SmokeLong Quarterly

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Story by Nickalus Rupert (Read author interview) September 18, 2017

Art by SmokeLong Quarterly

When the plane howled low over the valley, she dropped her fishing pole and huddled against the lake rocks. The flyer rolled as it lost altitude, revealing a blue circle with a loud American star in the middle. Then it slid over the tree line in a welter of fire.

No more planes came, so she stood and pinned the fishing rod between rocks. She mounted her yellow bicycle and pedaled along the trail that would lead her past the crash site. Before the war, she and her uncle would bike here every spring—a full twenty kilometers from the village. Uncle Gio’s fishing rituals had bordered on shamanic. They were forbidden to wear socks. He made her touch a horseshoe for luck. If a dragonfly landed on the tip of her fishing rod, that was a good omen. If a wasp landed, the fish weren’t going to bite. Uncle Gio, mortared and buried with so many others.

A red-striped parachute capped the top of a squat cedar. Ensnared in his lines, the pilot squirmed beneath, his flight suit flocked with what looked like cotton and clotted blood. His leather cap and goggles gave him the appearance of a marionette frog. When he spotted her, he gave a nervous wave. Sharp eyes that fixed on her bicycle. He looked like he’d give good sport. Recently, her village had moved public executions to Sunday mornings, her time of rest. She’d slept through the last one and woke up lonely and cross.

“We’re not at war,” the pilot said. “Allies. Understand?”

She stepped back as a pale feather spiraled down. If they were allies, word had not yet reached her village.

“There was a birdstrike,” he said. “Not my fault.”

“Fragore,” she said.

“But I can’t reach all the cords.” He gestured at the tangled lines with his right hand. “I’ve got a strap cutter, but I can’t reach it. Maybe if you climb out?” He motioned to a limb overhead.

She itched her leg.

“Look, we’re allies now. I’m just a pilot. Pilotare? Get me to a radio.”

She glanced at her bicycle. “I left fish.”

Feesh? Forget feesh. I’m bleeding.”

“Bird’s blood,” she said, suppressing a smile.

“Just help me down.”

“If I help,” she said, narrowing her eyes, “then back for fish.”

He shrugged in his harness.

She freed him in minutes. He limped along like a creature on stilts as she pedaled to the rocky lakeshore. Americans and their dramatically long bones. At the lake, she took up the rod and rebaited the hook. Insects hummed along the banks. Near the middle of the lake, three ducks ran out of the water and took flight. The pilot paced. He swore. She pulled a chub fish from the jade water and draped it over a rock.

“Fish,” he said, gesturing with a rolling motion. “There’s your fish.”

“Pazientare,” she said, holding up a finger.

“I have to report my position.”

“Position is lake.”

The pilot groaned and sat on a flat rock. With trembling fingers, he opened a polished metal case and began shaping together a cigarette. He must be aping that American actor—John Cagney? A nation of Johns and Garys. She beheaded the chub with her fillet knife and thumbed its innards into the lake.

The pilot turned away when she started paring the scales. He plucked off his flight cap and scanned the lake’s perimeter, waiting for his friends to show up, maybe. Harsh-tongued men in tight suits and stately epaulets. He lit his bent cigarette and spat tobacco grounds while she baited the hook. Then she plucked the broken cigarette from his mouth. Her first taste of American tobacco. Coarse and earthy, but not unpleasant. She placed the rod and reel in the pilot’s hands. Uncle Gio had said it was bad luck for one person to do all the catching.

He made a lousy cast—all arm, no wrist—and let the bait sink to the bottom, where the cruder fish gathered. Eels and catfish and turtles.

“I’m in the deepest kind of shit,” he said. “Aren’t I?”

She had neither the heart nor the patience to tell him how far away the village and its radio were. She wouldn’t mention the daily search parties, or that, vulgar though he was, she still preferred his company to the lake’s crushing solitude. Two more ducks flew.

He began speaking loudly to himself. He mentioned the lord’s name, then he aimed the fishing rod at her bicycle. A dragonfly circled and landed on one of the eyelets, but he brushed it away, stood, and jammed the rod between rocks. Hard to blame him for carrying on. All that time in the sky dreading the well-placed shell that turns you into a medal or a star in someone’s window. The pilot tromped over to her bicycle and leaned it upright.

“You leave me no choice,” he called, straddling the frame with his absurd legs. Again, she stifled laughter.

The end of the fishing rod dipped, then warped violently.

“Probably just a lousy gar fish,” he said, arms crossed.

“Velocemente,” she said, motioning to him.

He dumped the bike and made his way back to her. He freed the pole and leaned backward for leverage. “Don’t get any ideas,” he said. “I’m taking that goddamn bike.”

The pilot reeled and fumed, but whatever was on the line wouldn’t surface.

“Tartaruga,” she said, sure that he’d hooked a big one.

Tar-tar-uga,” he repeated in a sultry voice. “Is that a type of bass?”

She could hear the faint grumble of a diesel. Soon, an olive-colored autocarreta would roll through the trees. Once the crew spotted him, there’d be shouts and confusion, the soldiers onboard itching to fire their rifles. Would he run for the trees, or dive into the lake? Allies. They’d scoff at the word. For now, the pilot reeled and swore with great urgency. For now, he stood preserved in a shaft of sunlight.

About the Author

Nickalus Rupert spent most of his life near the Gulf Coast of Florida. In 2015, he completed an MFA fellowship at the University of Central Florida. Currently, he is a PhD student at the University of Southern Mississippi, where he works as an Associate Editor for Mississippi Review. His fiction appears in The Literary Review, Passages North, Pleiades, and others.

This story appeared in Issue Fifty-Seven of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Fifty-Seven

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