[This is Garling Files’ first short story and is longer than the articles usually posted here. If you don’t want to read in web-form, you can download the PDF by clicking here: Around the Pond]
In the rural backwaters near Superior National Forrest lived two families that really didn’t care for one another. Now that wasn’t always the case. Or it wasn’t for a while. See, a long time ago their Great Granddaddy’s Granddad took a string of horses under the long finger of Superior and decided that as much as they wanted to see some of the new country they’d heard about, a coolness was setting into the breeze and they’d better hunker down for the winter. Both families prayed on it and eventually decided to set up camp next to a little pond and stay through the winter. This was in the late summer, by North Country standards.
Now if you’ve spent any time in the area, you know that winter will usually slap you across the face like a trapped sow caring for two cubs. She’ll knock your block off your shoulders with an icy paw without so much as a warning. Don’t matter how broad or quick you are. So these two families—oh, sorry, the Yeats and the Schmidts—hunkered down in the trees on the windward side of this pond having heard what that cold bitch could do. They worked to set up a camp, cutting wood, fishing, hunting, salting, storing and everything else that a frontier family has do to survive a long winter. They weren’t spring chickens.
Schmidt and Yeats had come over on the boat together and had worked at a tannery in Milwaukee until a stupid fight broke out. Two sides of the town couldn’t agree on how to construct a bridge over the Milwaukee River and started arguing. Now the Schmidts and Yeats just wanted the bridge, so they didn’t have to take a ferry anymore, but so many people got involved and so angry about the whole thing, that soon there were full scale riots in the streets and people hitting each other in the face. It was awful.
“Seems pretty dumb to do all that over a bridge,” said Schmidt to Yeats as they walked home carrying their lunch pails and massaging sets of tired knuckles.
“I saw Kilbourn shove an old lady.” Yeats looked at his friend and they nodded and didn’t speak for the rest of the way home. They knew they needed to mosey on. It’s hard to muster a smile when people around you are fighting over bridges.
So they worked a while longer and saved up some money until they were ready to leave the good land of Wisconsin and head north where life seemed a little simpler, in Chippewa Indian country by their little pond. The winter was tough as usual but nothing for the history books and by spring both families had grown to love their little pond so much that the idea of continuing on wasn’t even discussed. The fathers and the sons set to work building two cabins on either side facing each other from across the flat water, while the mothers and the youngsters did the fishing and prepared the meals each night. It was a rugged life but they were happy. They were happy to be out of the city where you didn’t argue about bridges.
Years past and new families settled the rivers, lakes and ponds nearby and soon there was a nice road that wound all the way back to Duluth, where the real industry was and you could pick up supplies. Schmidt and Yeats eventually died after years of hard stretches working the copper and iron mines and then learning how to cut and haul timber. They died close together and were buried near three willow trees just off the pond, one at the start of the summer, one at the end. The sun had been different at each service as its rays dangled among the weeping branches, that being God’s will and all, but both families cried on each other’s shoulders just the same.
A couple generations of Schmidts and Yeats passed and the brothers and sisters spread out to the Boundary Waters and newly formed Canada and a couple even went down to St. Paul to help with the railways. But like their Great Granddaddy, Granddaddy Schmidt and Yeats stayed tight and happy on the pond. Now, it may come as a surprise to you but the pond still didn’t have a name. It was just “the pond.” You don’t name your driveway or your yard and the Schmidts and the Yeats thought of the pond the same way. It was where they went fishing and took swims, only sometimes being the object of consternation during a bad wave of mosquitoes, as this was the pond’s one act of devious play during the year.
Like most men in the area, Granddaddy Schmidt and Yeats were built like a couple of brick shithouses and their daily race across the pond and back didn’t hurt much either. Right at sunrise they’d meet at the halfway point on the bank between their two cabins and do ten lengths of the misty waters, Schmidt winning half the time, Yeats winning the other half. It was all in good fun but you could sense either man’s simmer when he’d lose, wanting to make it right the next morning.
Granddaddy Schmidt and Yeats were becoming known as the best saw team in the North Country, after a couple of foreman got to laughing one day that the two of them could take down a set of trees faster than Paul Bunyan. That comment was mentioned off-hand in the local paper by a reporter with big ears who thought he’d write an article arguing that maybe we shouldn’t cut down so many trees. The idea caused a bunch of other arguments but nothing much came for Yeats and Schmidt for having their names in the paper. The lining in it was they didn’t have much trouble getting on a crew from then on.
A few years later, they were working a job up in the Cloquet Valley and getting to know a new crew. They sat on a stack of Red Pine and cracked their lunches for the day.
“You gents lived to your billing,” said the foreman, walking over with a pickax on his shoulder and shifting in his thick coveralls.
“Thank you sir,” they said together.
“We each learned from our daddies,” Schmidt said and took a drink of warm water that tasted like metal.
“They worked in these woods too,” Yeats said and leaned back against the stacks of pines.
“Well I’m glad to have you in my crew,” the foreman said and began to walk away, then stopped. “Where you call home?”
“North of Duluth a bit, not too far from here,” Yeats said sitting back up. “On the most beautiful pond in the state of Minnesota.”
“That’s what keeps us working so hard and fast,” Schmidt said. “So we can get our work done and get home, take a swim and go fishing.”
The foreman thought for a second. “I know that area pretty well. What’s the name of that pond?”
They both shrugged.
The foreman laughed. “You can’t have a piece of water without a name. That’s bad luck. You gents are living on the last piece of water in Minnesota without a name. I’d guess it’s the land of 9,999 lakes.” He laughed and walked away. Yeats and Schmidt continued chewing on their food in silence. After lunch they didn’t think much about the conversation and went back to work, but the question silently gnawed at both of them, unbeknownst to them.
Three Sundays later everyone was filing out of church and Pastor Adams stood by the door shaking hands and smiling. He was new to the parish, just moved up from St Cloud, and wanted to make an effort to know people. It had been a good sermon and everyone was feeling warm about the week ahead and life in general. The good Lord certainly had blessed their great state and when they stepped into the sunlight it became that much clearer. Pastor Adams waved his black sleeved arm in the air as he bid his flock good day.
“Have a nice afternoon, Mrs. Andersen…and Mr Andersen…and Katie and Heidi, remember to say your prayers now. Don’tcha know that’s what makes the good Lord happy now.”
“Yes Pastor Adams,” they said in their sing song responses and took their parents hands. Soon the Schmidts approached with the Yeats not to far behind.
“Thanks Pastor Adams,” Mrs. Schmidt said and took his hand.
“Enjoy our beautiful day, today,” Pastor Adams replied. “Oh and I should say,” he said lowering his voice a touch. “I happened to hear about the nice bass the good Lord has blessed your pond with and was wondering if I could stop by this week and see if I can reap the same benefits. Jesus may have been a carpenter but he was also a fisher of men.” He winked and patted her hand.
“Oh, of course. Come by when you like,” she said with a smile and moved past him with two of the children.
“Ah Mr Schmidt, I was just talking with your lovely wife about coming out to Yeats Pond for a little fishing this week. Are you around or does work call you elsewhere?” Pastor Adams smiled brightly but Granddaddy Schmidt didn’t see it. He’d turned and looked at his friend Yeats in line behind him. Granddaddy Yeats looked up at his friend and smiled, not knowing that his name had just been discussed indirectly. Neither man knew that Pastor Adams had just come up with the name on the spot.
It didn’t matter. Schmidt was already hot under the collar, and Yeats would be a short while later when he fielded his friend’s accusation. That’s where the rift began. You know what it sounds like when two men argue and lose their wits. Schmidt and Yeats had it out, claiming the pond as their own and when all was said and done, they didn’t want to work as a saw team anymore.
Again the years went by and both Granddaddy Schmidt and Granddaddy Yeats died. Yeats died in the wintertime but the family saved the ashes until the thaw to spread them on the pond’s soft waters. Schmidt died a short while later and his family did the same. Neither family came to the other’s service but they did watch from the corner of their eyes when they passed the kitchen windows.
Daddy Schmidt and Daddy Yeats didn’t have any interest being lumberjacks and tried their hands at carpentry and masonry, respectively, upon the recommendation of Father Adams. They’d both taken over their daddys’ houses. They worked at shops in Duluth but never drove to work together. They had stopped thinking about how the relationship between their two houses was colder than a dark night in winter. It was just a part of life.
One day, independently, they both realized, as they stood in their mirrors getting ready for church, that the good Lord had blessed them with enough ability and enough sunshine that they should miss a day at church and go fishing. They both believed deep down that the Lord would look the other way on such a sin, in fact they told themselves, it is probably a bigger sin to let the sunshine and the cool waters of the pond go to waste on such a day.
As their wives and the children hustled down the road to get their sermon, they both slid the canoes off the bank. Neither bothered to look up and see that the other was doing the same on the opposite bank. Neither minded that they were in their Sunday’s finest—they wouldn’t totally abandon their day of worship and taking bass in their suits seemed like the right way to go about it. They both took a moment and enjoyed the waters’ rhythmic lapping against the bow before they started paddling into the center of the pond. A breeze blew through the elms and they closed their eyes and thanked God one last time.
It took a minute before they saw the other coming out of the shade on the opposite bank. They stopped paddling and coasted, sizing the other up, the water lapping against the bow again. Schmidt turned to the right and Yeats turned to the left and they headed for opposite ends of the pond to enjoy their day. No use ruining the sunshine, they thought. Each man cracked their tackle box, looking through the rusted soldiers, trying to feel the good Lord’s intuition on the right choice for the day. They both selected a simple silver spoon.
A little cloud of disappointment passed through their minds as they remembered how their daddies had made the same lure, more or less, by cutting a two inch strip of nickel or copper and shaping it with a ball peen hammer over a rounded wood block, then fixing a hook to the end. The lures in their hands were store-bought and not quite the same. They tied on the spoons and a minute later a pair of loons heard two plops in the still morning.
Schmidt and Yeats had been right that the good Lord wanted them to fish that day for He blessed them with a wonderful bounty. Each man hoisted flopping bass onto their laps with a thankful nod skyward. Each fight and retrieval was not without its theatrics as each man made his point to the other.
As the sun began to center in the summer sky, Schmidt and Yeats found their mutual interests drawing to the center of the pond, closer to the other man. They didn’t want to check in on the other, they told themselves, but they certainly would be interested to see if they’re catching the same size fish and if so, what lure is the other man using. Like two pieces of driftwood in an eddy, soon the canoes found themselves circling one another in the middle of the pond.
Schmidt cast his silver spoon to the other side of his canoe from Yeats and made a lazy retrieval. Yeats did the same, keeping his shoulder turned away from Schmidt as if he didn’t see him. This dance continued for a little while, each man only peeking when he heard the extra splash of a fish on the end of the other man’s line. The canoes continued in their lazy circle around one another, a cast or two away.
A truck door slammed on each shore as each man looked up at their families returning from church. The kids were already running through the grass. Yeats’s kids played Cowboys and Indians; Schmidt’s kids played Cops and Robbers. Finally Mother Schmidt and Mother Yeats made the youngsters come inside their respective houses and change so they didn’t put grass stains on their white pants.
Daddy Schmidt and Yeats gave a quick wave to their own family and still in a fatherly dream, looked away from shore and cast right at the other. The spoons plopped between them, finally putting a center on the spin they’d made around one another. Each man looked at the offending splash, alert. They narrowed their eyes, retrieved and cast again. The lures plopped closer to one another, this time within a few feet. They retrieved slowly, wanting to extract the moment from the other and praying for a fish, but neither man’s prayer was answered.
They cast again, this time the splash of the spoons were a few inches away from each other. Schmidt and Yeats retrieved so slowly that both lures bounced off the bottom of the muddy pond.
They cast again.
There was only one plop this time. Schmidt and Yeats looked up at one another, making eye contact for the first time, and readied their indignant shouts, but were interrupted by their rods doubling over and their reels screaming line. Schmidt and Yeats raised their tips only to watch their lines disappear towards the same point in the bottom of the pond. They both set the hook. They both righted the course of their canoes. They both readied for the fight.
The fish breached a moment later and they both saw a beautiful largemouth stand on its tail and shake its rotund face, a silver spoon attached at either side of its mouth. The bass had a belly and set of shoulders like a dairy cow, they both thought. The biggest they’d seen. The men looked at one another and then back at the seeping ripples where the great fish had just stood.
Some time past and later that evening, a form of the following conversation took place on either bank of the pond.
“Daddy, whatcha doin?”
“I’ve got a fish on.”
“Why doncha bring him in then?”
“Cause he’s caught on something and I’m hoping he frees up soon.”
“Is it big?”
“Yeah. Very big.”
“Big enough to stuff?”
“I plan to when I bring it in.”
“Why you sitting on the bank in your suit? Mother got mad at me for getting my knees dirty. She’s gonna be pretty mad at you too.”
Daddy Schmidt and Daddy Yeats each sat on a rock on opposite shores, waiting for the other to let his guard down so they could bring the big bass to their side but neither man planned on letting that happen. They’d both heard enough stories from their daddy to know that you didn’t give in to a Schmidt or a Yeats, even if your life was on the line. Betrayal was the ultimate sin and even though the details of the argument were fuzzy, they knew the other man was a downright bastard. With the hard head of a North Country Man, they both decided they’d let the pond freeze over before letting the other man have that trophy fish.
So there they sat for the rest of that gorgeous Sunday, on their respective banks, in their respective church clothes. Somewhere in the depth of that warm pond was a confused bass, not sure why the hooks in his mouth couldn’t make up their minds on which direction to pull. He’d been caught a few times before but this was a new one. He looked up through the murky depths at the sky as it turned to an evening orange.
As the sun set on the two men, their wives finally took notice of the way each of them was sitting. A form of the following conversation took place on either bank.
“Dear, whatcha doin?”
“I’ve got a fish on.”
“Why doncha bring him in then?”
“Cause he’s caught on something and I’m hoping he frees up soon.”
“Get up off that bank this instant. You’re setting a bad example for the children, dirtying your church clothes like that.”
“I can’t, dear. See that man across the pond?”
“Of course I do. I see him over there everyday. What’s your point?”
“He’s what my fish is caught on. I’m not moving until he does.”
“Well, I have a hot dish finishing up in fifteen minutes so you can decide if you’re done being a child by then.”
Both screen doors slammed and that was that. Neither man was done in fifteen minutes and pretty soon they found themselves dozing under the summer stars, with the light tugs of that big bass on the other end of their line. Morning came and they were still on the bank, the fish bouncing and their church clothes still doing their best to keep a shine. The kids came out and played in the yard but didn’t take much notice of their daddy this time. The wives came out after cleaning up breakfast and sat down next to their husbands.
“Still here, dear?”
“Yeah. Fish is still on.”
“You probably should head for work soon.”
“Nope. I’m waiting for that bastard to give up.”
“What if he doesn’t?”
The day passed and they both missed work. Evening came and they both missed dinner but their wives were kind enough to bring them a plate of food. This went on until it was time for church the next weekend. Neither wife even asked their husband if they wanted to come and Mrs. Yeats and Mrs. Schmidt took the children to church by themselves for the second Sunday in a row, everyone quietly figuring God would notice their absence this time. At least they still had on their suits.
After another good sermon, Pastor Adams was bidding his flock good afternoon. Mrs. Schmidt took his hand and looked him in the eye.
She proceeded to tell him the story of her husband and when she was about halfway through, Mrs. Yeats caught on to the discussion and stepped forward in line. She offered her own plea for his council by the pond and pretty soon Mrs. Yeats and Mrs. Schmidt were finishing each other’s sentences and nodding in unison. They knew how hard-headed their husbands were. They knew they’d never let up on that fish. They knew that each man wanted it for their own, no matter what, and there was no way even Babe the Blue Ox could pull them off that water otherwise. They had to get that fish for their own. Pastor Adams said he’d be out the next morning.
He would have gone that afternoon but he wanted to brush up on some reading beforehand. He always developed a light kick in his step when he knew a passage in the bible applied neatly to life and this was no exception. He turned straight to the Book of Kings in the Old Testament and found the Judgment of Solomon. If you’re not a church-goer, Solomon was a king a long time ago that had two women ask for his ruling on a newborn child they each claimed was their own. Nature testifies that only one was telling the truth. So Solomon fibbed and told the women he couldn’t decide who the mother was and the only fair judgment was to cut the child in half, each woman getting her portion. The lying woman agreed but the mother cried not to, that the King should just give the child to the other women if they were going to cut it in half. Solomon then knew who the real mother was. It was a clever trick. Anyway, Pastor Adams reread the verses from Kings a few times and made some notes.
The next morning he stopped by the market and asked Claude, the bullnecked butcher, to come with him to the Yeats and Schmidt property. When they arrived, Pastor Adams could see both men sitting on either bank. Between them, two thin wisps of fishing line touched down against the still surface in the morning light like strands of a spider web. Pastor Adams went to the east side, then the west side of the pond, speaking with both Yeats and Schmidt and having roughly the same conversation.
“Good afternoon, Pastor Adams.”
“Good afternoon, son. I understand you’ve got yourself quite a fish on the end of that line.”
“Do you intend to hang the good Lord’s gift on your wall?”
“I do. It’ll make a fine trophy.”
“And it appears your neighbor does too.”
“He does. That bastard. Pardon, pastor.”
“No matter. What say I help resolve this dispute?”
“How would you do that?”
“By using the word of God. On my signal, walk around the bank to the halfway point over there. I will be waiting for you both. Then we can exact judgment on the owner of this fish.”
Yeats thought about it for a second and when Pastor Adams talked to Schmidt, he thought about it for a second too. Eventually, they both agreed and Pastor Adams and Claude, the bull-necked butcher, met them at the halfway point. Now that they weren’t opposing one another on either side, Yeats and Schmidt reeled in that heavy bass pretty quickly. Pastor Adams’s eye bulged when he saw the big shoulders and gut on the fish. The minister may have been pushing his ninth decade but he still got to the water a few times each week.
The big bass was very tired. It’d had two spoons hooked to its mouth for the last week and all it wanted to do was laze around in the weeds and eat a frog now and then. If these two men were going to do me in, the bass thought, I wish they’d just get it over with. I don’t care which one of them does me in. It’s all the same to me.
Pastor Adams was confident in his ploy. He handed the bass to Claude who withdrew one of his famous cleavers and set the fish on the bank. Father Adams stepped between Yeats and Schmidt and the flopping fish.
“Gentlemen, it is impossible to decide which one of you is the rightful owner of this creature. I have prayed all morning for guidance on the answer and have only one solution to offer you, if neither of you will give up the fish: we will cut the fish in half and each of you will take your severed portion.”
Pastor Adams let the words settle like dust and tried to stand tall, a man of God imparting The Word. No man would show off half a fish. He was proud of himself for thinking of such an easy way to deal with this conundrum. He looked back at Yeats and Schmidt. They stared back at him, waiting for Claude to get on with it. Pastor Adams stammered a second.
“I will have Claude here, cut this great Creature of God in half with that fine blade, dividing this fish among you, thus tarnishing this rare trophy of the Lord’s water.” He paused for a second. “Unless either of you is willing to give the fish to the other or agree to set it free. Then we can all be on our way.”
Both men stared at Pastor Adams without expression or words.
“The blade will no doubt mangle the skin and the outpouring of blood will be great, ruining whatever taxidermy plans you have.”
Only a bullfrog croaked from the lily pads nearby.
Pastor Adams felt a little cloud of sadness pass through his mind and nodded to Claude. The blade fell smoother than the breeze and the beautiful fish fell quietly into two halves on the bank of the pond. Claude stared at his work for a second and then picked up each half, handing one to Yeats and the other to Schmidt.
The breeze blew again and the men stared at one another for a brief moment, locking eyes and remembering something they never knew. Then they started to walk away. Pastor Adams stopped them with a raised finger and bowed his head.
“Let us pray. Then Solomon awoke—and he realized it had been a dream. He returned to Jerusalem, stood before the ark of the Lord’s covenant and sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings. Then he gave a feast for all his court. The word of the Lord.”
“Thanks be to God,” they said and walked back to their side of the pond.
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Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote The St George’s Angling Club, available at