fisherman can actually eat. None of which explains why my father went over to the break in the ice, walking very carefully on account of that business about building fires and failing miserably and death, and cut the line that was holding the Very Large Fish. Without so much as a “thank you” the Very Large Fish swam off into the Arctic water, under the Arctic ice.
My father could have pulled the Very Large Fish out of course, but after he’d gone running across the ice with him while a reindeer chased the both of them, he would have felt just a little bit funny about eating him. That sort of experience can really promote bonding. Try it some time and see.
My father waited until the Very Large Fish disappeared from sight, which did not take long on account of the ice. Then he—my father, not the fish—walked very, very carefully around the cracks in the ice, on account of all that business about death, and went back to the hole. That is, the one he’d cut in the ice, not the ones that started up spontaneously on account of the cracking ice. He set up his lines again, and waited for more fish to come along. Because, you know, he was a fisherman. In the Arctic. And that’s what they do.