‘Gene Pool’ Short Fiction by Leonie Charlton

Leonie Charlton lives in Argyll, Scotland. She is a writer of poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction. Her travel memoir ‘Marram’ was published by Sandstone Press in March 2020. She is the joint winner of the 2020 Cinnamon Press Poetry Pamphlet Prize, her pamphlet will be published early 2021.

Finlay hauled the eleventh salmon of the afternoon out of the River Glas. Knocked it on the head with his hazel-wood priest, tossed it, still thrashing, up the bank to where the others lay. His choice of lure – the 18g Zebra Toby –  had been spot on. 

A gust of wind sent down a fine fall of birch leaves, flecking the fishes’ ashen sides with copper and gold. He stepped up the bank, the sound-swell of the waterfall at the head of the pool syncopated with the dull thud of his heart. A sad day when catching escaped farmed salmon became the most urgent part of his job as head gamekeeper. 

He picked up the plastic animal feed bag and, gripping each fish by the wrist, dropped them in. He tried not to look too closely, at the shredded pectoral fins, the shrunken tails. His fingers sank into the slack drabness of their flesh, nothing like the tone of wild fish. He remembered the muscled wrists on the brown trout he’d caught in Lake Thingvellir in April. A few of them as big as these, eight pounds or so, the fight they’d had in them. His hands had shaken like a diesel generator long after he’d released each leopard-spotted fish. What a trip that had been, trout fishing in Iceland, his 50th birthday present. 

Netta had waited until he was home to tell him the news. Another baby on the way. Doctor MacRae said it can happen like that sometimes, even with the Merina coil, but he says there’s a high chance of miscarriage. 

Finlay had wondered if that wouldn’t be for the best, with the other three all at high school now, with life starting to get a bit easier. He swung the sack over his shoulder, walked through the birch and alder trees towards the pit they’d dug with the JCB last week, already nearly full with decomposing salmon corpses. Every freezer on the west coast of Mull had already been filled. Except his, he wouldn’t eat these so called salmon. 

They’d blamed the seals to start with. Then slowly the truth had trickled out. Human error, something to do with a slipped clutch. They’d admitted to 16, 000 escaped salmon. He had a feeling it was just the tip of the iceberg. 

So here they were, every employee on the place trying to catch as many escapees as possible. If they made it past the falls to the spawning reds, they’d compete with the wild salmon for the hen fish. Most of them were so genetically tinkered with that they were infertile, but those that weren’t would mess with the genetic purity of the wild salmon. What a fuck up. 

He emptied the sack, watching the fish slump against the others below. A soft rain started to fall. As he turned away his phone beeped a text alert. I just felt the baby move! 

He walked back to the pool, his steps light and decided. He left the heavy spinning rod there, picked up his telescopic fly rod and a single Gold Head Nymph. He walked upriver towards Loch Glas, the spluttering frustration of the falls fading behind him. 

This one is for the bairn, he thought, as he cast out over the rain-dimpled water. 

He caught it on the third cast, all eight magnificent ounces of tiny wild brown trout. Its spots flashed rose-hip red over bronze as he bent over, releasing it back to the river. He straightened, smiling. Ran his hand through what was left of his hair, fish scales dropped and shone

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