Second guessing is a habit that very few people ever learn to overcome. What can make the situation even worse is when we have too much time to reconsider our choices. Many times our actions have an immediate result and the best we can do is say “Oh well” and move on. Occasionally, however, we have time to think about if we did the right thing. This might be the reason many people, myself usually included, wait until the last minute when there is a deadline before we make our choices. It’s one thing to second guess yourself after the fact; it’s quite another to obsess about how you might have acted rashly, or didn’t think things through.
A few months ago several people alerted me to a writing contest where the prize was the opportunity to be the writer in residence at The Studios of Key West during the annual Hemingway Days. Seeing as how I love both Key West and writing, this seemed to be right up my alley. Within an hour I had a new story that fit the one criteria: that it be 500 words or less.
Now, even though I may be one of the more impulsive people I know, even I knew not to submit that story right away. Sure enough every day for most of the next week I fiddled around with it. Then I gave it out to a couple of my co-workers at the Monkey Bar who are also writers to get their opinion. Armed with their suggestions I spent a few more days fine tuning the story.
Of course, there eventually comes a point when too much editing is a bad thing. At only 468 words, there wasn’t a whole lot of wiggle room on the story, and I felt like i had finally got it to a point that told the story of the main character, his current relationship, his strained past with his father and his struggle to find some resolution with the two (or not) in a way that was captivating and complete. So then I sent it off, even though I had almost two and a half more months before the deadline.
For the first few weeks I found myself second guessing it, mostly because I knew that I could have taken that much more time with it. Eventually other parts of life got in the way and I found that it had slipped from my mind, so much so that I took a new job and was working there for a few weeks before it dawned on me I might need to ask for an entire month off.
Well, it looks like that isn’t going to be necessary. Although I technically have a few more hours before the deadline of when they said they would inform the winner, I’m feeling pretty confident that they ain’t going to call me. And since I’d not like the story to be wasted, here it is. I’d say more about it, but this intro is already than the damn story itself, so here it is, “Penance.”
The river was sharp, running high with the memories of another challenging winter. The waders I should have replaced last year kept me dry but not warm. It was no matter, or wouldn’t be in a few minutes. As much as my body would be getting used to the chill my mind would be focusing on why I was here.
“No promises,” I called back to her half sleeping voice in the bedroom when she instructed me to bring home lunch. It had been a condition of her coming with me, even if neither of us were sure that she even should: fresh fish every day. Most days that promise was easily fulfilled, but some days a man has to make a choice. Some days have deeper promises to uphold, whether he wants to or not.
Ten minutes passed maybe, maybe forty-five. The structure of time became meaningless in the face of repetitive action. The sun grew behind me, evidenced in the shadows on the opposite bank shortening up before they were consumed completely, and still my arm moved independently of thought. The action was one I had learned at my father’s knee in these same waters, actions I soon had to learn on my own when my teacher decided he had better places to fish and tougher people to fish with.
The strike came hard and strong, but still I moved with instinct. My body became alive and, no longer concerned about announcing my presence to the fish, I moved through the thigh deep current, letting him run but informing him of the futility of it all at the same time. My intensity hardened and I could sense by the pull on the line where he was going next, what his next attempt at escape would be, and I beat him at every step. Still he did not come willingly, and even as I scooped him by the gill and birthed him from his home, he struggled valiantly.
And then he didn’t. Instead, he surrendered against the wet fabric of my flannel, twice as long as my forearm, and let me see him for who he was. He knew somehow that the beauty he possessed would far outweigh the usefulness of his flesh in my kitchen. Now I knew the sun was high above my shoulder because I could see the reflection of so many rainbows in his scales, a shimmering apparition. The more I saw him, the more I believed he was not real, just a ghost coming back to renew its haunting.
He stayed at my feet for a moment longer than most do after I have reintroduced the river to their gills. He stayed with me forever even after I was alone in the kitchen, deconstructing last night’s steaks into a lunch I never promised.