The small boy sat on his haunches watching his father and uncle plaiting and twisting the line. It took very many hours of work and had to be checked at regular intervals for strength. They had been at it since morning and the line was now nearing completion.
The Ugly One, the man with the badly scarred face, had come at midday. The boy’s father had told the child that the scars were the result of an argument with a bear. It had happened many years ago and the man was very lucky to have survived the encounter. Not surprisingly, the boy’s father continued, because of this, it was now believed by most people in the valley that the gods favoured him. Trading with this man could bring good fortune, it was unwise to go against the wishes of the gods.
The boy had stared, fascinated as the negotiations went on. The man’s injuries were awful, half his face and one eye were missing, replaced by purple and red scar tissue. The Ugly One was used to this treatment and showed no discomfort at being studied in such a manner. He was used to being stared at. At the end of several hours, the Ugly One left to conduct more trade in the village, his fur cloak swirling in the harsh, bitter wind gusting down from the steppes. He took with him the shells and several dried fish. That was okay. Those could be replaced easily enough, given a little time and good fortune. Good fortune. That was something that only could be granted by the gods – satisfying them would be a much harder task.
The Ugly One and his tribe, the Others, were the craftsmen. They lived across the river on the other bank. They did not hunt or fish or even fight. They used magic and made things. Useful things, things that made life so much easier. Hammers, knives, hooks, arrowheads, vessels… Things like that. The Magic Things. These they traded for food, protection and materials. On this occasion the Ugly One had left them with fishing hooks carefully fashioned from bone, carvings praising the gods decorating the shanks. The boys father picked one up and nodded thoughtfully. These were good hooks, the very best quality. The line had to be strong to compliment them.
This was the first time the boy’s father had been pleased with the line. It was his fourth attempt at constructing one. Normally he would trade some from the Ugly One’s tribe but he had never been happy with the line they made, so he had decided to make some himself. He had noticed that the line that the Others made was never strong unless it was damp. When dry it would snap like a dry twig. He had first to find the materials. The entrails from a large cat had been salvaged before any scavengers could get to it. This had been stretched and washed and plaited and kept wetted. Now it was ready.
The two men and the boy went down to the river, to the usual place where the Fishing Tree overhung the water, where the main current ran close to the bank. A long, straight, thin bough ran out over the water for twenty feet. Here was the point the line would be anchored, where it had always been anchored. This was not the best place for fish, they all knew that. Further down the bank where the water was deeper was a much better spot where many fish swam, but no trees grew along there.
Wading into the river up to his waist, the boy’s uncle fastened the line to the end of the bough then pulled on it, letting himself be dragged downstream by the current then standing in the river and pulling hard against the bough. The bough bent around and took the shocks of the man’s sharp pulls, the knot securing it held fast. He stood in the waist deep water and nodded. It was good.
Back on the bank, the boy watched as the two men attended to the other end of the line, fastening it to one of the new hooks with tight knots and pulling against it with all their strength. They were unable to break it and so were satisfied. Finally, baited with a large fish head, the boy’s father took the baited hook out into the river and let it drop into the main flow. Then they left, leaving the boy to tend the line.
This was when the boy had to do his work. Gathering stones and small rocks from along the bank was a long job. Most of the right sized stones along here had already been used so he had to walk some way before he had collected a sufficient quantity. Back at the Fishing Tree he waited for dusk.
Dusk was always a good time, he had discovered that. Just as the sun dipped over the horizon he started to toss the large stones a little downstream of where the line entered the water. He lobbed them underarm so that they landed with a loud ‘plop’. The round stones were the best. They made the correct noise as they hit the water.
Out in the river, a catfish heard the stones hitting the water and roused from it’s slumbers. The first two or three stones caught the fish’s attention, by the time the tenth landed it was curious enough to go to investigate. Homing in on the vibrations sent out by the falling stones, the great fish soon found itself near the bank where it discovered a strong scent in the water. The stones had stopped falling. Switching to other sensory means, the catfish followed the scent trail to a piece of food twitching in the current. It ate it.
Up on the bank the boy watched as the line twitched several times, then tightened. The branch the line was attached to swept around, dipping down into the water and the boy started to yell for help. The catfish was a big one. That was bad. When the big ones took the baited hooks, the usual result was that the line broke or the hook snapped from the immense pressure that the fish could exert on the primitive tackle. This time however, the line was holding. Instead, horrifyingly, the tree parted company from the branch!
A loud ‘crack’ signalled to the boy what had happened and he panicked. Still screaming for help, he leapt into the water and grabbed the broken bough before it could be ripped out into the deep water. He had it! Standing knee deep the boy lifted the branch – it was not so heavy and he was a very strong child. He found himself holding onto the branch by the broken end. He heaved back as the fish lunged but couldn’t hold it. The fish powered off downstream and the boy followed, it was that or drop the branch. The game of tug of war began. The fish pulled, sending powerful vibrations through the slender limb, the boy pulled back. The fish was stronger and the boy had to follow it further and further down the bank. He was still screaming but help was on its way. His father and uncle had heard the boy shouting and were now running up the bank towards him. Behind them came the Ugly One, his huge shambling shape unmistakable against the skyline. Again the fish made a dash for freedom and again the boy followed it downstream. The great catfish was tiring and the boy was able to regain dry land. His father arrived and snatched the branch from the boy whilst the uncle waded into the water and grabbed the great fish. It was almost as long as the man and it was touch and go whether he would manage it, but somehow the sleek slippery shape of the huge catfish was eventually in the margins. Grabbing the monster by the bottom lip, the three men heaved it up on to dry land. The boy watched with the excitement that small boys display everywhere when present at the capture of a big fish.
The great catfish was the largest any of them had ever before seen. The boy explained how the branch had snapped away from the tree when the catfish had first grabbed the bait and pointed as he described how he had come to be here, fifty yards downstream of the tree.
The Ugly One watched as the boy’s father and his brother repeatedly struck the head of the great catfish with rocks. It thrashed alarmingly, kicking up gravel with its tail in frenzied death throes. When they were sure it was dead, the two brothers and the child heaved the giant fish’s corpse up the bank and started off to the village, dragging the fish’s tail in the dust behind them. There would be a feast tonight.
The Ugly One did not follow them, he remained behind, his mind in a turmoil. He looked down at the branch, which lay where the boy had dropped it, still with the line and hook attached. He picked it up and studied it as if seeing it for the first time. Holding it by the broken end he waved it in the air. He looked out at the river. He was at the place where the fish were thickest, the place with no tree. He walked to the very edge of the water and whipped the tip of the bough out over the water, retaining hold of the thick broken end. The hook flew out over the water, landing in the brown swirling current. Somewhere in his cortex an electrical impulse made a new contact. The Ugly One was thinking. Raw intelligence gleamed in his eye. His last remaining pupil dilated then shone as the mists obscuring his vision cleared and his imagination soared.
Then, standing and shaking the first fishing rod in the air, he threw his large, misshapen head back and faced the evening sky. And laughed at the gods.
Across the river the rest of the Others were watching.