by Phil Geusz
© Phil Geusz -- all rights reserved
Carefully I shifted my left forepaw inside the mitt-like device, and was rewarded with a distinct short tone. "One, two, three, four..." I counted nervously, then "Five!" I pressed my foreclaws into the little recess once again, and there was a loud popping sound, much like that made by opening a good bottle of champagne. The little fishing plug burst forth from its launching socket underneath my rod and went flying out over the brown surface of the river, just as it was supposed to, and settled down gently onto the water, not three feet from where I'd intended. "It's a miracle," I whispered gently to myself as I flexed my other forepaw. The reel hummed gently, and the little plastic fish obediently began to swim back towards me. "A miracle!" Carefully I let the computer inside the rod spool in exactly right amount of line to return my bait to me. And then I laughed out loud and even danced a couple steps in joy, for I was really and truly fishing again for the first time since SCABS had taken away my hands.
Or at least it was close enough to fishing to suit me. I was standing on a little dock out over the river, wearing a silly hat and carrying a fishing rod. A careful examination would have shown that in fact I was merely tossing a practice plug, a lure with no hooks that is used by beginners learning to cast. Carefully I pointed my rod straight up into the air and let the force of gravity guide my plastic fish into the little launching socket, then prepared to cast again. I flexed a forepaw just so, and was rewarded with the sound of hydrogen hissing into the combustion chamber. Hurriedly I aimed and counted. "One, two, three!" And with a loud "pop" my bait was airborne once again, this time striking within inches of my intended mark. My face can't smile anymore, anymore than my foretoes can be used as fingers. But I could hop in place in simple glee at the promise my newest toy held out for future afternoons. Carefully I reeled in the practice plug, and then tossed it out again and again and again. My heart swelled; I was by God going to be fishing again someday soon!
Not that it was going to happen tomorrow, I reminded myself soberly as I worked my new equipment. The rod was still a prototype, merely on loan to me from the designer whom I'd met quite by accident at a trade show where products to help disabled workers were on display. It was incredibly well thought out, operated entirely by paw pressure and set up so that a basically digitless individual like myself could easily grip it. It was even set up to break in two under severe stress so that someone of low body mass, like me, could not be pulled into the water and drowned by a really big 'un. The designer had been a serious fisherman himself, someone who wanted to help make the lives of SCABS fuller and more normal. So far as I could tell, he was going to succeed marvellously.
Except for a few minor details, of course. My forefeet still could not tie knots, unhook fish, retrieve snagged lures, or even bait my own hooks. So I'd have to find some help when it came time to fish for real. Though practice-casting was plenty close enough, for now. And besides, I'd have to find a better spot as well. The client who'd given me permission to cast here had warned me that there were no fish to be found within miles, and judging by what I could see of the water he was probably right. I'd rarely seen such an unpromising stretch of river.
But I wasn't there to actually catch anything anyway. A gentle gust of wind blew directly down the river valley and I sighed and fluffed my fur, letting the soft spring air rush up close to my skin. Excepting my time with Clover, my life had been nothing but work, work, work for several years now, and before that the lapine colony. As a lapine SCAB, I'd frankly had not been able to find many other enjoyable things to do besides work. I loved my job, sure enough, and it was getting better all the time. But I needed badly to get away from things for a little while, needed to get out under a warm sun and near running water. And testing the fishing rod was the perfect excuse.
I cast a few more times, then decided to take a break. The rod handle held only enough hydrogen for about a hundred tosses, and I was in no hurry to use up my quota. Idly I set the rod down on the dock's planking and pulled my paws out from the perfectly-placed mitts. Then I stretched luxuriously. If the rod had one major fault, it was that it was simply too heavy. There wasn't much that could be done about that, I knew, given the device's level of sophistication. But rabbits like me are cursed with naturally-weak forelimbs, and there was even less to be done about that.
"Mwack!" a small voice called out insistently almost from under my feet. "Mwack!"
"All right!" I replied out loud, sighing and terminating my stretch early. The dock's owner had warned me about Mr. Mwack. He was the dock's mascot, a drake mallard that had been billed quite correctly as the world's most insistent beggar. My usage of the dock was contingent on him not being cheated of his just dues. There was a big wooden box of rolled oats out on the end of the pier; awkwardly I lifted up one corner of the lid and nosed some of the sweet-smelling stuff out into the water. I hate being so animalistic in my movements, but for once no one was watching. I was all alone.
All alone and out in the open! The thought was both frightening and intoxicating, liberating and terrifying. I'd spent years working up to being able to be out alone like this, hard years that in some cases had been full of very real danger and trauma. If someone had asked me even the week before this trip if I thought that I'd ever feel able to stand out on a dock in the open, all alone, I'd have honestly said no. But the fishing pole, somehow, had given me the courage. It was a note of rationality, of sanity, of connection with the part of me that was still human. I'd lost all my own fishing gear to SCABS. It had been auctioned off with the rest of my possessions when I was committed to a lapine colony. SCABS had pretty much ruined my mind at first, and the Colonies hadn't been exactly the best place to try and stage a recovery. Perhaps my trauma might have been reduced if I'd been able to keep at least a few of my human possessions? the counselor part of me wondered idly. Perhaps I might have been able to hold onto a little more of the person I'd once been? That version of me hadn't deserved to be so thoroughly done away with, I didn't think. He hadn't been such a bad guy at all. The world wasn't fair, I realized for the thousandth time. Not fair at all.
"Mwack!" the mallard cried out again. "Mwack! Mwack!"
"All right!" I growled again at the greedy, noisy and seemingly insatiable bird. The kids who swam here loved him, I was told. Which just went to prove that children are capable of loving almost anything. I nosed out some more oats, but this time most of them spilled out onto planking. Cursing mildly, I used my hindfeet to brush the cereal out into the water. Would he never go away?
"Mwack!" I heard then in a different, somewhat softer voice. "Mwack!" The sound seemed to be coming from down under the dock; I bent down and sure enough there was a female mallard swimming about down there. With a single duckling in tow, a very tiny duckling almost certainly out on his its very first swim.
I looked at Mr. Mwack with more sympathy. "So, you're a family man, eh?" I asked him. "Got responsibilities and all that. No wonder you're needing so many oats; these days kids are expensive!"
"Mwack!" he answered greedily, perhaps detecting and trying to exploit the note of sympathy in my voice. I happily watched the little duckling swim for a bit, then fed all three of my guests an extra-big scoop of food. Maybe the kids weren't so far wrong about Mr. Mwack after all? I certainly liked him a lot better now than I had a few minutes before. Carefully I laid belly-down on the sun-warmed dock and eased my head out to get an unobstructed view of the Mwack family, which was studiously ignoring me as they paddled about and scrambled for the tastiest tidbits. Mrs. Mwack, I noticed, seemed very protective of her young one as she bustled about. I watched as she swam back towards the rear of the dock...
...and passed directly under the four-foot long body of a water moccasin, lazily sunning himself on a structural beam!
Instantly I froze in abject terror, unable to even breathe. Serpent! a primitive part of my mind cried out. Serpent! Danger! Run! My heart raced, my limbs twitched, my eyes rolled in fear. But there was nowhere to go! Nowhere to hide! For the filthy thing was between me and the land!
I laid there helpless for a very, very long time, it seemed, as Mr. and Mrs. Mwack obliviously scooped up their feed and then cried out for more. "Mwack!" they cried out indignantly. "Mwack!" My mind screamed at them for silence, begged them to not to disturb the dull-black death that waited for us all on the deck beam. But they squawked and squawked and squawked, unaccustomed to being denied a free meal. And finally it was their irritating, discordant voices that gave me the courage to speak.
"Go away!" I hissed impotently. "Go away! You'll wake up the snake!"
But they ignored me, of course, continuing to swim in noisy circles and demand food. Before my terrified eyes the duckling swam literally within a couple inches of the black demon not once, not twice, but three times as his mother and father begged on his behalf. Once the snake actually stirred a bit in an interested fashion, and I though that my heart would hammer its way right through my chest! But the oblivious baby swam on unharmed, and in time even its parents forgot that I was there and left us in peace.
Me and the snake.
An adrenaline rush can only last just so long; eventually even the body of a rabbit simply runs out of fear chemicals. Perhaps an hour after the Mwack family had moved on, I began to feel the pain and stiffness in my limbs that came from not having moved them in so very long. With infinite slowness, and not taking my eyes off of the cold-blooded predator for a second, I stretched and shifted first one limb, and then another. My heavens, I asked myself, was I going to have to lay out on the dock all day and hide?
Very likely, I answered. Very likely. You have no choice, unless you want to be eaten. Eaten!
I trembled a little at the idea of the snake eating me, and then wailed a bit in terrible despairing fear. It was terrible, terrible, terrible being a helpless prey animal! I hunkered down as close to the wooden decking as I possibly could, picturing the huge poison-dripping fangs sinking into my flesh, being sucked down the cold gullet alive but helpless, seeing the sun wink out as I slid helplessly down the pale, deadly throat...
And then something new happened to me, something that had not happened in a very long time. I felt the tiny muscles in my forepaws try to clench the fists I no longer had, and my molars gnashing in rage. "No!" I growled aloud to myself. "No! You're not going to give in!"
But what else could I do, realistically speaking? Cottonmouths are very nasty critters, even by ophidian standards. They can and will aggressively attack even a human being, something that no other American poisonous snake will do. And clearly this one was not going anywhere any time soon. I tried to bite back my anger and return to lapine passivity, but simply could not make myself do it. Something strange, very strange, was happening inside me and I was not sure that I entirely liked it.
My heavens, I asked myself. Was I actually feeling angry? And perhaps even aggressive? Towards a terrible, awful, god-like serpent?
I felt my lips peel back from the long incisors behind them and knew the answer. Yes, I was madder than hell at the goddamned snake, I realized, though I wasn't quite sure just why. It hadn't actually done me any wrong, after all. But I hated it nonetheless, hated it more than I'd ever hated anything in my life.
And even stranger, it felt good to be so angry!
Very slowly and carefully I climbed to my hindfeet and looked about for a weapon. The fishing rod was far too flimsy to be of use, and the oat-box was much too massive. But it had a heavy lid with a fairly sharp edge to it; I clumsily lifted it off of the container with my forepaws and leaned it up against the railing where it would be convenient. But I still needed something with a handle to it, even though I had no hands.
Then I remembered the dip-net. It was four feet long, and also was specially designed for use by a pawed person like me. It had a single mitt-grip built on it. I thrust my right forepaw into it, and then I was ready for a fight.
Or was I? I asked myself as I edged my way closer to where the cottonmouth lay peacefully sunning itself. Snakes weren't truly evil creatures, no matter what the rabbit in me thought of them. Not even this one. Reptiles had a right to live too, after all. I pressed my lips together and lowered the net. It would even be illegal to kill the nasty thing, I reminded myself. If anyone saw me, I might get into trouble. Maybe if I called the Fish and Wildlife folks, they would come trap and then relocate it?
Then I thought about the baby duckling, and about the children who came and swam at the dock all the time. The snake was there where I could see it right now, I reasoned, just waiting to be killed. It might not be so easy to find later. If I didn't take the opportunity that was being offered, then what if others tried and failed to catch it? And what if it bit and maybe even killed a child afterwards? How would I feel then?
And how would it feel to go back and lay down helplessly again on the planks? a new voice in my head asked. It seemed oddly familiar somehow, and reassuring as well, though I'd not heard it in a very, very long time. How would it feel to sit and wait helplessly yet again, letting others deal with your problems for you? How would it feel to curl up inside yourself and wail like a rabbit instead of taking control of your life like a man? I felt my teeth bare themselves again, and knew in my heart that I was going to either kill the snake or die trying. Mere logic no longer mattered. And perhaps it never really had.
Carefully, inch by inch by inch I forced myself closer and closer to the serpent. I was still terrified of the ugly thing at a very deep level, and it wasn't easy to make myself move forward. But I did it anyway, with jaws clenched and ears erect and big flat molars grinding furiously against one another. When I reached the rail I extended the net out over the side of the little dock, carefully lining it up on my prey. Suddenly the black arrow-shaped head reared up in curiosity, spoiling my carefully-won advantage in position. Reflexively I swiped at the reptile; it was an ill-timed blow, but the mouth of the net was wide and forgiving. Before I knew it I had two feet of angry poisonous water snake hopelessly snarled in a fishing net that was attached to my right forepaw...
...and another two feet of snake, including the head, slashing about in rage and seeking an enemy to strike!
"Aaah!" I cried out in genuine fear, slinging the net free of my body in a single motion. It sailed gracefully through the air, snake and all, and then slammed up against the dock railing.
"Ssss!" the water moccasin hissed out in deadly challenge, raising its head and trying to disentangle itself. "Ssss!"
By then I was once again as angry and irrational as the snake was, and far more deadly in my intentions. In two bounds I was alongside the awful reptile and had the wooden oat-box lid firmly clamped between my forepaws. The snake struck at me once, twice, three times as I danced and evaded, but handicapped as he was by the net his fangs met only empty air. Then after the third missed strike I saw my opening and slammed down the sharp edge of my weapon down hard onto the snake's back as it drew back to try again. "Aaargh!" I cried out in inarticulate rage as I firmly and finally crushed the small creature's spine. "Aaargh!" And then I madly repeated the death-blow again and again, raging and raving and weeping in anger and frustration and hurt until the serpent, which after all had never done me so much as an ounce of harm, was mere bloody pulp smeared on the wooden planks, and my oat-box lid weapon was smashed into splinters.
That night, once I'd returned the wonderful fishing rod to its designer, I headed down to the Pig for the express purpose of getting drunk. My usual booth was open, and Donnie wisely served me in welcome silence. It was not until I'd had a drink or six that someone finally came over and spoke to me. "Phil," my friend Ken asked me. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah," I mumbled back. "Just great."
The big bird sighed and squatted down across from me without being asked. "Is it Clover again?" he asked gently.
"No. Well, yes maybe. Hell, I don't know."
"You look like shit. Is that red stuff in your fur blood?"
I snorted sarcastically. "Just snake blood, Ken. Don't worry, I didn't kill anything sentient." The homicide detective who was also my close friend winced, and I knew that I'd struck an unfair blow. Clearly I still wasn't over the madness that had come over me earlier in the day. Though I hoped a few more drinks might do the trick. "Sorry," I mumbled. "I'm drunk."
Ken sighed. "I know you are, Phil." He sat with me for a very long time before speaking again. "Something serious happened to you today. Everyone here knows it, but is too polite to ask."
"None of their goddamned business!" I growled.
Ken spread his wings in a conciliatory gesture. "Nor mine, in truth. But we've been... worried about you."
I laid my head down on the table to steady things down a bit, then answered as best I could. "I was a man again," I whispered. "For just a little while, I was a human man again down deep inside where it counts. I was who I used to be. Before SCABs."
Ken cocked his head to one side. "Really? What did it feel like?"
"Good," I responded dully. "Damned good."
"Then why... Why all the liquor, Phil?"
My eyelids were feeling heavy; the liquor was telling me in no uncertain terms that it was time for Phil to go night-night. "Because it felt so good, of course" I explained as if to a child. "Don't you see? Because it felt so very, very good."
And then I finally passed out.
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