An old fisherman decided to go out ice fishing to try to bring home enough food for his family. The summer crops had done poorly, and the fall hunting produced only marginal results. During years like this, it was always important to catch as many fish as possible in the winter so that his family would not go hungry. He had always provided for them and would do so for as long as he could.
But each year it seemed to be a little harder. It started with him feeling a bit more tired than usual. That progressed to some aches and pains which increased yearly. Added to that, he found himself catching more colds which lingered longer than usual. Finally, he began to have a perpetual limp. Still, he rallied himself cheerfully and told his family that he would be back with a big catch of fish.
So he dragged his old ice shack out across the frozen lake. Once he had it set up properly, he found the perfect spot to drill a hole. And how did he know where the perfect spot was? Decades of experience guided him. He knew the lake well because he had cared for it since he was a boy. He used his spud and chiseled the hole nice and wide and kept it skimmed of any ice and slush that wanted to form over it. He set his line and put a flag on it to know when he had a fish. By the time he’d done all of this, his old arthritic hands were very cold and sore. He put them in his old woolen mittens and then set about making a fire in the small stove he had. The ice was very thick in the area he had chosen, and he did not worry about any warmth from the stove causing any problems. Experience and old age had taught him where the thick ice was and where the thin ice waited treacherously.
|The old ice shack.|
Sure enough, he began to catch fish. Each time he caught one, he had to remove his mittens and subject his hands to the brutal cold of the water, but he reminded himself that his family was worth it. He placed the fish in a large old bucket that he kept outside the shack, and slowly but surely, the bucket began to fill. The sight of it made his heavy heart lighten because he knew his family would have enough food to eat.
Finally, he’d caught quite a lot of fish and decided he would catch one or two more and that would be it. He was not a greedy fisherman and never took too many fish, only what he needed. So he set his line again and sat down on his old rickety bench. The flag didn’t move for quite a while, and his eyes began to grow heavy. He thought maybe he’d close them just for a minute, and once he did, he fell fast asleep.
Unfortunately, in this world there are those who do not care about the hard work and effort of others and, in fact, exploit it. While the old fisherman was sleeping, two young men crept across the ice to the shack and stole all of his fish, emptying them from the old man’s bucket into their own. They gleefully ran back to their own shack on the other side of the lake and sat down to have some wine. Now that they had plenty of fish, they didn’t need to work anymore. Their own hole had hardly produced any fish at all, due most likely to lack of experience and patience.
Back at the old man’s shack, he finally woke up frozen half to the bone with his fire nearly gone out. He was angry at himself for falling asleep, but there was nothing that could be done for it now. He decided he would call it a day and go back home with what he had. Imagine his surprise when he opened the door to his shack and found all of his fish gone and the bucket empty. He looked around and saw nothing but a few other shacks here and there on the lake. No one was out. A great sorrow overtook him and he went back in the shack and wept. But he could only cry so long, and when he was cried out, he decided he would have to try again, hoping for even a few fish as some would be better than none.
So he built up his fire as best as he could, cleared the slush out of the hole, and continued fishing. This time he kept the bucket inside his shack. By now, he was so cold that his teeth were chattering uncontrollably and he was making stupid mistakes, such as allowing his mittens to get soaked and forgetting to put a flag on his line. Each mistake cost him time and fish, but he had to keep going because he needed more fish. Yet he was so tired that he felt his eyes growing very heavy . . .
The old man was roused quickly by the violent flapping of the flag on his line. It must be a very big fish, he thought. He pulled and pulled, and suddenly the largest fish he had ever seen in his life burst through the hole! It popped up, reached a fin up and pulled the hook out of its mouth, and then propped itself on both fins on either side of the hole. The old man just stared at it with his mouth open, but he didn’t have to stare long because soon his ears were more surprised than his eyes!
“How dare you be so greedy!” the fish yelled at him. The old man just stuttered wordless syllables. “Haven’t you had enough?” the fish continued. “Are you so selfish that you must have every fish in the lake??”
“No!” the old man sputtered. “I intended to leave a long time ago!”
“Is that so?” sneered the fish. “Yet here you are still greedily fishing!”
“Is that so?” sneered the fish. “Yet here you are still greedily fishing!”
“No, no, I’m so very cold and tired. I wanted to leave a while ago.”
“LIAR!! Greedy human! I will take you down now to the bottom of the lake. I have some friends who want to meet you, and they’re hungry, too!” spat the fish.
At this, the old man began to cry again. He was so tired and his hands were in so much pain and he felt so feverish that he simply didn’t know what to do anymore. He sat down and just cried and cried. The fish waited silently. When the old man had cried himself out yet again, he picked up the bucket and brought it to the fish. There were only five fish inside it, but he offered them to the fish nonetheless.
“And where are all the others??” demanded the fish.
“Stolen,” sobbed the old man. “I’m old and I’m tired and I’m stupid. And I left the bucket outside my shack, and somebody stole all my fish. Now my family is going to starve. There’ll be no fish and no me to try again another day.” Again he offered the bucket to the fish.
“Stolen, you say?”
“Yes, I just had to close my eyes for a few seconds,” the old man whimpered. “I was just so tired. I swear to you I would never have taken so many. I have fished here all my life, and I have always fished respectfully and never taken more than I needed. And I have always cared for this lake and kept it clean and tidied the shores.” He started crying again.
The fish regarded the old man quietly for a while. Finally, he said, “Yes, I know who you are. Down at the bottom of the lake, we know all of the villagers. I never would have pegged you for being so greedy and cruel, but when I saw so many fish being taken through your hole, I was enraged. But now I think I believe you. You will wait here for my return.” On that note, the fish dove back down through the hole.
The old man sat blinking at the empty hole, not knowing what to think. He stared at it for a long time. It was getting late and even colder. He built up his fire with what wood he had left and tried to dry his mittens. His eyes grew heavy yet again, and before he knew it, he had closed them and drifted off to sleep.
Meanwhile, the huge fish silently swam through the lake, visiting each ice shack very nimbly. Some of the shacks were empty. Some had inhabitants with a few fish in their buckets. Most of the fishermen were old, although there were a few young men as well. All were quietly fishing and trying to keep warm. All but one shack, that is. One shack contained two young men who were making quite a ruckus, laughing, yelling, and throwing garbage into the hole they had drilled earlier. They laughed and talked, and eventually one of them mentioned having gotten all the fish from the stupid old codger on the other side of the lake. Both of them burst into peals of laughter at that.
While they drank and drank their wine, the fish was under the ice pushing at it with all his might. He started near the hole and then continued outward in a circle, pushing and pushing. Finally, he heard what he’d been waiting and working a while for: CRACK! The ice cracked in several directions all at the same time. The men jumped up quickly, but both lost their footing on the slippery ice. In ten seconds, it was all over. The shack, the men, their equipment--everything--fell into the lake as a huge gaping hole appeared where the fish had been strategically pushing.
The men screamed and yelled, but not for long. It was dark and very cold and windy. The shack was destroyed and they were in the lake, unable to get a hold of any ice on the surface. Every time they tried, more just cracked off. Soon, very soon, hypothermia overcame them both. They stopped yelling. Then they stopped moving. Then they stopped living.
The fish swam by silently and grabbed the bucket of frozen fish. He swam back across the lake to the old man’s shack. He popped up through the hole and dumped all of the fish into the old man’s bucket. The old man himself was fast asleep. The fish just laughed and upon leaving made quite a ruckus to awaken the old fisherman. The old man jumped up quickly, confused and wary. There in front of him was his bucket filled to the brim with fish! He could not believe his eyes! Joyfully, he grabbed the bucket and pulled it to himself. He put his mittens on and warmed his hands by the dying fire. Then he grabbed his equipment and his fish and off he went across the lake toward his house, frozen half to death by now, but he knew he would make it.
He laughed to himself when he remembered the crazy dream he had of the big fish who had come through his hole and threatened to drag him to the bottom of the lake. He knew he had never been greedy with fish or in hunting any animal for that matter, and he knew he never would be. He knew there was a delicate balance between man and nature. He knew it was his job to take care of the land and the water as best as he could, while also providing for his family. Surely, he thought, somewhere and somehow that has to count for something.