I want to tell you the story of the catfish that used to live in our pond out back.
Illustrations by Mozhi.
Step 1: Make a Farm Pond.
My uncle made our pond by burying a case of dynamite and setting it off with wires and a battery from a very long way away. The police were much more tolerant of blowing things up in those days.
Step 2: Stock Pond With Silurus Glanis.
Get yourself some silurus glanis. They'll eat each other until only one remains. It's pretty much like Highlander.
Step 3: Wait a Generation.
The one remaining catfish will eat everything that grows in the pond and everything you throw into the pond. For your purposes, you can assume that it also eats all the light that shines on the pond.
Step 4: Pond Is Now 61.8% Catfish.
You now have a monster catfish.
Step 5: Communicate.
I built myself a bench by the side of the pond, and I used to go down there in the afternoons and talk baseball with the catfish. He was a Cardinals fan. I guess Saint Louis reminded him of Smederevo.
Step 6: Empathize.
When I got a little older, the catfish decided I was ready to hear his three wishes. He wanted out of the pond, out of Minnesota and out of the Twentieth Century. I told him I would see what I could do.
Step 7: Build a Balloon.
Shoplifting, lawnmowing and newspaper delivery were never going to provide enough money to buy all the silk I was going to need. The catfish told me about a treasure buried near Raymond, Nebraska. (I suspect he extorted this information from of one of the other fish before he ate it.) I hitchhiked to Raymond. His directions led to a spot directly underneath a rusted-out 1923 Fageol Safety Bus. I had to spend all my shoplifting money to buy enough pulleys and cable to lift the damn thing. But the fish's information was good, and I hitched my way back to Minnesota with a backbreaking load of 500-Kurush coins. All the drivers were like, "Whatcha got in the duffle bag, har har har?"
Step 8: Build a Gondola.
See all these scars on my fingers? There was (naturally) a weeping willow overhanging the pond, and I stripped it bare to get enough wicker. It hurts just thinking about it. Not only that, but then I owed the willow tree three wishes. But that's another story.
Step 9: Build a Harness.
My uncle-on-the-other-side Kevin had years earlier (hell, maybe it was his dad who bought it) bought a freight car full of surplus mil-spec cotton webbing at an auction. He had always coveted the twelve-foot granite glacial erratic on the southwest corner of our farm (it's all sandstone for three hundred miles in every direction except for that one boulder.) I traded him the rock even-up for the webbing. He kept the freight car. If he ever figures out how to transport the erratic he's welcome to it.
Step 10: Liftoff!
You've heard of the Three-Body Problem? That's pretty much what we had going on with the balloon, the gondola and the catfish.
Step 11: Forty Days and Forty Nights.
Do you think I remembered to provide a safe way to get down? The catfish was starting to look like one of those kozakana gonomi they eat in Japan. I'm sure I wasn't any better. I had drunk my last can of Moxie two days earlier and I wasn't sure how much longer I could hold out.
Step 12: Strange Weather.
There was a shimmering. I checked with the fish, and he could see it too. Might have been a shared hallucination, or maybe we were flying through the aurora. Then it started to rain, and the balloon started to sink.
Step 13: Bratislava.
Oh thank god. It's a big city, but it was the quietest place I had ever been.
Step 14: Farewell.
I undid the last buckle on the harness and the fish slipped into the Danube. He was thinner than I had ever seen him, but also calmer. I was glad I had been able to grant at least some of his wishes.
Step 15: Oxcart.
A lovely young woman agreed to let me ride in her oxcart as far as Hamuliakovo. When we reached her home she removed the shawl from her hair and I decided to stay. The village baker agreed to let me carry wood for him, and after a few years he agreed to let me help bake. That's about when you came along. The old women in the village laughed at your mother and me for taking so long to have children. But let them laugh: Who are we to argue with fate?