Johnny Appleseed, Only With Fish

"Try a bite of my catfish sandwich." Fried, and stuck between the halves of the most banal hamburger bun. But because Alexander is my son, I try his sandwich. It tastes of fry and cotton batting, but no matter.

"Thanks," I mumble. "Wonder what's happened to those three catfish I set free in our pond." No matter it wasn't technically our pond, we only rented the farm on the edge of the briny Patuxent River, but because we loved the place so deeply, it remains forever ours.

I'd bought three catfish, each enormous, at the drywall-construction shop whose owner sells oysters, crabs, and fish on the side. "Just caught 'em this morning," he smiled. "Real fresh."

Indeed, still breathing, long whiskers trembling. Then I noticed they were gravid. How many eggs?

I carried them in a carton to the pond so hidden our absentee landlord didn't even know he owned a pond. I lowered them into the water. Would the change from salty river to fresher pond shock them? But catfish are survivors. They might even prosper.

Soon thereafter we moved to Canada. I never told the landlord's son, now installed there. Anyway, they claim they have no time to fish. So perhaps....

"Remember that pond behind our house in Malaysia?" Alexander asks as he snatches the ketchup.

"Only a pond during monsoon season," I answer. "Afterward it would shrink again to mere swamp."

"No longer." He bites into another catfish sandwich.

Although I taught him to fish when he was barely old enough to hold a pole, he acquired his true taste for seafood 20 years ago when we lived for two years in a spread-out village on Peninsular Malaysia's East Coast. He attended a tiny international school for expatriate children. As a 12-year-old, he also made friends with local boys fishing in the river, aptly named Sungai Karang: River of Shells. Except in monsoon season, the "river" was a trickle.

"Still, there were minnows," Alexander says. "I brought home a plastic bagful and dumped them in the swamp behind our house."

First I learn of this, decades later.

Because the international school taught only a few phrases of Malay, and the Malay school taught only a few phrases of English, communication was limited. Alexander ran home to beg me for a Malay teacher. Within a half-hour of word going out in the village, a university student on vacation became his tutor.

Within a month, he was welcome in every little house on stilts up and down the coast: A blue-eyed towhead who spoke Malay was a rarity.

The international school maintained a different vacation schedule from the Malaysian schools, so when the Malay boys, who crewed on the fishing boats during their vacations, had to return to classes, Alexander worked in their place. He earned one Malaysian dollar a day, plus by-catch: shark, cuttlefish, stingray.

Alexander brought fish home and to our next-door neighbors, addressing them with the honorifics reserved for village elders: "Machi" and "Pachi." We never knew their real names. Pachi was famous for teaching certain birds to talk. He built an airy cathedral of wood and wire for our checker-cheeked doves, a larger one for our chickens; he could build and repair anything. Machi's cow grazed on our scruffy lawn because, with goats, their yard was dust.

When we left Malaysia in 1977, we worried about Pachi and Machi. Their landlord planned to build 20 houses on the acre their farm occupied. Their wooden house on stilts would be razed. The new houses would be too expensive for them to buy. Our more modern house, on terra firma, would need new tenants who could afford it. They had no official employment, beyond the full-time work as "peasant farmers" and wise advisers to other villagers. They had no children to take them in, along with their livestock. Yet the village would help them, surely....

In 1985, between his sophomore and junior years at college, Alexander returned to Malaysia for a few weeks. He found his old buddies, many on their fathers' boats.

Our house sat strangely abandoned. The 20 houses planned for the vacant adjoining lot were still awaiting construction.

"But Machi and Pachi had moved their house on stilts so it stands behind ours," Alexander says. "And the swamp that flooded only in monsoon season is now a permanent pond. The water was right under their house; needed a gangplank to reach the door. I found them fishing from the porch - and catching big fish! My minnows had grown up. One was a catfish."

This is the first time I hear how he played the Johnny Appleseed of the watery world. "You remember that Confucian proverb?" I say between bites of his leftover catfish sandwich. " 'Give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day. Teach him....' "

"We didn't have to teach Machi and Pachi anything," Alexander shrugs. "They taught us. Shall I order you another catfish sandwich?"

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