Caitlin Mullen


Caitlin Mullen is a first year student in the Stony Brook Southampton MFA program. She received an MA in English from NYU and a BA in English from Colgate University. She lives in Brooklyn, where she is at work on a novel and a collection of short stories. This is her first published work of fiction.

Ice Fishing

Declan’s hands shake as he lifts Meghan’s green plastic tackle box and stacks it on top of his own. It rattles with hooks, bucktail jigs made of deer hair that expand into white puffs in the water, the steel leaders, the bright metal jigs that shimmer their way down to the bottom of the lake, and splitshot sinkers that she sometimes holds in her mouth, even though at eleven she is too old for this, to taste the cool tang of the metal on her tongue. He senses her in the doorway, watching.

“You can take it with you,” he says, nodding to the tackle box. “There’s that little pond at back of your grandmother’s development.”

“I think I remember,” she says. Neither of them mentions the way the brown water hummed with dragonflies, the green cigars of goose shit everywhere they stepped. She tilts her head up to him. Milk white skin like her mother’s, winter-pale freckles that will brighten to the color of cinnamon in the sun. He points to the end of her braid, smiles at a fleck of blue paint in her red hair.

She gets that from you, Denise had said, when Meghan began spending hours in her bedroom with her pencils and paint. He knows what she meant. He also takes refuge in precision, steeps himself in quiet. Likes the concentration of building a mount, stitching the skin, determining the shape of the teeth, the angle of the jaw, the texture of the scales or skin. Fixing a thing in time.

“Are you bringing your skates today?” he asks. “Not much snow last night.”

She nods, reaches her figure skates down from the nail where they are hung by their laces, tucks them under the passenger seat of the station wagon.

Meghan will join Denise at her mother’s in Fort Lauderdale at the end of the school year. He would have fought harder if he had been convinced that the separation would last. If he had really thought Denise wasn’t coming back from her mother’s, that she wouldn’t show up just as suddenly as she had left. All those nights staying up, waiting to see headlights sweep across the living room, hear her suitcase roll up the drive, the rattle of her keys in the door. His shoulders tighten. His fists clench at his sides. He wants to say the selfish thing but the phrase stays stuck in his throat. You’ll always be mine too.


The bumper rattles and the brakes squeak in the silence as they drive. They clear the clutter of their street, which is less of a neighborhood and more of a residential strip of Route 20 in Canandaigua. Fences lean in the snow, aluminum siding has faded into weatherworn grays, rusted swing sets creak in the wind. Some of the front porches of their neighbors’ houses are packed with trash—broken baby toys, flattened aluminum cans, dead car batteries. Things change when they turn down Main Street. Landmark homes are marked with brass plaques—three-story Victorians with turrets, fireplaces in every room, stables and carriage houses preserved around back. The people on Main Street are celebrating. Shamrocks cut from green construction paper are taped to the windows of all the shops. The Saint Patrick’s Day Snap, they called it in the paper. He doesn’t care what the weather is named, only that it means they’ll get to try again.

They pass a telephone pole, looped with green tinsel, one of his flyers stapled to the south-facing side. McGovern Taxidermy Call Declan for a Quote. He gets a few leads now and then, but not enough to make up for a slow winter. Things are hard all around, no one’s shelling out for a mount. There were a few beautiful pike in January and December but not much since. It’s mostly drunk kids who call anymore, on their way home from the pub down the street. The first few times he groped for the phone in the night he still thought Her. Then the joke, or some riff on it.

Hey McGovern, I’ve got something you can stuff.

He pulls the car to the side of the road, sinks into a snow bank as he steps out. The paper comes away in three soft, soggy peals. He stuffs the balled-up wad of it in a metal trashcan at the end of the block, empty save a few ice-crusted cans of Keystone Light. He’s reaching for the door handle when he thinks of her pen and ink drawings. A different one for every poster. A smallmouth bass. A black bear. A fox.

The car rocks with his weight as he climbs inside again.

“Crank calls,” he says. She stares out the window. “I’m sorry,” more quietly. She gives him a small nod, but he’s still talking to the back of her head.

After another mile or two the town reverts to roughed up farmhouses, squat split-levels with old boats set up on sawhorses in the front yards. They sit at the intersection leading towards the lake. It’s a long light. He drums the pads of his fingers against the wheel. His knuckles are rubbed raw by the cold, the skin hardened into white scales. His hands get stiff when the wind chill dips into single digits, the aftershocks of a childhood frostbite. Every now and then he still dreams about it, after a drink—the cooing voices of the nurses as they dipped his fingers into metal pans of warm water, the smeared glow of the florescent lights above his head.

The exhaust from the car puffs around them as they wait at the light. The phone lines are coated with ice; road signs shine with frost.

“Did you ever go?” she asks. “When it’s red and no one is around?”

“No,” he says. Then, “Yeah. Once or twice.”

“Did it feel different than going on a green?”

He turns to look at her, the corners of her mouth turned up in a sly smile. Her mother’s smile. Denise at eighteen in the passenger seat of his first truck, reaching for the six-pack at her feet. The click and hiss of the beer bottle she opened with her teeth. How it made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

He creeps up to the intersection, glances long down the road, hits the gas.

She laughs as they cross, complicit. He’s pleased to offer her this small satisfaction. Maybe a chip of forgiveness in it. They have to stretch the groceries and he’ll be a few days late with the rent, but he doesn’t have to deny her this. He thinks about running the next light too but it changes to green before he has a chance.


The lot where they park is edged with blackened snow. Icy asphalt is crossed with tire treads. On the march across the lake other anglers ride past them on snow mobiles, leaving behind the parallel prints of runners and spirals of exhaust, but they always walk the two miles to the center. He pulls most of their supplies behind them, bungeed to a sled and carries the rest on a woven basket strapped to his back. His papoose, Meghan calls it. Halfway there she sits to lace up her skates. He picks her boots up from the ground and carries them too, the rest of the way.

She’s a bright blur of movement in the still world of the lake. It’s the opposite of her painstaking painting when she’s on the ice: force over discipline, velocity over grace. She works her way into a backwards crossover, the sun flashing off of the blades. They cut south on a diagonal. She uses the landmarks along the shore to guide her way to their place—the three snow-covered picnic tables in the clearing, the cabin built from yellow pine. Meghan has looked up a rink twenty minutes from her grandmothers’ house. He makes a note to put away a little money when he can, in case she wants lessons someday.

The augur grows heavy in his hands as they walk; sweat dampens his temples underneath his hat. He feels the heat trapped close to his skin underneath his shirt. The game warden cuts towards them, the ice too thin after February to bear the weight of his truck. Declan recognizes his walk, the same since they were in high school together. In those days he was always wearing a sports jersey, earned something like eleven varsity letters. He always struck Declan as a man who wouldn’t know what to do with himself if he didn’t have a uniform to put on. But he likes him enough. J.R. in high school, Jason Roberts now, according to the brass-plated nametag he pins to his uniform. He only learned Declan’s name after graduation, when they met again as adults on the lake. Until then he was the just the quiet kid who sometimes showed up to class wearing the occasional bruise. Now both have earned the same lines around their eyes, the creases in the forehead. But there is something light and easy about Jason that still clings to him from the early days. A little bit of that quarterback swagger, while Declan knows he’s more weathered. More gray under his hat. That map of broken capillaries in his cheeks.

“Declan,” Jason says. “Little lady,” tipping the brim of his hat in Meghan’s direction. “About five inches thick today. This nice little cold snap firmed things up a bit. On Monday we were starting to get slush on the surface.” He knows that Meghan is trying her best not to roll her eyes at the salutation.

“You can hear as much,” Declan says, and it’s true. The ice lets out a low groan around them, the sound of it thickening, struggling against the changes in pressure.

“Good luck,” Jason says as they walk on. Meghan leans into Declan.

“Like we need luck,” she says, under her breath, her face bright with the pleasure of her newfound sarcasm.

Luck, he thinks, as she skates ahead. Like a word in another language. He thinks of the last fish he worked on. Great Northern Pike. 36 inches. The other before it, 34. Back then he thought it was only a matter of a weekend or two before he and Meghan had their turn. Denise was still here. From the basement he could hear her humming, talking to herself, through the kitchen floor as he worked.

It doesn’t take long for Meghan to get far ahead, slicing into the distance. There was a time when she would double back, flushed and cheerful, but now she’s only interested in speed. The surface is bumpy from the lake cycling through another thaw and freeze. He sucks in his breath when he sees her jerk forward like she’s caught the toe of her skate, windmills her arms back for a last grab at balance. He stiffens where he stands, as if he could lend her some of his steadiness, absorb some of the shock when she falls. He closes his eyes and his guts twist; he swears he hears kneecaps smash against ice.

When he opens his eyes again she’s righted herself, waves to him. No snow on her knees, no sign of a fall. He tries to unclench his jaw as she starts up again, a little cautious at first but too soon she’s off, just as fast as before.


He takes his jacket off to drill, spreads the dark cloth on the ground. The ice screeches in resistance when he makes the first few turns then yields to the augur’s slow grind. She watches him. Maybe not scorn yet, but she’s questioning, he thinks. The way Denise did. His snow pants, dirty with rock salt up to the ankle, his oatmeal-colored flannel, the songs he plays on the radio. Why he has to be what he is. Always, only, what he is. He feels his face grows ruddy with cold air and work, and for the first time, with her attention. He hasn’t felt anything like this since she was a baby. The way he felt humbled by all that need and love directed at him. Made him want to look over his shoulder as he reached to pick her up. Like there was another father just behind him, one who might sing to her as he told her not to cry.

The augur breaks through the ice and the water rises with a glug, pale green. Meghan kneels to strain out the slush that falls into the hole. The men closest to them are still nothing but small dots on the horizon. Meghan holds up her hand, closes one eye, pretends she can swat them off the lake with the back of her mitten. They interfere with her running daydream that the ice is theirs alone. He feels it too, this desire for austerity, for all things human to be hushed to a whisper. The ends of her hair are already crisped into icicles of auburn, her eyes pale; the very color of the cold.

He looks across the ice at a few of the slower, more hunched forms moving between their lines. The old men, the lifers. Solid, deliberate, patient. He thinks of old Jack Robinson, the neighbor who first took him out as a kid, distracted him from what might have been an adolescence of smoking Marlboros and hot-wiring cars in Quik Mart parking lots. More fathering in those few afternoons with Jack than a lifetime with his own father. Dead for eleven years, estranged for longer, and still Declan remembers the way his father looked at him, a part of the room only as much as the furniture.

It was Jack who first noticed the way he rubbed his fingers together when they started to tingle and numb, Jack the first person to tell him boy, that ain’t right. His hand on Declan’s arm as he said it. He could have stood it, but for that. The solid weight of that touch, the simple consolation of it even through the thick of Jack’s mitten, Declan’s coat. He broke down and cried like a baby, head in his hands while Jack watched, patient and knowing while Declan, old enough to shave every morning, sniveled and snotted into his gloves.

He still remembers all of it, the night in the parking lot. Six years old. Sour smell of the truck, its stained upholstery. Shells of sunflower seeds, bottle caps, cigarette ash all over the floor. The crunch and squeak of snow under the tires of the car as they pulled up to the bar. The one other car a lone Rambler with six inches of powder on the hood. Looking through the window at the oval of his father’s belt buckle, the play of the neon window signs on the brass before he zipped up his coat, the way his father held up his index finger through the glass before he disappeared into the dim rectangle of the tavern door. The man was a great liar in gesture—firm handshake, confident walk, earnest hands held out to receive communion, the finger that said just one drink.


After they drill their holes he sets up the shanty, although neither of them uses it much unless the wind really starts to pick up. Still, the small rectangle of the hut breaks up the white stretch of lake and horizon in a way he finds reassuring. When he’s checking one of the further tip ups he likes having something to look at, to orbit, somewhere to return. He snaps the legs in place, raises the frame, fits the aluminum braces to support the roof, places the joist between them. The tarp swishes in the wind as he zips the door shut behind him, steps back onto the ice. Meghan steps into the other side, tears away the window flaps from their Velcro fasteners, stares through the pane. The plastic windows have gotten scratched over the years and the effect is like one of her paintings; her face put together in brush strokes. He does the rest of the drilling and she follows him, slower now that she’s traded her skates for her boots, to rig the tip ups at each hole. Regulation allows five lines in the ice per angler. He does his best not to picture his camp next year, halved.

They catch a half dozen perch in the first few hours, the little red flares of their bottom fins bright against the white and gray landscape. Meghan holds them up, spins them slowly on the line like Christmas ornaments held to the light. He has the sense that there is something bigger waiting for them, that the lake has more of itself to yield. He pats the front pocket of his jacket, feels the cigar he’s hung on to since the beginning of the season, the box of sparklers for her.

“Think we’ll get a big one today?” she asks. They’ve had a few good-sized pike this season, but all just an inch or two above the limits set by the state. Nothing like those mounts he worked on back in November.

“It’s about time, huh?” he says.

She turns over an empty bucket, sits on it and surveys their camp, the ten holes they’ve rigged up, as if she’s trying to decide which line their big catch will bite. He turns away from her to take a pull from the flask inside his jacket. She’s interested in all this now, but maybe in a year or two she’ll turn a corner. She’ll visit on her Christmas vacation clutching a new cell phone. Twice this month he’s seen her turn her head to look at a boy passing by on the street. Last week she came home from school with a smear of silver eye shadow on her eyelids. He didn’t know if he was supposed to discipline or encourage her. Wash that off, or You look nice.

“Cheers,” she says, raising the thermos of hot chocolate to him. He thought he’d been discreet. Not that it matters, really. Sometimes he wonders if he’s making secrets out of nothing just to feel like he’s got something to keep.

She takes a few sips, holds the heat of it in her mouth and watches the Saint Bernard trot out towards them. The dog makes its rounds from camp to camp all winter, fat on scraps. It’s not the dog she first saw on the ice when she was young--a different arrangement of brown on its coat—but they all eventually walk back in the same direction to a gray house on the North shore. Bernie, she calls it, although they’ve long since realized it was a girl. The dog pushes twin puffs of hot air through its nostrils, noses behind them for a little while as they move around their camp. Underneath the woolly wet smell of its coat are hints chimney smoke and a man’s aftershave.

“Sit,” she says. “Shake.” The dog lays a giant paw in her mitten. “I’ll have to say bye to Bernie for a little while,” she says, working her fingers behind the dog’s ears, its tail thumping the ice.

Out of the corner of his eye he sees the orange flag of a tip up signaling a bite and walks away to check their bait.

He pulls the tip up out of a hole, knows at the first tug on the line that it’s another perch. He brings the fish in quickly, pulls the hook from its mouth, tosses it back into the hole with a plop. He hasn’t worn his watch but guesses it must be close to three, and all they’ve had so far are throwbacks. The temperature is hovering around twenty; he’s grateful there’s no wind. The ice is still responding to the cold, and every now and then the groaning gives way to something sharper, more like a sudden boom of thunder without the rain.

“I bet that’s what God sounds like,” Meghan says, as he works a can opener around the tops of their chicken noodle soup, sets it on the burner. She cuts the flame when it starts to simmer, turns for their plastic cups and spoons that they keep inside the pack.

He knows what she means. To him the sound has always seemed even bigger than the ice, an echo of some kind of origin. The lakes being carved, the ancient glaciers cutting though rock. But he is surprised to hear her talk about God. He consented to a baptism at his wife’s insistence, but otherwise has made a point of bringing her up outside the church. All he remembers from his early days at Saint Thomas is the creak of the pews as the congregation sat and stood, sat and stood at mass, the rustle of fabric as everyone crossed themselves at once. And the Sunday his mother propped the hymnal open for him when both his hands were bandaged, how she frowned at him when she realized he was only mouthing the words. He wonders if his daughter really believes in God. He wants to tell her that there are so many better words for awe. That for him, one of them is her name.

They are still staring off in the direction of the sound when the small orange flag on one of their lines starts to quiver in the latch, snaps straight up in the air. Fish on.

“Why don’t you pull this one in, Meg?” He sends her off and she runs to the hole, slipping a bit in her boots. The sun is falling behind the dark bars of tree trunks along the shore. She pulls off her mittens, holding them between her teeth while she takes the line in her hands and sets the hook hard. His love for her is a vise around his ribs.

He knows by the way she braces at the knees that they’ve hooked something big.

“That’s it,” he says as the fish pulls line off the reel, yard after yard unspooling. “That’s it. Let it take what it needs. We’ll fight soon enough.”

Usually she teases him about his tendency to coach, as if she’s never caught a fish, but this time she’s quiet.

“It seems angry,” she says, as more filament slides off the reel.

“They don’t’ have feelings, just instincts,” but he’s not sure that this is any consolation. She is still letting it take out line, until it starts to peel out more slowly. She reaches down to pull some back. They both like to bring in big fish hand over hand instead of using the reel, to feel every bump and tug. She gets a foot or two before there is another series of jerks on the other end and she needs to ease up. There is a moment when she holds on a second too long and the line goes too taut.

“That’s it,” he says. “Let it have room. Just fight it when you can. Don’t rush, even if we’re here all night.”

“We’d have to eat it,” she says. “We’re out of soup.”

She watches more and more line slide out. “Don’t worry,” he says. “We only need to keep it on.” He was like this too at her age. So many times when he first took himself out he finally managed to hook something, only to try to wrestle it in and break the line and was left with that sudden, terrible lightness when it got away.

The fish finally seems to go still and he nods to her to start bringing it in, as if it might hear them talking from under the water, through the ice. She’s taking it back inch by inch. This is the part he likes the most. The tip of the scale. When the uncertainty shifts to assurance. Her bare hands are marbled red and white with cold. She shrugs at him, offering him the chance to finish the job, but he only smiles and shakes his head. She’s pulling the line in a little faster and it curls into a coil on the ground, glistens in the last of the day’s light.

He looks down at the dark outline of the fish’s body just below the water’s surface. He reaches in, hauls it up with a finger through the gills, props the tail up with his other hand. The light glazes the waterslick scales, silver-green, and the heft of its middle sags between his hands. The pike must be at least 35 inches. Big enough to keep. His laugh rings out and echoes back from the shore.

“You did it, Meg,” he says, holding out the fish. “Good fight, huh?” He lays the catch on the ice and first it flexes and flops before slowly going still. The soft slap of the tail on the ice, the heave of its red, woundlike gills. She crouches low and stares into the pink vaulted ceiling of the its mouth, runs her finger along it’s side fin, still so delicate on such a large fish. There is a scar on the other side of its lip; a time when the luck tipped in its direction and it slipped itself off of a lure.

“Look,” she says, running a finger along the puckered flesh.

“Don’t worry,” he says, still giddy with victory. “I’ll fix it when I do the mold.”

He’ll be grateful to have it, a landmark back to the past. She’ll be able to come back and point to it. It was a really cold March. We caught that pike and you ran the red light on the drive over. All the Saint Patrick’s Day decorations on Main Street were covered in ice. He takes a celebratory swig, not bothering to turn his back to her when he slides the flask from inside his jacket.

He steps away to grab the tape measure from the tackle box. Back at the hut he cuts his cigar, turns the end in the flare of his lighter. He likes the play between sticky thickness of the smoke and the clean feeling of the night air. His body feels loose with relief. Meghan breaks down the rest of the tip ups. It’s dark enough that he can only make out her movement, a sense of her in the distance, the slight scuff and shuffle of her boots.

“Thirty seven,” he shouts, after he lays the tape measure alongside the pike. She raises an arm in what he guesses is a thumbs up, lets out a muffled cheer.

He stares down at the fish at his feet, the dead eyes already taking on their flat, cartoon look. Small black circle inside a bigger white one. He studies the barb of the old rusted hook worked through the side of its mouth. He’s surprised it lived through that. Usually it would injure a thing into starvation. He could repair it when he does the mold, but he realizes that he likes it better this way, how the scar was built, cell by cell, to accommodate the wound. Its colors have already started to change. The white of its underside goes slightly yellow, as if jaundiced by the air. He’ll lay it flat on their sled for the walk in, try not to jostle it too much.

He whistles to Meghan to come back to the shanty. The tip ups are bundled in her arms, all of the flags hooked back in their latches, the lines wrapped tight into the reel. She drops them into the basket. She frowns when he holds the flask out to her, studying him before she takes it from his hand. She sips like it's something hot. A dribble of whiskey slips down her chin and she drags her coat sleeve across her mouth with a flourish.

“Not bad,” she says. And when he raises his eyebrows, “just kidding.” He laughs, but seems to feel the joke in the backs of his knees. He knows it’s cheating. Breaking off pieces of the future and tucking them in places where they don’t belong.

He stuffs the tape measure deep into his pocket, rustles among the car keys and scraps of gum wrappers, shakes a sparkler loose from the box. At first she only squints at the stiff, slim object he is holding out to her, until it snaps into meaning and she smiles as she takes it from his hand.

He tries to light a match but it breaks off at the head. He breaks another, drops the third to the ground. The air is tinged with sulfur, the matches lie stern as tallies at his feet. The temperature has fallen as the day faded; the old numbness comes back into his hands. She trades him, lights the match in a single strike. He should be unnerved by her deftness but has nothing but admiration as the sparkler bursts to life. He pulls another from his pocket, holds it to the first until it also hisses. They watch the sparks fly in the black of one another’s pupils. They light two more and watch them sizzle down to embers, two more after that, until the box is empty and already too light in his hands.

Note about the piece: I grew up in Upstate New York and this story began, in part, as a tribute to the beauty of the land and to my memories of ice fishing with my family as a girl. There was always something both exciting and mournful about watching the long winters yield to spring, and I wanted the language and the conflict of the story to capture that feeling of being on the cusp of something different, new.