A Great Catch

I wasn't there that day.


But I did notice the stump that was left behind.


And my niece who was perched on it.

"That's a mighty big stump," I remember saying.
"Yes," agreed my sister, Louisa, "It's a tall one."
"I'm going to carve a fish out of it," said my Sweet Sven.
"Do you know how to carve?"
"No," he answered.
Louisa's eyes widened.
She went inside the cottage and poured herself a drink.

"When are you going to carve that thing?" people started to ask.
"I have to wait for the bark to peel," he would answer.
A year later, with little persuasion, the bark fell off.
"When are you going to carve your fish?" people would say.
"Pretty soon," Sven would answer.
And then out of the blue, one day, late in the fall, with a brisk wind coming off the lake, we gawkers built a small campfire to stand around. And we raked the remaining curled up brown leaves into it while Sven took a break on the picnic table bench.
By God.
The masterpiece was under construction.
Sven stood up and stubbed out his cigarette.
Then he topped his chain saw off with gas.
Excitement filled the air.
You see, none of us had ever seen anybody carve a fish out of a stump before.
He put his ear protection on.
Next came his safety glasses.
And then he pulled the rope.
The chain saw massacre was underway once again.
A neighbor from across the street popped in.
"What's going on over here?" he yelled above the saw.
I held up the picture.

Image 32

"Oh. I didn't know Sven carves."
"He doesn't."
And this is where I need to push pause and notify you that this is actually the middle of this story.
Because this story begins several years prior.
Back when Sven was just a boy.
One day he saw his father come sailing back from the island, when the island was one big island, not two separate patches of grass with a few trees on each.
He had a sapling in his hand.
His dad then planted that little twig with a couple of leaves, between the boathouse, when the boathouse was the original boathouse, and the fire pit.
And that particular placement is why that elm led an interesting life for a tree.
Perhaps not the life a tree would wish for, but an interesting life none the less.
She was well loved, as she provided relief from the sun for everybody on the cottage lawn.
Not to mention, her branches were a perfect shield for those of us up on the boathouse deck smoking stuff and hiding from those down there on the shady lawn who were not smoking stuff.
She grew into a medium sized tree during Sven's father's years of sailing.
So, she knew all about the day Sven capsized his dad's boat and snapped off the mast when it stuck in the sand.
She watched Sven's sisters, and their friends float a half barrel all the way out to the island that beautiful summer afternoon.
She witnessed Sven and the other neighbor boys climbing on cottage roof tops, for no apparent reason.
She was there the day the class of ninety-eight boys stopped by to smoke cigars because they made it through high school and thought they were men.
She was one of the few who knew how that window on the door between the cottage and the porch broke.
She saw the men drag the raft that Sven built, the one covered with fake grass carpet, and put it in the lake.
She wasn't even shocked that night the college boys, the ones who'd graduated from high school in ninety-eight played that raucous game of naked king of the raft, after promising to lay low and not disturb the neighbors.
She watched Louisa and I bail water as we sped away in Caulk, our first boat with a five-horse motor and Sven at the helm and Pierre as co-pilot.
She was there during all the years the red boat ran.
And all the years the red boat did not.
She stood silently by on those quiet mornings just after sunrise to watch Angelique paddle away in her kayak.
She was there for years of gatherings and parties, complete with the volleyball net set in the water and the pier packed to the gills with family and friends of all sizes and ages.
It's true.
She was there the night the Johnson Brothers went for a swim.
But it didn't phase her.
Nothing really did after Pierre danced in that grass skirt over the campfire the night he turned forty.
In all honesty, there was nothing she hadn't heard during those screwed up campfire conversations going on below her that often didn't end until the birds came out to shut them up.
She was one of the two trees that supported the hammock that my dad so loved to lay in with his paperback flat out on his chest and his hat over his eyes.
She saw the raft with the fake grass carpet get dragged back out of the lake and turned into a veranda for that spell, until my mom couldn't take it and paid for a deck in it's place.
They say that that elm was the first to notice the porch begin to slant ever so slightly. And that she waited along with the rest of us with bated breath for that porch to be jacked up.
Sadly she never got to see that happen.
But then nobody has.
These are just a few of the reasons that it was hard to see her struggle during the summer of 2013.
It was even harder the following spring when she didn't leaf out.
It was just her time.
So one day in September, down she came.
All except that last eight feet of her.
And that is how we got here.
To the middle of this story.
The part where Sven pulled the rope on his chain saw after that break at the picnic table.
But shortly after that pull, Sven's arms began to tire.
And he grew weary of our helpful suggestions.
So he put his chain saw down and he stopped carving that fish.
But it doesn't end here.
It can't.
This is the middle of the story.
The next weekend he went back to the cottage ready to attack that project with vigor.
But by the time I pulled up it was too late.
"I made a mistake," he said.
"You did?"
The gawkers all nodded.
"I cut his mouth in the wrong direction."
And then for the next three years, Sven studied that fish.
He tried to visualize over and over how he could make that mouth that he'd cut in the wrong direction work.

Image 33

The rest of us just stared at that fish and wondered how long we could go on staring at that fish.
I might add, that depending on your angle, that fish looked an awful lot like this.

Image 34

And while we were staring at the fish, mushrooms sprouted out of him.

Image 35

But no matter how handy those trays were, the fish never had enough for everybody.

Image 36

And then, all of a sudden.
One day out of the blue.
Sven decided that the fish would better serve its purpose as a chair.
I am not sure if he came to this conclusion on his own.
Or if it had something to do with the ten thousand suggestions over three long years.
Or maybe it was all the penis jokes.
But by the time I pulled up, Sven had what appeared to be the largest fish ever caught in Lake Wisconsin.

Image 37

Louisa and I are still celebrating.

Image 38

People will talk about that big fish of Sven's forever and ever.
But, between you and me, I think that I am the one who made a great catch.


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