Let The Hounds Give Tongue –
A natural history of the ten years i knew my father
He makes out of myrrh an egg as big as he can carry. Then he tests it to see if he can carry it. After that he hollows out the egg and lays his father inside and plugs up the hollow.
~ Hekataios, fr. 324 (circa 500 BC), translation by Anne Carson
If you have remarked errors in me, your superior wisdom must pardon them. Who errs not while perambulating the domain of nature? Who can observe everything with accuracy? Correct me as a friend, and I as a friend will requite with kindness.
~ Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778)
But now to the wooded hills and unkempt groves—
It is hard, Maecenas, the task you have given me;
Without your help there is no beginning. Come then,
We must hurry. On Cithaeron, on Taygetus, the hounds
~ Virgil The Georgics (29 BC)
Chapter 1: Fish
I learned to float one summer in the man-made lake in Western Pennsylvania that had been constructed by the Keystone Coal & Coke Company in the early 1900s. My grandmother taught me by pulling her hands out from under my back, letting me sink and sputter and struggle until the know-how emerged in my body. My spine discovered it could undulate and lift me up, letting my arms and legs still into ghosts. When I got out of the water later, I watched my father clean his catch on the shady, forested shore. As I stood by in bare feet, shivering in a dripping suit and thin, old bath towel, he placed a bluegill on a tree stump, held down its tail, and sliced its head off with a filet knife. With the scaler, a toothier potato peeler, he worked his way down the torso, spilling sharp sequins onto the rings of the stump. When I reached for the sequins, he stopped my arm, so I stared instead at the lonely, severed head, still bellowing its gills to breathe. Like sheets flying up on a bed as it’s being made. How long would the fish head keep trying, I wondered.
Zeugma. A figure of speech as in, “He went fishing for trout and compliments.” Amer. Pron. /zōōg-mah/. From the Ancient Greek for “yoking together.” For yoking the literal truth, “for trout,” to the idiomatic, “for compliments.” For when you want to say two different things at once. Or for when you want to be or do two things at once; when you just want to let things rest, but you also want to ferret out the truth. A truth anyway. When you want to be able to move seamlessly and swiftly—like a line in a poem—from one place, thought and image, to quite another place, thought and image. To move as fish do.
My father used to pick us up–me, my older sister and brothers–from our mother’s house in the city around dinnertime on Friday evenings and drive us the 45 minutes down Highway 30 to his apartment in a smaller town. Highway 30 was a truck route, even though it had frequent stoplights and was lined with fast food restaurants and newly built discount strip malls. Every so often we would pass a runaway truck ramp, a dirt road that suddenly veered right and up into the side of a steep Pennsylvania hill. On these trips, my father played Twenty Questions with us, or taught us to sing old American folk songs in rounds: White coral bells upon a slender stalk / Lilies of the Valley deck my garden walk / Oh, don’t you wish that you could hear them ring? / That will only happen when the fairies sing! Sometimes I joined in boisterously; sometimes I just stared out the window, imagining trucks losing control and fleeing up into the hills.
When we entered my father’s apartment, I’d run to see the one fish that was considered mine in his three large aquaria. I had named her “Catty” because she was a catfish—not that I knew if she was female or male—and she lived below purple and green neon tetra and glamorous angelfish, alongside slender plants and painted, plastic castles. I pressed my nose into the glass to watch Catty near the speckled-blue gravel, as if snapping a series of close-ups on her incremental progress across the aquarium floor. She was always gently sucking, sucking, her tiny wet whiskers moving in slow motion. She was a tiny vacuum.
Catty lived in her own private and impossible world, half land, half sea, half walking, half swimming, part mammal, it seemed to me, part fish. All she heard were the bubbles from the pump that oxygenated her world. The fish-world above her was unimportant, unnoticed, the human world on the other side of the glass, unthinkable. I longed for the day when I would be left home alone. Then I’d be able to lower my hand into the tank, all the way to the bottom, and catch hold of her.
Some Friday afternoons, I would wait and wait and my father would finally arrive, but only to pick up my older brothers. Some trips were for men and boys only and lasted much longer than a weekend. I watched them climb into his blue Ford Torino with the trunk and roof top luggage carrier stuffed to the gills with sleeping bags and fishing poles, tackle boxes, coolers of food, lanterns, and a Coleman stove. They were headed to the boundary waters of Canada to paddle canoes, portage across small islands, sleep under the stars and learn to fish for their supper.
I stood red-faced with my hands on my hips on the stoop of my mother’s house. “I’m coming too!” I demanded. My father reached down and tickled me under the arms until I had to give up my stance. “Not this time little chickadee.” He smiled, “No girls allowed.”
Paradox. Less strange than zeugma and maybe even more fitting. To know, but not know enough. To recall, but imperfectly. To honor and feel ashamed of. To forgive, but judge harshly. To long for and stave off. I have been drawn to these figures of speech because they allow me to feel what I feel. They give me containers in which to hold the uncontainable. Figures of speech help me to live with lack of sense, with parts of the story that tug in too many directions at once, that don’t add up easily. They help me deal with run-off. In Jack Gilbert’s poem “Going Wrong,” the speaker describes the fish he’s just caught as:
the mountain most days, beautiful
and alien and cold from night under the sea…
and then quickly anthropomorphizes the fish by imagining the sea’s
grand rooms fading from their flat eyes…
In one sentence, the fish are both alien and human. And then just as quickly they are neither; they are technological:
soft machinery of the dark, the man thinks
I have always wondered why mermaids, as fish both alien and human, are fetishized if their legs are sewn shut. Why is it sexy to move like a fish? Why is it sexy to lose your genitalia? Why not invert the mermaid image and leave the genitalia and legs as human, but the top half of the body, the head and torso, that of a fish? René Magritte did just that in his 1935 painting L’Invention Collective: rather than cavorting in the waves, this inverted mermaid has washed up on a beach and appears lifeless. Her pubic hair may be a bit of flotsam or seaweed. The “collective invention” is the idea of the female form as a passive, sexual object. Perhaps this is not what my father wanted. Perhaps this is what my mother was taught to be.
In another Magritte painting, Les Merveilles de la nature/The Wonders of Nature (1953), two inverted mermaids sit side by side on a large rock on the beach. Like an old couple on a bench at the park, they lean into each other, their fins and fish heads touching. They gaze up at the sky with their fish lips, as if retired with nothing better to do than soak up the day. On the sea in the background, we can make out an old fashioned sailing ship, all blue, the same blue as the water, the same blue as the sky. It represents the world at large going on without them—trade, travel, and war—or the past they lived through and survived. Their genitals are discreetly out of sight between their legs so that only legs and feet serve as markers of gender. “She” is not very tall (long) so she can touch only her toes to the sand, but not her heels. Her feet are slightly arched as if wearing invisible high-heeled shoes. “His” longer legs allow his feet to fully touch the ground.
I see this painting as the future my mother once aspired to: aging with my father, the two of them resting calmly after a life of global adventure, each gender appropriate, but melding together near the heart center. Of course, inverted mermaids have no necks so have to look up at the sky with their lips, their eyeballs thrown backwards to take in an upside view of the world. In the painting, the figures no longer move as fish do. Instead, they are as still as statues. They have turned to stone.
In Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre, the heroine’s beloved Edward Rochester made a fortune in the Caribbean colonies and the mad wife he kept locked in the attic, Bertha Mason, is not quite white. To conjure up this fiction and imagine such a marriage, Brontë had to know something about the transatlantic economy and something about the economy of desire. I first read Jane Eyre at my mother’s urging—it was her favorite novel. She played Jane in a High School theatrical production in India in the 1940’s—her parents were Protestant missionaries—and I knew intuitively that my mother identified with the heroine deeply. She coveted the ending in which the good, virtuous Jane finally gets her man, against all odds. This is the opposite of what happened between my parents. My mother remained a good, proper girl, like Jane, but did not, in the end, get her man. Not my father, or any other man.
My father was a naturalist who pressed flowers and ferns into bibles. He fished and collected in places that had been part of the British empire—India and Pakistan—and part of the U.S. American empire—the Philippines. His parents were also Protestant missionaries and before too long, so was he. His favorite place to fish was Kashmir, a border region in Northern India and Pakistan. The mountains in Kashmir form the lips of glacial bowls that hold small watery cities in which people live in wooden houseboats and paddle from one place to another in shikaras, shallow, slender, partially canopied boats. They dip their oars into the water and carve out ephemeral paths through the shore-to-shore fields of yellow, white, and pink lilies sprouting from giant green pads. This is the tourist image. The region of Kashmir is also contested and fought over; ever since British colonizers magnified local differences to maintain their power, it has been a stage of violence. A 2003 cease-fire has largely held, but skirmishes escalate on and off, in which dozens of people are killed or wounded.
In Victorian England, naturalists invented vivaria—boxes with only one side of glass, at first—to display and study their live collections of plants and animals. They constructed aquatic-vivaria with four walls of glass in a cast iron frame, elevated on ornate iron legs, to show off their freshwater and marine specimens. In 1851, Charlotte Brontë attended The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations in London, describing the vivaria and other displays as “a bazaar…such as Eastern genii might have created…only magic could have gathered this mass of wealth from all the ends of the earth…none but supernatural hands could have arranged it thus, with such a blaze and contrast of colours and marvelous power of effect.” Despite the perceptive worldliness of Jane Eyre, she was not immune to the orientalist biases of her time and place and social position. Magic. Eastern genii. Rhetorical veils that hide the violence and wealth extraction of global imperialism.
Fish are tender, or we hope they are when we consider eating them. In Elizabeth Bishop’s lionized poem, “The Fish,” the speaker begins with this hunger, but quickly anthropomorphizes the fish as a grim survivor with a five-haired beard of wisdom. He has become too human to eat, so when we arrive at the poem’s famous last line, we are prepared for her confession: And I let the fish go. In a re-writing of Bishop, Mary Oliver radically shortens the description of the catch, moving more quickly and brutally to her very different confession:
I opened his body and separated
the flesh from the bones
and ate him. Now the sea is in me: I am the fish.
Is this the opposite of anthropomorphizing? Rather than the fish seeming human, the human indulges in a fantasy of transmogrification. It’s communion, but instead of becoming Christ, she becomes fish. A violent conquest of the other to transform the self.
My parents returned from Pakistan to the States when I was an infant and settled in Western Pennsylvania, then separated for a few years before the divorce. My earliest memory in the States is of trying to grab a stream of water as it fell from a garden hose. The sun is hot and bright on my hands, so I look away from it and down into cool water at my feet. I look back up to grab at the stream of water and it slips right through my thick toddler fingers. I grab at the stream of water again, and again, it won’t hold. I keep grabbing, opening and closing my fat fist, and the water just keeps slipping through.
I connect this memory to a photograph of myself and my sister in a baby pool on the concrete outside an apartment building in Pittsburgh. It is surprising that, soon after, we spent almost every weekend with our father. In the 1960s, most divorced American parents still adhered to the 19th century “tender-years doctrine,” a legal stipulation that young children belong with their mother. One Friday night, when we arrived at my father’s house, Catty was dead. We walked into his apartment and found her belly up on the surface of the water. My father scooped her out and the next day, he pulled cotton from his vitamin bottles and stuffed it into an empty box of kitchen matches. We put the small body into the box and he helped me dig a hole in the yard next to his favorite dogwood tree. I found a rock and wrote on it with chalk. After he went inside, I tore flowers from the dogwood and covered the little grave.
I heard an interview on the radio with a woman entrepreneur who hires herself out as a mermaid for poolside parties and fantasy tourism in the Caribbean. After she met her husband, he became a professional merman. In a sexy photo of the two, they’re lolling on the sand in their costumes, his buff, hairless chest gleaming, her bikini top, flattering, but not the focal point. Their matching tails are the point: emerald and glittering, curved at the hips and tapering off before widening into golden flippers, like lanceolate leaves on a blooming magnolia grandiflora. What does their fantasy consist of, when you really think about it? What is mermaid sex? Gliding your tail over your fellow creature’s body, and being glided over, the way fish must occasionally touch each other when they swim in schools, through narrow orifices of a live reef? A fantasy then of sex re-imagined. Sex outside of the subject/object positions of compulsory procreation. A way to bypass the missionary position.
In the United States, freshwater catfish species are known by a variety of slang names: mud-cats, polliwogs, chuckleheads. They are negatively buoyant, which means they don’t float as well as regular fish. They have no scales, so they are essentially naked. And about half of all catfish are sexually dimorphic, not as a species, but as individuals; some females, for example, are able to modify the anal fin into an intromittent organ, one that can enter or penetrate an orifice. They are also bottom-feeders, some detritivores, who scavenge for dead material.
The term catfishing, as opposed to fishing for catfish, now refers to a virtual event, an internet dating hoax. When you catfish, you assume a false persona online in order to meet people and explore virtual romantic and erotic encounters. You might log on with a different gender identity from the one you use in “real” life. There’s the famous case of the football player who became engaged to a woman he was dating online but had never met in person. She turned out to be a man.
The term “catfishing” is also an epithet. A homophobic slur.
Summer weekdays, my siblings and I were free-range children in the city and our mother was at work. We walked a mile, crossing the Boulevard of the Allies, to the public pool, and walked home again later. We walked to the Giant Eagle and brought home cans of soup. We played cards and dissected golf balls in the backyard. But once, she took us on a vacation to Ocean City. She had been saving up for several years and finally had enough money to take her four kids to the Maryland shore, a long one-day drive from Pittsburgh in her Volkswagon Dasher. We all stayed in one room in a two-story budget motel, a few hot blocks from the public beach.
Mother liked to walk on the beach with her eyes downcast, scanning for a find, dropping to her knees now and then and raking the shards with her fingers, looking for whole shells, intact but yellow like linen exposed to sunlight. My oldest brother sat with his feet in the soft wet sand at the edge of the surf reading Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. My other brother body-surfed, looking for rougher and rougher water to throw himself into, letting the waves hoist up his almost-a-man body then grind him down. My older sister coated her skin with Hawaiian tropic oil and lay on the old bath towels we had brought from home.
I didn’t last the week. My skin buckled and popped in the sun. At night, it sloughed off in lacey strips, leaving me red and raw. After a few days, mother gave me permission to stay in the motel room alone while they all went to the beach. Once a day the maid came in, with her minty, tapered cigarettes—You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby! I was scared of her at first, retreating to the corner of one of the two double beds with my knees pulled up to my chest like a snail retracting its foot. I watched the ashes fall from the cigarette between her lips onto the wall-to-wall carpeting as she vacuumed. They fell just behind the vacuum- cleaner drag, landing still and quiet as mouse pellets.
“What? You never see anyone smoke before?” I shook my head no, then yes.
“You want to try it?”
She brought her cigarette over to me, held it out just above my knees, and when I didn’t do anything, held it to my mouth, the smoke drifting to my eyes and smelling faintly like old toothpaste.
After the second day, she turned off the vacuum, sat with me on the bed, and watched soap operas with the sound turned down very low. Or old Elvis movies. We both leaned against the headboard with our legs stretched out before us. Our eyes glued to the lip-quiver, hip-swivel body of the man on the screen. A man who moved like a fish, sang and danced as if underwater. The last day she stayed so long she was late getting to the other rooms. She heard someone call her name and jumped up quickly, rushed to the hallway, then ran back in and threw clean towels into my small hands. I closed the door and pushed their harsh perfume into my raw face.
One Friday after school in October, about a week before my 10th birthday, I waited and waited and waited and my father never arrived to pick us up. He never arrived again.
His early death means that he has been largely absent from my life. He’s like a stranger I used to pass on the street, whose face I sometimes recall. Like someone I met several times when I lived in another city, but with whom I’ve lost touch. Like Brontë, he was a creature both not–and very much of–his time, place, and social position. He was a religious white man, a missionary. He was a scientist, a teacher. He was a closeted gay man. Although I will never know how he would identify himself in the 21st century with our new, vast taxonomy of terms for gender and sexuality. Or how he thought of himself in his brief lifetime. He is a character in a foreign film whose title I’m trying to remember.
When I was 16, I went to India for a year of boarding school. At the end of the year, my 21-year-old brother came over and we traveled together by train across the border to Lahore, Pakistan, the city where we had both been born. We met up with men who had known our father, who had been his friends. Some of them were white Americans; some were Pakistani. We stayed with a husband and wife team of American missionaries—die-hards from a bygone era—who had kept in touch with our mother and spoke fondly of her.
I explored their library and curled up to read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and, another morning, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. The wife found me and firmly took the book from my hands, “You shouldn’t be reading about such sad things.” “Come and help me in the kitchen.” I held the resentment on my tongue and followed her, as a good guest ought to do. Her husband was out with my brother touring the city and the bazaar, but we sat in the kitchen cutting over-ripe plums into a metal bowl. Her khansaman, or hired cook, would make them into a cake later and we would eat it in the afternoon with tea when the men had returned.
“Why do you like to read books about suicide?” she demanded.
“I just like to read,” I said. The juice from under the plum’s skin was staining my fingers red.
“If you would turn to Jesus, you wouldn’t feel so sad,” she advised.
I thought about how I never heard her husband’s voice when he was in the house. He was rarely in the same room with her. I stared at her red fingers, the juice running down into the lines of her palms.
“Why can’t I walk to the bazaar on my own?” I asked.
“It just isn’t done,” she replied, closing off the subject.
After a week, my brother and I decided to move on. We packed our things before dawn and slipped out to the train station without saying goodbye. We were afraid they wouldn’t let us go.
My brother and I caught a train to Kashmir, then hiked to the fishing lodge where our father had stayed when he took excursions into the mountains. The owners brought out a large dusty guestbook, with pages thin and yellow as the pinned wings of a large monarch butterfly. We found our father’s signature and the dates of his visits. We hiked by the streams in which he must have fished. We ate the same kind of fish he must have eaten.
For all this, we didn’t come much closer to knowing him. It’s as if the closer we got to the physical spaces he inhabited, the further we got from understanding. It was like diving into the deepest parts of the ocean, where the pressure alone can kill you; the farther in you go, the harder it gets to breathe and the less you see. You have intimations of the creatures that must be swimming all around you—with cellophane bodies or appendages dangling backwards from their foreheads—but you can’t see them.
What were my father’s motives, his worldview, his intimacies, and his wounds? What were his blind spots and crimes?
In Cathy Park Hong’s “The World Cloud,” a series of poems in the collection Engine Empire, the speaker resides in a fictional world of the future in which human consciousness is challenged by the collapsing of the difference between the actual world and virtual worlds. Zeugma—remember fishing for trout and compliments?—would hold no meaning here. The tension between the literal and figurative has been erased, or close to it. Catfishing and live dating would be indistinguishable. We wouldn’t know which was which.
In the poem “Who’s Who,” for instance, the speaker is struggling to hold onto bodily experience, but her husband has gone permanently “on roam.” She clips his toenails and waits for the occasional e-message from him to upload to her brain when she blinks:
I am by a pond and a coyote is eating a frog. It’s amazing.
This makes her feels as if her
insides are being squeezed out through a tiny hole
the size of a mosquito bite.
That is better than feeling nothing at all. She bites her own hand to be sure.
Decades later, long after he died, I heard the story of my father’s skinny-dipping in the boundary waters on the canoe trip with “no girls allowed.” I heard the story from a cousin who heard it from one of my brothers. The story rattled around in my adult brain and became a small movie of my own conjuring: my father and brothers had been canoeing all day and in the late afternoon came ashore to camp for the night. As they were securing the canoes, they heard whooping and hollering from the small island across from them in the middle of the lake. The men on the shore of the island were in the water, swimming a little, but mostly horsing around—dunking each other, pulling each other under, laughing and splashing. The sun was a low red ball meeting the land behind them, so it was hard to tell, but it looked like they might have stripped bare. Their torsos shot up every now and then, like the pale, slick bodies of dolphins—or the furred pelts of otters—then twisted back down and out of view. “Woohoo, Let’s go!” my father shouted. “But Dad…?” my brothers said doubtfully. Then he pulled his shirt up over his head, pulled his trousers and boxers down, threw them all on the sand, and dove in the water to swim across to the men. Who were complete strangers.
My brothers watched until it was too dark to see anything across the water, then turned their backs, built a fire from the kindling close at hand, and finished setting up camp. They primed the lantern and the stove, cleared a soft area of stray sticks and stones, unrolled the sleeping bags, and waited for our father to swim back. It seemed like a very long time.
In Agha Shahid Ali’s poem “The Snowmen,” the speaker imagines his ancestor:
carrying a bag
of whale bones:
heirlooms from sea funerals.
carved from glaciers, his breath
he froze women in his embrace.
His wife thawed into stony water,
her old age a clear
It is tempting to see my father as this skeleton and myself as chipping away at a glacier to find him. To see my mother as frozen by his embrace, then thawing only to evaporate into old age and dementia. But Ali’s glaciers are not exactly my glaciers and I am in danger of repeating my parents’ habit of cultural appropriation. Their lives—and the discourse I have inherited—hang on to me like a riptide.
I keep scavenging for all the stories. And better containers to put them in. And a way to struggle against the riptide.
Liam Keller currently lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He is a part-time law student and works at a pet grooming and boarding facility, writing in his spare time. He began writing during his undergraduate studies in Toronto, pursuing it more seriously over the past year, during the pandemic.