He could have been anyone’s father: brown hair, brown eyes, a little on the heavy side from too many weekends indulging in cookouts with his family. We’d pack a cooler and drive out to the beach. Dad lit the charcoal grill while Mom and Susan organized the paper goods. My brother and I ran toward the surf, our steps slowed by soft, sugar sand.
“Stay out of the water until I get there,” Dad yelled after us.
He could have been anyone’s father. His word was law, as was his own father’s. Susan welcomed the respectability of her eldest-child role. Rob and I remained untamed; childish energy easily overcame common sense. Dad knew what we were capable of.
Our steps halted at the foot of the ocean. We scanned the water for the telltale churn of undertow. The waves rolled toward the land, not away from it. We were safe. Rob looked back at the picnic shelter.
“Dad’s on his way. C’mon, just stick your toe in.”
“No. You know the rules.”
He could have been anyone’s father. He’d gone to the University of Miami on the GI Bill. He met Mom there. Dad was hopeless at foreign languages; Mom a Spanish major. She tutored him through his required classes. He passed his exams and proposed in Spanish. Well, almost. On bended knee he intended to ask, “Will you marry me?” ¿Me se casará usted? Instead, he blurted, “Mi casa es su casa.”* Mom accepted, on the condition that he make good on his promise to buy her a house.
Rob examined the spiky white object in his hand. We’d passed the time by searching the beach for shells. Rob pulled his arm back in preparation to pitch the object into the surf.
“Wait! It looks like a bone.” I grabbed Rob’s wrist in time to stop its forward motion.
He could have been anyone’s father. Dad wanted to study science in college, but lacked the proper preparation in high school. He majored in business, but nurtured his love of nature with his children. He took us on hikes through the piney woods. He woke us on August nights to watch the Perseid meteor shower. He walked alongside us at the beach identifying the treasures our small hands offered him.
“It’s a catfish skull. Look.” I turned Rob’s hand to reveal a rectangular-shaped bone, flat on one side.
He could have been anyone’s father. Mom and Dad settled in North Florida, along the Atlantic coast. In January he’d sit in front of the television, laughing at the national weather forecast on the evening news. After dinner he’d give Mom a break and take us outside to play catch under the streetlights. “It’s too cold!” we’d cry. He’d laugh.
“Daddy, what is this?” I held the bone up for inspection.
He took it from my hand and smiled. “This is the skull of the Crucifix Fish.”
“Crucifix Fish?” said Rob, “Katie said it was a catfish skull.”
“A Crucifix Fish is a catfish, Rob.” Dad beamed at me, his budding biologist. “Look here and I’ll show you why.”
Dad turned the skull over.
He could have been anyone’s father. Dad prayed over his family at dinner each night. As we grew older, we tried to maintain an aura of coolness, but our hearts quickened as he prayed a blessing for each of us in turn. “God bless Katie, with her keen mind and insight. Lord, grant her wisdom to use her knowledge to help others in this broken world.”
The reverse side of the skull wasn’t flat. The ridges, crests, and valleys appeared organized: they seemed organized in the shape of a man, a man on a cross.
Daddy traced the body with his finger: head, torso, legs, arms spread wide.
“It’s Jesus,” we breathed.
He shook the skull and we heard a rattle, the sound of dice being tossed for Jesus’ clothes.
“You have to look inside this catfish to see Jesus. I know he’s inside each of you; you’ve both asked him into your hearts. But act in such a way that when people look at you, they see Jesus. Don’t make them cut you open.”
“Eww gross, Dad!” We squealed. I guess Mom would have handled that spiritual lesson with a little more decorum. But, she’s not Dad.
Species: B. marinus
He could have been anyone’s father. I’m glad he was mine.
Author’s Note: Though this is not a true story, elements of this tale are factual. The Gafftopsail Catfish (Bagre marinus) is commonly known as the Crucifix Fish. The arrangement of bones on its skull resembles a crucified man. When shaken, loose bits inside make a rattling sound. These skulls were often mounted and sold along with Conrad S. Lantz’s poem, “The Legend of the Crucifix Fish”. We had one in the home where I grew up.
*”My house is your house.”
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