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You Only Love Rivers That Kill You



Imagine 2200, Grist’s climate fiction initiative, publishes stories that envision the next 180 years of equitable climate progress, imagining intersectional worlds of abundance, adaptation, reform, and hope.  [Sign up to receive new Imagine stories when they publish]
Wake from a passing barge nearly throws me over the edge of Nelson’s flat bottom boat. He is winching in his gill nets and I am wondering if it is a bad idea for me to try and help him with the day’s catch. It can get dicey, gill netting silver, bighead, and common carp. The silvers and bigheads like to bask in the calmer pockets of water where your nets can get snagged and the common carp prefer to skirt the bank where it’s two or three feet deep, foraging for worms, insects, and whatever else they can find. Losing a net is a big deal too because you can get fined for “ghost fishing,” or catching and killing fish in an accidentally lost net. The electric engine is whining with the weight of the catch though and Nelson keeps saying, “It’s a good day, Benjamin! It’s a good day!” Nelson let me borrow his Grundens, which are two sizes too big, but he doesn’t want me to wear his dad’s old gear. He’s the only person who gets that privilege. “Fishing coming up,” Nelson shouts. I see it, a bighead, probably twenty pounds. I grab the tail, free its head with the fish pick, and toss it in the front of the boat. It smacks its tail on the deck. “That’s the sound of money,” Nelson yells. He’s one of a dozen or so commercial fishermen who gill net carp on the Missouri River. When the water was dirty, the carp were a constant source of hand-wringing and injury. The silvers have a bad habit of jumping out of the water when scared and colliding with the faces of unfortunate boaters. The Big Muddy is clean now, and Nelson can market his carp in the new KC port. Ramen spots in Westport serve Missouri local fish cakes, a local cajun place uses the meat to make smoked fish dip, and what doesn’t get sold to the food market gets used for fertilizer. Another bighead surfaces as Nelson pulls in more net. This one is bigger, thirty pounds maybe. I stick its body under my arm like a football, slip the net off with the pick, and heave it into the hold. It goes that way until there are at least fifty fish piled in the bottom of the boat. We’ve nearly pulled in all the net, the marker buoy bobbing towards us, when I see a huge white shape roll at the surface. The tail is a foot tall at least and I recognize the gray and cream coloration. “Sturgeon!” I shout. Nelson positions himself to keep the winch going and help me, but then the marker buoy bobs underneath the water and the boat lurches sideways. I hold on to the gunwale, trying to steady myself, and Nelson hits the emergency stop on the winch. “Fuck,” he mutters, tugging on the net. “It’s snagged. How is that even possible? We need to get that fish out of the net.” The marker buoy bobs back up then disappears as Nelson gives the net a tug. Neither one of us want to see the sturgeon die, but if we can’t get the net unstuck, it’s a real possibility. I pull with him, but the only thing we manage is to inch the boat backwards. “Ben, grab an oar. We’re just going to have to swing around and grab it. I can’t risk getting the prop tangled in that net.” He cuts the engine right when I grab an oar. I rush to the helm, slip through the piles of fish, and paddle furiously on port side. I look over my shoulder and Nelson is leaning over the gunwale, a knife in one hand, straining to reach the entangled sturgeon as we turn and drift towards it. Then, he plunges headfirst into the river, the soles of his boots skyward. I scramble back to the stern just in time to see his head pop up above the surface. He takes a deep breath and then starts cutting through the net. His life jacket is barely keeping him afloat and I know that as soon as he severs the connection between the boat and the gill net, he and the sturgeon are going to start drifting down current.
“A fish this size can be a hundred years old, older than the last great flood.”
“Take it in!” he shouts as he cuts the last part of the net. I flip the winch on to take up the last of the net and hit the red button to start the outboard. It sputters, but doesn’t turn over. Nelson is holding on to the sturgeon like a floaty and the two are already going downriver. “Blue button then the red button!” he shouts. This time the outboard starts and I circle the boat around. The end of the gill net is still snagged beneath the surface so Nelson and the sturgeon are now being buried by the current. I pull up and engage the spot lock so the boat will hold next to him. I lean over the edge, grab the back of Nelson’s collar, and pull him to the boat. The current is pushing his head forward, but he manages to grab the gunwale and I help pull him onto the deck. He lays on his back for a minute, laughing, water pouring off his clothes. He’s missing a shoe. With shaky arms, I pilot the boat within arm’s reach of the sturgeon. Nelson rolls over and slaps me on the back. “Thanks Ben,” he says. “Thanks.” Together, we pull the sturgeon up next to the boat and I use the fish pick to free it from the net. It’s a six footer, with a dark gray back. “Everyone thought these were going to go extinct,” Nelson says breathlessly. I cradle its head in my arms and dip it in the water, facing the current so it can revive. A fish this size can be a hundred years old, older than the last great flood. I feel it start to kick, strength returning to it, and I lift the slate-colored head for one last look. Then, we release it back into the river and it disappears into the murky water. Nelson pulls us to the marker buoy and we break it off the snag. We ride in silence to the port at the flooded west bottoms. The port flooded back when it was a stockyard in 1951, over a hundred and fifty years ago. They rebuilt it only to have the same flood that swept away KC United Power wipe it out a second time. Now it’s a shallow bayou full of long piers, frog giggers, and houseboats. It floods every year, but people are used to it. We’ve learned to live with the river. When we unload the last fish to the processor, Nelson turns to me and shakes his head. He’s still soaked and there’s a scrape on his hand from a fish barb. “I thought I was in trouble there for a second. My foot was wrapped up in the net.” He points to his shoeless foot. “My own river damn near killed me.” “That’s why you love it though, right?” I say. He pulls his shirt off and wrings the water out of it.
“True words. Maybe you only love rivers that kill you.” * * * Nelson is sipping a beer, splayed out on the gravel bar, watching the drip of the bulkhead across the river. I’m sizing up the ten-pound grass carp he’s tasked me with filleting, which I’ve never done before. I tell people I’m an apostate of vegetarianism, but you’re never supposed to take the word of an apostate. We’re there to eat the inaugural carp celebrating that the Blue River is finally clean enough to eat from. We’re also there because Nelson’s dad died the day before and Nelson said he needed the river. “My granddad never told me what that is,” he says, pointing towards it. The bulkhead is a cracked steel door, like in a submarine, but big enough to drive a truck through. Next to it is the remodeled Prospect bridge, and we’re sitting on part of the riverbank that used to be chain-linked riprap. Metal warehouse roofs, lit by LED spotlights, just peak above the old stone wall of the Bannister Federal Complex, a nuclear manufacturing facility that leaked toxic waste into the river in the early 2000s. That was a hundred years ago though. Now, its spongy, erosion-protective grounds store biodegradable straws. Poetry. “It’s where they tossed out the dead bodies,” I say. Nelson laughs. He’s wearing his granddad’s muck boots, which have at least six visible holes in them. “You think I’m joking, but what else is an eight-foot-tall cement bulkhead for if not filling up with bodies to be dumped in the river when it floods? Wouldn’t have been the first time they dumped stuff here.” “You still working on that fish?” he asks. He looks over his shoulder at the uncut carp, nods, and looks back at the river. “Scale it first, then start at the head, right where the scales would start. Slip the knife between one, flat along the spine.” I do as he says. I slide the back of the knife against the scales, knocking them off. They are quarter sized, like plate armor. I slide the knife down the back bone, crunching through the y-bones that run the length of the fillet. I’m Nelson’s protege. In exchange for help running his carp nets on the Missouri I soak up his knowledge of Kansas City. His family is from east of Troost and they know the metro better than anyone. His great granddad was a Black business tycoon and spent all his money buying up the private land on the Blue River. He willed it to the Department of Conservation after his death. His granddad was the river, breathed it, worked next to it, was poisoned by the Bannister Federal Complex. His father was a wildlife biologist, a guerrilla conservationist who snuck into the park to remove invasive honeysuckle when Jackson County couldn’t get their shit together. Nelson’s a search engine for the Blue River’s fauna: beavers, deer, mink, you name it. He knows where they live, what they eat, when they fuck for God’s sake. He knows all the other stuff too, wild grapes, how to tell the difference between a blackberry and a dewberry. We pick the chanterelles and other wild mushrooms that hide in the woods, but most often, we’re at the river. I’m his friend now too, which is pretty much unavoidable when you share the river together.
“His granddad was the river, breathed it, worked next to it … “
“You’re getting there,” he says, looking over his shoulder again. He hops up. “This is a special carp, you know?”
I nod. They used to call them ditch salmon, polychlorinated biphenyls spiderwebbed in their fillets. Every nosing carp that rolled in the Blue River flats was a swimming public health catastrophe. Think melanoma, gall bladder disorders, Chernobyl-style shit. People hated them for it too, like the fish were PCBaholics, eagerly sucking the chemical despite intervention, rehab. There was a whole pamphlet about it, a warning. Grass and common carp, ALL SIZES, don’t eat more than one a month. It wasn’t the fishes’ fault though. “Goddamnit,” Nelson says under his breath. “I wish…” His face twists. His dad should’ve been here to see it. They’d tried to make it happen, but there was no way he could travel. “You know, Dad told me today that these boots were all granddad had left when he died. Cancer ate up all the rest of his goddamn life because of this place. I always thought he’d left my dad a little bit of money, but nope. Just these old ass boots.” “Did your dad go peacefully?” Nelson shakes his head. He has a rod stuck in the bank, a live blue-gill on the other end, hoping to catch a flathead. “Dad wasn’t ever gonna go easy.” I want to say I’m sorry, but I just nod. His eyes are fixed on the bulkhead. My grandpa had told me about the river too, but not like Nelson. He had grown up in Kansas City, west of Troost, and to them it was a distant catastrophe. He existed outside the redlined Black neighborhoods, floating above the city’s history like it was a documentary and not part of his hometown. When the Troost divide started to melt, the runoff of local memory made its way west, into the white neighborhoods that’d tried to forget. West KC was forced to remember. At one time, the Bannister Federal Complex had been the Kansas City Speedway, then a manufacturing facility in the Second World War, an office for the IRS. Before it was shut down, its final iteration was a nuclear manufacturing plant. Airborne toxins started to poison the workers in the active part of the facility, then the office staff, until the administration couldn’t hide behind fudged reports anymore. My granddad heard it on the news, wrote a letter to the city. By that time though, Nelson’s granddad was coughing blood. I throw the fish head in the river. Sometimes we keep it for soup, but it’s early summer. Too hot for that. The crayfish will find it, scuttle out from beneath the rocks and recycle it back into the riverbed. Nelson walks over and crouches above the electric camp stove we brought down to help us fry the fish. He pulls a bag of cornmeal from his backpack, a pot, a glass bottle of oil, a metal camping bowl, and a plate. I score the fillets so he can rub cornmeal in between the gaps to fry the y bones soft. The little beep of the burner reminds me of the old propane camp stove my dad still used when I was growing up. The whooshing of natural gas being ignited is nostalgic, but my dad was an ironic hold-out when the natural gas industry shut down. Gasoline and propane disappeared when I was in elementary school. Now, it’s all batteries. He puts the pot on the burner and pours an inch of oil in. I stare at the pot as he gently places the fillets in to fry. The sizzling and bubbling of fish mixes with the trickle of the river and the droning of bullfrogs. “You really think it’s safe to eat?” I ask. Nelson flips a carp fillet with his fork. “You know, when dad found out he was dying, he started coming down here all the time and eating fish. Every day he had the energy he was frying up carp. He said he could feel the river had recovered, heard turkeys again, saw beaver sign. They hadn’t announced the end of the pollution advisory. I just thought he didn’t care anymore since he was going to die anyways.” “He wasn’t too far off though,” I say. “Fourth of July, two years ago, he talked me and my dad’s ears off about it. I thought it was just talk.” Nelson grins. “One day, son, it’ll be so clean you can drink it!” he says, shaking his finger at me. “Don’t you stop believing that.” “My dad tried that after talking to him.” “No shit,” Nelson says. I laugh and nod. My dad, with his ridiculous panama jack hat, sipping the Blue River on his hands and knees, saying he wanted to reconnect to nature.
“He got giardia. Puked his guts out. I told him to boil his water next time and he told me to mind my own damn business.” “Rightly so. It’s a man’s inalienable right to give himself waterborne parasites,” Nelson says. He lifts the fillets from the oil and sets them on the plate. I fish around in my backpack for the spice shaker. A semi silently glides across the Prospect bridge above us, autopilot lights pulsing blue, and I stop to watch it pass. It backlights the box elders and sycamores that separate the road from the riparian forest below. I think back to being a ten year old, clambering through cathedrals of invasive honeysuckle before they figured out how to eradicate it. That world feels thousands of years away. I pull my canteen from my pack, dip it in the river, and screw the cap on. Everyone has portable filters now. The water is cold even though it’s June. I offer it to Nelson. “To life,” I say. He takes it from me, steps into the river, and stares again at the bulkhead door. He raises the canteen then puts it to his lips. To life. * * * The ANGELINA’s hull is only visible in winter, when the mouth of the Blue River runs low at its entrance point into the Missouri. Last year’s floods unearthed the bridge, which Nelson and I had seen just peak above the water’s surface in the fall. We are floating down the Blue River, intending to be the first to search the long abandoned vessel. Nelson and I dig our paddles into the flow so that we’ll beach on the sandbar where we think we can climb into the control deck. KC United Power used to own the mouth of the Blue, until a hundred year flood destroyed the station, buried Bayer’s Crop Science institute in a foot of silt and deadfall, and created an oxbow lake between Blue River and Rock Creek. Most of the old floodplain is now public land or Department of Conservation-leased crop fields. Duck hunters call in the distance and I hear the whistle of gliding waterfowl above me. Nelson puts a hand to his ear, nods, and we hear one, two, three shotgun blasts in quick succession. It’s probably Stuart Mills and his friends. They are the most faithful congregants around the backwaters near downtown. Stuart is in his seventies, grew up east of Troost, before the flood, and used to drive three hours to try to find waterfowl. We met him at the boat ramp upstream two years ago. It’s a yearly event to ride with Stuart in his busted up jon boat and watch him hobble to the duck blind with his equally ancient black lab. They always come home with ducks. Everyone does now. After the flood, the Missouri finally chewed up enough wing dikes to slow and widen. It was a renaissance for wildlife and the Corps of Engineers decided that their sonar mapping was good enough to let the river breathe again. Now, the urban core who’d lived generations disconnected from the cottonwood bottoms and marshes that the first humans would’ve found alongside the Big Muddy have rediscovered the river. * * * Nelson and I slip out of our kayaks and haul them onto the sandbar. It’s the kind of sand that you only find in rivers, the kind you can sink into, that finds its way between your fingers and behind your ears. Nelson reaches the rusted sides of the barge first. “It’s bigger than I thought,” he says. The deck is a good fifteen feet in the air and the hull angles slightly away from us. I uncoil a ratchet strap and toss it onto the ship. Careful does it. I pull it back until the hook end of the strap catches one of the portside cleats. “You wanna test it?” I ask Nelson, handing him the strap. He shrugs and gives it a sharp pull. “If I break my leg, you have to tow me back, you know.” “Tow you my ass. You paddle with your arms, not your legs,” I say, grinning. Nelson grabs the strap and starts climbing. He’s got those farmer hands from running his commercial gill nets. Most everyone does something with their hands these days though. My specialty is lion’s mane mushrooms. Once Nelson clambers over the gunwale, he unhooks the strap and wraps it around the cleat so there’s no way it’ll slip off. I give him a thumbs up and grab the rope. River barges are shaped like big tubs and normally there’d be another fifteen foot drop off the other side of the gunwale, but it’s mostly filled up with sand. We follow the steel frame to the bridge. The ANGELINA was the last of the old barges and a rare model. It was one of only a few manufactured with an inboard tug. When we reach the rusted stairs, Nelson says after you and steps aside. The stairs lead up to the main deck of the tug. The crew quarters and navigation room are more or less a metal shipping container on top of another shipping container that holds the engine.
“I want to break the lock, see what’s inside, but there’s a feeling, like I’m trespassing.”
“Thanks,” I murmur. I test my weight on the first step and it holds. The whole frame groans and creaks under my weight, but I make it to the top. My hands are caked red with rust from the railing. Nelson follows and we peek our heads into the door. There’s otter poop everywhere, and frozen, half-eaten fish carcasses. “Amazing that the sonar screens aren’t cracked,” Nelson says. He tries to turn the faded silver steering wheel, but it won’t budge. Time and water have eroded the paint off the control buttons. I open a few cabinets next to the crew bunks. There’s a sealed plastic bag with a phone in it, the kind that my grandpa used to have. I turn it over in my hands and then put it back in the cabinet.
“Got something juicy here,” Nelson calls out. There’s a cabinet with a padlock on it. He gives it a tug, but it won’t open. “Damn. Should we try to break it?” I want to break the lock, see what’s inside, but there’s a feeling, like I’m trespassing. Nelson must feel the same because he gives it up and after we rummage around, he shrugs and says, “I’d say, let’s take some pictures and head out. Nothing much here unless you want to see what’s in the engine room. “Worth checking out,” I say. We open the door, but it’s mostly filled with sand. I turn to leave, but catch the shape of something sticking out of the silt underneath one of the engine room stairs. I pull it out and bring it to the front of the tug where I can get a good look at it. “Is that a Hot Wheels?” Nelson asks, looking over my shoulder. I turn it over in my hands. It’s a truck, a Ford I think. I look at the bottom of it and F-150 Electric 2024 is embossed on the cast metal underside. “Holy shit,” I say. “This is from when my grandpa was a kid. Looks like a first edition too, right when everyone went electric.” “That might be worth something,” Nelson says. “Why do you get to find the cool stuff? Goddamnit. Maybe I will break that lock.” I walk out onto the deck while Nelson looks around more. The silhouettes of migrating mallards break the horizon and I hear a few more shots from where Stuart and his arthritic dog are undoubtedly huddled behind the cattails. I slip the toy truck in my pocket and sit on the starboard edge of the deck. “Yes!” Nelson shouts from inside the tug. I turn and see him come out with a broken padlock. “You couldn’t resist,” I laugh. “You can’t find all the cool stuff. Come look,” he says. I hop up and we both crouch in front of the cabinet. It’s rusted shut and Nelson has to grab the handle with both hands and press against the wall with his feet. It pops open and the hinges snap, leaving Nelson flat on his back with the door in his hands. Nelson tosses the door to the side. A tattered, canvas backpack is shoved inside. He slowly works it out, but even being careful the fabric rips a bit. When he tries to unzip it, the bag rips more. “You’re a top notch archeologist,” I say. He grimaces and after some more unintentional ripping, opens the bag. Inside it is another half gallon plastic bag. “Why did everyone on this boat put their stuff in plastic bags? It’s like they knew it would sink.” He opens the plastic and inside is a buck knife, a yellowed copy of Sand County Almanac, and a duck call. Nelson looks up and smiles at me. “Don’t even say anything,” I say. “Oh, I won’t. You just keep that Hot Wheels of yours.” He puts the bag and the busted lock back in the cabinet, shoves the door in, and walks out onto the deck. I follow, wishing I had opened the lock first. He puts the duck call to his mouth, cups the end of it with his hand, and rips out the loudest mallard quack he can muster. We wait and after a minute we hear a distant quack return. “That’s probably Stuart,” Nelson says. He gives the call one more go, then we climb down the stairs, rappel off the barge, and walk back to our kayaks. Nelson gathers washed up wood and we build a small fire. Close to dark we stomp it out and paddle back upstream in the dark, treasures in tow, the low glow lights of downtown KC sparkling like distant fireflies.
Learn more about Grist’s Imagine 2200 climate fiction initiative. Or check out another recent Editors’ Pick:
Gilbert Randolph (he/him) lives in Kansas City, Missouri, and works in social and digital media. His writing has appeared in The Preserve Journal, Northland Lifestyle, New Letters, and others. When he’s not writing, he’s exploring wild places and connecting with his ecosystem through hunting, foraging, fishing, and trapping.
Christian Blaza (he/him) is a freelance illustrator based in New Jersey.

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