Sacrament a short story
The Evening Rise a short story
Sitting it Out a poem by Dave Motes Other Poems by Dave Motes previously published here
100 Casts A short story by Dave Motes
The phone hammered me awake, left me twitched and wondering if it had been real, then rang again, now to the fear that a late call squeezes from your gut. The clock mocked midnight.
Johnny--youve got a trip tomorrow.
Kelly, what the hell--Im off three straight.
Youre on the schedule. Last I heard you were whining your totals. Its money in the bank. Extra, actually. Go back to bed. Ill call you at 5, make sure youve got your ass in a forward gear.
Sumbitch. Better be a good rod. Im tired of this rookie crap.
Hed already said, Get some sleep, and clicked off. Kelly never said goodbye.
Four came early. Out of pride I was up and ready for the call, tried to sound peppy. Id been guiding the river almost ten years but this was my first year with Kellys outfit; I wanted to stay on his good side, if there was one, which if there was I hadnt seen yet.
Id tied up with Kelly just in time. The dam and droughts and whirling disease had cut bookings down, and if Id been running independent I might have had some trouble making it. Kellys reputation kept the clients coming through the early season and now, with fishing becoming very strong and a little more water making it down the river, we could put people on fish steadily. It also helped that Kelly had most of a lock on a pair of prime stretches of river.
As it always was with guiding, we were riding a slow curve. It hurts your reputation if you arent booked up, but a reputation for being booked up cuts into the bookings when you arent. Until the word got out that we were doing well, people wouldnt want to fish; when the word got out, theyd assume we were booked. Between a rock and a blowdown. Not a situation when you leave any client hanging.
I was groggy and thick with fatigue. Three straight trips, and not easy ones. Wednesday: gear-hung yuppies overestimate casting skills. They put flies trees and each other more than they hit the water. A handful of fish to each, including a couple of larger brownies on streamers, so their day had been a success though they hardly noticed. Thursday: stone novices waste a beautiful day. The two evidently hadnt even tried to prepare for their trip down a premier western trout river. We hacked our way downriver all morning, missing steady risers at a fearsome pace, trading platitudes about how it isnt the fish but the experience blah blah blah. By afternoon both had tacked three or four fish each, lost far more, and one of the guys--Id forgotten their names by lunchtime--jumped a handsome 20-plus rainbow that had eaten his fly in a moment of stupidity. Monday: good rods, bad fish in a quick chilly cold front with wind; an evening rise saved the day but the middle-aged CEOs playing trout bums seemed to blame me for the weather.
The weather was steady, the rent was due, and my truck had gas enough. No excuse not to work.
I zombied through my setup routine. Kelly called again just about at 5:40, just about my takeoff time, and told me the client was running late, wouldnt be ready to meet until 7, an extra hour. And he had another gem of information.
He wants to run the upper stretch. And from Step Bend, not Uglys.
What the hell is that? I said.
Kelly paused, I replied for myself. I know, I know, doesnt matter. But we cant get in to Step Bend now.
We can for this trip. He greased it in somehow. I told him lower rivers fishing better, he didnt care. I guess hes been up here before.
Who is this guy? Somebody you know?
Not in my time. Its ok. Hes paying.
Is he paying me? I asked.
Yeah, hes paying you. Just row the boat, rook.
Ive been down that creek more than you have, ya old fart, I said, talking to air. I knew I would be.
Guiding is work. Like all solo work, its got a core of passion, but work is work. For me its a sequence of routines. Fishing is easy; I rarely have anything to say thats going to change much about the fishing beyond the obvious things, like having a bunch of flies and keeping the clients from drowning. So its mainly a matter of not forgetting things. Check with anybody: most lousy trips are lousy because somebody forgot something. For me the key moment is the pause just after Ive started the truck. I sit there breathing coffee and go over everything, head to feet, bow to stern, put-in to takeout.
This morning was off. I was preoccupied by the weird circumstances, fatigue, phone calls. And by the different stretch of river. That was another weird one. Since the dam went in on the east branch, weve had lovely cold water steady through the hot season. Even in the drought years the dam had extended the solid trout water over twenty miles from the confluence on down. In the old days it was the upper creeks that fished well, but they were skinny and erratic. Big trout were rare, but fishing was solid. I had fished the area as a kid, remembered it as beautiful and tight with hard-taking rainbows, a perfect beginners creek.
The dam project had worried everybody; the usual suspicion of government, generally warranted, ramped up by the ranchers and their water greed. But the feds came through. Everybody I knew hated Clinton but the sonovabitch delivered good water quality to us, and got it ruled catch-and-release barbless fly fishing only. There was something a bit seedy about tailrace fishing, but as a guide I couldnt complain. We could put people on fish every day of the year, usually on bugs, or dredge up a few on nymphs and bobbers, with enough gator brownies on streamers to keep the trophy hunters happy. Many of our clients didnt even know that they werent fishing a free-flowing river. They saw us in one of the glossies and put their charge cards down. So I was guiding regular, living on the thing I loved, and overlooking the nuances. Upper stretch? Fine with me.
Head to toe, bow to stern, put-in to caddis-choked dusk. Satisfied Id packed it all, I rolled her down the driveway into a sunrise the exact inexpressible color of a big rainbows gillplate.
The clients were late but, for the first time I ever remembered, theyd called and admitted it. The other guides were gone upriver by 6:30, dragging their shaggy hungover asses and glossy boats with them, clients perched nervously in the passenger seat. This morning it was a matched set of father-sons for the spring creeks, a brace of new-money cybermillionaires for the 7 AM slot on the big ramp, and a bit of suspense: Donny Hickham had drawn Lisa and Angel, hard fishing lesbians that Id had out just a month before. They were regulars with the outfit. Donny was glowering at his awkward social situation, unhappy at finding himself at the forefront of the gay rights controversy. Lisa and Angel were excellent clients and Donny was a crappy guide, surly and bigoted and lazy on the sticks. I suspected Donny was on the way out and that Lisa and Angels intel would matter. They were too tight with the outfit to get stuck with Donny. For that matter, I guessed that my trip with them had been a shakedown cruise, too. Too tired to wonder. Donny would be no loss though I figured that if he got canned Id have to get him drunk or fight him, probably both. He hadnt appreciated my arrival. If I could see the plan, he would too.
I was dozing on the verandah when the luxury rental rolled up at about 7:10 and two guys stretched out.
The driver looked like a driver, not a man with the juice to get Duffy to let somebody across his pastures into Step Bend. He was a bulky 25 or so, edgy in khakis and a polo shirt. The other one was right on: an athletic and tanned thirty who showed power and money just getting out of a Town Car. I walked down the steps and into my guide persona, but they turned away from me and looked into the back seat at a disordered pile of gear and clothing as if they expected me to tote it someplace.
Then they were opening the back doors and the pile of gear and clothing became an old man, slouched and stooped. I stopped and they talked in murmurs from both doors. Movement, helping, more words, and I felt myself step back a bit as the old man unfolded himself in front of me.
First of all, he was big, maybe 6-6 even leaning, shoulders slotted, looking up at me. Second, he wasnt old. He was gaunt, not thin. His skin and flesh had a falling, wasted look that caused my breath to hitch. To my continued astonishment he laughed, and spoke in a voice that was still big and wide and authoritative.
Dont worry son, I wont die on you. Or if I do, its not your problem. Just take me fishing.
Yes, sir, I heard myself say.
Most of the time in the outdoors were insulated from the weak, the young, the dying. The strenuous steps that define fishing and hunting and river games keep them at home. No mothers with children, not many women at all; few kids, except for the pissy teenagers dragged out to bond with their dads. Its a healthy persons game I play--physically healthy, anyway. Probably why we dont catch many sick fish--the sick fish arent biting, and the sick folks arent fishing.
The driver--thats what he was, I found out, just a driver--and the other guy sort of orbited him as he hauled himself up the stairs and into the shop. If Kelly was surprised he didnt show it. We did the paperwork and walked out of the store. Clients almost always browse with me, buying freely of what I recommend, lingering in the fly-shop smell. No license, no new jacket, no handful of superfluous flies, no Tanner River Guide Service hat. He signed, he walked. We got his gear loaded--a bulky bag and a cane four-piece uncased in hand--and mounted up.
Its just you, then? I asked him.
Hell yes, just me. My son Kyle there, hes not interested in trout. At the moment hes interested in mortality. He thinks Im going to die out there today. My name is Andy, by the way. We shook on it, I said, Johnny, we left them all behind.
Are you? I asked, as we rolled out onto Highway 6.
Am I what? he said in that big impatient voice.
Going to die, I replied. Is there any medical stuff I should know? I mean, pardon my asking, but were going to run a lot of very empty landscape today. I gotta know how youre doing.
Im dying, but not today. Ill give you the cellular level briefing later, but its not as bad as it looks, except for being terminal. Im just beat down at the moment, need some sun and fish and space.
Yes, sir, I said, leaning into a bend in the road. I wasnt tired anymore.
We drop our vehicles at the launch--dump and hump, we call it--and Kelly has a pair of shop rats round up the vehicles and shuttle them to the takeout. Some of the guides resisted leaving their rides parked in remote areas much of the day, but I didnt mind. My ride wasnt worth cracking; I just remembered not to leave flyrods or cases of beer visible. It was just stuff, and it was insured.
My aging drift-boat was another matter. It wasnt valuable, but I loved it. Id had it nine years, and somebody else a dozen or more before that. Its provenance was questionable was how it had been explained to me when I paid a paltry sum for it, dented and misused but sound and beautiful mahogany jointure. Over the years Id gradually revised the entire boat and kept it in good trim but it was dowdy and heavy next to the Clackas and Jordans the other guides--just about everybody, it seems--was pulling those days. But I trusted it. The boat rode well and it was paid for. As far as I knew Id never lost a client yet over boat quality.
We rode in silence the twenty miles up to Step Bend. I spent the time reviewing the float trip in my head. It had been a year since Id drifted the stretch, and that with other guide buddies, taking turns on the sticks. The East Fork of the Tanner rose in the high country and gathered half a dozen sizable spring flows at the head of the valley, going rather suddenly from creek to floatable river. Even so it had a series of skinny gravel riffles and tight bends to contend with. Step Bend was a sharp turn at the foot of a steep cliff of graduated sandstone, weathered into nearly perfect stairs; it was owned by a rancher named Kill Duffy who had closed it to us during some pissing match with the BLM. Duffy was an irascible old coot--that is, a typical older gentleman for the region--and he held a grudge. Too bad for us. He owned the perfect put-in on the East Fork for a nine-mile float through gorgeous and mostly inaccessible water. Seven miles down was Uglys, a big ratty kind of commune-ranch which we used as a put-in by the kind of private arrangement Kelly had hoped he could make with Duffy. But now the West Fork was steady and fishing well, so we usually ran an eight-mile stretch of the main stem from a private access on the Standard Ranch down to the public landing just across the road from the shop, and occasionally put in at Uglys and drifted a mile of east branch and six miles of main stem and took out at Standard.
The West Branch produced a terrific crop of energetic 12 to 18 inch rainbows and occasional brownies as I said before, mostly on typical Western hatches anchored in caddis, stones, and calendar hatches of the sexier ephemera. The East Fork was the same though with a broader but thinner hatch range, more brownies, and occasional cutthroat influence in the upper areas though it had been years since anybodyd caught a pure cutt.
I was interested to see the reception wed get from Mr. Duffy, but the gate stood unlocked with the open padlock hanging pointedly from the hasp--no scowling rancher to be found. We bumped over the quarter mile to the creek access, dropped the boat and gear on the gravel bar, and then I ran the truck and trailer back to the gate and left it on the roadside near the re-locked gate.
When I came to the creekbank my client was asleep on a little nest of inflatable pillows in the prow of the boat. I never wondered if he was dead. There was something alive in that waning face in the angled morning light. His rod lay unassembled, still in rubber bands. I couldnt quite read the make or the lines of the rod but it looked old and clean, a handsome dark finish on the cane and a dark, well-worn but intact old-fashioned-looking cork seat with brass fittings. The reel was also an unknown, a small chunky bar-stock profile but with odd oval ports in the spool and bone or ivory knobs.
Approve? he asked me suddenly. He hadnt moved but his eyes were open.
Dont know yet, until I see it work. Arent you going to rig it up? Weve got some real good water right here, I said through startle.
Just push her off, John. Im doing about all I can right now. Blowing up these little pillows took it out of me. Kyles a smart kid, how do you like that? A dozen small inflatable pillows. Better not dump this boat or well look like hot chocolate with marshmallows.
So off we went into the humid June, bugs building in the sun-streaks and just enough breeze to wobble the cottonwood leaves. I saw risers on every corner and streak.
He read my mind again: Dont worry about it. Just keep us rolling. Ill fish when I fish. Dont matter when we come in. Hell, if we stay long past lunch Kyle will have the state police hovering over in a helicopter. Just let her roll down the river. He arched himself up into a kind of fetal position, head thrown back like some kind of postmodern hood ornament. I let her roll.
The river here is a sweet series of sweeping bends, a bit tight but perfect for drift-fishing if the guide has a careful touch on the sticks. The bends arent narrow enough to draw the boat into the bank, and theyre not gradual enough to shallow out. Even with nobody fishing I found myself setting the boat up for each curve, holding with long easy Mackenzie-boat pulls so the boat would back down and slide right or left. I knew that she was dropping over the sill of each riffle with no more than an inch under the skids, and took great pleasure in the precise control of the boat, using only the water I needed, keeping the deeper, faster flow to the outside, settling past the pocket water where the rainbows nymphed, then wagging the stern inward against the slower edge so we pointed through the cut-bank curves like the hand on a clock. I went a mile or so this way before he spoke.
Nice work. Hed raised himself up into more of a sitting position, reclining now like a pasha on his pillows. Very nice work. Youve got a great touch on the oars.
The compliment of a dying man.
I love this river, he said in a different tone, a reminiscent tone. I first saw it when I was eleven, which is probably why. Ive seen greater ones, better fishing ones, more dramatic ones, but I think this one came along and got me when I needed it most. My brother was thirteen. My father brought us up here. He was good that way, gave us opportunities, and we did well to take them. They didnt have much time for us, my folks; worked very hard at hard jobs, both, saving for college. What time they had they made use of, you know. Wed go to a baseball game, get the glove and ball, then be on our own, but if it wasnt enough, or if it didnt work well theyd sort of start from scratch, find a new thing, more and more chances. Not like now when they hold their kids hands the whole way, make kids decide on stuff they cant understand. Music, that was funny. My folks didnt know a thing about it but one night they bundled us up and went over by the university to some club, threw us into jazz the way youd throw a kid into a pond, just in case it was the thing for us, for either of us. I remember that we stayed up until midnight, my brother and me, maybe 12 and 10 years old.
Music didnt take, baseball did--we both loved it. Football for him, basketball for me; I was always tall. Books and stuff, school, was ok--my sister was the student. We got grades but she was the one who loved it. Then, trout fishing. Fly fishing. Hot damn. I can still remember the moment I put my feet in the river. It wasnt this one, it was the main river down in town, but it was like Id been baptized. That cold water, hot on my feet. Both of us, struck by it, struck dumb. From that point on it was nothing else.
My father gave me that. What a gift, you know? He could have sat on the couch and watched baseball. He worked two jobs, mom one, they were tired, but they joyed on our passion for these rivers, the rods, the flies. Dad would drive us up here at dawn, hike in, then watch from the shade. He had to be exhausted, but he stayed awake. He told me a few years ago that he took good naps under the tree while we taught ourselves to fly fish, but I remember him awake and nodding me on. God that was a great thing.
We came here on a day of storms. Brought a tarp. Dad had looked at topo maps, asked somebody permission, and we walked in from the road, maybe a mile, came out down here along Styles Creek. I can still see it. Pewter sky and wind, and bugs, oh my. We caught fish all morning, some big cutts then--that was, what, mid-60s, still cutthroat then. Something about that experience crystalized in my mind, made itself permanent. I read this poem in college, Wordsworth, all I remember is the river, how he returns to it and watches his sister see it for the first time. Thats this place, to me.
He craned his head up, looked at me over the oar-handles. You ok with all this sentimental dying-man shit? he said in that smiling voice.
I was, and said so.
He waited a moment as we settled into a meadow run that was heavy with the promise of big hoppers in a month or so. I could almost feel the brownies lurking in the cutbanks, making do on dace and bugs while the kickers got fat on spears of summer grass.
When I got this thing here--he made a vague open-handed fingertip gesture at his abdomen-- I made myself all the usual oaths. I tried to fall back on church, couldnt without feeling like a hypocrite; I went that way, of course--I think everybody does--but it didnt really set well with me. Finally one day I found the clean thing. Dying men need something to swear on.
See, I was in bad shape then. Wait--its weird--what it is is that I was in fine shape by any outer measure. Had a good marriage, solid kids, a ton of money and respect and all that crap. But when I had a real, cold problem to solve, I could see that I wasnt in any shape. My wife and I had traded betrayals, most of the usual ones but it was the little daily betrayals that carved most deeply in my heart, deeper than any of those doctors have carved on my guts. We stuck it out, and that was good, but wed never really got to the dying point. I hadnt honored the idea of love to her, not yet. And my kids--they were good, you know, by book, on paper, but they lacked a lot that I could see and had accepted, little dishonorables, little compromises. They were adults already, of course, and I couldnt really change them then. And myself, the same. I wasnt what I wanted me to be.
Isnt this funny? Ive got therapists, guys with beards and notebooks, and I tell this sad tale to a fishing guide I never met before.
Hey, its your day. Im interested, I said.
I know. Im not stopping. Dont expect subtlety or politeness from a man whos on his third set of hair. Funny, it was my sister really who made this happen. I just keep going back to the people who did selfless things for me, who helped me, and I wonder if I did anything like that for anybody else.
My sister Annie, shes brilliant. Really, from the start. They couldnt skip her ahead fast enough. Finally they just left her in high school and let her do her own thing, and shed read and write and study so much some days shed stay home. Shed skip school to study. Her friends would stop me in the hall, say Wheres Annie? Id say, shes home working, theyd nod and go on. Everybody knew it. From the start my folks worked their asses off to save up for her college. Neither of them had ever been near a college, they didnt really understand what it was, what it took, except that it was expensive. No topo maps for that. I remember my dad, saying it was her part to get in somewhere, it was their part to pay. My folks didnt ask about stuff like that; they just acted. I dont know how much they saved, but it must have been a lot of money. Shes sixteen, 1962, comes home with a letter from Harvard University. They gave her a full ride, then a full ride to graduate school, Christ, they were waiting in line to give her rides anywhere she wanted to go. Duke. Oxford. Shes at Bowdoin now, in Maine--theyve got some great fishing up there--a poet, famous writer. Her poems are in textbooks. 1962, free ride to Harvard, and my folks have fifteen years worth of saving hard. Maybe twenty grand. 1962. A brand new Fairlane cost about 1500 bucks.
He looked across the meadow towards the mountains, a suggestion in the haze.
My tuition at UM was $1950 per year in 1968, and I only lasted a year there before transferring to the University of Saigon anyway. My dad told me a few years ago, when he was dying like Im dying now, he told me Annie told them to spend the money on us, on themselves and my brother and me. She told them that if us boys didnt have passions, wed wind up drugged out or dead. She felt like wed sacrificed for her, and I guess we had though I never really knew it--thats how strong they were.
So my dad takes us down to Schneiders, the best shop in the state, a two-hour drive. He says this: You can have whatever you want in this store, right now. Pick it out. I was twelve years old. I remember, my brother had his arm in a cast from some baseball injury. We didnt believe it, and finally Dad had to have the clerk start picking stuff out. Honestly, hes listening to this clerk talk over two rods or three. Each. I was twelve. He spent nearly a thousand dollars on fly gear that day, on everything. He spent a whole years rent on us in one day in the best flyfishing store in the state. Unbelievable. And he trusted us completely. He said only one thing: this is a gift from your sister, and you must honor this gift.
Can you believe that? So here I am fingertip gesture again and I get this sense that I havent honored that gift, that Im going to go out squealing and whining. So I made my oath, on this river, that if I just had the time Id make my life right, honor the gift.
We were silent a long time, fading out of the meadow into a set of forest rapids and riffles, bedrock ledges here, moving water which tilted the boat forward a time or two. He watched the spruces slide by, followed a current seam with his eye, looking deeper in the river than there was.
I got the time, he said softly, then paused. I set up on a little compression drop, wagged the boat through and let it wash left past some big rocks.
Medicine got it for me, I guess. Ive had two years, near enough, and the other day I realized that I had done it. Id honored my promise, made myself something of the man my father was, something of the person my sister and mother are. I havent fished in 20 months. I swore on this river I wouldnt fish, even though I had the six months to live golden ticket. And I didnt. I took care of business, finished things. Goddamn. I can hardly believe it. Theres a lot more to do, sure now, but I did the main things.
We turned the bend above Styles Creek and he perked up, watching the landscape intently. The confluence of the creek was a beautiful dark triangle hole with blending seams and a backwater full of cress from the limestone spring springs.
I held up on the head of the riffle. I can hang here if you want to rig up. Big rainbows in this hole, up in the slough there. Ive seen a riser or two that look heavy.
He smiled slowly, looking off across the flat confluence bar. When he spoke it was quietly, out and up toward the pasture-edge and the scrub sycamores that lined the river.
Nah. Let her roll. Im going to rest a bit.
We slipped down the creek, washing at angles across the channel, gathering water as the sun gathered sky across the valley. He slept a good hour. I was worried about finishing the float trip too early--always give the client his idea of his moneys worth. Finally I hung up in a shady side pocket near Kettle Creek and stretched my legs on the bank, drank some water, and watched the creek run for half an hour before I noticed that he was awake.
The river had calmed into the midday stillness, no bugs, direct sun. It was hot in the open but delicious in the shade. He was awake, looking away from me down the riverbank. I knew what he was seeing--the lovely perspective of the verge of a troutstream, the jumbled round rock dry and white then black wet, the wheels of pocketwater extending downstream, curving into distance. To me its that changing moving edge that somehow captures the promise of fishing--forever of motion against the now of permanent rock, trout between.
He spoke suddenly, not looking at me. I need you to help me do something, John. It may not be pleasant for you, but I need to do it and I cant do it alone, not cleanly anyway. Part of my promise.
I tried not to pause, had to. Possibilities made me tense my lips, then say, Sure.
We slid downriver a half mile to the broad gravel bar opposite Silas Creek. I hooked up and pressed the prow of the boat--actually the stern in a Mackenzie boat, if it matters--up on the sloping shingle. He tried to stand out of the boat but couldnt raise his leg above the steep gunwale, then couldnt brace a knee with confidence to swing over. I waded up beside him and finally took him under the arms and hoisted him out of the boat, turning him to his feet in six inches of water, his face on my shoulder. He was light and gangly, sour smelling.
He stood a moment, one hand on the gunwale, feet spavined on the round river rocks. Then I took his arm and we walked carefully out the bar, down the slope in a pillowing foot of water, bed-boulders fading down to goose-egg shingle then the flat tongue of the bar, regular drift gravel under six inches of braided current.
He settled to his knees there, one hand in the water, soaking jeans and overtopping his duck shoes. His forward hand pressed into the gravel, and I fixed on the water riding up his forearm, the wet stain creeping up the sleeve, curling around lower on the downstream side, little displaced grains of sand visible circulating in the swirl where the flow was temporarily reoriented around his fragile warm wrist.
He released my arm with the downstream hand; now, both hands in the water, head down, almost to the surface of the river, then to it. He drank, maybe, or spoke into the water, clarity spilling around that eroded old/young face, then almost prone he pressed his head sideways under the flow, face upstream away from me, immersing himself prostrate a steady half-minute before he raised his head up and breathed deeply, soaked now but for a neat wispy tonsure on the back of his scalp.
He was stunned and shivering when I finally got him back into the boat. I broke out my storm gear, got him layered down, and cranked up the little propane stove. He chose tea over soup, and just held it to his face it as we went slipping downriver. It was a weird quarter-hour before he finally spoke.
Damn--that rivers cold.
You scared me, I said. I didnt know you were going to drown yourself.
Yeah--try to explain that to Kyle. Sorry--something got ahold of me there. At first the river felt warm again, like that day I first stepped in it, he said. His voice seemed distant, weary.
That was your ritual, your thank-you note? I said. He angled his head at the skepticism in my voice.
Yeah, well, I guess so. No offense, but I dont give much of a shit about what you think. Its one of the luxuries of wasting away. Ones sense of propriety goes first. Second, maybe, he said.
I rowed in silence, long easy controlling strokes, and tried to see the anger that was turning me, pushing me around like a contrary current. The inconvenience of it annoyed me, even though it was fitting if I looked at it softly and thoughtfully, the way Donny Hickham never would, in a way that didnt pretend that I had some bedrock right to live happily ever after with a boat full of anglers that fished so well they didnt need a guide. I felt trapped by this smug skeleton, somehow confined by his tone and the way hed let me lift him out of the boat, then lift him back in.
Im sorry, I said suddenly, not thinking or planning. Its just weird. Being a fishing guide, I hardly ever have to really do or see anything. Im sheltered by my clients inabilities. If they know how to fish its easy because they let me stay out of the way. If they cant fish, which is more usual, then I can blame them for what goes wrong, call what goes right luck, and be done. Now youre here, saying all this shit, and not fishing at all. I guess itd be a lot easier if youd just take a few casts.
He laughed, facing away, still reclining now but with his face toward the open space of the pastures.
Why dont you take a few casts, John? he said. His tone knew I wouldnt do it, couldnt do it now, and I didnt.
The Evening Rise
I finished reading Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness recently. The novel reminded me of a conversation I once had with an old fishing friend on the thorny modern issue of catch and release. I remember that conversation well; we were sitting around on the streambank one autumn afternoon, waiting for the evening hatch to come off.
We leaned against the drift boat in neutral early
evening light, the river purling in the background. It had been
quiet a while before Mallory cleared his throat and began to
speak in that calm but powerful voice he had.
"The devil don't buy souls. She bargains.
"I've seen it.
"First, imagine tailored neoprenes that fit like a Donna Karan, and red hair that seemed to smoke against the fall foliage. I didn't hear her walking up to me; either I was concentrating too hard or she didn't make any noise wading upstream. Suddenly the air was full of big mayflies, so full I had 'em in my mouth. Chewed one; it was sweet, not chalky like I'd imagined it. I looked at them on my sleeve: Adams. Bushy, exact Adams. A few Humpys mixed in, reds and yellows, but mostly Adams. I was in a hot hatch of #12 Adams. Then I saw her, twenty feet away, just looking at me. She was luminous, somehow fuzzy and clear at the same time. I got that feeling you get when the permit turns toward your fly and puts his head down.
"The hatch was centered on her. I know I should have been suspicious at this point, but how can you? This gorgeous woman appears on your trout stream wearing a halo of domesticated mayflies? The gloom seemed to lift, and the stream suddenly organized itself around her.
"I became aware of a new sound, though the line of my eyes was held tight by that Mona Lisa halfsmile. If my optic nerve had been a flyline I'd have been well into the backing already. The sound was rises; loud, reckless rises. All around us trout had appeared and were sucking bugs, bashing bugs. I tore my gaze from those agate eyes and saw the same big rainbow I'd been working, a picky bastard, I saw him swimming along the surface with his mouth open, vacuuming bugs, slurping them--and smiling. It's true, trout can smile. I felt a nudge on my knee and looked down; a twenty inch brownie was holding in the riffle behind my right leg, and as I watched he rubbed up against my knee and licked off a clump of Adams spinners like a kid working a softserve.
"I looked up again, and she was standing beside me. I swear I never heard her move. She had a gorgeous custom threeweight and a tiny reel that looked like it had been made from polished bone. Her line and fly trailed in the water and a phalanx of leglong trout hung just below, mirroring every movement. They were a new breed to me, with a strange reddish tint and obsidian eyes.
" 'Doin' any good?' " she asked in an oddly intimate voice, low and rough but sensous as the feel of a razoredge Partridge on the skin of your throat.
" 'Uhh no, not much,' " I had to answer. Like an idiot I babbled on. 'Midges, mostly, well, before, you know, just now, I guess, we got a, us a, you know, better hatch coming off now, it looks like, uhh. . ..'
"She smiled, an indulgent, understanding, minister's smile. 'Not doing too well, eh?' She looked off across the stream, now puckered with rises and rolling fish, and did that half-smiling, half nod thing we always do when we are talking to a neophyte who's hacking while we nail 'em. It was chilling, but for a moment I saw myself there, the king of the stream, the hoary old minimalist, self-satisfied pompous zen-quoting son-of-a-bitch that I am, it was uncanny, I tell you. I felt cold in the pit of my stomach. I remember just last week, working that same stretch, that weird guy was out there, remember, Jim?"
Jim, the Agent, he shifted a bit against the seat where he sat and grunted. It was evening now with just a hint of redgold southering as fall came on. I could see Mallory leaning against the gunwale of the driftboat, hands out, palms up. A long pause and he began again.
"Jim and I were on the Hard-on Hole that day and this weird guy was out there. They were hot on that midge, a bit bigger than usual, about a 28, and we were knocking 'em pretty good. We were joshing on the beach and this guy came by, kind of simple-looking, and we asked him how he'd done even though we knew how, we could see him hacking and ripping. He said 'not too good' and we both gave him that look, you know, where you nod like in sympathy but you're laughing at him inside, and you look out across the river so you don't have to meet his pathetic eyes. I finally tell him to take the black midge and clip the tail, that that makes all the difference, and he seems really happy about that, almost more about the fact that we'd talked to him, you know, not that he could catch fish now. Which he couldn't still; he just couldn't work the midge, you could see that from a quarter mile away. And then, walking away, he gave me a funny look, I remember it, Jim and I laughed it off like he was flirting with me or something but it wasn't that. It was a knowing look.
"So here's this vision, this absolute vision standing thigh-deep in my stream, with that same look, and some fabulous thighs, too, you could see it even through three mils of neoprene. I was like a little kid, totally flustered, while trout cavorted around me.
"I heard a commotion on the shore, and here came these three guys we knew from the club--Don Keeler, and that guy Rick, and some other guy. Tramping along the path, wading staffs in hand, talking loudly about something like they owned it. Keeler looked out at the creek and looked right through me, like I wasn't there. They kept on walking.
"I look back at her, and she's smiling again, pleased at me, I could tell. And she says, 'Here. Try this.'
"Hands me a gaudy fly, a big, gaudy fly, about a size 4 dry-fly, but that's all I can remember. Honest. Big and shaggy, with colors, some I recognized, and materials! My god, there were things in that fly I'd never felt before. It had its own glow. The dubbing looked like human hair.
"I really wanted that fly. It seemed to hum and spread its own gravity, I felt it pulling. But I pulled back, something about it was wrong, too seductive. It had grown quiet, the light was fading. It was the time I'd been waiting for, the evening rise; the fish should have been popping all over but it was still as ice. I tore my eyes from that fly and looked out over the stream myself. I tried to assert control, I fished for something to say.
"'Nice rod--custom?' was all I could come up with.
"She gave this low chuckle, a hair-raiser of a chuckle. 'Yeah. Built on a Scott blank--the STT2. I've got a guy, makes rods to die for.'
"'STT2? Scott--they haven't released that yet! You must be in good with them,' I said, still fighting for control. I must admit, I was fascinated.
"'Yeah. Well, they got good pretty fast over there. Wanna try it?'
"I did, of course, but I was struck with a sudden fear: Could I cast? Winner of the Gold Cup Challenge, the Letort Precise, and I was worried. I took the rod.
"It was ungodly light. The grip seemed to press upward into my hand; cork, a Reverse Angel grip, and it filled my hand like it was custom-fit. The reel was tiny and warm. The line was an odd deep red. I asked her about it; 'custom-dyed' was her answer, same half-smile. I stripped out some line and shook it out. She was using the same big gaudy dry-fly but hers looked ancient, faded somehow. I couldn't even see the tippet.
"'Fishing light, huh?' I asked as I stripped out more line.
"'10X,' she said.
"I dropped about six rod lengths, shaking the rod a bit as if to assess the blank but really trying to tune in so I could pick up into a good loop immediately. I wanted to impress her, but I screwed up.
"As I went to lift, turning a bit downstream, the line slipped out of my hand. I was sneaking a little haul in there, trying to go to maximum line speed, and it just popped out of my hand. Nothing happened; the line seemed frozen in place. I grabbed the line again, loaded the rod, and threw a sweet, tight, two-laner deep into the dusk behind me. I had felt a twitch and--you're not going to believe this, but I swear it's true--the stripping guide had closed down on the line and held it for me, kept it from killing the loop. The rod had saved my cast. I delivered as crisp and perfect a loop as I've ever seen, a rocket, and shot hard into it. The line was slick as air and it delivered in a clean, quiet feed, and I believe the reel actually rotated to add more line. The loop snapped open in mid-air and whole system seemed to pause as the leader rolled out and that fly drifted out like a vibrant red butterfly, then paused and settled onto the surface. It was a living thing, it pulsed in my hand like a living thing.
"She stood there smiling, and still offering the fly to me. I knew her now, but I was less afraid. The choices seemed clear. I felt a light breeze begin to blow.
"'What's the catch?' I asked her.
"She chuckled again, smiled, nodded. We understood each other.
" 'Easy. Take my fly. It will last forever. If you lose it in a tree, it will return to you. If you break it off on a fish, the next fish you catch will be wearing it.'
'You will become the best flyfisherman on this planet. No one will outfish you. No hatch will elude you. Your casts will be perfect in every way, and undefinable in their excellence, beyond the cleverest metaphor. You will tie better than A.K, cast cleaner than Lefty. You will catch bonefish in the wind. You will catch rainbows on the San Juan on humpies. You will win the Bassmasters Classic with a flyrod. You will become a legend.'
" 'Better than Lefty?' I asked.
" 'Yes, and more attractive, too.'
"We paused there in the stream. A moon had come up over the trees, and the breeze had brought the vaguest hint of papermill. We both knew my next question.
" 'What's in it for you?' I asked, knowing her answer.
" 'Simple. You must kill one fish per year. You will know which fish it is. You must catch it, and kill it, and clean it, and eat it.'
" 'That's not so hard,' I said.
"Again the smile, look across the river, the secret little nod.
" 'Then take the fly. Complete the bargain.'
"I reached out to her, in the gloom. I really intended to take that fly. I could see it, glowing there in her fingers. Around us the trout were rising again, with a peculiar speed and sound, almost a rhythm. It sounded like something, which I couldn't place then but I know it now: Orff. Carmina Burana.
"Kill one fish a year? Simple. Hell, I probably did it anyway, ten times over; everybody knows that big trout often die when released. That rod, that fly, that little polished-bone reel! That cast, that living, pulsing cast! I wanted it! One fish a year, killed, gutted, fried. I'd have to buy a filet knife!
"I reached out for that fly, but a chill stopped me. It seemed to grow from my groin, from my very center, a rising level of cool thick liquid. Kill a fish, on purpose. Get a creel. Odd--it wasn't that I didn't want to; it was that I did! I felt it in my soul, in my very guts: I liked the idea. I wanted to kill fish. It was right, it was real, it was me! The horror! The horror!
"In the moment my hand was out and I closed the last inches--or she pushed the fly to me--and it burned, it twitched in my grasp. I recoiled, staggered back, turned and ran with heaving, lunging steps through the shallows and into the cottonwoods, staggering and finally falling to my knees in the shingle. I remember the sweet roughness of gravel on my cheek, then nothing.
"When I awoke it was daylight. I had slept as well on that gravel bar as I had ever slept at home in my waterbed. The stream slid by, pocked by rises and secret random whorls. I looked around, smiling, at the lonely perfection of an autumn mountain morning, smiling like an idiot.
"I never once thought it was a dream, you know. I know it wasn't, of course, but even in the moment of waking there I remembered it truly. I laughed to myself and stood, and realized that I still had her rod. In the daylight it was no less magnificent. The blank had a strange, rough, scaled finish, a deep burgundy with gold tints. At the end of a nearly invisible leader dangled that fly, frowsy in the daylight but still weird and wild and foreign. I remember trying to see it so I could imitate it later--not to fish, of course, but to show you--but it seemed to shift and change as I looked. In the end I took my clippers and cut it free, without touching it, into the stream. It rode high, maybe twenty feet down, then was sucked from sight by a slow, dark rise.
"Oh, and after I clipped the fly? That flyrod faded, faded. It's still here, but it's ordinary, or something less than that now, and the reel is just a reel."
Mallory stopped, a still silhouette against a riotous sunset of all the most forgiving colors.
"We've missed the best of the hatch," somebody said.
Sitting it Out
We hauled off to sit it out on some overgrown island.
These storms sidled, no speedy summer front
but businesslike layered ranks of purple cloud
and the building crush of thunder.
The flickers took on, and claps began to linger.
The first deep bump raised my hair and I pulled us off,
spaced out the clients so someone would live to tell,
and hunkered in the undergrowth. Nothing but
to sit it out.
It steadied down on us, windy now and solid rain gone cold.
Nothing but to sit it out, hunching under wool
and layers, still and solid while the lightning made its mind.
These times allow no moves, no dodges. Make your
choice, set yourself down, lean into it.
Keep still and let it run off your hat.
The interval of waiting, facing the possible, is worse than the
longshot likelihoods. It would be quick.
We crouched immobile there an hour or so.
Nothing came close, but it could have done. The odds are ours.
Some came sudden, one strobed and dawdled along the ridge-top opposite,
chosen for the purpose. Today would not complete the circuit.
So the sky lightened and we moved along in jealous grumble.
Cottonwoods made their rain smell,
the fish began to bite,
and the rain which so annoyed before
now seemed a gentle benediction on continued living.
other poems on the web by Dave Motes
Other Poems by Dave Motes previously published here