Grass Carp

Image of Long Story Short Award - Fall 2020
Image of Creative Nonfiction
I finish mowing the lawn and drive to your house. I make habits like this out of a summer that feels overgrown and unkempt otherwise. Each week: edge in the morning, mow in the afternoon, drive to your house for dinner and a movie. Regularity.
Today, when I pass by the man-made lake in your neighborhood I see something thrashing. A writhing gray fish in the heart of the lake. I drive the rest of the way to your house. You meet me at the driveway, and I tell you about the flailing fish. You ask to see it, so we drive together to the lakefront. When you see it, or rather the gurgling white water around him, you begin to cry. “He’s in pain, he’s hurt. Maybe he’s been caught on some fishing line” you say.
“What do we do?” I ask. I am sweating from the forehead and armpits in the heaving summer sun. My head is an empty bucket. A wrought-iron gate separates the road from the water. This thrashing fish is at least 30 feet out. We have no way of maneuvering across the water. In your neighbor’s yard there are two faded pirogues lying dead and abandoned on the bank. We circumnavigate the neighbor’s house to inspect them. Turfgrass and dandelions grow in a haphazard circle around the boats, swallowing them beneath waves of greenery. You call your mom. She’s got three-fourths of a degree in veterinary science, so perhaps she will know what to do.
When your mother drives up to us, she has a pool skimmer and a plastic bucket in her front seat. She tosses both onto the grass. A cobwebbed salmon-y kayak dangles from the rear of her Subaru Outback like a spear through the heart. We all three carry this equipment down to the lakefront, tossing each item over the iron fence. Then we climb over too.
We pick blades of grass to decide our tasks in Operation: Fish Rescue. You and I pull the longest blades, so we sit on the shore with the bucket and skimmer, respectively. Your mom wobbles out on the water in the kayak. We yell encouragements from the shore. When she reaches the center of the lake she uses her oar to shove the writhing fish toward shore. It tries to dive beneath the surface to avoid the kayak and the oar but just as soon bobs to the surface flopping upside down. We remain like this for an hour. The kayak ever-circling the resistant fish and shoving closer to shore inches at a time.
When it is finally near enough to the waterfront, I bend forward with the skimmer, and sweep it up into the net. The catch of the day! I get my first clear look at the fish—it is maybe three feet long, gray-speckled on its back and pure white on its stomach. Its belly is distended and bright red. You fill the bucket with water, and I gracelessly drop it in. We pull your mother back to shore, and carry the kayak, the pool skimmer, and the bucket with protruding fish back over the fence and into her car. To make room for the kayak, you and I sit in the trunk, our feet dangling out and the fish bucket between us.
When we make it home, we lug the bucketed fish up the driveway and into the abandoned koi pond in your backyard. On the way there we pass your dad mowing the overgrown lawn. He stops the mower, comes out and sees the fish inverted and still in your empty pond. “It’s clearly suffering in there” he says, and the cold term “it” upsets all of us. In the time between kayaking him ashore and plopping him in the backyard, we have decided that the fish is a he and that his name will be Horatio. We tell your father this, and he corrects himself. “I can put Horatio out of his misery. It’d be humane, and he wouldn’t feel a thing, probably.” His plan is to bash the fish’s head in with a stone from the fire pit. We refuse. He would surely refuse too, had we taken him up on his offer.
We stand over the upset-down carp, rearranging him in the water and attempting to keep his gills submerged. We figured this would be the end of our little epic, freeing a suffering fish from the water. Nobody warns you that animal rescue takes more than just the act of removal. Who would’ve known.
Looking for answers, you call LSU’s exotic pet hospital, hum along to their hold music. I stand over the metal bird bath next to the koi pond and watch apple snails trail in circles and munch algae. Earlier in the summer we kayaked through Highland’s bayou. On our way back from that strenuous trek, I spotted a snail shell big as a fist drifting in the water. I plucked it out and kept it. The paddling had been particularly tiring, the day particularly hot, my neck particularly sun-drenched and burning. I thought this shell to be a hard-fought prize.
As we drove home from the bayou, the shell started moving, snaked its way across the dashboard. We knew we couldn’t kill it. Your mom identified it as an apple snail, so I named him Johnny Apple-snail. She explained that apple snails are non-native invasives and that they eat everything in sight. Apple snails could chew through every bog and marsh, could swallow Louisiana whole. They also lay strings of sickly pink eggs every few weeks. Some of the eggs laid on the lip of the bird bath hatch and develop into new Johnnys. And we can’t kill a single one, so we are now accidentally farming invasive snails. Seeing the swarm of Johnnys I realize I am an ecological process of the worst kind.
Half an hour passes, and you finally get through to a vet student, one who is willing to take the fish in and exam it. We learn that if you’re distraught enough, the vet school will take your case for free. Your mother breathes a sigh of relief. She has been filling up a bathtub with lukewarm water and salt, sterilizing a penknife in preparation for a home operation on this bloated fish. Instead, we make arrangements in the car for Horatio’s next car journey. He is left for the night at the vet school. We cook dinner and watch our movie—Re-Animator.
In the morning you get a call. Horatio is okay. The vet students operated on his inflated swim bladder. He’s on medication, will be returned soon. They say he’s a grass carp. Also, they’ve named him Bill. All just different names for the same thing, I suppose.
“Grass carp are terribly invasive,” your mom says.
“I don’t take Horatio to be much of an invader,” I offer.
“You know that’s not what I meant. Maybe we shouldn’t have rescued him.”
The vet students tell us that his swim bladder disorder was likely caused by nitrates in the lake. I recall what I read in Paul Robbins’ Lawn People earlier this summer. Robbins says nitrate run-off comes from lawn care. You spray insecticides to keep out pests and invasive species. The chemicals spill out into the water during a rainstorm. You cut your grass to keep things orderly. The clippings sink into the lake with nitrates that flood the fish’s gills, inflating its swim bladder. The fish is flips upside-down and thrashes in the water. We’re back where we started.
We release Horatio back into the neighborhood lake. There is no Free Willy moment. He doesn’t turn and thank us. He is just a hapless and terrified fish. When we toss him back into his man-made home, he immediately dives down below the surface, undetectable beneath the layer of brownish-green pond scum and algal bloom.
And next week I will have to mow the lawn again. The grass stretches out of the dirt, flowing out like verdant ponds. Ready to swallow the town whole. My mower chops the green chutes down. A fish goes belly-up somewhere. What a miraculous cycle, great regularity to it all.