In our early teens, my brother Jim and I would sneak onto the grounds of a nearby private Catholic girls’ school to fish in a stream-fed pond at the back of the property. One summer morning, a nun who had caught us trespassing there punished us by forcing us to throw back our catch: two plump trout begging to be pan-fried in butter for breakfast. They were already quite dead, and releasing them was a useless gesture, but the merciful sister would have none of it.
The incident soured us on that fishing hole, so we avoided it for the next couple of months. Instead we fished in the smaller pond upstream of the school, which was legally accessible because it bordered on a public street. Or we’d fish downstream of the school in a brook that ran through a wooded strip behind a row of suburban houses, none of which laid claim to owning that piece of land.
But we knew the trout could feed and grow almost without limit in the cool, deep waters of that big pond behind the girls’ school. We were determined to sneak in there again to catch them – nuns be damned.
It was late August by the time we got up the courage to go back. We slid out of bed at 5:15 a.m., and dressed in the dark, quietly pulling on jeans and tee shirts we’d laid out the night before. Then we gathered our gear and can of nightcrawlers from the garage, carefully rolling open the overhead door, and talking in hushed whispers so we wouldn’t awaken our parents in the bedroom above.
The sky was a black dome dotted with stars; no trace of moon. And although the air was scented with grass, it carried a melancholy undertone too – the distinct chill that creeps into late summer mornings as the season steals away. We walked in silence through the quiet streets to the entrance to the woods a mile away.
It was darker along the stream than it had been on the road, but by now the sky was starting to brighten enough so that, even in the twilight below the canopy of trees, we could pick out the familiar dirt path ahead. There was a concrete spillway just below the pond that sloped steeply upwards for about forty feet. As we labored up the path alongside the spillway, we noticed there was a broad wet path on the concrete, rippling with a steady trickle of water from above, as if the pond were overflowing.
But it hadn’t rained in a week.
We reached the top and peered out of the bushes, our heads level with the dirt road that circled the pond. The sun was pretty well up by now, and we could see there were no nuns about, and that the caretaker’s empty truck was parked by his house across the lake. All clear. We clambered up onto the road, carefully poking our fragile fishing poles out of the bushes ahead of us, like insects’ antennae testing the air. We scurried across the road onto the wooden dock and looked out over the pond. Normally we would see the rose reflection of the new dawn on the glassy water; bugs darting in the mist being snatched from the air by trout breaking the surface; ripples from the morning breeze – but there was nothing. The pond was gone.
Someone had drained it by opening the sluice gates at the top of the spillway. That explained the trickle on the concrete – they must have done it days ago. By now, the pond had almost entirely bled out.
Our pristine secret fishing hole had been reduced to a slimy expanse of black mud, and a few shallow puddles. The deepest remaining spots were in the middle, where the pond had been deepest when it was full, and where we assumed the largest fish had hidden. It looked as if most of them were still there, crowded into the last refuge of water, the sluggish movements of their clustered dorsal fins barely covered by the brackish soup. Some moved more slowly than others. Others had stopped moving and had begun to merge with the mud.
We never learned why they drained that pond, but if the goal was to deter trespassers, they achieved it with us. We left that day, sick at heart, and never returned.