Letter to my Brother, the Day He Shaved His Head

Michael Copperman

When I was a kid, I taught myself to fly-fish. To cast, and throw the weighted line’s unspooling arcs, or, given the McKenzie’s overhanging oak and willow and evergreen, to toss straight snags. I learned to tie flies, to clamp down barbs and wind those thread-tight fliers of peacock and partridge, hackle and wing, to make a body to fool the flashing intuited body beneath. I fished with only a bamboo Orvis two-weight, thought of myself as a purist different from the heavy-bodied sportsmen in their plaid and camo, their insular camaraderie and assurance of the dominion of their tall-tired trucks and graphite rods over all of nature. I went to the waters alone and fished alone, beneath the overpass out Coburg road with the hushed roar of traffic overhead and beneath the heavy thresh and wash of water, and I was looking for something there, the big fish by the overhanging grass where the riffle starts, who hit the caddis flies hard and made my heart leap but which I could never catch, but also something else I sensed there, in the drunk teens passing their bottles on the gravel bar, in the thin white girls out trying for a tan in the heat in their bikinis, tugging at straps to assure they stayed taut, laughing too hard and splashing each other and casting glances back at the boys. I wished to catch a fish, and I wished to be a part of the world I was not easy in, and I went about both all wrong.

I had almost no fishing friends, or really, any close friends at all — a furtive, confused, sensitive kid who, brother, wished mostly to be like you, the companion with whom I spent most of my time. The kid with the rebel’s mischief and manner, which is to say, you were forced by birthright to take chances and risks, to be bad, as I had sewn up “perfect” already on paper, knew how to stay free from adult censure. Together, we had an easy camaraderie, though I took the lead, pretended I knew what I did not. You were a jokester, and liked to give me trouble, and I let you mostly. But one day your first year in middle school, our first and only time in the same schools, you came up to me when I was with the wrestling team boys, the ones I depended on to not get my ass kicked who were from the trailer parks, and wore do-rags and passed blunts and drank and were generally nice guys once you had their respect. I didn’t know what made them tolerate me — didn’t know that my own misunderstanding of how to be was no greater than theirs, though of less consequence, for none of them made it through high school, and most are incarcerated or dead now. You sidled up to me and said something foolish and brash, a little sixth grader, and I glanced at the boys, at them watching me letting my brother mouth off, and I pushed you into the open trash can. Broke covenant. I remember the look of betrayal on your face and it hurts me still, as you ran off and the boys who were not my friends but my protection laughed.

I am sorry I never apologized. There were and are things I simply don’t know how to do. I still will stand by a crowd of people being loud and easy in their own skin, and I do not know what to say. I still will see a pretty woman and find myself tongue-tied and uncertain. What I am trying to say is that I didn’t know how to be honest, and I thought I had to be different. Harder, and stronger, and better. Right, and ruthless.

And yet even the simplest things eluded me. I would go to fish, and to watch the boys, and I would fix my handmade fly to the line, and cast, and reel, because I had to catch a fish, but you see, I had a secret: I would not kill a fish — not even a dull-sided stocker, not even a common peasant brookie in a pool thronging with brookies. One year when perhaps you were twelve or so, you and I tried to keep a couple cutthroat we’d caught in a high mountain lake, the romantic idea of fresh fish after miles lugging heavy packs made heavier with frypan and oil. We were not prepared, lacked tools; we were not taught to kill.

I said it was our duty. I told you we needed to do it. We held the flopping bodies and we tried to strike the fish with rocks, and we missed, or hit only unfatal spots, and the fish spun and suffered, and we yelled at each other, smashed desperately, crushing our own fingers, desperate, and finally there were eyeballs punched free onto the gray-white granite shore, our bloodied fingers, the mangled, small, ruined bodies. I have done much wrong in my life, but I have not done worse. We didn’t look at each other, and we didn’t speak of it, though I had been the fisherman, and gathered that harvest up as best I could. I still fished for years, but I never even tried to keep a fish again.

Sometimes, often lately, I have a nightmare where I am called to do as I must, to know how to crush the bright live body, though I wish not to, know how it ends. Your skull is now shorn, pale and white and bared full now as the sides of any fish, and there are depths. We raise boys up, but we do not tell them how to bear the violence of their hands or their ignorance or their foolish, fragile hearts.

I don’t fish anymore. I tell you, brother, I did what I thought we had to, and it was my mistake. I am sorry I pushed you — I was scared. Come back. I would take the blood on my hands, wash them clean. I would take it back. Let’s return to those cold waters, where we might have swam and played instead.

about the author