I spent my youth learning to fish. To be a great fisherman.
While other children played, I studied. I practiced.
Casting. Knots. The proper techniques. Tying flies. Sharpening hooks. All that stuff.
The other kids played and occupied themselves with kid things. Laughing. Playing games. But I didn’t know how to do those things, so I practiced, I studied.
I caught little fish, ordinary fish, lots and lots of them. And dreamed of the day that I would catch a great fish, a special fish.
Day after day, year after year.
And as I grew older, it seemed, I studied even more diligently, practiced with even more determination. And I caught more and more fish. Bigger and bigger fish. Special fish. Prized fish. Rainbow trout. Chinook salmon. Steelhead.
But no matter how many, or how big, or how prized, I was back at-it the next day. And the next. And I practiced and studied. Studied and practiced.
It seems so long ago. That time of practicing. Of studying. Of fishing.
I fell ill, I suppose. Or lapsed into a fever. Or some such state.
The fish were there, the afternoon this story began. Big, hard, bight fish. Summer steelhead with thick blue backs; shimmering, molten-silver sides; and the whitest bellies anyone could ever imagine. The fish, and me.
There was also the crunch of granite sand under my boots. And thundering rapids at the head of chest-deep, blue-green pools. Steelhead water. Bald eagles overhead. Great old cedars rooted at river’s edge. Green moss on streamside boulders. Bear sign. Otter. Heron. Clean air in my lungs. Nature in balance.
The river, too, was full of life. Little fish and big fish. Olive, spotted backs. Pink cheeks. Orange splotches on parr-marked sides. Dorsal fins raised in defiance. Chasing. Resting. Leaping. Nipping.
And bugs. Astonishing, silly, fantastic bugs. Bugs hiding under every rock, in every strand of river moss. Mayflies, stoneflies, and caddis. Armored, glossy backs. Vibrant grays and browns. Hints of crimson and yellow in chinks between armored segments. Clinging to rotting sticks and leaves, swimming up to the surface. Laying dormant in cocoons. Crawling. Creeping. Hatching. Mating. Dying.
I was waist deep in the pool, left leg braced against a boulder at the edge of the swifter flow. A perfect cast. Downstream into the sun, across the current, just short of the quiet water on the far side. Ivory fly line arching through the air. The steelhead were calm.
Mend. Swing. Follow with the rod. Mend. Swing. Follow with the rod.
The fly was perfect. Black, with just a hint of fluorescent green at the butt. No white. No tinsel. Sparse. Big. Sharp. Swinging across the pool, four feet below the surface.
The big male intercepted the fly as it hung motionless at the end of the swing. The hook pulled into the corner of his jaw as he turned back to his lie.
He circled back upstream when he felt the steel, throwing his head from side to side. My heart was in my throat. This was a great steelhead, I could see, the greatest steelhead ever. Forty pounds. Easily.. No. Fifty. Maybe more. This was the fish I had waited my whole life for.
He was strong. So was I. He would not surrender. Nor would I.
I stood there, in the river. Patient. He stayed in the depths. Patient.
Hours later, the sun went down. Day passed into night. We were alone, together. Me and this great steelhead, this great fish.
The second day passed by as well, and the third and the fourth. Him, in the depths of the pool. Unyielding. Me, at the river’s edge. Unyielding. Each in our own worlds, Connected, the fish and me, by a line. Fine, fragile, supple – but tough as iron. I could feel him breathe, under the water, unseen. Connected by that line. Muscles flowing along his side. Heart beating. Fins tilted down to keep his position in the depths.
He could feel me above him I suppose, connected by our line. The flex of thighs as I shifted weight from one leg to the other. A quiver of fatigue in my right forearm. The raise and fall of my chest with each breath. Blood pounding.
The days grew shorter, the night’s coolness took on a bitter edge. Mushrooms sprouted under the forest canopy after a light rainfall. Shimmering crimson and yellow leaves danced across the forest. The mushrooms were beautiful, firm and perfect when they pushed out of the earth. Over the next couple of weeks, though, they turned soft, spongy, and acquired a bad smell. By the time snow began falling they were just little damp puddles of brown goo. The forest smelled like Christmas trees.
And so it went, year after year. Me, at the river’s edge. Him, in the deep. Just me and the fish, the fish and me.
For awhile I had visions of people to keep me company. Visions. A young couple sitting by a stream in summer. A boy learning to ride a bicycle. A family barbecue on the Fourth of July. People laughing. Couples holding hands. An old woman taking her grandson to breakfast. A father too ill to talk to his son.
But no one else was really there, at the end of the world. Just me and the fish – the fish and me.
Sometimes he would rise up and peer through the surface at me. He seemed as strong as ever. As beautiful as ever. He would pause there, look at me for a while, and then glide back to his sanctuary.
At some point I began to think of this fish as my fish. I knew he wasn’t really, fundamentally, my fish. But I had worked so hard, for so long. For my whole life. And after all, I had been the one to hook him. At first I felt awkward thinking of this great fish as mine, but soon became accustomed to the idea. After awhile I forgot that it had ever been uncomfortable to think of him in such a way.
I thought about quitting. Thought about going home. But I couldn’t quit. Not yet. This fish was everything I had tried to achieve in my life. My whole life. So much diligence. So much practice. Uncountable hours of discipline. While other children were playing. So much put-off till a later day. Such focus. Such determination.
It would soon be over, I thought. All my work, all my patience, all my persistence would pay-off. Finally. This is my great fish, I thought. Greater than all the others. After this fish, I will be able to rest. I can go home. I thought.
After this fish. Just this one more fish, I thought.
There was a time when a great storm of demons gathered over my head. The dark sky was so frightful. The rising wind so fierce. I was full of fear, but I steeled myself, numbed my mind. And held tight to my fish as the storm swept over me.
The cold struck my tears to ice, slashing my eyes ‘till I could barely see. Wind bent me over the water, roaring in my ears ‘till I couldn’t hear.
I considered quitting the battle then, considered going home. Home. But I couldn’t see anyone waiting for me – I couldn’t hear anyone calling my name. I had been there at the river’s edge for so long, fought so hard. So I stayed. And the demons set upon me. Demons without faces, voices, feelings, fears. Silent, unrelenting, demons.
The demons came as a shadow blacking out the sun. They burrowed toward me under the ground, a bulge of earth marking their approach. Long arms clutching at me, smothering, pushing sticky fingers into my stomach to rip out my guts.
I was terrified.
I imagined fighting back, but couldn’t move from where I stood. Imagined slashing throats, severing heads, poking out eyes. My lungs burst. My heart exploded through my chest. But I stood fast. Stood my ground. Held on to my fish.
Once so full of life, the forest and the river grew oddly quiet, sapped of it’s vitality by our battle. The circle of life fractured then, and there was only death to keep us company. Big fish and little fish, heron, otter, eagle, and stonefly, like the mushrooms, were all little puddles of goo – and bad smells.
Then, one winter, the season’s stilled, and each day was cold, rainy and dreary. And passage of the days ceased and there was only night, only a cool sliver of moon to keep us company. Finally, even the river stilled, grew tepid and musty.
That’s when he came to me. After I had endured so much – loss of companionship – terror and revulsion – the death of the forest – death of the seasons – death of day and night –death of the river itself.
He was bleeding – a little trickle from under his gill plate, running along his side, dissipating in a little pink cloud in the water. He had probably been bleeding since the beginning. Just a little. For all that time. Unseen. Under the water. Day after day, week after week, year after – year – a little pink cloud in the water with each beat of his heart.
He had been so strong, so full of life – in the beginning. Not now. A nearly empty vessel. All his life leached out. Fragile.
Exhausted beyond thought, still I stood there.
It ended very quickly, as it usually does. I felt the fish rising up to the surface, as he had done so many times before. But this time was different. His breathing was shallow. His fins trembled. Instead of gliding purposefully to the surface, he drifted up as a dead leaf flutters from a branch to the water’s surface. His eyes were vacant, gazing blankly at the sky.
I felt like I was going to throw-up.
Red stripe on his side, bare bone exposed on skull, flesh eroded from edge of fins, silver turned dull, gasping, gills flaring. Powerless. I tried to kneel, hoping to cradle him upright in the current, reach into his mouth – release him from my hook – let him go.
I tried to move, to kneel in the shallows, but I couldn’t – I was frozen where I had stood for so long. My skin had grown leathery, my toenails had burrowed into the earth, and my hair had furled about me like the windblown crown of a tree.
Straining to meet my fish, I toppled into the stream and lay there in the mud at the river’s edge. He turned on his side and drifted up through the stagnant water into my arms.
As he came to the surface to rest on a sandbar alongside me I said – I’m sorry.
For a moment I thought he would speak, but he did not.
And so the struggle ended, for me and the fish.
The river began to flow again, as we joined at the river’s edge. The sun began to shine. The seasons resumed. Salmon returned to the river. The circle of life was complete again.
Our bodies nourished the river, the forest, and the all of its creatures. We sheltered young fish from floods in the winter. Heron, kingfishers and frogs perched on us in the summer.
People, too, came to rest near where we lay at river’s edge. Some came with questions, some just to tell their story. For our part, we could only listen and wonder. A man and a woman whispered joyously about the unborn son she carried. A young man making his way through life stood at the river’s edge, looking for his home. He came and then all too soon was gone again. Driving off in a red Mustang. An old woman seemed afraid that she had lost her way, but soon forgot her fear, and stayed just to enjoy some wild flowers and watch her son paint.
One fish in the pool grew to be a big fish. A very great fish. Sometimes he would raise up, close to the shore where we lay, finning in the current, peering through the surface at us.