TOM WAS NOT a good liar, but Tom’s mother had been good enough to make a career of it. She lied to her husband for the full course of her affair with a neighboring farmer. She used Tom as an excuse. She said he was uncomfortable with himself and other children. He needed to be socialized—that was the fashionable term she applied to her son’s unfashionable condition. Every other day she walked him three miles to the neighboring estate. She left him in the yard with the other children and disappeared inside.
The children played in the dirt and listened to the shrieks that rang out across the farmstead. Which sometimes sounded like an animal dying, painfully. She came out of the farmhouse with her skin a hectic red and one hand pressed against her head. Tom watched as she smoothed her hair into place. Calmed the surface of her dress. Then they walked the three miles home, his hand sticky in hers. He knew but did not mind the fact that she was lying. He thought the secret would bring them closer.
There were other flaws in his character, beyond dishonesty and misapprehension, which together conspired to make the son incomprehensible to the father. For example, Tom was a coward. He was easily frightened and physically uncertain. He was not very old when the physical fear became a moral one. It was therefore natural that his father held him in contempt: the old man does not recognize fear as a valid emotion.
It did not help that Tom was especially afraid of the dorado. To him they were a terrifying fish. The dorado grew four feet long in the river, larger than a child and much larger than the child Tom had been. The male fish bore square blocked foreheads and male and female alike their bodies turned gray as they died out of water. But while alive the fish were fearless and had tremendous appetite.
Tom’s father loved the dorado. He is this fish: his father is the dorado. Once, when Tom was a boy, he took him out on the river. He might have been experimenting with the idea of being a father because he was unusually patient. He taught Tom to cast out to the water. He showed him how to reel in. He said very little but he told him that the dorado were a vicious fish that ate into a man’s strength.
Tom remembered how his father caught the dorado on the line. How he began to reel it in. The fish rose out of the water and dropped back in. It appeared to Tom as large as a grown man, as large as his father. It jerked through the water, under the boat, into the air, back into the water. The rod almost bending in two. Tom was not certain that his father would bring it in. He thought surely the rod would snap.
But his father brought the fish in. It was a giant. Male, with the alien crested forehead, the yellow body thrashing against the line. His father lifted it high in the air. He admired the heft and weight, the golden turn of the scales, the tremendous girth of the fish. Then he placed it in Tom’s arms. Tom almost fell with the weight of the dorado, the coldness of the scales, the inner muscle of the animal shuddering hard against its death.
When he came to, his father was standing above him, holding the fish by its tail. Tom watched as he seized a knife and dug into the belly of the fish. He drew a long vertical slit and the crimson guts of the animal tumbled out onto the deck. He ignored his son as he scooped the intestines into one hand and threw them back into the river. The dorado swarmed the boat, jaws snapping.
The fish became their livelihood. Running a farm was an expensive business. The river supported the farm and allowed them to maintain the large holding of land. More and more tourists came to the province in search of the mighty dorado. His father took them out on the boats at dawn. He taught them to cast out and reel in. He brought in the fish and gutted them before their eyes, he treated them the same way he had treated Tom, years ago.
When his father arrived in the country he was a young man. Now he is old. Now he sits—he squats, he straddles— the land. But his presence has been heavy from the start. He picked out the land by riding in the night with a torch held high above his head. A native dug a trench in the soil behind him. The next day they went back with wood and wire and it was done. The old man makes his choice. He grips it out of the air with his hands. He is essentially a violent man.
Tom is different. He does not force himself upon the land. He does not force himself upon anything. There is very little that Tom can call his own. Tom is not like his father, Tom has chosen nothing. He did not choose the country or the piece of land. He did not choose the business of the farm. He did not choose the house, with its dark rooms and corridors. All this was chosen for him, and Tom barely aware of it. It is simply his world.
Extracted from Gone to the Forest by Katie Kitamura, published by The Clerkenwell Press. The book has been selected as one of AERODROME’s WinterReads.
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