Last evening’s walk was one for the book. It was Sunday, Ben and I had just come back from Hilary’s and it was about 48 hours after the Big Flood.
On the previous Friday, when Hilary and I headed back to her place, it rained like Noah was still in business. The not-yet-completely-thawed ground was already saturated from snow melt and previous rains. It couldn’t hold any more water.
The result was predictable.
Son #1 emailed pictures taken across the road from our house, where Ben and I take our daily walks. The paved pathway, which in some instances is twenty or more metres from the creek banks, was completely underwater. Benches looked like they were floating.
Now, two days later, the waters had subsided to only inches above normal instead of several feet. Just before leaving on our walk, I’d had a brief argument with myself about footwear. If I stuck to the paved path and didn’t go all the way to the south cedar grove, I wouldn’t have to wear my rubber boots – which weren’t as comfortable to walk in as their laced-up kin.
As Ben patiently tugged at the cuff of my pants, I finally decided to go with the rubber boots. Now, as I trod the muddy path that followed the creek, rather than walking the paved pathways, I was pleased with my decision.
Along the way, perhaps half-way to our turnaround point, I came upon the bleached body of a flood-tossed fish. This isn’t too unusual in the aftermath of a flood. But despite my familiarity with the creek and its denizens, I couldn’t immediately identify this one.
It was about four inches long and white-ish gold, with the body shape of a chubby perch or shad. A faint tinge of washed-out orange surrounded the edges of the fish, leading me to suspect that its other side - the one lying against the mud of the path - would show a darker shade. It was probably a goldfish, perhaps someone’s unwanted pet released into the creek or washed out of a backyard pond. An unusual and sad place for a pet to die.
Did I just see its mouth gape? Impossible.
Bending low, I stared hard. There - it was faint but unmistakable - a tiny tremor of the gills and mouth. The fish was trying to breathe.
I picked it up and stumbled the 15 feet to the creek. Stumbled, because the mud near the eddy I walked toward was very soft. I didn’t risk releasing it anywhere but into a quiet eddy. The swift main current would quickly remove this last, faint whisper of a chance for survival. In three steps I nearly reached the eddy. In five I was stuck.
I stretched towards the water and eased the fish into it. Ben, of course, was there to help. Since he weighs approximately 190 pounds less than I, he had no trouble staying atop the mud. I shooed him away and tried to keep the small fish upright in the cold water, without losing my balance completely and tumbling bass-ackwards into several inches of goop.
It was tricky.
After about 30 seconds, I had to let go of the fish. It was either that or face the ignominy of waiting for the fire department to fetch me out. Which could take a while since #1 was watching Wrestlemania at a friend’s house for the next several hours; #2 was in Cuba for a week, and a quick pat of my pockets reminded me that I’d left my cell phone in another jacket. Pretty sure Ben had never seen an episode of Lassie so he wouldn’t have a clue what to do either.
I saw the fish's gills flare once, weakly, before it slipped onto its side and drifted into the depths of the eddy.
The next minute or two provided about as much drama as I care to deal with these days. My boots were about a foot deep in muck and resisted every attempt to lift. I corkscrewed my body and rested some of my weight on my hands in the somewhat firmer mud behind me. I formed a tripod of sorts as I struggled to free my right foot. Finally, with a disgruntled sucking sound, the mud released its grip. In another moment, I managed to free the left boot.
A few slogging steps later, I stood, panting, back atop the bank and marveled - both at my escape and that fish.
I'd found it about four or five feet above the current water level and fifteen feet away from it. The poor, no doubt, still-doomed creature, had to have been lying on muddy land for several hours, very likely for at least 24.
And it flat-out refused to die.
When I picked it up, I was struck by how dry the skin on its exposed side was, especially compared with the relatively slick side which had been lying against the mud. The fish should have been long-dead.
There’s only the slightest doubt in my mind that all I did was extend its dying for a time.
Only the slightest.
But that’s okay. I’m confident it would prefer to take its last breath in the water and am glad it waited for me to help make that happen.