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Story by Mike Hagemann June 15, 2006

The soldier sat alone. The officer at the outpost sent him to guard the river and so he did. The river was wide and swirled in oily heaves. The soldier built a shelter against the sun and lined it with sandbags facing the river—the direction from which the enemy would come.

The soldier sat, day after day, watching the river. A gun watched the river too, its muzzle pointing towards the opposite banks. Around the gun, garlands of brass cartridges lay in neatly linked loops waiting, waiting for the soldier to command the gun to burp bullets out on flat parabolas across the water.

The enemy did not come the first day. Or the second, or the third, or the day after those. But still the soldier waited. The outpost had sent him to the frontier knowing that one day, the enemy would come. The soldier saw no enemy. He saw no people. The boat people and the bush people had moved away, taking even their shadows with them.

The soldier sat in his shelter, waiting for the enemy. Occasional breezes stirred the reeds and bulrushes and he watched as fat fish sucked slime off the grass tips that bent and dipped in the water. Fish. Big fish with long pale yellow whiskers sucked slime off the drowned grass and occasionally rose to the surface to steal midges that crash-landed on the small eddiless pools in the shade of the reeds. The soldier watched the fish and thought to catch one. He would kindle a fire and grill the fish and refuse the dish of cold stew handed to him every evening when he returned to the outpost. He planned to catch a fish before the enemy came.

Over time, the soldier begged a line from a mechanic, fashioned a hook and saved gristle from the cold stew. He kept one eye on the river, waiting for the enemy and flicked out the line and its meaty hook, watching it settle and disappear into the tea-colored water.

The fish ignored the offering, preferring to suck at the bubbled slime that wept from the grass blades. The sun beat down on the soldier and the gun became too hot to touch. He watched the river, waiting for the enemy, but kept a finger on the line, waiting for that first pulse of attention. A fish bumped the line. The soldier licked his lips and took his eyes off the river and its shimmering banks opposite. The fish bumped the line again. It worked a putty-lipped mouth around the meat testing and tasting the sacrifice. The fish preferred the meat to slime and swallowed the hook, swilling it around its mouth. The soldier yanked the line and the hook looped under the fish’s jawbone and popped through its skin. The fish surrendered and the soldier pulled in the line. The soldier hauled the fish clear of the water and landed it. He looked into its incandescent eye and saw no reflection.

About the Author

Mike Hagemann is a school teacher who lives in Cape Town, South Africa. Influences on his writing include his military service in the Rhodesian Civil War and some years in a Christian cult.

This story appeared in Issue Thirteen of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Thirteen

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