Fish Hook in the Desert

Virginia Rand, June 2016

When I was seven, a fish hook got caught in my scalp. I’d been trailing too close to my father who had his fishing rod over his shoulder as he walked from the pond up through a field and back to my grandfather’s house. I had gotten too close. It was a bitch of a cut, but I was more offended by my dad pulling at the tangled the hair around it. When it was pulled out it, trailing strands on the bloody barb, he peered into my cranium as I stood crying on the dusty path. I looked at my my boots, the rod discarded on the ground, felt my dad’s hands on my head before he patted me on the shoulder. “You’ll be alright. Your tetanus shots are up to date.” 

I was alright, and no disease made my fingers curl into themselves in the subsequent weeks. As we stood there with the evening light thick in the air around us I thought about the fish we had been staking out in the our preceding hours. The barb made to sink into their jaws and stick there while we pulled them out of the water. What a fiendish device the barb was. Could it be the shortened term for ‘barbaric?’ Of course, I only thought about it now when the sharp end was turned onto me and my flesh. I fell into a painful wail which bordered on the theatrical with my dad and some wayward horses as audience. But my dad had experienced worse things sunk under his skin to be yanked out. He wasn’t worried. 

I have had more sympathy for fish since. 

I was thinking about fish hooks during a trip out to Joshua Tree. I remembered the modus operandi of the barb to sink in and stick, and the means with which we had to pull it out of the fish, and out of my head. I’d had someone stuck under my skin. He’d been stuck there for a long time. I had cut the line, but the barb was still there. 

I’d been working, smiling, engaging in tight lipped small talk with a barb stuck in me. I was too afraid to pull it out myself just yet. I had distracted myself with other things, wishing the barb away. I had taken this job out in Joshua tree to shoot for a project that would end up in Vogue Italia. A distraction for me to look elsewhere, anywhere but inside. 

Some subconscious layer in me had known I needed to take this time to pull it out myself. In the open desert, there is space for things to come to surface. I had almost forgotten about the hook in me. 

It had started to stick its point into the forefront of my psyche on the drive out. I tried to push it away, but that didn’t last long. I’d been feeling sick as if my blood was contaminated. The source is hard to see when buried so deep. 

We came together, we got the shots, we were happy. On the drive back from the location, there was just one other model in the car with me. A beautiful person with high cheek bones and a kind voice. She was bright and communicative until it grew dark and she could no longer read my lips. She was deaf, and could not see me in the dark, nor could I see her. With the passenger unable to see or hear me, I gave up on holding the wound together. I cried. I turned up the sound of Neil Young’s Down by The River but it made it worse. I was camouflaged to an outside ear and eye. I cried harder than I had when I was seven. I cried the entire 45 minute drive back, with this girl next to me hearing nothing, watching the headlights race across the road. 

I saw myself as a kid, watching my dad pulling fish hooks out of flesh. With catch and release, my dad told me about how a released fish is more callous with what they let into their mouth. I could see a group of them watching their comrade return with bleeding jaws, and their skeptical eyes as the lure drifts by. 

I drove back by myself the next day after a night of staring at the spiders in my sole motel room. I had often rolled my eyes at those who lost sleep and appetite over love. I knew the appeal of theatrical displays of pain, as I had screamed my heart out standing on the trail in the field as my dad untangled the fish hook from my hair. I thought about the released fish returning to his fellows with the bloody hook marking him as the one who got caught. I had sympathy for fish. Not much, but some. 

The abstract barbs of our interactions detangle much slower. The barb sinks into the soft flesh holding together the fish jaw, and is either ripped out, or cut loose from the line. I’d exposed the soft flesh of my soul. I’d been pulled up and out of the water to dangle, glistening in the sun, and then cut the line to retreat back to the muddy waters. It had hurt too much to be held up like that, although I’d been admired. The line was cut, but the hook was still there. In the solitude of the desert, I abandoned my defenses to look at it, and concede that I’d been caught and released. 

I hope somewhere along the 29 Palms highway, something discarded glints uselessly in the sun. But even if we pull the hook out, the released bleed into the water. The risk to infection is higher. There is no vaccine.