Just before dusk, the Florida bayou turns silver, its waters trembling in the interlacing wakes of the last few straggling boats. For my father, the fading light is a signal. He gathers his rods and a handful of lures. Then he walks with deliberate steps to the end of the weathered ribbon of dock, where a lamp illuminates a greenish ellipse in the shallows of the bayou. It is there, underwater with the gathering fish, that my father unravels his problems.
A great blue heron materializes and lights on the dock with a whisper of wings. My father knows him and calls him "Big Bird." The heron's stride is half comedy, half grace. His knees bend backward, and his long, thin beak moves in a rhythm slightly out of sync with his body, which pauses between steps until his head catches up. He looks at my father seriously, knowingly, nodding his head left and right, regarding him with each eye. They have an understanding.
Every day my father draws from the shallows a small bait trap. As he coaxes it open, dozens of bait fish spill onto the dock. When my father steps back, Big Bird bobs over and daintily plucks each moving morsel from the seasoned wood. As he tips back the elegant chopsticks of his beak, you can see the final movements of each fish wriggling through the skin of his slender neck.
My father wets a line with a skilled and effortless flick, his cast sailing over the circle of light and landing with a barely audible plink in the darkness beyond. Securing the pole, he wets another line and another. Then he waits. By now, the last light has melted to a distant glow, as if coals were scattered just beyond the offing. With a slight evening wind, the lapping of chop will drown out my footsteps, and my father will startle when I tap his shoulder, jumping with a soft, surprised "Oh!"
It is here on the bayou that my father composes his finest fatherly lectures, his most sublime instrument of affection. He always warms up by identifying fish. "Those are mullet," he says. "See that strange twitch?" They jerk oddly to one side, and their bodies catch the light. "Look at the size of that redfish! Or was that a black drum?" We watch from our element as they arc through theirs, approaching but never touching the barnacled pilings, moving fluidly, aimlessly, contentedly, and oblivious to our presence. Eventually my father moves on to other topics. Mutual funds. Career advice. The serendipity of life. Whenever we have weighty matters to discuss, our forum is the end of the dock.
From the house, my father's silhouette is visible in the grades of light between the lamp and the inky water. The tiny red cherry of his cigarette moves periodically up and down. My mother slides open the kitchen door. Her eyes adjust to the darkness, and she can see his crouching figure as she calls him to dinner, first loud and then louder to make sure he hears.
He appears outside the kitchen door, tapping the glass with one bare foot.
It is dark outside, and she must tune her eyes to see beyond the reflection of the kitchen. He is holding something long and silver. She slides open the door to receive his gift: a trout, perfect and beautiful.